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Casper Republican proposes constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid, three days after previous effort failed

A Casper Republican representative has proposed a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid, just three days after the House resoundingly killed another effort to broaden the program.

Rep. Pat Sweeney’s bill would let Wyoming’s voters decide whether to expand Medicaid to those making 138 percent of the federal poverty line, which is about $36,000 for a family of four. The bill has a tough road ahead: To successfully amend the state constitution, it would require the support of two-thirds of both the House and the Senate before it would be placed on the ballot in November.

The bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of House members: Sweeney, R-Casper, is joined by fellow Republicans Landon Brown, Dan Zwonitzer, Dan Furphy and Bill Henderson. Three Democrats have also signed onto the bill: Laramie’s Cathy Connolly, Jackson’s Mike Yin and Riverton’s Andi Clifford.

Not only does the bill need two-thirds of both senators and representatives to be put on the ballot, but it’s also on a tight timeline to even get considered by lawmakers. To move forward, it has to be introduced in the House by 6 p.m. Friday. Sweeney told the Star-Tribune that he was working with leadership to ensure the bill was heard.

“Let’s see what the people really want,” the Casper businessman said. “Our representatives, I believe, fairly represent all of our constituents. But are we hearing from all of our constituents? Or are we only hearing from the most conservative voices in the state?”

In a statement, Connolly — a longtime supporter of expansion — said it was a “crucial topic for this legislative session.”

“Too many of our friends and neighbors are without insurance or underinsured,” she said. “Our hospitals are struggling and financially strapped. In addition, Medicaid expansion will bring in hundreds of millions of federal dollars to provide needed healthcare services for all our residents. We have a moral and fiscal imperative to act.”

The proposed amendment comes three days after the House overwhelmingly voted to kill a bill that would’ve let Gov. Mark Gordon study the topic; he could then decide whether to move ahead with expansion (the Legislature would’ve had veto authority). The measure had been supported by the Joint Revenue Committee late last year, a stamp of approval that had given expansion supporters guarded optimism.

But the House voted nearly two-to-one to kill that effort at the earliest hurdle, before the bill could even be debated. Sweeney said that bill was misunderstood and that it would’ve allowed the sort of “Wyoming-based solution” that many state leaders — including Gordon — have called for in place of expansion.

Messages sent to Gordon’s spokesman earlier this week have not been returned.

Wyoming Legislature convenes in Cheyenne

Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government pays 90 percent of new costs from expansion, leaving the state the remaining 10 percent. In Wyoming, projections show the state would pay $18 million in the first two years, while the feds would kick in $136 million. In those first years, an estimated 19,000 people here would receive coverage.

Debate persists

A broad group of medical-related groups had come together this session to lobby in favor of expansion. The group included the state primary care and hospital associations, as well as the Wyoming Medical Society, the AARP and the Equality State Policy Center.

But opponents — including the Wyoming Liberty Group — have said that the state shouldn’t sign up for a program that will cost it millions of dollars in a time of tight budgets. Cassie Craven, an attorney who works for the group, said the House’s rejection of the first expansion bill was a good thing.

“I think it sent the message that we can’t afford this right now, we can’t even consider it, we aren’t in the budget situation to even discuss it,” she said, adding that her group would oppose expansion even if the state wasn’t facing budget problems.

Craven added that in other states, the number of people who’ve enrolled in an expanded Medicaid program has eclipsed projections. But Health Department officials said they’ve taken those overruns into account in their latest estimates.

The supporters of expansion said the focus should’ve been on providing care to Wyoming’s lower-income populations.

“The majority of us are not particularly focused on whether our revenue is going to go up or down but whether the people we are responsible for have health care,” said Dr. David Wheeler, a Casper neurologist and the president of the state medical society.

Chris Merrill, who leads the Equality State Policy Center, called the revenue argument “a red herring” and said the Legislature’s opposition had been about priorities.

“The Legislature seems to be able to find money for the projects it likes,” he said. “A program to market coal, right, to somehow through the force of marketing bring back the coal market in general. The Legislature oftentimes finds money in the form of severance tax exemptions. The Legislature finds money for (University of Wyoming) athletics and buildings, and so they make choices all the time.”

Merrill added that Sweeney was “fired up” about expansion.

If Wyoming were to broaden the program, it would join a majority of the nation and almost all of Wyoming’s neighbors in the West. Sweeney said he feared what happened in Utah, where Medicaid was expanded after a ballot initiative. The Legislature there, he said, wasn’t ready.

“They hadn’t moved the needle,” he said. “All of a sudden it’s wide open, in my mind.”

Sweeney said he previously opposed expansion. He changed his view this year in light of projections by the Health Department that show nearly 20,000 people will receive care at the cost of $9 million annually in each of the first two years. The Health Department’s report on expansion also showed that plans purchased on the federal exchange may get cheaper.

“I believe it will be a benefit to the state’s mental health, and for the state,” he said.

Star-Tribune staff writer Nick Reynolds contributed to this report.

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Navajo Nation-based firm reaches agreement with state over coal mines

One of the newest coal companies to operate in Wyoming reached an agreement with the state Thursday to waive its sovereign immunity.

The waiver allows state regulators to enforce environmental and mining laws at Navajo Transitional Energy Company’s two coal mines in Wyoming. The contract also moves the Navajo Nation-based company one step closer to becoming the official owner and operator of the pair of mines, some of the largest in the nation.

Because NTEC was originally created under Navajo law, the firm operates as a tribal entity with the right to exercise sovereign immunity. By waiving this privilege in its agreement with Wyoming, the company effectively agreed to be held accountable for state mining and environmental laws. But the waiver does not apply to third-party citizen suits.

“This agreement ensures that Wyoming retains the right and ability to enforce state laws, including administrative procedures and collection of fines,” said Bernard Masters, general counsel for NTEC. “The agreement also respects NTEC’s status as a wholly owned entity of the sovereign Navajo Nation.”

In a letter addressed to the company’s CEO Thursday, Gov. Mark Gordon said after a review of the limited waiver by Wyoming’s attorney general, he was “satisfied” with the agreement. The governor also officially welcomed the coal operator to Wyoming.

“Thank you and all those who helped prepare this Limited Waiver, which demonstrates NTEC’s serious and long-term commitment to the State of Wyoming,” Gordon stated in the letter.

NTEC purchased the mines in October from Cloud Peak Energy, after the Wyoming-based coal operator went bankrupt. NTEC currently operates Antelope, Cordero Rojo and Spring Creek mines as a contract miner.

But NTEC has yet to secure the mining permits from the previous owner. The agreement established this week with the state of Wyoming allows NTEC to commence the application process for these permits.

Yet, the waiver remains limited in its scope, according to some attorneys.

Joshua Macey, a professor at Cornell Law School and expert in bankruptcy, emphasized the limitations the waiver could pose to Wyoming residents. Though the waiver allows for certain objections to be brought forth by individuals who are covered by Wyoming’s Environmental Quality Act, it still “dramatically curtails citizen enforcement,” Macey wrote in an email.

“Because the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior were not at the table, citizens can’t enforce the most significant environmental laws,” he added in the email. “The waiver encompasses citizen suits only brought under state environmental law, not federal environmental laws.”

The waiver does not allow regulators to enforce several federal environmental laws, Shannon Anderson, an attorney with Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group, confirmed.

NTEC has repeatedly asserted it remains committed to upholding all state and federal laws. A spokeswoman for the company also told the Star-Tribune employees working in the mines have recourse under the agreement.

“We take our responsibilities to the communities where we work very seriously and are committed to be a good neighbor and steward of the land,” said Clark Moseley, NTEC’s CEO, in a statement.

NTEC’s Powder River Basin coal mines produced 11.6 million tons of coal in last year’s fourth quarter.

In addition to the Wyoming mines, the company also purchased the Spring Creek mine in Montana. The majority of employees at the facility live in Sheridan County, Wyoming.

But negotiations with Montana Department of Environmental Quality over the company’s sovereign immunity status continue to weigh on NTEC.

A dispute over the company’s sovereign immunity brought the Spring Creek mine to a standstill the day after the sale closed in October. Though the mine has since resumed full operations, NTEC has yet to secure a long-term agreement with Montana regulators.The temporary agreement allowing NTEC to operate as a contract miner in the state is set to expire in March.A wave of coal company bankruptcies has dragged Wyoming through years of economic turbulence. Half a dozen coal bankruptcies have shaken the state since 2015.

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Wyoming governor releases new executive order on migration corridors

CHEYENNE — Gov. Mark Gordon released an executive order to conserve the state’s extensive migration corridors Thursday afternoon during a signing ceremony at the Wyoming State Capitol. The new order aims to preserve the critical routes used by Wyoming’s migrating big game herds while also protecting the state’s energy economy.

Largely concentrated in southwest Wyoming, migration corridors have for centuries served as vital routes for hoofed mammals like mule deer, pronghorn and elk. But population counts for some of these migratory animals have tumbled. The loss of critical habitat, like migration corridors, has in part contributed to the species’ decline, scientists say.

The governor’s newest executive order enshrines protections for three existing mule deer corridors — Sublette, Baggs and Platte Valley — and provides guidelines for designating additional routes.

The crux of the executive order comes down to how the state formally designates the migration corridors identified by scientists.

Under the new order, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department would identify a potential migration corridor based on scientific data. An in-depth evaluation and risk assessment on the corridor would follow. After opening up the proposed corridor to public comment, the agency would present the identified route to the governor for consideration. Gordon could then launch an “area working group” chaired with local residents and stakeholders before determining whether to officially designate the corridor.

Gordon alluded to the work of the group in his State of the State address Monday, where he announced the designation of a “handful” of migration corridors throughout the state intended to respect the science of migration as well as the concerns of landowners in the southwestern corner of the state, many of whom had seen projects delayed for months — or even years — due to uncertainty over their environmental impacts. This has presented critical delays for the drilling industry at a time when it faces increasing challenges.

In a statement, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming said the order relieves some of that regulatory burden while, at the same time, recognizing that “oil and natural gas production is more environmentally conscious than ever.”

“We appreciate that the Governor meaningfully engaged members of PAW in the process of developing his Executive Order,” the Petroleum Association of Wyoming said in a statement. “We look forward to a thoughtful implementation that recognizes the need for balance and avoids further regulatory creep at a time when the state needs oil and natural gas revenues more than ever.”

In an interview following his announcement, Gordon said the underlying environmental or wildlife concerns that remain in the process will be given their due consideration while still balancing the interests of industry and landowners, whose concerns represented the impetus for the bill.

“We don’t want to jump the gun and designate hundreds and hundreds of areas,” Gordon said. “That’s why I said ‘a handful of routes.’ We don’t want a land grab — this is absolutely not a spaghetti map. Part of this process was to say that spaghetti map was spooking a lot of landowners, members of industry. … We needed a place to start, based on the science, that would identify these routes.”

Some of the success of his initiative, Gordon added, could be supported by a number of bills currently working their way through the Wyoming Legislature, including several bills to create new sources of revenue for the construction of critical wildlife crossings along those routes.

The new order comes after extensive public discussion during the governor’s first term about how to best manage the state’s migration corridors.

Last year, Gordon convened an advisory group three times to collect recommendations for the executive order. Using these recommendations, Gordon’s team released a draft executive order in late December and solicited public comment throughout the first month of the year.

Most recently, Gordon traveled to four communities across Wyoming on a listening tour dedicated to hearing comments from residents potentially affected by the new rules.

The Wyoming Legislature has also made moves to intervene in setting the ground rules around migration corridors. In October, the Legislature’s Natural Resource Committee voted to sponsor a new bill that also expands the corridor designation process beyond the purview of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

In October, Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, called the bill a “back-up plan” to Gordon’s executive order. Other committee members called it a “placeholder.”

But the most significant bill against Gordon’s order currently working through the Legislature might be a piece of legislation co-sponsored by Senate President Drew Perkins, House Speaker Steve Harshman and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout, which seeks to designate its own process for establishing migration corridors.

“I’ll put it quite frankly,” Gordon said when asked about that legislation. “All of this started because there was uncertainty about the southwest. It was important for Wyoming to take the lead so we could resolve some of that uncertainty in a way that was good for wildlife but also good for the fact that all of these oil and gas leases were being deferred.”

He argued that slowing that process down with new legislation was not worth the trouble, particularly after involving lawmakers in the process.

“That’s something I’m not interested in,” he said. “We’ve involved legislators all the way through this process, I’ve been available, and the drafting has had a lot of involvement from the Legislature.

“To me, that bill is unnecessary,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Game and Fish Department, along with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, launched a new initiative Thursday to curtail the number of animal deaths from vehicle collisions across the state.

“Our vision for all wildlife crossing projects is to ensure wildlife are able to easily and safely cross highways in order to access important seasonal habitats,” Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said in a statement. “We’re partnering with the Wyoming Department of Transportation to reduce collisions and design roads with wildlife in mind.”

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Casper City Council gives tentative green light to wayfinding strategy that could cost $1.5-2M

Think about the last time you were on a college campus or trying to find your way around a massive hospital complex. How dizzying it can be to navigate an airport or even a busy intersection.

It’s this communal experience of needing to know how to get where you’re going that has prompted the city to research how people get around Casper and the surrounding area.

Consultants presented a new wayfinding strategy to Casper City Council during a work session Tuesday night, with recommendations that the city install new wayfinding signage to help residents and visitors alike navigate the area.

The plan was paid for through the Casper Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally-funded urban-planning entity that oversees U.S. Department of Transportation dollars being distributed throughout the county.

While the wayfinding plan is paid for with federal dollars, with a rough price tag of $100,000, purchasing the signs and installing them will fall to the various jurisdictions involved. The estimated cost for total implementation would be between $1.5 and $2 million.

But why is wayfinding important enough to shell out that kind of money? Experts say good wayfinding doesn’t just get people to where they need to be faster, it also enhances their overall experience of a place — definitely a positive for a community in which tourism is a significant economic driver.

One trade publication says “an effective wayfinding system is based on human behavior,” how we use landmarks as visual clues and need to be able to orient ourselves within a given environment. Another publication argues wayfinding is “among the most common, real-world domains of both individual and group-level decision making,” an interesting way to think about something we all do every day.

The planning organization has been working with Des Moines, Iowa-based RDG Planning and Design to complete the plan.

Ryan Peterson, a partner with RDG, gave the council a tentative idea of what the signage may look like during a meeting in the fall and returned Tuesday to share final details with the council.

The idea is that the signs will clearly guide visitors around the area, while giving residents a sense of place. The consultants are recommending about 200-210 signs be installed throughout the county, guiding people toward key points in and around the region. Those points include historic places, recreational options and community gateways.

To determine where the signs should go, RDG sought community feedback throughout the planning process and identified the most-visited landmarks and destinations.

The top four results, in order, were Casper Mountain, downtown Casper, Alcova and David Street Station, with a litany of other suggestions also presented.

As far as which of the area’s assets should be at the forefront of the imaging, the public said the area’s natural resources were most important.

The imagery on the signs will reflect that feedback, should the various jurisdictions choose to pay for the project.

Casper’s signs would show the cityscape, as it does currently, with iconic landmarks in a row. Mills will be represented by a soaring eagle, Bar Nunn by an antelope. There will be signs for Evansville, Alcova and the mountain, and each were decided upon based on community input.

While the signs will represent their various communities, there should still be an overall regional cohesion, Peterson said.

“Each community is unique in its own way and should have the ability to celebrate that uniqueness” he said. “But we also want them to tie together with some common themes.”

The project’s implementation would align with the city’s long-term goals, laid out in a variety of master plans. Based on goals City Council set for itself at the start of last year, council hopes to see 75 percent of the gateway signage installed this fiscal year.

It’s still unclear where the $1.5 to $2 million will come from. Once RDG has finalized the plan, they will recommend funding models to the city. Until hearing those recommendations, City Manager Carter Napier said he can’t say how the city will budget the project.

The city wouldn’t bear the whole cost, but it would pay a proportionate share with the other towns and the county, if those governing bodies approve it.

Peterson did reference grant opportunities during his presentation to council Tuesday, also saying the cost is a decadeslong investment.

“This is a 20-25 year project,” he said. “We want to make sure you’re proud of what you look at everyday.”

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Lodging tax passes introductory vote in Wyoming Legislature

CHEYENNE — Wyoming lawmakers approved a lodging tax on Thursday by a voice vote, giving their seal of approval to one of the few taxes that has gained the support of Gov. Mark Gordon.

The bill now heads to committee, where it will be worked before returning to the floor for second reading.

If passed, the legislation — which has gained the blessing of industry after nearly two years of work in committee — would impose a 5 percent sales tax on things like hotels and campgrounds, revenues many hoped would have allowed the state’s Department of Tourism to be funded at a competitive level.

Those proceeds would benefit both local governments as well as a statewide promotional campaign that — in the Department of Tourism’s new strategy — emphasizes regions between Yellowstone and Devils Tower. Increasing tourism funding through a lodging tax, proponents say, could save nearly $20 million per year in the state’s general fund while simultaneously helping to bolster economic development in the state’s traditionally overlooked communities.

In the words of Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, it would also allow one of the state’s largest industries to step up and replace revenues lost by the energy sector.

Currently, Wyoming funds its tourism at a significantly lower rate than surrounding states, which proponents of the bill say has put Wyoming at a competitive disadvantage.

Though 85 percent of the tax would be paid by out-of-state residents, some, like Rep. Garry Piiparinen, argued that it would be an undue tax on people who travel throughout the state. However, the tax would be equivalent to 3 cents on the dollar — a small and infrequently paid sum that could generate nearly $15 million per year, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Those numbers did not move members like Mark Jennings, R-Gillette, or Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, who said the people of Wyoming were already taxed enough.

Those in favor of the bill said this was revenue the state couldn’t afford to miss out on.

“This is a reasonable way to make some revenue,” said Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander.