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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Mark Gordon addresses supporters at his campaign party at the Little America in Cheyenne after he was projected to win the Wyoming governor's race Tuesday night.  

Natrona County lawmakers will lead Wyoming Legislature

For the next two years, both houses of the Wyoming Legislature will be led by representatives from Natrona County who, coincidentally, represent each other.

At its party caucus on Friday, Wyoming Republicans elected Sen. Drew Perkins of Casper – who previously served as majority floor leader – to the position of Senate president. Republicans tapped Rep. Steve Harshman, also of Casper, to his second consecutive term as speaker of the House.

Two legislators from the same county being elected to top leadership posts is not unusual. In 2014, Albany County Rep. Kermit Brown was elected as House speaker and Sen. Phil Nicholas, also of Albany County, was elected as Senate president. However, Perkins, who lives in Harshman’s House District 37, will become the first legislator from Natrona County to be elected Senate president since Republican Diemer True was named to the post in 1990.

According to results provided to the Star-Tribune by Sen. Michael Von Flatern, other members of the majority’s leadership include Sen. Dan Dockstader, who will take over for Perkins, and Ogden Driskill, who will serve as Senate vice president. In the house, Eric Barlow – in his first time in party leadership — will take over for David Miller as House majority leader, and Albert Sommers will move up from the House majority whip’s position to become House speaker pro tempore. Rep. Tyler Lindholm of Sundance will be elected to leadership for the first time, becoming House majority whip.

Selections are not made official until the day prior to the start of session. According to Article 3, Section 10 of the State Constitution, while the Senate and House will elect one of their members, Senate president and speaker of the House, respectively, each shall “judge of the election returns and qualifications of its members” to ratify their nominations. This was an option House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly told WyoFile that Democrats planned on exercising in a roll call vote.

“As the minority party we want our voice our heard,” she said.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Connolly said that while no potential Democratic nominee for House speaker has been identified, she expressed that the roll call vote was intended more to bring both the House speaker and the speaker pro tempore positions back to what they were intended to be – non-partisan, at-large positions – rather than positions assigned and controlled exclusively by the leadership of the party in power.

However, she said she was “excited” to work with Harshman, and plans to continue a positive working relationship with the speaker.

For the Democrats, Rep. Connolly remains minority floor leader, Rep. Charles Pelkey will be House minority whip and Rep. John Freeman was elected minority caucus chairman. For the Senate, Chris Rothfuss will remain Senate minority leader and Sens. Lisa Anselmi Dalton and Mike Gierau, who was just elected to the Senate after one term in the House of Representatives, were picked to serve as Senate minority whip and Senate minority caucus chairman, respectively.

In an interview, Rothfuss said he does not plan to put forward a candidate in the Senate to contest the Republican leadership, saying that the pair have already met to discuss each party’s priorities this year.

“I think there’s a lot of commonality between what I want to accomplish and what he wants to accomplish,” said Rothfuss.

Legislative priorities

With their elections, Harshman and Perkins would control the priorities of the House and Senate, responsible for facilitating what bills are discussed on the floor and for how long.

Perkins – reached by phone Monday morning – said he has met recently with both Harshman and Gov.-elect Mark Gordon to hash out their legislative priorities for the coming session. So far, the three have found plenty to agree on, from an expressed need to diversify and expand the state’s revenue streams, push forward with the work of the state’s government efficiency commission, and proceed with further defining the efforts of ENDOW, the state’s economic development policy suite.

All three, said Perkins, also have reservations with the state’s budgets, approaching recent improvements to the state’s revenues with caution and gearing up for inevitable conversations on broadening the state’s tax base on a “revenue neutral basis,” Perkins said.

Finding a solution to impending issues with education funding in Wyoming is another area the Legislature hopes to tackle this coming session, Perkins said, as lawmakers to shift more of the state’s revenues away from its rainy day fund and into a pool dedicated for education funding; an area Harshman – a school teacher and football coach – played a central figure on in the last budget session.

On health care – another key issue for the Legislature – all three have, in the past – expressed apprehension over Medicaid expansion and, though neighboring states have voted for it, Perkins said that leadership will continue its work to develop a number of “state-based” solutions currently being pieced together at the committee level.

“Everything is up for discussion,” Harshman said. “But right now, we support Medicaid for caregivers and children, and we’ve never expanded it to able-bodied, childless adults. ... I’m still watching it, but seeing what’s happening in other states, it’s not the panacea some think it is.”

Inheriting a relatively inexperienced crop of senators, however, leaves Perkins with a challenge to unite the upper house behind those priorities. Acknowledging the loss of some institutional knowledge in the Legislature the past two years, he said that those assigned to replace outgoing members on the committees – whose rosters were announced Monday — will bring “fresh new perspectives” to government and that, while there may be philosophical differences from member to member, everyone elected to office was there to serve their constituents to the best of their ability.

“It’s always concern, but that’s how the electoral process works,” Perkins said. “We may have challenges, but we always have challenges.”

Both leaders, however, pointed to the work already accomplished in the committees over the past few months, saying that this session will see progress regardless of any new challenges.

“There’s a lot of good news in Wyoming,” Harshman said. “We sometimes get bogged down in the details and it’s really easy to look down at our desks, but if you look at the horizon, we’ve got a lot of good things coming.”

Democratic priorities

Both Rothfuss and Connolly expressed a willingness to work with Republican leadership on numerous fronts. Both were interested in the Republicans’ willingness to broaden and diversify the state’s revenue streams.

Rothfuss said he believes the Republican Party is beyond its practices of “saving money in the short term for greater costs in the long term.” And both parties can come together on issues like criminal justice reform, he added.

But Democratic leadership expressed some concerns with education funding and in addressing the state’s high health care thoughts, with both adamant that they will be bringing Medicaid expansion back to the negotiating table this session.

“We will absolutely be back with Medicaid expansion and continue to raise the issue,” said Rothfuss, naming several conservative states to approve Medicaid expansion in this year’s elections. “Anyone against it is not looking at the data or economic implications, and are just flat-out wrong.”

Other priorities for Democrats this session include early childhood education programs, election reform, solving the state’s gender wage gap and marijuana decriminalization, which Rothfuss is optimistic may pass this year.

“I think it’s in the 50-50 territory,” he said.

Final word on federal sage grouse plans uncertain as BLM officials offer contradicting responses

A recent comment by a Bureau of Land Management official in Wyoming regarding sage grouse was refuted Monday by the agency’s Washington, D.C., office.

At issue is when the federal government plans to release a final report on changes to sage grouse management that could have broad implications across the West.

The Interior Department’s progress has been hampered in its goal to have a newly minted road map for the bird released to the public before the end of the year by conflicts outside of Wyoming, according to BLM officials in the state.

“We are on temporary hold while (Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt) works out some details with other states,” the BLM’s Jenny Marzluf said at a Friday meeting of Wyoming’s state sage grouse team. “Until then, honestly, indefinite hold. We haven’t heard any ‘next move.’”

A BLM spokesperson in Washington, D.C., explicitly rejected that characterization Monday.

“The BLM is actively working to resolve remaining internal issues before publishing the Final EISs and proposed plan amendments, but there is currently no definite timetable for publication,” she said in an email Monday.

The next era for the odd bird that struts above Wyoming’s minerals and across its ranchland is still uncertain more than a year after the Bureau of Land Management began an overhaul of its sage grouse management strategies. That uncertainty began with the change of administration in Washington, as the new Interior Department focused on Western land issues that conflict with economic development, placing sage grouse plans in the cross hairs.

A new direction

Pressure to rapidly fix perceived problems with sage grouse management on federal land came early on in the Donald Trump administration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke noted in mid-2017 that some in the West were angered by the way sage grouse management had played out. He ordered a truncated review of the dozens of plans across the West that were put together under the Obama administration. Those plans were largely based on a Wyoming model.

Zinke’s review spurred anxiety among some in Wyoming who were loyal to the existing plans and pushback from Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who urged caution given the importance of the bird’s management in relation to economic drivers like oil and gas development in the state.

Proposed changes that arose from Zinke’s review, and from later discussions between states and the federal government, are either a death knell for the species or moderate adjustments depending on which Westerner has the mic. The pinch point in Wyoming is how much drilling access exists in sage grouse’s neighborhood.

The final environmental impact statement, incorporating the Trump administration’s changes, could chart a new course for the bird in Wyoming, but that direction is not fully certain. The final environmental impact statement was expected by October, then early December and is now in a temporary holding pattern with no fixed release date.

Bob Budd, chairman of Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team — a body of Wyoming industry, environment and government representatives — noted in the team’s meeting on Friday that the problem was with some of Wyoming’s neighbors, who have different state plans and expectations from the federal agency. Budd alluded to a certain “six-sided state,” a reference to Utah.

Less pragmatic approaches to balancing sage grouse and development have often originated in that state.

A new governor of the grouse

The sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird that lives across 11 Western states, with the most birds and the most habitat located in Wyoming. Its population’s precipitous slide sparked considerations of an endangered species listing, spurring Wyoming to develop a state approach to conserve the bird. That work, combined with a federal land approach from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, precluded a listing for sage grouse in 2015. Though the federal plans did not please everyone, they were considered a success due to the broad collaboration that formed them.

Wyoming has interests to protect with the federal plans that are broader than the bird’s survival — such as mineral development. A listing would have been a heavy burden on some private landowners and ranchers, but would also pose incredible risks to Wyoming’s key economic drivers like oil and gas.

Mead has been closely aligned with the sage grouse dilemma throughout his term. That responsibility will pass to Gov.-elect Mark Gordon in January. The new governor, whose background on the sage grouse issue is a personal one related to his family ranch, will get a crash course in the federal-state balance once the BLM releases its final version of the plans.

State governors are allowed a consistency review period after the final document is released by the BLM. That gives states one last place to voice concerns before the new plans come into effect. Given the current timeline, the governor’s review for checking whether the federal plans align with the Wyoming’s plans may fall during the transition between Mead’s administration and Gordon’s.

“Obviously, if [the final BLM assessment] comes out between now and the inauguration, we will certainly do our due diligence and look through it,” said Mike McGrady, Mead’s policy adviser and representative on the state sage grouse team. “We’ve been working on (sage grouse management) for a while now.”

Mead’s team would be available to assist Gordon’s in whatever way possible, McGrady said. But conversations specifically regarding the governor’s role in reviewing BLM’s plans have not yet taken place, he said.

Gordon said in an email Monday that he would work with Mead’s team on sage grouse issues during the transition. He noted his personal experience with the grouse, given his family’s work to secure certainties for his ranch against a potential listing of the bird.

“I plan to be a strong advocate for the state-led approach Wyoming has executed to conserve sage grouse, while providing consistent sideboards for our key energy and agricultural industries,” he said.

“BLM has been responsive to Wyoming’s input and I hope this delay (in the release of the final plans) is not a significant change of course,” Gordon said.

Drilling and the grouse

There is precedent for the BLM’s final moves causing friction in Wyoming. When the current plans were published in 2015, Mead’s office hit back with a list of issues that it had with the BLM’s direction, noting in a letter that aspects of the plans placed “unreasonable management constraints on Wyoming’s mineral and livestock producers and other users of public land beyond those necessary to protect the Greater sage-grouse.”

State sage grouse leaders like Budd, chairman of SGIT, are not anticipating surprise changes in the upcoming plans.

“I hope, and we’ve been assured, that it will not be another midnight massacre like we did in ‘15,” Budd said at the meeting Friday, acknowledging that some in the room still were wary of a repeat.

Divisions on proposed federal changes persist within the Wyoming team, which is composed of representatives from industry, agriculture, the environmental community and government. Brian Rutledge, policy adviser for the Audubon Society, noted his trepidation during the Friday meeting with plans to cut a requirement to prioritize oil and gas activity out of the bird’s habitat.

The lingering debate in Wyoming is whether limitations on industry in sage grouse areas should come at the leasing phase or the drilling phase for oil and gas.

He noted large acres of federal land being leased in sage grouse habitat for oil and gas development, something that the current plans should be discouraging from the perspective of the environmental community.

Just this month a federal judge in Idaho halted the Bureau of Land Management’s lease sale of parcels in Wyoming that overlapped with the bird’s domain. The judge expressed doubts about the Trump administration’s ability to offer the required public comment on an accelerated timeline. In accordance with the judge’s decision, the Bureau of Land Management punted those tracts — meant for a sale this year — to a special February sale to allow a longer period of time for the public to weigh in.

Budd, the sage grouse team’s chairman, said he disagreed with concern over the prioritization language. Budd and Mead have favored limitations that come at the drilling phase.

“You have more than one state to be concerned with, which I don’t, thank god,” he said of Rutledge’s concern. “But all I can say is I think where we are in this state we have the certainty, we have the authority.”

Frustration, chaos as California fire recovery drags on

CHICO, Calif. — It's been 12 days since Christina Taft started the frantic search for her mother Victoria, who refused to evacuate their Paradise home as flames neared, and six days since she gave authorities a cheek swab to identify remains that are likely her mother's.

She still hasn't received confirmation that her mother is dead, and says she's been frustrated by what she feels is a lack of communication from Butte County officials.

"They said they found remains, they didn't say her remains. They won't confirm it to me the whole time," Taft said Monday.

With 79 people killed in the nation's deadliest wildfire in at least a century, there are still nearly 700 names on the list of those unaccounted for. While it's down from nearly 1,000 the day before, it is inexact, progress has been slow, and the many days of uncertainty are adding to the stress.

More than a dozen people are marked as "unknowns," without first or last names. In some cases, names are listed twice or more times under different spellings. Others are confirmed dead, and their names simply haven't been taken off yet.

Survivors and relatives of those caught in the fire in Northern California are using social media to get the word out: In some cases, to post that their loved ones were safe; in others, to plead for help.

"Aunt Dorothy is still missing. There has been confusion going on at the Sheriffs office regarding her whereabouts because she was taken off the list," a man wrote on Facebook on Monday.

"I have an uncle and two cousins that I have not been able to make contact with," one woman wrote on Facebook, with their names. "Any info would be appreciated."

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has said he released the rough and incomplete list in hopes that people would contact authorities to say they are OK. He has called it "raw data" compiled from phone calls, emails and other reports.

"We put the list out. It will fluctuate. It will go up. It will go down because this is in a state of flux," Honea said Monday. "My view on this has been that I would prefer to get the information out and start working to find who is unaccounted for and who is not. I would put progress over perfection."

Officials have also culled reports from the earliest hours of the disaster, when fire knocked out mobile phone communications and thousands fled, some to safe shelter that was hundreds of miles away.

Honea said his office was working with the Red Cross to account for people entering and leaving shelters. Evacuees are also helping authorities narrow the list, sometimes by chance.

Meanwhile, those searching for bodies were in a race against the weather, as rain was forecast for Wednesday. The precipitation could help knock out the flames, but it could also hinder the search by washing away fragmentary remains and turning ash into a thick paste.

The fire, which burned at least 236 square miles and destroyed nearly 12,000 homes, was 70 percent contained on Monday.

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco's cable cars, the Oakland Zoo and other San Francisco Bay Area area attractions were closed Monday because of smoke from the blaze some 140 miles away. Several San Francisco museums over the weekend offered free admission to give people something to do indoors.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said it is "way too early" to estimate the damage done by the wildfire. But for perspective, he said the Northern California fires that gutted 6,800 homes last year resulted in $12.6 billion in insured losses.

"It's going to be a long and painful process," he said.

In Southern California, the tally of structures destroyed by the huge wildfire increased to 1,500 on Monday, fire officials said. With 95 percent of the burn assessment completed, the count also showed 341 structures damaged.

The fire erupted Nov. 8 and powerful Santa Ana winds pushed it through suburbs and wilderness parkland in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, forcing thousands of people to flee.

Three people were found dead in the aftermath. They remain unidentified.