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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

A plane is refueled at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport Jan. 3, 2018. Regional aviation leaders met in Jackson Wednesday to discuss the state of air service in Wyoming.

Wyoming could be facing tough questions on highway funding this interim

Car ownership is almost a prerequisite for living in Wyoming.

In a nation that tops the world in automobile ownership per capita, Wyoming ranks the highest among states, with nearly 300,000 more vehicles than residents, according to 2015 statistics from the Federal Highway Administration. For many in this far-flung and lightly populated state, the only means of connectivity is the two-lane highway leading out of town.

Wyoming, however, is having difficulty footing the bill. In October, the Wyoming Department of Transportation revealed that the agency is currently facing a $135 million shortfall in what it needs to maintain the current conditions of the state’s roads.

“There is never enough money for infrastructure repairs,” said Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R- Gillette, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs. “We have been going along making repairs versus improvements for several years.”

A slow, but steady, decline

Unless something changes, Wyoming’s highways could be in a difficult place.

The cost of maintaining Wyoming’s most desolate — but necessary — thoroughfares does not come cheaply. Of that $135 million shortfall, $72 million consists of funding for construction and maintenance projects. Meanwhile, sources to garner funding for those projects have been elusive, and when they have come along they’ve quickly been wiped out.

Though a 2013 piece of legislation raised the state’s gas tax by 10 cents — a needed expense when the federal gas tax has not increased since 1993 — shifts in the status quo like increasing fuel efficiency, the advent of electric cars and shrinking prices on a gallon of gasoline have offset any new funding the tax may have brought. That means revenues and expenditures have stayed stable since then — presenting a conundrum for Von Flatern’s committee this interim session.

“Today we are paying more to reconstruct roads that we did last year or the year before and before that,” Von Flatern said.

With costs increasing while revenues and expenses remain stable, highway departments find themselves having to do more with less. According to Chief Fiscal Officer Dennis Byrne, WYDOT does a fantastic job leveraging every state and local dollar it can — to the tune of roughly $1.64 in federal funds for every dollar in state funding — but maintaining a certain level of stability matters.

“It is accurate to say that if you don’t put adequate funding into an asset, it will decay over time, and to bring that asset back to a certain standard will be more expensive,” Byrne said. “It’s easier to maintain an asset than it is to rehabilitate or reconstruct an asset.”

Hard times approaching?

Eventually, Wyoming — and a highway system 75 percent supported by federal funds, according to Byrne — may have to do even more in order to maintain its roads.

In a hearing on highway infrastructure funding held by the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, chaired by Sen. John Barrasso in Washington earlier this week, state and municipal transit officials discussed numerous challenges they each faced in financing the maintenance of their transportation systems at the state level.

Though the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act brought some stability to state departments’ highway funding, some are looking warily toward its expiration next fall, particularly as states around the country continue to face significant shortfalls in their transportation budgets.

President Donald Trump has expressed interest in increasing the federal fuel tax to cover the shortfalls through increases to federal highway funding. However, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper said Wednesday, several members of the committee said that a fair share of the bill could be footed by the states themselves.

“We can’t shy away from asking states to do more,” Indiana Sen. Mike Braun said. “There’s capital capacity there.”

The challenge, however, is finding a source of funding palatable to the voters and legislators of the state. As traditional sources of revenue like gas taxes have become ineffective in an age of electric cars and fuel-efficient vehicles, other states have begun looking at ways of implementing mileage-based user fees or, like Wyoming did this year, increasing the cost of registering electric vehicles that in theory are exempt from fuel taxes.

“We’ve got to come up with some other way of taxing to pay for the road abuse, because there’s still wearing on the roads,” Von Flatern said. “An electric vehicle — which probably weighs as much as a normal vehicle — is still abusing the roads at the same rate as a gasoline-powered vehicle. But the gasoline-powered vehicle is at least paying for that.”

But that won’t be enough, Von Flatern continued, and as technology evolves, so will the state’s approaches to capturing revenues to fund the state’s highways. While an effort to index the state’s fuel taxes to inflation failed this year, Von Flatern suggested other means of raising revenues — like turning Interstate 80, which counts roughly 80 percent of its Wyoming users from out-of-state — as potential topics to visit in this year’s interim.

“We need to increase the funding, but we also don’t want (WYDOT) to look to the general fund as their funding source,” Von Flatern said. “We have the albatross around our neck known as I-80. Since 80-plus percentage of traffic using it does not originate or stop in Wyoming, why are the citizens of this state paying the lion’s share of the maintenance on that road?”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Eddie Bratvold (center) laughs after missing a note he couldn't read while playing with fellow baritone sax players Tanner Warren (left) and Connor Hinzman (right) on Thursday during halftime of Kelly Walsh's boys quarterfinal game against Cheyenne Central in the Wyoming State High School Class 4A Boys Basketball Championships in Casper. 

Casper receives approval for $1.5 million Midwest Avenue grant

The Wyoming Business Council has approved the City of Casper’s grant application requesting approximately $1.5 million to help pay for the second phase of renovations along Midwest Avenue.

“I really support what you guys have been doing, and I think this is a great project,” director Mike Easley said to a handful of Casper representatives at Thursday’s meeting, moments before the council voted to approve the grant.

The application will now be passed along to the State Loan and Investment Board, which must also sign off on the grant before Casper can receive the money.

Midwest Avenue is one of Casper’s main streets downtown. Work is already underway on the project’s first phase, which involves fixing up the portion of Midwest between David and Elm streets. Andrew Beamer, the city’s public services director, previously said he hoped the grant would allow the project to extend to Walnut Street.

Beamer told the board of directors Thursday that revitalizing the roadway is a priority for city officials and community members.

That sentiment was echoed by Fred Feth, a member of Casper’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

“The city of Casper and the business owners and residents of the Old Yellowstone District have put a lot of time, effort and money into upgrading that area,” he said. “If you ever toured that in the past, you know that it was pretty much a blighted area. It is not blighted anymore.”

City Councilman Bob Hopkins said it was especially important to renovate Midwest because of its proximity to the state office building being constructed downtown.

The building, which will be located on an 11-acre plot at 444 West Collins Drive, will consolidate multiple departments, including the Department of Workforce Services, the Department of Family Services and the Department of Environmental Quality. It is expected to open in 2021.

On Thursday afternoon, Beamer said the city appreciated the business council’s support.

“We are very happy to get their approval,” he said, adding that the Midwest Avenue project’s second phase is slated to begin in spring 2020.

Casper officials applied for a community readiness grant, which Julie Kozlowski, the business council’s community development director, previously explained are for projects that “ready the community” in various ways for economic development.

“It’s very competitive,” she said in October. “We accept applications quarterly and we typically receive more in requests than we have funding to reward.”

The Midwest Avenue reconstruction project is part of Casper’s ongoing effort to revitalize the city’s core. City officials plan to improve the street’s drainage, repair and widen its sidewalks and move the electrical wiring underground. The project will also include cosmetic touches, like benches and flower pots.

Two Casper community members previously said they are looking forward to the finished outcome.

Steven Schnell, the executive director of The Science Zone museum, which is located along Midwest, said the sidewalks are in dire need of repairs.

“There are sections where essentially there are no sidewalks anymore; it’s just a dirt patch,” he said.

Matt Galloway, co-owner of the Gaslight Social on Midwest, said he worried about his patrons walking along the unlit, crumbling sidewalks. Although construction can be a bit of a nuisance, Galloway said there’s always a price to pay for progress.

“Bring on the construction — let’s get her done,” he remarked.

Cohen's lawyer says Trump advisers were 'dangling' pardons

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's advisers dangled the possibility of a pardon for his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen last year, Cohen's attorney said Thursday, as congressional investigators zero in on the president's pardon power.

The issue of pardons has emerged as a key line of inquiry as Democrats launch a series of sweeping investigations into Trump's political and personal dealings.

Lanny Davis, Cohen's lawyer, said in a written statement Thursday that his client was "open to the ongoing 'dangling' of a possible pardon by Trump representatives privately and in the media" in the months after the FBI raided Cohen's home, office and hotel room in April 2018.

Davis, who was not Cohen's lawyer at the time, said Cohen "directed his attorney" to explore a possible pardon with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others on Trump's legal team. The statement appears to contradict Cohen's sworn testimony last week at a House Oversight Committee hearing that he had never asked for, and would not accept, a pardon from Trump.

Davis' comment raises questions about whether Cohen — who is slated to begin a three-year prison sentence in May for crimes including lying to Congress — lied to Congress again last week.

Cohen's legal team argued that his statement was correct because Cohen never asked the president himself for a pardon.

"This is more proof that Cohen is a liar," Giuliani said in an interview Thursday. "The guy says he never asked Trump for a pardon. He's hiding behind having his lawyers do it."

Meanwhile, Cohen filed a lawsuit Thursday claiming the Trump Organization broke a promise to pay his legal bills and owes at least $1.9 million to cover the cost of his defense.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in New York state court, claims the Trump Organization stopped paying Cohen's mounting legal fees after he began cooperating with federal prosecutors in their investigations related to Trump's business dealings in Russia and attempts to silence women with embarrassing stories about his personal life. It alleges breach of contract and seeks damages on Cohen's behalf. 

Messages seeking comment have been left with the Trump Organization.

There is nothing inherently improper about a subject in a criminal investigation seeking a pardon from a president given the president's wide latitude in granting them. But investigators want to know if the prospects of presidential pardons were somehow offered or used inappropriately.

It is hard to untangle the conflicting narratives given the unreliability of some of the central characters. Cohen, for instance, has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and saw his credibility attacked last week by Republican lawmakers. Davis has had to walk back at least one bombshell assertion over the last year — that his client could tell investigators that Trump had advance knowledge of a Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign — and Giuliani has fumbled facts and repeatedly moved the goalposts about what sort of behavior by the president would constitute collusion or a crime.

Congressional investigators, meanwhile, appear to be focusing on presidential powers as a significant line of questioning in their probes.

The House Judiciary Committee, which is conducting a probe into possible obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power, sent letters to the FBI, the Justice Department and others for documents related to possible pardons for Cohen, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. All three have been charged in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump's presidential campaign.

Congressional investigators are also looking into whether anyone on Trump's legal team tried quietly to reach out to Cohen last year before he turned on the president and as his legal problems mounted.

According to a person familiar with the matter, two New York attorneys who claimed to be in contact with Giuliani reached out to Cohen after the raids on his office and hotel room. The attorneys said they could join his legal team in order to be a conduit to Trump's lawyers, the person said.

The person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The attorneys did not explicitly discuss a potential pardon, but investigators are looking into whether it was an implicit communication that Cohen's chances of a pardon could be increased if he hired the attorneys, the person said.

Giuliani said Thursday he was contacted in May or June about a possible pardon for Cohen.

"My answer was the president is not going to consider or give any pardons now," Giuliani said. "As I have said in the past, the president has the right to, and that doesn't mean he won't consider it when the investigation is over. But there are no plans to do so; that's the answer that Jay and I and the president settled on. 'The best thing for you to do,' I would tell everyone, 'is assume you don't have the pardon.'" Jay Sekulow is another Trump lawyer.

Cohen's legal team stressed that he was one of Trump's closest confidants and if he wanted a pardon, he would have just asked Trump himself.

Tony Cercy asks Wyoming Supreme Court to release him on double jeopardy grounds

Eight days after being sentenced to prison for sexual assault, Tony Cercy on Thursday asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to release him on constitutional grounds.

The appeal comes after a Natrona County judge sentenced the former Casper businessman to six to eight years behind bars for the 2017 sexual assault of a woman who was passed out on the couch of his Alcova Lake house.

A jury in February 2018 found Cercy not guilty of two counts of sexual assault but deadlocked on a third count, resulting in a mistrial. Prosecutor Michael Blonigen charged Cercy with the third count again, and a Hot Springs County jury in November convicted Cercy on a single count of third-degree sexual assault. Judge Daniel Forgey ordered Cercy held pending sentencing, and on Feb. 27 handed down the prison sentence.

The same day, Cercy’s lawyers filed notice of appeal.

In Cercy’s Thursday filings, he asks the state’s highest court to order his immediate release from detention while the court considers his appeal.

Cercy’s appellate attorneys, H. Michael Bennett, Tim Newcomb and Sean Connelly, argue that his Fifth Amendment protection against double jeopardy was violated when Blonigen charged him the second time. Generally speaking, the double jeopardy clause prevents a defendant from being prosecuted a second time for the same crime.

“The second prosecution after the first acquittal ran roughshod over double jeopardy,” they wrote. “The clear double jeopardy violation is confirmed by the fact that both trials were all-or-nothing disputes over a single alleged incident that one side graphically described and the other unequivocally denied.”

When Forgey denied Cercy’s request to be allowed free on bond pending appeal, he likewise violated that protection, the attorneys argue. They state the judge’s denial at sentencing of Cercy’s request for an appeal bond necessarily ignored double jeopardy protections that they say should have kept Cercy free.

The appeals attorneys argue that Cercy, 57, is also entitled under Wyoming law to go free on bond pending appeal. They state Cercy’s compliance with his bond conditions leading up to the two trials indicate he has no intention of fleeing.

“The order jailing Petitioner pending appeal of a double jeopardy conviction cannot survive any degree of scrutiny,” they wrote. “The order wrongly jailed (Cercy) not as a preventative measure to protect any risk pending appeal but rather to punish (him) before this Court could review the substantial constitutional barriers to such punishment.”

The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office has not yet filed a response to the appeal.

Natrona County Sheriff's Office