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Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Ben Gruner, co-owner of Gruner Brothers Brewing, opens a tank in July at the brewery, which is being constructed in the building that formerly housed the Petroleum Club.

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Health committee considers slew of bills aimed at curbing opioid abuse, death

A state legislative committee voted Friday to move forward with two bills aimed at slowing opioid abuse and deaths in Wyoming.

Two other proposals will receive further legislative consideration later this year.

The four bills were the product of Wyoming’s Opioid Addiction Task Force, which was created by the Legislature in March. Lawmakers on the task force told members of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, which met Friday in Casper, that the proposals focused on education and prevention. The opioid group originally had nine pieces of legislation but “whittled” them down to four.

By 6 p.m. Friday, the health committee had endorsed two of those four. One expands some language in a bill passed in 2017 that attempts to distribute narcan — which can stop an opioid-related overdose in its tracks — to more people, like first responders and ordinary people whose relatives may be at risk. The new language would also broaden who has to report narcan usage to the state Department of Health.

The committee quickly moved the bill along, with 13 of 14 members — Casper’s Rep. Joe MacGuire was out of the room — voting in favor.

By another vote of 13-1 — with Cheyenne’s Sen. Anthony Bouchard voting against — the committee approved a bill that places restrictions on opioid prescriptions. The proposal would limit physicians to writing a 14-day script for “opioid naive patients,” or people who hadn’t had an opioid prescription in the previous 45 days.

The bill also leaves the door open for exemptions for certain patients, like those with chronic pain or who are receiving cancer treatment.

MacGuire, who raised concerns with several of the bills, said he was concerned about people who live in rural Wyoming and can’t get to a doctor every two weeks to have their prescriptions refilled.

Gillete Republican Rep. Scott Clem said the bill was aimed at limiting how many pills can be given to someone suffering from “acute pain” — like a broken arm. Rep. Albert Sommers, a Pinedale Republican who co-chaired the opioid task force, said studies show that the chance of addiction or misuse jumps if a patient is on opioids for more than seven days.

More legislation

The committee set aside another bill to consider at its next meeting, with Sen. Charlie Scott — a Casper Republican — remarking that it wasn’t ready for “prime time.” The proposal is the most far-reaching of opioid legislation considered by lawmakers Friday. For starters, it would require a broad range of health care providers to receive three hours of narcotic-related training every two years.

It would also require, after Jan. 1, 2022, that all controlled substance prescriptions be written electronically. Providers writing those scripts would also be required to screen patients in the state’s prescription monitoring system (there’s the potential for exceptions, like in emergency situations). Finally, it would allow information from that monitoring system to be released to the state Medicaid director.

Rep. Marti Halverson, R-Etna, asked how that last provision was constitutional. Sommers and the other lawmakers from the task force explained that Medicaid would want to identify patients with substance abuse issues, an explanation that didn’t seem to impress Halverson.

On the subject of continuous education, MacGuire asked if there were any providers in the state who didn’t know to be careful with opioids. Republican Sen. Fred Baldwin, who works in health care, said learning more about the drugs had changed his prescribing habits and that three hours every two years is “not much.”

Other questions were raised about the education requirements, and a dentist told the committee that having to check every patient who’s receiving a controlled substance would be “disruptive” to his practice. That concern was raised last year, when Rep. James Byrd tried to pass similar legislation.

In the end, Republican Rep. Eric Barlow — the committee chairman — decided to set aside the bill until the committee’s next meeting.

Broadening criminal law

The committee also set aside a bill that would expand the criminal code involving controlled substances. The measure would broaden who was guilty of “drug-induced homicide” to anyone who delivered a controlled substance to someone who later died “as a result of the injection, inhalation, ingestion or administration” of the drug. Previously, the statute only applied to those who gave a controlled substance to a minor who later died.

The bill would similarly expand the definition of drug-related felony child endangerment. Currently, the statute mentions only methamphetamine as being illegal to have in the presence of children. But the proposal would expand that to all controlled substances except for marijuana.

That raised broad concern, both because of how expansive the definition would become but also because the health committee is leery of taking up changes to criminal code. Barlow and Sen. Brian Boner, a Republican who represents Converse and Platte counties, both asked the task force whom in law enforcement the group had worked with to shape the recommendation, and MacGuire suggested the proposal may prompt constitutional challenges.

Concern continued into public comment. A defense attorney told the committee that the broad definition would probably lead to a rush of new children into the foster care system, and a man who works with drug addicts warned the bill may prompt people to avoid calling 911 as someone overdosed if there was a child in the house. Ultimately, the committee decided to send a note to legislative leaders and ask them to reroute the legislation through the Joint Judiciary Committee.

During that bill’s discussion, MacGuire asked a broader question: Is the opioid situation in Wyoming as bad as it is elsewhere? Indeed, health officials have said Wyoming has generally avoided the worst of the crisis, which has ravaged rural areas in the East and Midwest.

Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s health officer and a member of the task force, said that while Wyoming has avoided the worst of the epidemic, now was an opportunity to ensure that continued. She noted that the state’s opioid-related overdose rate rose from 1.4 per 100,000 more than a decade ago to 7.3 per 100,000 in 2016.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

A brightly-tinged aspen leaf sticks out of the snow on Casper Mountain after a small storm of rain and snow passed over the Casper area Friday. More snow is expected next week.

Platte County sheriff eligible to run for re-election, Wheatland attorney concludes

The sheriff of Platte County is eligible to run for re-election, despite a complaint that questioned his residency, an attorney who assessed the matter concluded.

Platte County resident Karina Lewis had filed the complaint, questioning whether incumbent Clyde Harris lived in Platte County. But according to an analysis performed by Wheatland attorney John B. Robinson, the complaint isn’t valid.

“Mr. Harris has property in both Albany and Platte County and has registered to vote in Platte County rather than Albany County, which is his right as a qualified elector … It is not uncommon for an individual to have a residence in more than one place, which does not prevent him from choosing the location where he will register to vote, as long as he registers in only one location,” Robinson wrote.

Platte County clerk Chris Kanwischer sent Robinson’s analysis to Karina Lewis, who then shared a copy with the Star-Tribune. Lewis filed the complaint with the clerk last month.

The document explains that state statue only dictates that those running for county offices need to be a resident of Wyoming.

“Wyoming statutes do not enumerate any additional requirements of residence for those offices,” Robinson wrote.

Lewis previously explained that she filed a complaint because she does not believe Harris resides in Platte County. Lewis said she worked as a ferrier for Harris and claimed he lives on a property in Albany County.

“I think this is a very important issue that needs to be looked at,” she said.

Harris, who is running for re-election against newcomer Shane Clevenger, told the Star-Tribune last week that this issue arose when he ran for office four years ago. The candidate said he held a community forum to address it at the time and considers the matter settled.

The sheriff said he had no other comment.

“I’m not going to go in the mud. I am going to run a clean campaign,” Harris said.

Any disputes over the sheriff’s eligibility must be handled at the local level, according to Kai Schon, the election division director at the Secretary of State’s office.

Citizens with concerns about a candidate’s eligibility must file a complaint with the county clerk, he explained. If the clerk finds that the complaint has merit, then it gets passed along to the district or county attorney, he said.

Questions about a candidate’s residency also arose during the gubernatorial primaries this summer.

Wyoming officials, including Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, asked Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell to declare Republican Taylor Haynes ineligible to be governor. The ranch where Haynes lives straddles the Wyoming-Colorado line, and state officials argued that Haynes lives on the Colorado side.

But the judge ultimately allowed Haynes to stay in the race. Haynes finished fifth in the six-person Republican primary.

The Legislature is expected to consider a bill next year that would create a residency requirement for all county elected officials, according to the Wyoming News Exchange.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kavanaugh confirmation all but certain after bitter fight

WASHINGTON — After weeks of shocking accusations, hardball politics and rowdy Capitol protests, a pair of wavering senators declared Friday they will back Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation, all but guaranteeing the deeply riven Senate will elevate the conservative jurist to the nation's highest court today.

The announcements by Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia ended most of the suspense over a political battle that has transfixed the nation — though die-hard Democrats insisted on arguing through the night to a mostly empty Senate chamber.

Some of them continued raising concerns that Kavanaugh would push the court further to the right, including with possible sympathetic rulings for President Donald Trump, the man who nominated him. But the case against Kavanaugh had long since been taken over by allegations that he sexually abused women decades ago — accusations he emphatically denied.

In the pivotal moment Friday, Collins, perhaps the chamber's most moderate Republican, proclaimed her support for Kavanaugh at the end of a Senate floor speech that lasted nearly 45 minutes. While she was among a handful of Republicans who helped sink Trump's quest to obliterate President Barack Obama's health care law last year, this time she proved instrumental in delivering a triumph to Trump.

Collins told fellow senators that Christine Blasey Ford's dramatic testimony last week describing Kavanaugh's alleged 1982 assault was "sincere, painful and compelling." But she said the FBI had found no corroborating evidence from witnesses whose names Ford had provided.

"We will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be," she said. "We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy."

Those passions were on full display this week in a fight that could energize both parties' voters in elections for control of Congress just five weeks away. The showdown drew raucous demonstrators — largely anti-Kavanaugh — to the Capitol, where they raised tensions by repeatedly confronting lawmakers despite an intensified police presence. Another 101 protesters were arrested Friday, the U.S. Capitol Police said.

It's all expected to conclude this afternoon with a final roll call almost solidly along party lines. That would mark an anti-climactic finale to a clash fought against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and Trump's unyielding support of the nominee, opposing forces that left Kavanaugh's fate in doubt for weeks.

Manchin, the only remaining undeclared lawmaker, used an emailed statement to announce his support for Kavanaugh moments after Collins finished talking, making him the only Democrat supporting the nominee. Manchin faces a competitive re-election race next month in a state Trump carried in 2016 by 42 percentage points.

"My heart goes out to anyone who has experienced any type of sexual assault in their life," Manchin said. But he added that based on the FBI report, "I have found Judge Kavanaugh to be a qualified jurist who will follow the Constitution and determine cases based on the legal findings before him."

Protesters chanted "Shame" at Manchin later when he talked to reporters outside his office.

Republicans control the Senate by a meager 51-49 margin. Support from Collins and Manchin would give Kavanaugh at least 51 votes.

Three female GOP senators — Jodi Ernst of Iowa, West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, sat directly behind Collins as she spoke. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sat directly in front of Collins and pivoted his seat around to face her. A few Democrats sat stone-faced nearby.

When she finished, Collins received applause from the roughly two dozen GOP senators present.

Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a fellow moderate and friend of Collins, became the only Republican to say she opposed Kavanaugh. She said on the Senate floor Friday evening that Kavanaugh is "a good man" but his "appearance of impropriety has become unavoidable."

She added that with Supreme Court appointments lasting a lifetime, "Those who seek these seats must meet the highest standards in all respects, at all times. And that is hard."

In a twist, Murkowski said she will state her opposition but vote "present" as a courtesy to Kavanaugh supporter Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who is attending his daughter's wedding in Montana. Murkowski said she'd use an obscure procedure that lets one senator offset the absence of another without affecting the outcome. That would let Kavanaugh win by the same two-vote margin he'd have received had both senators voted.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has repeatedly battled Trump and will retire in January, said he'd vote for Kavanaugh's confirmation "unless something big changes."

Vice President Mike Pence planned to be available today in case his tie-breaking vote was needed, which now seems unlikely.

In a procedural vote that handed Republicans an initial victory, senators voted 51-49 Friday to limit debate and keep the nomination alive, defeating Democratic efforts to scuttle it with endless delays.

One dead, one missing after train crash west of Cheyenne

A Union Pacific worker died Thursday evening in a train crash west of Cheyenne. A second worker remained missing Friday.

The crash happened at 7:45 p.m. when an eastbound train hit a second, stopped train 18 miles west of Wyoming’s capital city, according to the Cheyenne Mayor’s Office.

Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said Friday that local emergency response agencies and Union Pacific workers were still looking for the missing person. She declined to offer details about the missing person.

“It is a very sad day for Union Pacific,” she said.

The spokeswoman said the wreck occurred when a moving train hit the rear of a stopped train, both of which were eastbound. Espinoza said an investigation would determine why the train had stopped, among other things.

An estimated 56 rail cars were derailed in the crash.

The crew in the stopped locomotive, which was pulling mixed freight from Pocatello, Idaho, had gotten out of the train prior to the crash, Espinoza said.

Despite earlier reports, there were no additional injuries in the collision, she added.

The moving train was carrying mixed freight from Green River to Cheyenne, she said.

“This was a significant and tragic event,” Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr said in a statement. “We are a community of railroaders and tonight our community has experienced loss. And if you pray, please pray.”

There were no obvious hazards or threats to the public, according to the mayor’s office.

As a result of the crash, the Wyoming Department of Transportation closed the Warren Road exit on Interstate 80, as well as a truck parking area at the interchange, according to a post on the agency’s Facebook page. An I-80 service road was also closed at the Harriman Road exit near the wreck.

Cleanup work will begin following an investigation by Union Pacific’s railroad team, according to the transportation department. That could take as long as 10 days and the closure will continue until that work is completed.

The search for the missing person will continue, Espinoza said.

“We’re not going to stop looking,” she said.