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In first speech as governor, Mark Gordon outlines optimistic vision in 'complicated times'

Gov.-elect Mark Gordon became Gov. Mark Gordon on Monday morning, taking the oath of office in a crowded auditorium filled with numerous lawmakers, public servants and others in a pageant that was as much a celebration of Wyoming as it was of his new administration.

In his first public address as governor Monday morning, Gordon used his time on stage to outline several key priorities for the first months of his administration, including his push for a smaller, more responsive government; increased fiscal responsibility; and a renewed commitment to education — one of the most pressing concerns he will face in his first term in office.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Gov. Mark Gordon takes the podium for his inauguration speech Monday morning at the Cheyenne Civic Center. Gordon placed an emphasis on energy innovation during his speech. 

Speaking from a podium built especially for the occasion by his son, Spencer, Gordon painted his aspirations broadly, setting a foundation for what is expected to be a more involved and detailed outline of his administration’s policies in Wednesday’s State of the State address. The general themes of his intentions, however, were clear: a desire to recognize the state’s wants versus its needs, a leaner — but not necessarily cheaper — government and, in what might be the most notable concern for his administration, a real solution to sustainably funding the state’s education system.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Gov. Mark Gordon gives his inauguration speech Monday at the Cheyenne Civic Center.

“I know firsthand that a one-size-fits-all approach to education will not do justice to the diversity of priorities and needs in districts around the state,” Gordon said. “I intend to nurture open and frequent communication lines with all our schools. To listen and respond appropriately to the needs of our different communities. And I’m eager to work together with educators and lawmakers to find a lasting solution to school funding that makes sense for Wyoming.”

The speech, Gordon said in the weeks leading up to Monday’s ceremony, was intended to be more thematic than pragmatic in its content. The governor spoke in highly optimistic tones, despite referring more than once to the current “complicated times.” He committed several paragraphs of his speech to what he feels makes Wyoming great and the tangible achievements its government has made in recent years — like its work on blockchain and its recent spurts in energy innovation, another area in which Gordon placed emphasis.

“Our energy and mineral industries are in a class by themselves,” he said. “In fields like enhanced oil recovery, carbon capture and utilization, mine reclamation and renewable energies — ask yourself this: Who has done it better than Wyoming? No one.”

Prior to Gordon’s speech, the state’s four other elected officials were given the oath of office. The group included Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, Auditor Kristi Racines, Treasurer Curt Meier and Superintendent of Public Education Jillian Balow. They were introduced with a performance of the song “A Thousand Years” by Casper residents Susan Stubson on piano and Christine Hutchings on cello.

Photos: Mark Gordon's road to the Wyoming governor's mansion

Also performing Monday morning was David Munsick, who played “Forever West” as an interlude before the governor-elect took his oath of office. Munsick had shared the song with Gordon in January 2017, right before he declared his candidacy for governor.

The 10:30 a.m. swearing-in ceremony was actually just that: ceremonial. The official transfer of power actually took place in a closed-door ceremony in the early hours of the morning inside the State Capitol building, which is currently closed for renovations. At 6 a.m., a Cheyenne Street Railway bus filled with at least two dozen individuals — as well as an SUV carrying the governor-elect — exited the Capital Reconstruction Project staging area and proceeded to the front door of the Capitol, which held the ceremony. It was closed to the public and every news outlet except The Associated Press.

Also sworn in at the ceremony were Buchanan, Balow, Racines and Meier. Wyoming Chief Justice Michael K. Davis administered the oath.

Rachel Girt, Gordon’s communications director, said the capacity for the ceremony was restricted by the construction site’s management, due to it being an active construction site. In a statement the night before, Girt said that to Gordon, “receiving his oath of office in the Capitol, the people’s house, holds a special significance for the governor-elect,” and that having a public ceremony was also important to him. He acknowledged this in his speech.

“We do it twice because we do it nice,” Gordon said, to laughter.

At 8:30 a.m., a congregation featuring Wyoming’s political elite — former Govs. Mike Sullivan, Jim Geringer and Dave Freudenthal; Sens. Mike Enzi, John Barrasso and Al Simpson; Rep. Liz Cheney — and numerous legislators joined Gordon’s family for a prayer service. Officiated by the Rev. Carol Buckingham of Kaycee, the service included a passage from the bible where John the Baptist offered to wash Jesus’ feet. Christ declined and instead did the service himself. Buckingham followed with a sermon on the selflessness of service — comparing government to a cattle branding — and an “on-the-ranch” mentality that extends to Wyoming’s government.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Gov. Mark Gordon looks at his wife Jennie while singing "A Mighty Fortress" at the inauguration prayer service Monday morning at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Cheyenne. 

“Think of the branding, where everyone works as a team and what we can accomplish is a branded and vaccinated cow,” Buckingham said. “Christ has called us to a life of serving others, and that’s what the towel and the basin represent. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.’ You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

Gordon, throughout his speech, seemed to embody that spirit of service, recognizing members of the military and others who serve Wyoming as well as the need for all its people to pitch in to strive for a better government. But Gordon also spoke to a spirit of optimism in moving the state forward and the power of the individual in moving the state forward.

“Reaching our potential will not be easy,” he said. “We have challenges ahead. But if our history teaches us anything it is that we in Wyoming are resourceful and that throughout our history our state has been blessed with pragmatic, effective and strong leaders.”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Gov. Mark Gordon mingles with attendees after an inauguration morning prayer service as at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Cheyenne. 

To close his speech, Gordon expressed the confidence that he — and those beside him — have the capacity to be just as strong.

“My friend, the late Raymond Plank, founder of Apache Oil and the Ucross Foundation, philanthropist, businessman, and founder of the Wyoming Futures Project, once wrote, ‘The capacity of the individual is infinite. Limitations are largely of habit, convention, acceptance of things as they are, fear or self-confidence.’ He was right. Our best days are ahead of us.”

“We have work to do,” Gordon added. “So let us go forth with confidence, with courage and with conviction.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated former Gov. Matt Mead attended Gov. Mark Gordon's swearing-in ceremony at the Wyoming Capitol. 

Wyoming lawmakers seek to increase property taxes to better fund education

Lawmakers will consider a bill that would increase taxes for all property in Wyoming and send tens of millions of dollars to public schools here over the coming years.

The education-funding deficit has been a dominant topic for Wyoming lawmakers for years, as the recent bust created a deficit that was projected to top $1.8 billion by the beginning of the next decade. Two years later, the situation has stabilized somewhat, but the core problem remains unsolved, officials said. This measure, which would add three mill levies to all property in Wyoming in each of the next three years, would attempt to address that.

“We still have a structural deficit,” said Sen. Cale Case, a Lander Republican and the co-chairman of the Joint Revenue Committee, which is sponsoring the bill. “We still have to fix the education-funding issue. We’re still funded largely by minerals.”

This bill, House Bill 68, would try to shift more of that funding burden onto homeowners and businesses. The mills’ implementations would be staggered, so all nine new mills would not be in place for three years. In each of those years, the three added mills would bring roughly $33 million more for public schools.

Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said the mills had previously been in place for some districts, before lawsuits fundamentally reshaped how Wyoming funded its schools.

Currently, Wyoming schools are funded by 43 total mills. As it stands, minerals carry much of the education funding load, as they’re assessed at 100 percent of property value. But that leaves the state’s schools vulnerable to drastic downturns when the bottom falls out on the economy, as it did a few years ago.

“It’s one way to find a stable, reliable funding source for education,” Vetter said of the bill. She noted the state had tax credits to shield the older and lower-income Wyomingites from the proposed property tax increases.

Case said he thought the bill may be a way to put a wind tax — something he’s pushed for years — “in perspective” for other lawmakers. The new mills would be spread across Wyoming, while a wind tax would be borne almost entirely out of state. He noted the poll commissioned by the education association in 2017 that showed a majority of Wyoming voters would support a tax increase on wind production.

Vetter said she was somewhat surprised by the bill, as the Legislature has broadly been opposed to funding increases to solve the education funding crisis. Lawmakers have heavily leaned upon budget cuts and shifting revenue sources rather than adding taxes.

Case said this particular bill would likely be more palatable to other lawmakers if there was a companion bill that cut spending. Vetter said those bills have already been considered over the past three years. Wyoming schools have been slashed by as much as $100 million over that time.

“They’ve frozen funding for transportation and special education. They’ve already made a number of those cuts without addressing the funding issue,” she said. “They did the cuts first. Now it’s time to address the funding.”

Trump heads to TV, border as fed workers face paycheck sting

WASHINGTON — With no breakthrough in sight, President Donald Trump will argue his case to the nation tonight that a "crisis" at the U.S.-Mexico border requires the long and invulnerable wall he's demanding before ending the partial government shutdown. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers face missed paychecks Friday as the shutdown drags through a third week.

Trump's Oval Office speech — his first as president — will be followed by his visit Thursday to the southern border to highlight his demand for a barrier. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that he will use the visit to "meet with those on the front lines of the national security and humanitarian crisis."

The administration is also at least talking about the idea of declaring a national emergency to allow Trump to move forward on the wall without Congress approving the $5.6 billion he wants. Vice President Mike Pence said the White House counsel's office is looking at the idea. Such a move would certainly draw legal challenges, and Trump — who told lawmakers he would be willing to keep the government closed for months or even years — has said he would like to continue negotiations for now.

Trump's prime-time address will be carried live by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox Broadcasting, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, MSNBC and NBC.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer called on the networks to give Democrats a chance to respond. "Now that the television networks have decided to air the President's address, which if his past statements are any indication will be full of malice and misinformation, Democrats must immediately be given equal airtime," they wrote in a joint statement released Monday night.

As Trump's speech and border visit were announced, newly empowered House Democrats — and at least a few Republican senators — stepped up pressure on GOP lawmakers to reopen the government without giving in to the president's demands. The closure, which has lasted 17 days, already is the second-longest in history and would become the longest this weekend.

Leaning on Senate Republicans, some of whom are growing anxious about the impact of the shutdown, Pelosi said the House would begin passing individual bills this week that would reopen federal agencies, starting with the Treasury Department to ensure Americans receive their tax refunds.

The White House tried to pre-empt the Democrats, telling reporters Monday that tax refunds would be paid despite the shutdown. That shutdown exemption would break from the practice of earlier administrations and could be challenged.

"There is an indefinite appropriation to pay tax refunds. As a result ... the refunds will go out as normal," said Russell Vought, acting director of the White House budget office.

The shutdown furloughed 380,000 federal workers and forced another 420,000 to work without pay. The National Park Service said it was dipping into entrance fees to pay for staffing at some highly visited parks to maintain restrooms, clean up trash and patrol the grounds, after reports of human waste and garbage overflowing in some spots.

Over the weekend, the federal agency tasked with guaranteeing U.S. airport security acknowledged an increase in the number of its employees missing work or calling in sick.

But Trump and the Transportation Security Administration pushed back on any suggestion that the call-outs at the agency represented a "sickout" that was having a significant effect on U.S. air travel. TSA said it screened more than 2.2 million passengers Sunday, a historically busy day due to holiday travel. Ninety percent waited less than 15 minutes, the agency said.

"We are grateful to the more than 51,000 agents across the country who remain focused on the mission and are respectful to the traveling public," said TSA spokesman Michael Bilello.

The talks over ending the shutdown have been at an impasse over Trump's demand for the wall. He has offered to build the barrier with steel rather than concrete, billing that as a concession to Democrats' objections. They "don't like concrete, so we'll give them steel," he said.

But Democrats have made clear that they object to the wall itself, not how it's constructed. They see it as immoral and ineffective and prefer other types of border security funded at already agreed-upon levels.

"Maybe he thinks he can bully us. But I'm from Brooklyn. You let a bully succeed, you'll be bullied again worse," Schumer said at a breakfast with the Association for a Better New York.

At the White House, spokeswoman Mercedes Schlapp complained that Democratic leaders have yet to define what they mean when they say they are for enhancing border security.

"Democrats want to secure the border? Great. Come to the table," she said Monday. "We are willing to come to a deal to reopen the government."

Trump tasked Pence during the shutdown fight to negotiate with Democrats, including during talks over the weekend with Democratic staffers. But the vice president is increasingly being called upon to prevent defections in the GOP ranks.

Asked whether cracks were forming between the White House and Republicans eager for the shutdown to end, Pence told reporters, "We've been in touch with those members and others."

New Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon takes oath in state Capitol work zone

CHEYENNE (AP) — Mark Gordon wore a yellow safety vest for his swearing-in Monday as Wyoming’s 33rd governor, which took place in a well-known yet unusual setting: the Wyoming State Capitol, which has been closed for major renovations for over three years.

Because of safety restrictions, only a small crowd of a few dozen relatives, state officials, construction personnel and an Associated Press pool reporter witnessed the 6 a.m. ceremony under the glare of construction lights.

“It’s the people’s house. I wanted to make sure we started with them,” the Republican Gordon said after being sworn in by Wyoming Chief Justice Michael Davis beneath a giant U.S. flag hanging from scaffolding a couple stories high in the building’s rotunda.

Photos: Mark Gordon celebrates inauguration as Wyoming's 33rd governor

Wyoming’s other four statewide elected officials — State Treasurer Curt Meier, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, State Auditor Kristi Racines and Secretary of State Ed Buchanan — also were sworn in before Davis in the construction zone. They are also Republicans.

The closed-to-the-public event at the Capitol, organized by Gordon and his staff over the weekend and announced Sunday, pre-empted the public ceremony by four hours.

“What an honor to be in this room. What an amazing moment,” Gordon said after taking the oath of office with his wife, Jennie, at his side.

Gordon, 61, beat Democrat Mary Throne in November’s election to succeed Mead, who after two terms was prevented from running again. Gordon was state treasurer for six years before beating five opponents to claim the Republican GOP nomination and face Throne, an energy industry attorney and state lawmaker from Cheyenne.

Gordon ranches in the Buffalo area and is a former businessman and board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Photos: Mark Gordon's road to the Wyoming governor's mansion

The over $300 million project to renovate the Capitol and a neighboring state office complex, the Herschler Building, is scheduled for completion this year. As of Monday, a fair amount of work appeared left to do, from unfinished flooring and paint to protruding electrical wires.

Before the event, participants and spectators including Senate President Drew Perkins and House Speaker Steve Harshman rendezvoused in a construction trailer to collect hard hats, safety vests and safety glasses, and hear a safety briefing.

All including Gordon signed liability waivers.

Most then boarded an antique trolley-style tourist bus for the one-block drive to the Capitol. Workers with flashlights lit the way up temporary wooden steps to the main entrance, the still-shrouded Capitol dome looming overhead in the breezy dark.

The ceremony concluded within half an hour.