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Horses graze in February 2015 outside Dubois, where private acreage borders swaths of federal public land. A controversial measure would have amended the Wyoming Constitution to specify how federal public land would be managed if Washington transferred it to the state.

Wyoming Medicaid expansion bill passes committee, will proceed to House

CHEYENNE — A Wyoming legislative committee voted to move a Teton County lawmaker’s Medicaid expansion proposal to the full House of Representatives late Wednesday by a vote of 6-3.

Considered something of a pipe dream in Wyoming politics since the establishment of the Affordable Care Act — and a subsequent Supreme Court decision — allowed states to expand Medicaid, Wednesday night’s vote marked a small victory for medical associations across the state as well as a bipartisan coalition of supporters who have long pushed for expansion.

“I’ve been part of the group who’s been working on this for five years,” said Marguerite Herman of the Wyoming League of Women Voters. “I think we made a case for it five years ago, and I hope this is the year the Legislature feels ready to go.”

Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, and House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow, R-Gillette — the two chief architects of the most successful Medicaid expansion bill to reach the House floor — voted in favor of the bill in the House’s Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. They were joined by Reps. Mike Yin, D-Jackson; Pat Sweeney, R-Casper; JoAnn Dayton-Selman, D-Rock Springs; and Jim Roscoe, I-Wilson, who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“No” votes included Reps. Tim Hallinan, R-Gillette; Scott Clem, R-Gillette; and Clarence Styvar, R-Cheyenne.

Sponsored by Rep. Andy Schwartz, a Jackson Democrat, House Bill 244 is largely based off the 2014 Barlow-Wilson bill, which was among the more comprehensive pieces of legislation to be introduced in support of Medicaid expansion in the past. If passed into law, the bill would extend Medicaid to those making 133 percent of the federal poverty line. Within a few years, it would result in 27,000 Wyomingites enrolling in health insurance, according to state Department of Health data.

The federal government would shoulder 90 percent of the new costs going forward. In the first two years, the state would pay $33 million, and the feds would cover $246 million more. The bill would also help cut a significant chunk out of a cited $130 million in uncompensated medical costs absorbed by the state’s care providers, whose professional organizations — including the Wyoming Hospital Association and the Wyoming Medical Society — support the bill.

The legislation also includes work requirements — previously a nonstarter under President Barack Obama but a provision that the Trump administration has signaled it would consider — as well as an amendment added by Schwartz to avoid the “cliff” effect experienced by enrollees who may lose their eligibility if their income suddenly exceeds the federal limits — an effect that some argue could cause people to continue to remain in poverty in order to keep Medicaid coverage.

Lawmakers have suggested in the past that they would be more open to discussing expansion if the state had a work requirement of some sort. Earlier this week, the Senate Labor Committee unanimously sponsored a bill by Baggs Republican Sen. Larry Hicks that would institute a work requirement for the state’s current Medicaid system. Last year, when a similar effort failed, Hicks said that legislators had maintained that such a work requirement would make expansion a more palatable topic of discussion.

In arguing against that requirement last year, Laramie Democrat Sen. Chris Rothfuss said it would make more sense in the context of expansion. Rothfuss is a co-sponsor of Schwartz’s bill.

There is also a provision in the expansion bill that allows the automatic failure of the bill should Gov. Mark Gordon — who is on the record as opposing Medicaid expansion — veto the bill upon it passing both the House and the Senate. Gordon’s predecessor, Matt Mead, initially opposed expansion but reversed course after his 2014 re-election. As he neared the end of his second term, he lamented that the Legislature and the state had left tens of millions of dollars in federal funding on the table.

At this point, roughly midway through the legislative session, whether or not the bill reaches the House of Representatives for a vote is pure speculation. However, the influence of Barlow, who has sponsored similar legislation in the past, should certainly play a factor in its ability to reach the floor. Passage of the bill may be complicated, though, particularly on the Senate side of the legislature, which is currently considering a bill by Casper Republican Charlie Scott to study the issue before moving forward with discussions around expanding Medicaid.

Josh Hannes, Vice President of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said in testimony to the committee that Medicaid expansion would lower the number of uninsured patients who enter the medical system through emergency rooms — the most expensive and often least efficient entry points for care — and instead put them in the offices of providers who could cover them. This would help to reduce the costs often absorbed by medical providers like hospitals, who are often left to foot the bill without compensation, he said. He noted other states have already moved forward with expansion — some, like Utah, by ballot initiative — and that no states who have moved forward with expansion have moved away.

There was some reluctance expressed by legislators like Clem, who were concerned that a potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act could potentially rip the rug out from under those Medicaid expansion would protect. Hannes answered, however, that if a repeal were to happen, Wyoming would be “exactly where we are today.”

Indeed, the bill includes language that would end the program should the federal match drop below 90 percent or if the language within the ACA that allows for expansion is repealed or ruled unconstitutional.

Some supporters of the legislation, like the Equality State Policy Center’s Chris Merrill, speculated that the threat of a ballot initiative on the matter could compel legislators to think about the topic. According to a 2014 University of Wyoming poll, more than 56 percent of the state supports Medicaid expansion, leaving those like Merrill to wonder whether concerns over a potential ballot initiative might be weighing on the minds of legislators.

“That totally circumvents the legislature and — speaking personally — I think it’s a less-than-ideal way of making policy,” Merrill said. “I think they’re thinking of that. Without the deliberative process of elected officials, of people who understand the budget really well, and without hearing from stakeholders and agencies ... the result of a ballot initiative could be a train wreck. That’s something on their minds this time around.”

Scott mentioned the potential for a ballot initiative for reasons why he wanted the state to study the effects and costs of expansion. Lawmakers have good reason to be cognizant of a potential ballot effort: Residents in neighboring red states Utah, Nebraska and Idaho all voted to expand Medicaid in those states in November. Voters in Montana, where the program had already been broadened, shot down a new funding proposal, leaving expansion there somewhat in limbo.

Though Wyoming is one of the more difficult states in the country in which to get an initiative on the ballot, Merrill speculates that a campaign for Medicaid expansion would be much more organized and better funded than others in the past, making the potential for a Medicaid ballot initiative a very real possibility.

“I think the attempts we’ve seen thus far have, in general, been done on an all-volunteer basis; there hasn’t been any money behind it,” he said. “We’re hearing talk of folks assembling real money to do a well-funded ballot initiative. We haven’t seen that yet in Wyoming.”

Star-Tribune staff writer Seth Klamann contributed to this report.

National Historic Trails Interpretive Center gets back to business after shutdown

Eight dead Christmas trees greeted federal employees when they returned to work last Tuesday at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. It wasn’t the merriest of sights, but Carrie Reece, executive director for the facility’s foundation, said it didn’t dampen the celebration.

“We are all really glad to be back to work at the Trails Center,” she wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. “There are lots of communications to sort through and new adjusted plans to be made concerning what we missed.”

The Casper museum’s federal employees hadn’t been permitted to work since Dec. 21 due to the partial government shutdown. But President Donald Trump announced last Friday that the government will reopen for three weeks as negotiations continue over the funding of immigration and border security.

It’s unclear exactly how many of Wyoming’s roughly 5,000 federal employees were directly affected by the shutdown. Some were furloughed while others continued to work without pay. The 35-day stalemate, the longest in U.S. history, stemmed from lawmakers’ impasse over funding for a border wall.

Reece, who isn’t a federal employee, continued working throughout the shutdown. Her job largely involves grant writing, which she was able to do from home. But the director said she was deeply worried for her co-workers and their families.

“I sincerely hope the representative leadership in Wyoming will hear the voices of local families who suffered and consider their sacrifices before allowing something like this to happen again in mid-February,” she wrote.

Reece previously explained that the museum is one of Casper’s most popular visitor attractions. Winter is especially busy because visitors in town for the holidays often stop by the museum, and schools throughout the state tend to organize field trips to the facility during the colder months.

“It’s a really valuable resource for educators,” she said, adding that the museum has special tour guides for students and brings in musicians and historical re-enactors to help engage children. “We strive for really, really happy visitors.”

The 11,000-square-foot center houses a variety of exhibits and programs design to educate visitors about the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express trails, according to its website. The trails all passed through central Wyoming.

Although Reece takes great pride in the center, she said in her email Thursday that she was even more concerned for federal employees who work in areas related to public safety.

“The work that others do concerning safety and infrastructure is even more important,” she wrote. “Controlling our power plants, conducting oil and gas inspections and air traffic safety are really critical, and these employees suffered the most by being forced to work without pay.”

David Case, an air traffic controller who worked without pay at the control tower at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport, told the Star-Tribune last week that the shutdown did affect public safety.

This week, he delivered a letter, written last week, to the office of U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi in the Dick Cheney Federal Building in Casper.

“Instead of focusing on air traffic, we’re forced to be thinking about whether we will have a paycheck,” he wrote. “We’re wondering how long this madness will continue. That’s not how it’s supposed to be and it’s dangerous.”

Although the shutdown has temporarily ended, Case said he believed the letter’s message was still relevant, given that the disagreement that led to the shutdown hasn’t been permanently resolved.

Trump, Pelosi stances on wall suggest deal will be difficult

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared Thursday that there'll be no "wall money" in any compromise border security deal as she and President Donald Trump signaled that congressional negotiators may never satisfy his demands for his cherished Southwest border proposal.

Trump, who in recent weeks has expressed indifference to whether the term "wall" or something else is used, clung with renewed tenacity to the word that became his campaign mantra, declaring, "A wall is a wall." Yet in a series of tweets and statements, he issued conflicting messages about what he'd need to declare victory and suggested that merely repairing existing structures along the boundary could be a major component of a triumph.

Amid signs that Trump's leverage in Congress is atrophying, he seemed to aim one tweet at his conservative followers. He wrote that Democrats "are not going to give money to build the DESPERATELY needed WALL. I've got you covered. Wall is already being built, I don't expect much help!"

Pelosi, D-Calif., left the door open for an accord that could finance some barriers, citing what she said was already existing "Normandy fencing" that blocks vehicles.

"If the president wants to call that a wall, he can call that a wall," she told reporters. She added: "Is there a place for enhanced fencing? Normandy fencing would work."

Yet Pelosi's other remark — "There's not going to be any wall money in the legislation" — underscored the linguistic battle underway. It also showed that Democrats see no reason to let Trump claim a win in a cause that stirs his hard-right voters and enrages liberals.

Trump's political muscle weakened following Democrats' capture of House control in the November election. It waned further after his surrender last week in ending a record 35-day partial government shutdown without getting a penny of the $5.7 billion he'd demanded to start building the wall.

In another sign of his flagging hold over lawmakers, the GOP-controlled Senate backed legislation on a 68-23 vote Thursday that opposes withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

When Trump folded on the shutdown, he agreed to reopen government until Feb. 15, giving lawmakers more time to craft a bipartisan border security compromise.

If there's no deal by then, Trump has threatened to revive the shutdown or declare a national emergency, which he claims would let him shift billions from unrelated military construction projects to erecting his wall. He criticized Democrats' negotiating stance so far, telling reporters in the Oval Office that Pelosi is "just playing games" and saying GOP bargainers are "wasting their time."

In an interview with The New York Times published Thursday night, Trump said he has "set the stage" to take action on his own.

"I'll continue to build the wall, and we'll get the wall finished," he added. "Now whether or not I declare a national emergency — that you'll see."

Democrats remain united against those tactics. Republican opposition seems nearly as strong, and GOP leaders are becoming increasingly assertive about publicly telegraphing those feelings to Trump.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters that "there are a lot of us that are trying to dissuade" Trump from declaring a national emergency should border security talks deadlock. Cornyn, a close adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he has "absolute confidence" that such a declaration would be challenged in court, tying up the money, and said Congress might even vote to defy him.

"The president needs to know that before he heads down that path," Cornyn said.

No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota told reporters that "a lot of folks are uncomfortable" with an emergency declaration. 

Earlier this week, McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime opponent of shutdowns, called the move "government dysfunction which should be embarrassing to everyone on a bipartisan basis."

Lawmakers caution that if Trump declares an emergency, future Democratic presidents might do the same for issues they favor that Congress derails. Some are reluctant to cede Congress' constitutional power to control spending to any president, and many say there is no real border emergency.

Democrats offered further details of their border security plan Thursday, unveiling a measure that would provide no wall funds.

It would significantly boost spending for scanners at ports of entry, humanitarian aid for apprehended migrants, and new aircraft and ships to police the U.S.-Mexico border. It would freeze the number of border patrol agents and block any wall construction in wildlife refuges along the border.

Trump has been unpredictable in the shutdown debate, mixing softer rhetoric about a multifaceted approach to border security with campaign-style bluster about the wall. Lawmakers negotiating the bill are aware that he could quash an agreement at any time, plunging them back into crisis.

"Obviously, it makes it more challenging," Cornyn told reporters. "You keep talking and try to understand where he is and try to work it out."

Poll: Wyomingites strongly conservationist despite conflicts in land use, energy development

Among their Western neighbors, Wyomingites remain the least concerned by climate change, but most are unabashedly conservationists, valuing an outdoors economy and protections for open spaces, according to an annual poll published by Colorado College.

Just 52 percent of Wyomingites consider climate change a serious problem, up 6 percentage points from 2016, according to the poll. More than 75 percent would call themselves conservationists.

This is the ninth consecutive year that Colorado College has put out the State of the Rockies Conservation in the West survey. It poses questions on conservation, energy and the outdoors to voters in eight states in the Mountain West, from Arizona to Idaho.

In a release published with the survey, the college noted many of the energy issues that have been priorities for the Trump administration — increased drilling, better access for oil and gas companies to develop on federal lands — are at odds with Westerners’ values.

The poll always reveals the high priority Westerners place on conservation, on both sides of the political aisle, said Corina McKendry, director of the State of the Rockies Project and a political science professor at Colorado College, in a statement.

“That a leadership agenda out of step with those values is met with disapproval in the West is no surprise, although the rejection of the current administration’s priorities is particularly intense here,” she said.

That disconnect is less obvious in Wyoming, where seemingly opposing values — the conservation mindset and the energy mindset — are often espoused by the same people.

For example, Wyomingites were fairly split on wanting their congressional delegates to emphasize environmental issues like clean water or energy production: 49 percent to 41 percent respectively.

Melinda Harm Benson, dean of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, said conservation isn’t really political in Wyoming.

“We all value wildlife. We all value open space,” she said. “If you live in Wyoming, and you love being here, that’s why you love being here.”

The Colorado poll picked out a number of the Trump administration’s decisions over the last two years for surveyors to rank as good or bad. Just 13 percent of those polled across the West thought removing national monuments protections in areas where oil and gas development can occur was a good idea. About 17 percent approved of cutting back comment periods.

That practice came under fire from some Wyoming groups in regard to oil and gas lease sales in sage grouse habitat. A court case on the matter last year forced the Bureau of Land Management to hold off on the sale of parcels within sage grouse habitats. That sale will go forward in February.

But in Wyoming, there was more support for the comment period reduction. Twenty-five percent of Wyoming voters polled thought it was a good decision and 48 percent though it was a bad one.

Three-fourths of Wyomingites call themselves conservationists, according to the poll. The vast majority of Wyomingites also said the outdoors were a “significant” reason that they live in the West and 91 percent believe that the outdoor recreation economy is “important for the future of their state and the Western U.S.” according to the poll.

Benson said UW’s Ruckelshaus Institute poll — released last year — has tried to find the nuance in Wyoming’s mindset on conservation issues, asking those surveyed to rank values in relation to one another. The institute brought in a conservative pollster and partnered with a variety of groups in hopes of fomenting a discussion that defied political differences.

Wyoming ranks the outdoors highly, even in relation to other values like energy, Benson said.

“We get trapped within these assumptions, she said.

But Wyomingites identify with the natural resources of the state and they value them, she said.

Solar farm proposed as coal unit blinks out in Kemmerer

A utility-scale solar farm has been proposed in Wyoming, just next door to the coal-fired power plant that shuttered one of its three coal-burning units Wednesday.

Fossil Solar LLC has proposed a 63-megawatt facility outside the town of Kemmerer, with plans to connect that power to the network of transmission serving PacifiCorp’s 56-year-old coal plant, Naughton.

Kemmerer sits at the crossroads of a changing energy landscape in Wyoming. The community has produced coal for more than 100 years, via the Kemmerer coal mine, but faces uncertainty regarding the future of both the mine — whose owner is in bankruptcy — and the power plant, which could close as early as 2029.

The solar farm is a fraction of the powerhouse at Naughton. The company chose to shut down the one coal unit rather than spend money to update it for environmental regulations curbing haze. The unit provided up to 280 net megawatts of the plant’s total 700-megawatt output.

The solar farm would have a net production capacity of 58 megawatts, depending on sunshine.

Asked whether the proposed solar farm near Kemmerer could help offset generation losses at the Naughton Power plant, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power said he was uncertain how the small facility would fit into the larger, long-term operation of the company’s fleet of power plants and renewable sources.

Fossil Solar registered in the state of Wyoming in late January. It is a subsidiary of Strata Solar, a North Carolina-based firm that facilitates development of solar energy projects. Strata officials did not respond to questions by press time.

Rocky Mountain Power confirmed that Fossil Solar had begun the process for a contract by submitting a request for price estimates from the utility.

Due to its size, Fossil Solar’s proposed farm would qualify for a federal guarantee obligating Rocky Mountain Power to buy Fossil’s energy via a 20-year contract. The price Rocky Mountain Power would agree to pay Fossil Solar for its solar power would not be public, but it would be verified by Wyoming regulators and by law must be equal or less than the cost the utility would incur by generating that energy from its own resources.

The source of power for utilities has become a contentious issue with renewables sometimes pitted against traditional power producers. Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company, PacifiCorp, has a diverse energy portfolio of wind, solar, hydro and natural gas across six states, but about half of its energy comes from its coal fleet.

Not all of its customers support that mix.

Officials from the company warned Wyoming lawmakers of Rocky Mountain Power’s difficult position in a public meeting last year, with Wyoming rate payers at risk of taking on the added cost of keeping coal burning when other states opt out. In addition to customer preference pressuring the utility, coal is being left behind by cheaper fuel sources like natural gas and increasingly renewables.

Wind is now the cheapest source of new generation. In some cases, it is cheaper to build a wind farm than continue operating an existing coal plant, according to a study last year from the international asset management firm Lazard Ltd.

Wyoming has a vested interest in whether a utility burns coal or not as the largest producer of coal in the United States.

Changing economics for coal, wind and solar power in the U.S. threaten traditional plants like Naughton but also coal mines, like the Kemmerer coal mine that sells its coal to Naughton.

Kemmerer’s owner, Westmoreland, which operates coal mines across the West and into Canada, filed for bankruptcy in October, faulting the weakening market for thermal coal. The sale of the coal mine, which employs about 300 workers in the rural area, to unnamed buyers is proposed for February.

The solar farm by Fossil Solar is not the first solar development aimed to harness Wyoming’s sunny days.

A developer began construction on the first utility-scale solar farm in Wyoming last year, the 80-megawatt Sweetwater Solar project near Green River. A second developer, Sage Solar, has obtained a power purchase agreement with Rocky Mountain Power for a 56-megawatt farm with operations slated to begin later this year.

By comparison, installed wind capacity in Wyoming is a little more than 1,400 megawatts with another 3,000 megawatts under construction.