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THRONE FINDS HER BITE — Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former state lawmaker Mary Throne is the only serious candidate to have entered the 2018 race, with Republicans Mark Gordon and Ed Murray yet to announce their plans. But since launching her campaign in August, Throne hasn’t really been able to explain what sets her apart. She touts her Wyoming roots and common sense policies like economic diversification, but moderate Republicans like current governor Matt Mead and Gordon can do the same — and Gordon wouldn’t have the baggage of a “D” next to his name on the ballot.
But speaking to me at a downtown Casper cafe Thursday, Throne seemed more passionate about what the state is doing wrong: namely, neglecting its cities and towns. Throne has made support for local governments a key platform point and she doubled-down in the interview.
She attacked the budget passed in 2016, her last year in the Legislature. Throne specifically criticized the decision to slash social services like tax assistance to the elderly while setting aside funds for a new state office building not too far from Metro Coffee Company where we were speaking before a meet-and-greet with voters.
“We made a lot of fiscally stupid decisions,” she said.
The new state office building is something of a linchpin for the development of Casper’s Old Yellowstone District, and attacking its construction seems odd given that if she is going to have a shot at winning the race, Throne will need to capture a large share of the vote in Natrona County, one of the state’s largest counties and far more friendly to Democrats than other regions. Dave Freudenthal, the last Democratic candidate to win an open governor’s seat race, won 55 percent of the county’s vote compared to just 49 percent statewide.
(For trivia fans, that race was against current Senate President Eli Bebout.)
Throne, who lives in Cheyenne, did say she supported the economic development and jobs a new building might bring and has made support for local governments writ large a key part of her platform.
“State government has to change its attitude toward local governments,” Throne said. “They sort of make them come hat-in-hand to the Legislature and beg for money.”
Lawmakers need to recognize that municipalities are important service-delivery providers for state residents and that quality of life in Wyoming communities is a key factor in whether businesses decide to locate or grow here. This still doesn’t really separate Throne from, say, Mead, who recently called for the Legislature to continue sending at least $105 million to local governments.
But by latching onto local government funding, Throne may hope to avoid being attached to her party’s more abstract national policy positions, many of which are deeply unpopular in the Cowboy State. She also pushed a good government theme in the interview, calling for a clearer budgeting process.
“We’re the least populated state in the country,” she said. “We can make this simpler and easier for the public to understand.”
While Throne has stepped up travel around the state, her campaign operation remains, in her words, “lean and mean,” with only campaign manager Bri Jones on staff and no office or significant investment in yard signs or major advertising so far.
WYOMING CATCHES A (TAX) BREAK — Wyoming’s tax code has been criticized as an impediment to economic diversification, but the GOP tax plan offers one bright spot for taxpayers in the Cowboy State. While Republican lawmakers from high-tax states are up in arms over the proposal to eliminate the ability for people to deduct their state and local taxes on federal returns, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said the change could be a boon to Wyoming.
“States without income tax are subsidizing those other states,” Mead said last week. “Wyoming would be in favor of the elimination of that off-set.”
PRINCE TESTIFIES — Erik Prince, the founder of notorious private security contractor Blackwater, would be an interesting challenger to Sen. John Barrasso in next year’s Wyoming senate contest.
The brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and a longtime supporter of President Donald Trump, Prince has now found himself wrapped up in the weird and amorphous blob of allegations surrounding supposed collaboration between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. Prince testified Thursday behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee regarding a January meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian businessman who has ties to the Kremlin.
While the ranking Democrat on the committee suggested he had more questions, Prince has no plans to return.
“I’ve already wasted four hours of my life on that,” he said after the meeting.
A race between Barrasso and Prince would no doubt be chock full of allegations of carpet-bagging and insufficiently supporting Trump. Prince comes loaded with baggage from both his Blackwater days and, now, the Russian investigation. But if Prince runs against Barrasso on the basis that the Wyoming senator is too close to establishment Republicans, it could be hard to attack his ties to Trump or his past as a tough-guy mercenary.
THE BIG ASK — Mead has asked the Legislature to allocate $37.5 million from the state’s rainy day fund (officially known as the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account or liz-rah) for... it’s not quite clear. The Endow executive committee doesn’t release its official recommendation until later this month and the request was made “as a placeholder for ENDOW initiatives.”
“That’s an appropriate use of the rainy day fund,” Mead told reporters Thursday in Cheyenne.
Mead’s making quite an ask without anything tangible to peg it to, but even fiscal conservatives in the Legislature like Bebout have agreed that economic diversification efforts are a good use of the rainy day fund. This may be an expenditure that sneaks through in what’s expected to be a tight budget session in February. The nearly $40 million sum also shows that Mead is getting serious about Endow, which was created last year with just a $2.5 million stipend. If the Legislature approves his current ask, it will be hard for future governors to abandon the 20-year effort or decide they want a new diversification program after Mead leaves office next year.
SAFER REZ ROADS — The Senate approved the John P. Smith Act to improve road safety in Indian Country last week. It’s named for the former director of transportation for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation and was co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi. I wrote about Smith when he died last year. He led the tribal transportation department for 27 years and was heavily involved in the national Intertribal Transportation Association.
“This legislation couldn’t have a better namesake. Wyoming’s John Smith was a life-long advocate for transportation safety who earned respect across the country—including at the White House,” Barrasso said. “I look forward to the House passing this bill soon and adding to John Smith’s already impressive legacy of improving lives across Indian Country.”
TWO PERCENT COWBOY — Andrew Graham had a good scoop for WyoFile, finding that only 2 percent of Barrasso’s 2017 fundraising came from Wyoming donors. Yikes.
“The campaign is proud of the many supporters Senator Barrasso has from around the country who share our Wyoming priorities to create good jobs, lower taxes, protect American freedom and eliminate federal regulatory overreach,” is how his chief of staff Dan Kunsman spun it. Given that arguably Barrasso’s best bludgeon to attack 2018 challengers with is that they don’t have roots in Wyoming or ties to local communities, the lopsided fundraising total could prove problematic.
PILING ON CFPB — Enzi co-sponsored a bill last week to rein in the unusually high salaries at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a Republican boogeyman that the Trump administration is doing its best to kill.
— “The need for Congress to bring accountability to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is long overdue and the bureau’s lavish spending on employee salaries is a key example of why,” Enzi said.
NO TRIGGER FOR CHENEY — I wrote a long story about the GOP Senate tax plan last week. Barrasso and Enzi both support the bill but said they did not favor a provision that would automatically raise taxes if the economic growth Republicans expect from the cuts did not materialize. I didn’t hear back from Rep. Liz Cheney, who will have to vote on a compromise version of the bill, but she also opposes it.
— “We need to cut taxes, not raise them,” Cheney spokeswoman Maddy Weast told me by email. Critics of the tax plan worry that a ballooning deficit as a result of the legislation will be used to justify cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security.
MUCH ADO ABOUT? — For all the talk of unreasonably high education spending in Wyoming, consultants hired by the state found that we spend similarly to similar states.
— “In only two of ... 12 areas — special education and gifted and talented — did Wyoming spend significantly more than the average,” writes Star-Tribune education reporter Seth Klamann. “For special education — which is reimbursed fully by the state — Wyoming’s model pays more than $18,000 per student. In 2017-18, the state will spend about $238 million.”
TRUMP’S TREE —
Students from Rawlins Middle School were in Washington, D.C. last week to hang handmade decorations on the National Christmas Tree.
— “It was pretty fun,” sixth-grader Owen Wolfe told the Rawlins Times. “It was the first time I have ever made something for a different state.”
A COSMETIC FIX?
— Casper City Council is considering a resolution to state its opposition to anti-LGBT discrimination. Casper and other Wyoming cities scored low marks for LGBT-friendliness in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual scorecard released earlier this year, and a resolution might help nudge that score upward. But it’s not an ordinance, meaning it would have no legal weight, and city officials don’t seem to think there’s any problem with discrimination in Casper to begin with.
— “We have an image problem,” said Councilman Charlie Powell, per Katie King’s coverage in the Star-Tribune.
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