You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

A train approaches Black Thunder coal mine outside Wright on March 29. Wyoming's economy has seen marked growth over the past year, according to an end-year economic summary from the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division.

More than 30 Wyoming legislators sign on to bill to repeal most gun-free zones, override local laws

CHEYENNE — A new bill to override local gun control laws and allow Wyomingites to carry guns on school grounds and in other public places has been proposed with widespread support in both chambers of the Wyoming Legislature.

The bill, Senate File 75, proposes to not only repeal most gun free zones across the state but would allow for the carry of concealed weapons anywhere in the state for permit holders. The bill would also clarify that only the Wyoming Legislature may regulate firearms, weapons and ammunition, therefore overriding local ordinances.

The most significant aspect of the bill might be its level of support. Nearly half of the Senate – 13 members – have signed on as co-sponsors, as well as 23 members of the 60-person House.

According to the bill text, the legislation would preempt bans on firearms in all public schools – including on public university and college campuses – governmental meetings and athletic events, both college and professional.

The bill would not, however, preempt private property rights, like in places of worship or in a big box store that chose to ban them as policy, nor would it impact any restrictions currently outlined in the state’s existing concealed carry law.

Photos: The 65th Wyoming Legislature convenes in Cheyenne

The bill, said the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, was drafted in response to a number of recent, high-profile cases on public entities limiting where firearms could be carried, including at the University of Wyoming and in Lander.

Bouchard is the former director of the hardline gun rights group Wyoming Gun Owners and was the subject of a highly publicized run-in with students at the University of Wyoming in spring 2017 over their gun reform presentation. He said that recent efforts by local governments and public entities like UW have tempered conservative members of the Legislature, who believe those entities are infringing on Wyomingites’ constitutional rights.

“I think the anti-gun crowd has kind of kicked the hornet’s nest a little bit,” Bouchard said. “This is an enumerated right that needs to be protected. The number of sponsors shows some movement in that direction.”

As proposed, the bill would bring Wyoming law in line with that of neighboring states like Utah, whose gun laws only restrict the carry of firearms in courthouses, mental health facilities, places of worship that ban firearms and secure areas of airports, as well as areas where the carry of arms is prohibited by federal law.

“They’ve been doing it for 20 years, and it works,” Bouchard said.

University impact

The bill also clarifies that only the Wyoming Legislature could create gun regulations or legislation in specific language, a legal technicality that has been used to uphold a gun ban on UW’s campus in the past.

Allowing residents to carry weapons on school campuses has been a contentious and frequent topic both in Wyoming and across the nation for years. But in the wake of two deadly high school shootings last year, the debate around school safety has picked up with renewed vigor. Two Wyoming education-related committees considered school security improvements in recent months, with one sponsoring a piece of legislation that would institute training and other security measures.

Two years ago, the Legislature passed a bill that allows school districts to decide whether to allow willing and trained staff to carry weapons. That same year, the Senate killed a House bill that would have allowed for lawful conceal and carry on college campuses. Casper College’s board opposed the measure, as did the leaders of the other six community colleges and the University of Wyoming.

Wyoming Education Association President Kathy Vetters said she didn’t support the bill. She said that it takes power away from the school boards that were previously given the authority to decide who can carry weapons in their buildings.

“I just don’t believe that guns belong in schools with children,” Vetter said, adding that she was a supporter of gun ownership.

Meredith Asay, the university’s point-person for legislation, said she wasn’t prepared to comment as she had just seen the bill after it posted Thursday morning and was beginning to review it. Chris Lorenzen, the spokesman for Casper College, likewise said he hadn’t seen the legislation Thursday afternoon.

Casper officials weigh in

Local leaders should decide whether to allow guns at city and town council meetings, Casper City Manager Carter Napier said Thursday.

“Generally speaking, the professionals who advise me on these issues would indicate that bringing weapons into government meetings would pose security problems and concerns,” he said. “I would prefer that the state allow cities and towns to make that decision on their own.”

The Casper City Council voted in 2011 to make it illegal to bring any deadly weapons to city meetings, but the decision was divisive. Second Amendment advocates said their right to possess firearms shouldn’t stop at the doors of the council chambers, while others argued that guns at meetings could create an air of intimidation and potentially stifle debate during contentious issues.

Vice Mayor Shawn Johnson said Thursday that he has no objections to allowing citizens to bring guns to City Council meetings.

“I always think that the more responsible people who have a concealed weapon on them, the safer we are,” he said, adding that many mass shootings have occurred in gun-free zones.

But other council members have objected to that concept.

Councilman Mike Huber, a former judge, previously said the he doesn’t believe allowing guns at meetings would be a wise call.

“This Council, we have an obligation to provide a safe environment for everybody who comes in here, and I can tell you over the years I have attended a lot of courthouse security training sessions ... the worst thing you can have to make things unsafe for everybody in here is firearms,” he said.

Police Chief Keith McPheeters, whose agency is responsible for providing security at Council meetings, said such meetings are safer when people leave their guns in their cars. McPheeters, who said he has been a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association since 1987, said the high stakes and often emotionally charged nature of Council meetings make them a good candidate for gun-free zones.

“There’s a reason they don’t like guns in bars,” McPheeters said, by way of comparison. “Because emotional debate happens there.”

The bill had not yet been assigned to a committee as of Thursday afternoon. Vetter said the measure’s chances at success will likely depend on where Senate leadership sends it.

Star-Tribune staff writer Shane Sanderson contributed to this report.

Limited federal workers return to work on Wyoming energy projects during shutdown

Despite a federal government shutdown, oil and gas will be back in business on Monday, in a limited capacity, on federal lands in Wyoming.

The Bureau of Land Management’s four busiest field offices will begin working through applications for permits to drill, with a limited staff, a two-month time frame and a narrow prescription for what can be done, according to memo from the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

The Buffalo, Casper, Pinedale and Rawlins field offices will focus on critical paperwork for the industry that was pending prior to the government shutdown, including processing drilling permit applications that were near approval, right of ways that are tied to applications for drilling permits and alterations on approved permits.

What the BLM cannot do is process applications that need wildlife or archaeological evaluations. Those staff have not received exemptions to the shutdown, according to the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, which noted that the association’s staff would continue to work on that issue.

The U.S. government is about three-fourths funded, but until the U.S. Congress finds a resolution to the fight over funding for a $5 billion border wall with Mexico, spending money to run agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is on hold. About 800,000 federal workers are affected by the shutdown, some on furlough, others working unpaid.

Multiple phone calls and emails to the Bureau of Land Management regarding its Wyoming workforce and the limited return of oil and gas staff during the shutdown were not returned. Local requests were directed to the state level. State requests were deferred to the Washington office of the Interior Department, which in turn passed requests for comment back to the Bureau of Land Management.

Energy exemptions

Wyoming is late to the game when it comes to energy exemptions to the shutdown.

Field offices for the Bureau of Land Management had been processing applications to drill in places like New Mexico, but the shutdown shuttered the agency that oversees oil and gas development on federal lands in Wyoming.

“We just wanted to understand if it’s happening elsewhere, why it isn’t happening here,” said Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, which pushed for Wyoming offices to address the stagnant applications. “It turns out, it took a little bit longer, but we’re just glad they followed suit here.”

Obermueller said without this kind of movement, industry could be hamstrung in Wyoming at a time when there is both rapid growth – in terms of a record in applications for permits to drill – and seasonal constraints that are upcoming in the winter and spring season.

“If the shutdown goes into this time of year, when we have to slow down anyway, were not talking about a few days’ delay. We’re talking about a few months,” he said. “That’s where that nervousness comes from.”

Groups question priorities

Other groups in Wyoming and the West are also concerned about energy and public lands, but less pleased that the BLM is making exemptions for industry.

“Right now the Trump administration is serving the oil and gas industry in ways that it is refusing to serve the public,” said Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for Western Watersheds Project.

Environmental groups that track applications for permits to drill, oil and gas lease sales and environmental analysis of energy projects on federal land say they are shut off from communicating with the Bureau of Land Management while oil and gas producers have found access.

For Fuller, the lack of public transparency puts drilling permits that are approved during the shutdown under a microscope for review or potential protest.

“I think what BLM is doing is going to make things worse for the industry instead of better,” Fuller said. “The public is getting cut out of the process because we can’t be fully informed. That is a great problem. It sets things up to be much more adversarial than it needs to be.”

At the border, Trump moves closer to emergency declaration

McALLEN, Texas — Taking the shutdown fight to the Mexican border, President Donald Trump edged closer Thursday to declaring a national emergency in an extraordinary end run around Congress to fund his long-promised border wall. Pressure was mounting to find an escape hatch from the three-week impasse that has closed parts of the government, cutting scattered services and leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay.

Trump, visiting McAllen, Texas, and the Rio Grande to highlight what he says is a crisis of drugs and crime, said that "if for any reason we don't get this going" — an agreement with House Democrats who have refused to approve the $5.7 billion he demands for the wall — "I will declare a national emergency."

About 800,000 workers, more than half of them still on the job, were to miss their first paycheck today under the stoppage, and Washington was close to setting a dubious record for the longest government shutdown in the nation's history. Those markers — along with growing effects to national parks, food inspections and the economy overall — left some Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly uncomfortable with Trump's demands.

Asked about the plight of those going without pay, the president shifted the focus, saying he felt badly "for people that have family members that have been killed" by criminals who came over the border.

Trump was consulting with White House attorneys and allies about using presidential emergency powers to take unilateral action to construct the wall over the objections of Congress. He claimed his lawyers told him the action would withstand legal scrutiny "100 percent."

Such a move to bypass Congress' constitutional control of the nation's purse strings would spark certain legal challenges and bipartisan cries of executive overreach.

A congressional official said the White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look for billions of dollars earmarked last year for disaster response for Puerto Rico and other areas that could be diverted to a border wall as part of the emergency declaration. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.

"We're either going to have a win, make a compromise — because I think a compromise is a win for everybody — or I will declare a national emergency," Trump said before departing the White House for his politically flavored visit to the border. He wore his campaign-slogan "Make America Great Again" cap throughout.

It was not clear what a compromise might entail, and there were no indications that one was in the offing. Trump says he won't reopen the government without money for the wall. Democrats say they favor measures to bolster border security but oppose the long, impregnable barrier that Trump envisions.

Vice President Mike Pence shuttled through meetings on Capitol Hill, but there were no signs of any breakthroughs. Pence panned, for now, a last-ditch effort led by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to strike a bipartisan immigration compromise. It would have linked wall funding to deportation protections for some immigrants, including young people here illegally known as Dreamers. But Pence, in a briefing with reporters, said the president prefers to wait for the courts to decide that issue.

Graham sounded deflated after talks among senators essentially collapsed, and said, "It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers" to fund wall construction.

Pence said the president has "made no decision" about declaring a national emergency, but added, "The president's going to get this done one way or the other."

Visiting a border patrol station in McAllen, Trump viewed tables piled with weapons and narcotics. Like nearly all drugs trafficked across the border, they were intercepted by agents at official ports of entry, he was told, and not in the remote areas where he wants to extend tall barriers.

Still, he declared: "A wall works. ... Nothing like a wall."

He argued that the U.S. can't solve the problem without a "very substantial barrier" along the border, but offered exaggerations about the effectiveness of border walls and current apprehensions of those crossing illegally.

Sitting among border patrol officers, state and local officials and military representatives, Trump insisted he was "winning" the shutdown fight and criticized Democrats for asserting he was manufacturing a sense of crisis in order to declare an emergency. "What is manufactured is the use of the word 'manufactured,'" Trump said.

As he arrived in Texas, several hundred protesters near the airport in McAllen chanted and waved signs opposing a wall. Across the street, a smaller group chanted back: "Build that wall!"

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the president of engaging in political games to fire up his most loyal supporters, suggesting that a heated meeting Wednesday with legislators at the White House had been "a setup" so that Trump could walk out of it.

Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell warned on Thursday that an extended partial government shutdown could damage the U.S. economy and starve the central bank of key data it needs to make monetary policy decisions.

Governor taps former businessman, Democratic superintendent candidate Mike Ceballos to lead health department

Mike Ceballos will take control of the Wyoming Department of Health after current director Tom Forslund retires in the coming weeks, Gov. Mark Gordon told media Thursday.

Ceballos was a 2014 Democratic candidate for state superintendent and lost to current schools chief Jillian Balow. He worked for Qwest Communications, a telecommunications company that operated primarily in the West, for 13 years, according to his LinkedIn page.

In a press conference, Gordon praised Ceballos’ administrative and IT experience and his “ability and interest” in learning more.

Ceballos will take over for Forslund, who’s been director since 2011, when he joined former Gov. Matt Mead’s administration after managing the City of Casper. In a note to staff Monday, Forslund announced he was retiring and would step down after the legislative session ends.

The new director will take over a department facing a slew of health challenges. Forlsund told the Star-Tribune late last year that the state’s elderly population — one of the most rapidly aging in the nation — was his top priority. The number of Wyomingites who will need long-term care is expected to balloon over the course of the next decade, driving state Medicaid costs up and demanding more community-based services.

Forlsund also ticked off other health concerns — high rates of smoking, drinking and suicide — and low access to care as other issues facing the Gordon administration.

Gordon told media Thursday that he was considering having the state Department of Family Services — which is also led by Forslund — “stand alone” as a separate agency.

Other appointments

Gordon’s administration announced several other appointments in Thursday’s press conference, while noting that a number of key vacancies remain.

Guy Cameron, the state’s Director of Homeland Security, recently indicated he would retire and will be replaced by Lynn Budd, the department’s security unit chief. Gordon said she was well-versed in the agency’s operations and already had well-established connections with the commissioners throughout the state. Joining her on the staff as Deputy Director will be Leland Christensen, a former state senator who most recently ran for state treasurer.

Todd Parfitt will return to helm the Department of Environmental Quality, as will Dan Noble, who was appointed to helm the state Department of Revenue by Gov. Matt Mead in 2013. Doug Miyamoto will return as director of the Department of Agriculture.

“We are taking our time trying to find the best people we can for each of these appointments,” Gordon said. “I feel very strongly about each of these individuals, and we’ll have some more in the coming weeks.”

With Cameron’s replacement secured, Gordon is now looking to find a replacement after the retirement of state engineer Pat Tyrell, which he is still working on vetting.

One interesting kink in the process, however, could be presented by a new bill sponsored by the state’s Select Water Committee, HB47, which would change the Senate confirmation process for appointees negotiating water compacts for the state, a role often taken on by the state engineer.

Though Gordon said he was aware of the bill and was willing to discuss it, he was skeptical that such a bill was necessary.

“In some cases, the processes that we have in place are effective — they’ve worked well over the years and where you end up with confirmations that can kind of cludge up the works and make things difficult,” he said. “I guess as an overarching point of view from this administration I’d like to make government more efficient, leaner, able to act more quickly.”

“We’re open to consultation with the legislature on all these topics, but I think sometimes we build processes that don’t do that,” he added. “To my thinking, I’m not sure that bill is necessary, but I’m certainly willing to listen.”

Grand jury declines to indict Albany County sheriff's corporal who shot and killed man

A grand jury on Thursday declined to bring criminal charges against an Albany County sheriff’s corporal who shot and killed a man last year.

Derek Colling, the sheriff’s corporal, shot and killed Robbie Ramirez, 39, in November outside Ramirez’s Laramie apartment. Ramirez is the third person that Colling has killed while on duty, and the shooting sparked considerable criticism from Ramirez’s family and activist groups.

According to a statement provided by the Albany County Attorney Attorney’s Office, the grand jury was the first ever convened by a Wyoming prosecutor in relation to a police shooting. The jury decided a charge of involuntary manslaughter was not warranted.

Peggy Trent, the county attorney who convened the grand jury, presented evidence over the course of two days, according to the statement. Representatives of potential defendants are not allowed to present evidence to grand juries.

A founder of Albany County for Proper Policing, a group formed in response to Ramirez’s death, said the group had not met between the prosecutor’s announcement and an early Thursday evening phone call from a reporter. Karlee Provenza said, however, that a December community forum indicated to her that public trust in police is at an all-time low.

“We didn’t get to see the evidence. We don’t have the facts,” Provenza said, in reference to the closed nature of the proceeding. “We do believe Colling had another choice.”

Tom Jubin, Colling’s attorney, could not be reached for comment late Thursday afternoon.

According to the prosecutor’s statement, Trent presented photos of the scene and autopsy, audio recording of radio traffic, footage from Colling’s body camera and patrol vehicle, toxicology reports and expert witnesses from two firms.

“Trent felt convening a grand jury for this matter was the most appropriate course of action,” according to the statement. “This process provides a means for accountability of law enforcement agencies and officers to ensure local policies and national standards are adhered to when deadly force is used.”

Ramirez is the third person Colling has killed on duty. He shot and killed two people while he worked for the Las Vegas Metro Police Department between 2005 and 2011. The Nevada agency fired him after an incident in which an amateur videographer brought a federal lawsuit, alleging Colling beat him. The agency settled that lawsuit for $100,000.

Ramirez lived with schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness sometimes characterized by psychosis. Debbie Hinkel, his mother and a member of the Albany County Community Mental Health Board, told the Star-Tribune in November that Colling should not have shot her son.

“I just feel like it’s so wrong when you know somebody’s mentally ill,” She said. “I just feel like this guy’s a loose cannon.”

Provenza said in December that Colling never should have been hired by the Wyoming agency and took issue with Sheriff Dave O’Malley’s comment to WyoFile, an online news organization, that he did not regret hiring Colling.

“It is unacceptable that our sheriff’s department hired an officer who had clearly demonstrated he could not safely or legally police the community of Las Vegas,” Karlee Provenza said. “Then, to have our recently re-elected sheriff state that he still does not regret hiring Colling is a slap in the face to the community that elected him.”

Thursday, Provenza said she expects the group to ask legislators to change police training.

“I’m kind of sick of the same headlines over and over,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”