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Bebout announces new priority ahead of budget session: addressing opioid abuse in Wyoming

Senate President Eli Bebout said that one of his top priorities during the upcoming legislative session will be addressing opioid abuse, a pressing national issue that has gotten little attention within Wyoming.

While several Midwestern states have been dealing with a severe opioid epidemic, there is little evidence that Wyoming is facing a similar problem.

“We’ve really got to get on the leading edge,” Bebout said. “I don’t want to wait.”

Painkiller prescriptions in the state remain far lower than most states in the country, according to the National Prescription Audit.

But Bebout, a Riverton-based Republican, said in an interview with the Star-Tribune on Friday that he had observed the havoc wreaked by opioid abuse in other states and wants Wyoming to avoid the same fate.

He is hoping to pass legislation creating a taskforce to address the issue during the Legislature’s upcoming budget session in February. That task force could suggest new laws or ways for the state to combat the issue before the 2019 session, Bebout said, though he is also open to taking more tangible actions when the Legislature meets this year.

“Who knows,” Bebout said. “There might be some good ideas out there that we could move forward more specifically.”

A draft bill that would limit doctors’ ability to prescribe opioids in the state received criticism in the fall for being overly restrictive.

Casper physician Anne MacGuire, a member of the state Board of Medicine, said the bill was not necessary because Wyoming did not have a problem with prescribing too many painkillers.

“Wyoming does not have a narcotic problem,” MacGuire said in an October interview.

Rep. Jim Byrd, D-Cheyenne, the bill’s sponsor, did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding why the measure was necessary.

Bebout said his interest in the issue was sparked by attending a session at a Senate Presidents’ Forum event.

“If we save one life or have one person put back into a productive life and the workforce we’ve done our jobs,” he said.

The Legislature’s February session is likely to be dominated by the state’s roughly $700 million budget shortfall for the coming two-year finance cycle. Much of that shortfall comes from the state’s education funds, which have been battered by a drop in tax revenue due to the energy bust.

Hogadon Basin Ski Area makes the best of lack of snow

Mother Nature isn’t cooperating with Hogadon Basin Ski Area’s new city-owned lodge.

Only 30 percent of the trails and slopes are currently open due to the unusually dry winter, Hogadon Superintendent Chris Smith said Friday. Open areas include two intermediate runs, a beginner terrain, a teaching terrain and a terrain park for children.

“We make [artificial snow] every chance we get, but we haven’t had a lot of cold weather,” Smith said.

The superintendent added that it could be worse. Smith said a dry winter about five years ago caused all but one trail to remain closed into January.

Although lodge officials are hoping to get some natural snow soon, Smith said guests have been patient with the situation.

“The [new] lodge is warm and comfortable and you can have a nice meal and a cocktail and that has made a huge difference in the attitude of the people here,” he said.

Skiers and snowboarders complained about a variety of issues at the old lodge: The building wasn’t handicapped-accessible, there weren’t enough bathrooms and purchasing ski passes and rental equipment involved going to separate locations.

But the new two-story facility features multiple bathrooms, a bar area with indoor and outdoor seating, a spacious dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows and an elevator that makes the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Due to the additional space, purchasing ski passes, lessons and paying for rentals can now be done at the same location.

The project’s $5.3 million price tag generated some controversy when it was approved in spring 2016, but former Mayor Kenyne Humphrey previously told the Star-Tribune that she thinks most residents have since embraced the idea.

“Hogadon really just kind of started falling apart over the last decade,” she said. “It actually reached a point where the building was structurally unsafe.”

Josh Galemore, Casper Star-Tribune 

A snowboarder eases into a turn as she makes her way down the Boomerang run at Hogadon Basin Ski Area during their opening day Tuesday morning, Dec. 26, 2017. Only about 30 percent of the trails and slopes are open due to a dry winter. 

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Ashley Alverson stands for a portrait Tuesday at Rocky Mountain Oncology Center. She is helping to organize a concert that will raise money to support cancer patients. 

Coal executive's 'wish list' finds success under Trump

WASHINGTON — In the early days of the Trump administration, the head of one of America’s largest coal companies sent a four-page “action plan” to the White House calling for rollbacks of Obama-era environmental and mine safety regulations.

“We have listed our suggested actions in order of priority,” Robert “Bob” Murray, the chairman and CEO of Ohio-based Murray Energy, wrote in his March 1 letter addressed to Vice President Mike Pence. “We are available to assist you and your administration in any way that you request.”

A review of the memo by The Associated Press shows Murray, an early campaign supporter of President Donald Trump and major GOP political donor, has gotten about half the items on his wish list. They include pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accords and revoking the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s signature effort to limit planet-warming emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Murray has spoken widely about his policy priorities in the intervening months, but a copy of his four-page plan became public this week after it was obtained by Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and first reported by The New York Times.

Under Trump, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has also moved to reconsider rules meant to protect miners from breathing coal and rock dust — the primary cause of black lung — and diesel exhaust, which can cause cancer.

Other Murray priorities, such as eliminating federal tax credits for wind turbines and solar panels, have floundered, however. The renewable energy tax breaks were largely retained in the final Republican-drafted tax plan signed by Trump last month.

And despite Trump’s campaign pledges to put scores of coal back to work by ending what he and Murray have derided as Obama’s “War on Coal,” the administration’s regulatory rollback has thus far had modest economic benefits.

Only about 500 coal mining jobs were added in Trump’s first year, bringing the total to about 50,900 nationally, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nation’s utilities have also continued to shutter coal-fired plants in favor of those burning natural gas made cheaper and more abundant by new drilling technologies.

In an interview with AP on Wednesday, Murray said Trump and his appointees have overall done a great job helping his industry, rating them “nearly a 10” in the first year. He specifically credited Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry with being “stars.”

Murray said he had private meetings with both Pruitt and Perry last year to discuss his policy goals.

“President Trump has done a wonderful job in addressing what is needed to improve the cost of electricity in America and to improve the reliability, security and resilience of the electric power grid,” Murray said. “I give him very high marks.”

Spokespeople for Pruitt and Perry did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday about Murray’s action plan.

Murray said he is still hopeful that Pruitt will follow through on the second-highest priority item on his 2017 action plan, revoking EPA’s 2009 finding that emitting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere threatens public health and welfare. The finding provided the legal underpinnings for Obama’s efforts to regulate carbon emissions as pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

Murray also expressed disappointment that Trump appointees on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted Monday to reject a proposal by Perry to make coal and nuclear power plants eligible for billions of dollars in government subsidies.

AP reported last year that Murray had asked the Trump administration to issue an emergency order protecting coal-fired power plants from closing. Murray warned that failure to act could cause thousands of coal miners to be laid off and force his largest customer, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Solutions, into bankruptcy.

Perry ultimately rejected Murray’s request, but later asked FERC to boost coal and nuclear plants by subsidizing their continued operation.

The Republican-controlled commission voted unanimously to reject Perry’s claim that further retirements of coal-fired power plants pose a threat to reliability of the nation’s electric grid.

“There’s no question about it, there are folks in the administration that have their own agenda, rather than President Trump’s,” Murray said. “There are some staffers who have gone contrary to the wishes of our president.”