This morning, Gov.-elect Mark Gordon will take the oath of office and, for the first time in eight years, Wyoming will have a new chief executive.
Inauguration Day is an extensive day of celebration, a jubilant spectacle meant to mark the passage of power from one leader to the next. In the history of Wyoming, Monday will be the first time a Republican governor has ever handed off power to a fellow member of his party, and the first time since the state was admitted to the union that an occupier of an elected statewide office has proceeded on to the governorship.
While a significant moment in the life of Gordon, the day is also meant as a celebration for all of Wyoming, and as such is treated with an attention to detail merited for an event that will be watched across the state.
That’s where Dave Picard, a veteran of campaigns at both the state and federal level, comes in.
A fourth-generation Wyomingite, Picard has a reverence for Wyoming history few in the state’s political scene can claim. Throughout his career, he’s witnessed the inauguration of nearly a half-dozen governors. On occasion, he’s put inaugurations together himself – most notably serving on the 2000 Presidential Inaugural Committee for the Bush-Cheney White House.
Symbolically for a new governor, the inauguration is an opportunity to set the tone for the rest of his administration and to make a statement of his values. For Gordon, Picard said, the main theme will center around inclusivity and a unifying of the state around a shared spirit and identity. Gordon, coming from an agricultural background, requested that ethic be depicted in the state’s ceremonies as much as possible and, befitting a former history major, the rich background of the state will play a prominent role as well.
“It’s a grand opportunity to showcase all of Wyoming,” said Picard.
The logistics of the event are complex and involved, with nine separate committees organized to plan everything, from the parade to the gala held at the end of the night all the way to the facilities that will be commissioned to house the day’s festivities.
In most of Wyoming’s history, the oath of office has always been conducted in the House Chamber at the Capitol – which is currently closed. In 2003, attendance numbers merited a larger space, and Dave Freudenthal’s incoming administration moved the oath of office to the Emerson Building, nearby on Capitol Avenue. They outgrew that one, and in 2007, Freudenthal was sworn in at the Cheyenne Civic Center, where the inauguration has been held ever since.
However, the public reception – which has always been held in the rotunda – will be held at the Barrett Building this year, which houses the state archives and the state museum: which in itself presents the potential for something unique.
“It gives us a great opportunity to showcase the history of Wyoming,” Picard said.
Historically, Gordon will also have to deal with something of an anomaly: having to give his tone-setting speech just days before his State of the State address, the first time that has happened in 28 years. However, this trick of the calendar presents an interesting parallel to the last person who had to grapple with this conundrum – Gov. Mike Sullivan — who entered office in 1987 facing a tussle with a recent economic downturn. (Sound familiar?)
“The tone for his 1987 gubernatorial address was setting a new course in an economic downturn – imagine that – and a lot of talking about what he’s done and what he’s going to do,” said Picard. “If my calculations are correct, (Gordon) has 48 hours between these two speeches. Same audiences, but different in respect to what the purpose of the event is. One day is about celebration, two days later, it’s about getting down to business.”
Gordon, who is writing his own speeches for both events, declined to go too deeply into the specifics of what he planned to touch on Monday. Thematically, he told the Star-Tribune that his first speech will encompass the broad themes about where Wyoming is going and what he wants to set up to help move the state forward, leaving the specifics to the State of the State. Most of all, he said he wants to capture a sense of optimism about the future, harkening back to the frontier origins of Wyoming in setting a new course forward.
“Wyoming is such a wonderful place, and it has so many opportunities,” said Gordon. “One of the things I want to get us out of the habit of is only talking about our problems, how we don’t have a workforce. And one of the things I want to stand up for this session is this career and technical education scholarship, and to engage the businesses that are going to hire these kids. I want to talk about how we’re bootstrapping ourselves; it’s a time-honored Wyoming tradition, and what this state was built by: people who came here and saw opportunity.”
The speech will also have a personal touch, befitting his campaign trail ethic of Scottish frugality he inherited from his ancestors.
He left it open to interpretation, however, whether that meant he planned on wearing his great-grandfather’s kilt on the podium.
“Which I have,” he said.
Did you see this? Wyoming’s Department of Education has a new website to make it easier to view their federally-mandated performance reviews. You can browse around here by school or by district.
HEADS-UP: The Legislature kicks off this week and, to reflect that, the newsletter’s format will be changing slightly. We’ll be temporarily suspending the round-up sections (Around Wyoming, Wyoming Politics) and will be placing a heavier emphasis on the calendar sections, recapping what happened during the week and giving you an idea of the week ahead. We will be keeping the Eye on Washington intact since, as you may have noticed, Congress is back in session.
Eye On Washington
Sen. John Barrasso was sworn into office to begin his third term as Wyoming’s junior senator.
Rep. Liz Cheney had a busy week on the hill, setting the tone for House Republicans heading into the 116th Congress with several barbs toward Democrats in a speech nominating Rep. Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House. This led to a Twitter spat with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which may or may not have been instigated by CNN anchor Jake Tapper.
The Week Ahead
Monday: Treasurer Mark Gordon is sworn-in as the 33rd governor of Wyoming at 10:30 a.m. in Cheyenne – event is by invitation only. A public reception will follow at the State Museum at 11:30 a.m.
Tuesday: The Wyoming State Legislature convenes for the first meeting of the 2019 General Session at 12 p.m. in Cheyenne. A lengthy slate of special invitation-only receptions involving various lobbyist groups also begin this week, a full list of which can be found here.
Wednesday: Joint Committee on Appropriations meets at 8 a.m. A joint session of the House and Senate convenes at 10 a.m.
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Proposal would strip local zoning authority over private schools: Allie Gross with the Jackson Hole News & Guide wrote a dispatch of a new bill that would strip local control from local governments looking to have a say in where private school buildings can be built.
The bill – which lacks a sponsor from Teton County – comes around the same time as a dispute between county officials and a private school bankrolled by former gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess, a lobbyist for whom was quoted in a WyoFile story saying they would be working to gain legislative support for the proposal. (I wrote a quick Twitter thread – including the WyoFile story – here.)
Via Gross: “During the first week the Legislature meets, the Classical Academy is inviting legislators to a “Jackson Hole Classical Academy Legislative Dinner” in Cheyenne. Hosts are listed as former Teton County Rep. Clarene Law, Steve and Polly Friess, who run the school, and two state senators sponsoring the bill, (Sen. Eli) Bebout and (Sen. Hank) Coe.” (via The Jackson Hole News & Guide)
Court upholds Wyoming residents’ right to inspect public documents free of charge: “The small claims court in Newcastle upheld the public’s right to inspect public documents without charge when the court ruled in favor of Wayne Chittim on Dec. 5.” (via the Newcastle News Letter Journal, reprinted on Trib.com)
County pulls money from reserves to pay large health insurance claim: “An unidentified Park County employee is making a large health insurance claim the county will likely be on the hook for paying. The announcement came from Park County Clerk Colleen Renner at a commissioner meeting Dec. 18. The commissioners approved transferring $750,000 out of county reserves into the insurance fund for the claim dispersal.” (via the Cody Enterprise)
Sweetwater County School District considers a four-day school week: Every two years, the Sweetwater School District’s committee meets to select the district calendar for the following two school years. The alternatives the district is looking at include the traditional five-day week calendar it currently follows or a four-day week. The option was first considered in 2016 as a way to cut costs to the district. (via the Rock Springs Rocket-Miner)
Mayor wants investigation into CenturyLink outage: “Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr is demanding answers from CenturyLink following internet service outages here and across the country this week. In a pair of tweets Saturday night, Orr said she would ask the Wyoming Public Service Commission to investigate the two-day lapse in service, and scolded the company for failing to get in touch with her once trouble started Thursday.” (via the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle)
White nationalist group posts signs in northern Colorado, Cheyenne: “Holiday greeting signs posted on utility poles by the nationalist organization Identify Evropa sometime around Christmas violate a local ordinance, according to police. However, members of the Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group maintain that hanging the literature is within their constitutional rights.” (via The Greeley Tribune)
The High Country News did a great analysis of “news deserts” in the western United States: The magazine notes that since 2004, Wyoming has lost four papers, all weeklies. In that same time, newspaper print circulation has plunged 34 percent, from 240,000 to 150,000. (via The High Country News)
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Wyoming’s largest utility, and owner of many of its coal-fired power plants, will delay an update to the depreciation rate of its assets as it studies the changing economics of coal.
The Wyoming Public Service Commission granted Rocky Mountain Power’s request for a stay last week. The utility is currently working on its resource management plan, a broad document updated annually that forecasts changes in electricity demand and how best to meet that demand, while including details on its assets — its power plants, wind farms or natural gas-fired units. An investigation of coal economics for that plan may affect depreciation, which led to the utility asking for more time before reporting on its assets’ diminishing value.
“[The utility has] been running some studies that look at deeper issues around coal plants and what they’ve decided is they need to have the results of those studies before they go forward with the depreciation case,” said Bryce Freeman, administrator of the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate.
The cost, and the value, of burning coal for electricity continues to be a point of contention, and one with multifaceted impacts on Wyoming. The state produces the most coal in the nation. Its power plants burn coal that feeds electricity demand across multiple states, and in both sides of the industry — mining and electricity — Wyomingites are employed.
As other sources of power, like wind production, fall in cost to utilities and their customers, the financial burden of new coal generation and existing coal generation is under scrutiny.
Political fights over coal’s contribution to climate change often include discussions of its value — environmentalists say that value is falling fast, while coal’s proponents say it remains a cost-effective stabilizer on the grid. Utilities and state regulators are also caught up in this discussion, tasked with keeping electricity costs low to consumers, balancing the grid and responding to customer preference for green energy.
The depreciation case that’s on hold will look at whether assets like power plants are losing value at the same rate they are being paid for.
“Ideally, the period during which ratepayers are paying depreciation on some piece or category of plant/equipment and the period when it is in use to provide service to ratepayers should coincide,” said Chris Petrie of the Wyoming Public Service Commission. “You don’t want ratepayers 15 years from now to be paying depreciation on a plant that goes out of service today.”
In its motion for a delay, the utility explained that in recent meetings with a multi-state working group, stakeholders had noted that the coal study currently being done for the annual resource management plan may illuminate the ongoing depreciation of assets, particularly coal assets. But those results won’t be available until late March.
David Eskelsen, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, said that neither the study nor the depreciation case delay means coal units are about to be shut down.
Those decisions are yet to be made, he said.
“The most important thing the company does is match supply with customer demand,” he said, noting that this is a science that has to balanced minute by minute with a narrow band for error.
Coal’s role in meeting that demand today may change, but it’s not a decision to be made lightly, Eskelsen said.
The last coal plant that the utility retired, in Utah, took years of preparation — accounting for that plant’s disappearance from the transmission system and the substitution of other power sources.
“Those things need to be well considered. You can’t just switch off coal units without carefully considering all your operation factors,” he said.
Environmental groups have increasingly argued that utilities like PacifiCorp need to be more transparent about the cost of their coal units. In an independent study last year commissioned by the Sierra Club, some of Rocky Mountain Power’s coal-fired units were far more costly than other options for power, whether that meant building new wind, relying on natural gas generation or buying electricity wholesale.
The falling cost of renewables has ousted fossil fuels and nuclear as the cheapest new source of power — that means the total cost of developing a new wind plant, divided across the lifetime of wind plant operations, is much lower per hour of energy produced than traditional sources.
Environmental groups increasingly argue that not only is coal less economic when it comes to building new plants, it’s cheaper to build a new wind farm than keep some coal units burning.
Freeman, of the Office of Consumer Advocate, said the time has come to investigate what switching to other sources of power would mean and whether it’s possible to do so and maintain reliable electricity.
“We’ve relied on (fossil fuel power plants) for the last 100 years to keep the lights on,” he said. “I don’t think we really know what happens if we depend on other things to do that.”
Customer choices, to some degree, are forcing the hand of utilities.
PacifiCorp won a battle against environmental groups to keep the details of its coal unit economics private last year, but the company will have to face the fact that its Oregon customers have chosen to opt out of coal-fired power going forward. Washington and California customers could follow suit, introducing another complication for Wyoming.
Right now, the cost of power is distributed across the states that PacifiCorp serves, according to the amount of power customers in those states are burning through.
If other states want out of coal, but those coal units like the ones in Glenrock and Kemmerer are still burning, states like Wyoming and Utah may have to cover the continued cost of operation.
The multi-state group that PacifiCorp has convened to find a solution to this problem is still working through it, said Freeman, who’s been involved in those discussions. While everyone has ideas for how to move forward, nothing has been agreed on.
“So far, nothing has been sticking,” he said. “There’s a long ways to go in that.”
Coal plants in Wyoming often employee a number of residents in small towns like Glenrock and Kemmerer, increasing the consequences of the coal value debate for locals.
Kemmerer faces the added uncertainty of the Westmoreland bankruptcy. The coal company busted under the pressures on coal production today due to reduced demand from the power sector. It has plans to sell its assets and the future of the mine is unclear. That mine provides coal to a nearby power plant: Rocky Mountain Power’s Naughton plant.
Rocky Mountain Power’s study of its coal units is ongoing, with some answers likely revealed in the resource management plan due to state regulators in March. Amidst pushback from green groups, economic changes and the continued utility of coal power on the grid, the outlook for Wyoming’s RMP coal plants is undecided.
“While it’s true that the coal unit study certainly reflects the ongoing cost pressures on coal generation … that portion of the study does not on its own determine how long specific power plants will remain in service,” said Eskelsen of Rocky Mountain Power. “Those decisions are yet to be made.”
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump acknowledged Sunday that weekend shutdown talks led by his vice president would not break an impasse, as newly empowered House Democrats planned to step up the pressure on Trump and Republican lawmakers to reopen the government.
Heading to Camp David for staff meetings Sunday, Trump showed no signs of budging on his demand of more than $5 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Undercutting the staff-level talks, Trump declared that only he could make a deal with Democratic leaders — "in 20 minutes, if they want to."
Said Trump: "If they don't want to, it's going to go on for a long time."
With the partial shutdown in its third week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she intends to begin passing individual bills to reopen agencies in the coming days, starting with the Treasury Department to ensure people receive their tax refunds. That effort is designed to squeeze Senate Republicans, some of whom are growing increasingly anxious about the extended shutdown.
The seemingly intractable budget showdown marks the first clash for Trump and Democrats, who now control the House. It pits Trump's unpredictable negotiating stylings against a largely united Democratic front, as many Republicans watch nervously from the sidelines and hundreds of thousands of federal workers go without pay.
Among those Republicans was Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should take up bills from the Democratic-led House.
"Let's get those reopened while the negotiations continue," Collins said on NBC's "Meet the Press." Democrats criticized McConnell for waiting on Trump's support, but Collins said she was sympathetic to McConnell's opposition to moving legislation without agreement from the president.
Several Republicans pushed the Interior Department to find money to restaff national parks amid growing concerns over upkeep and public safety. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested Sunday that pressure would only mount amid the shutdown, which he said is disrupting Transportation Security Administration operations, home loans and farmers in his state.
"Democrats and now a growing number of Republicans are coming together and saying let's open up the government and debate border security separately," Schumer told reporters in New York.
Vice President Mike Pence arrived at the White House complex Sunday afternoon for a second round of negotiations with top congressional aides. Trump, who had tweeted the previous day that there had been "little headway," said he was not expecting much.
"I think we're going to have some very serious talks come Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," Trump said. While insisting he wanted to make a deal, he also declared he would not give an inch in his fight for funding for a border barrier, saying: "There's not going to be any bend right here."
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Trump said he had told aides to say that they wanted a steel barrier, rather than the concrete wall he promised during the campaign. Trump said Democrats "don't like concrete, so we'll give them steel."
The president has already suggested his definition of the wall is flexible, but Democrats have made clear they see a wall as immoral and ineffective and prefer other types of border security funded at already agreed upon levels.
Trump reaffirmed that he would consider declaring a national emergency to circumvent Congress and spend money as he saw fit. Such a move would seem certain to draw legal challenges.
Incoming House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said on ABC's "This Week" that the executive power has been used to build military facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan but would likely be "wide open" to a court challenge for a border wall.
Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff called the idea a "nonstarter."
"Look, if Harry Truman couldn't nationalize the steel industry during wartime, this president doesn't have the power to declare an emergency and build a multibillion-dollar wall on the border," said Schiff, D-Calif.
Trump also asserted that he could relate to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who aren't getting paid, though he acknowledged they will have to "make adjustments" to deal with the shutdown shortfall. A day earlier, the president had tweeted that he didn't care that "most of the workers not getting paid are Democrats."
Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, sought to frame Trump's support for a steel barrier as progress in the negotiations, saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "if he has to give up a concrete wall, replace it with a steel fence in order to do that so that Democrats can say, 'See? He's not building a wall anymore,' that should help us move in the right direction."
Trump said he planned to call the heads of American steel companies in hopes of coming up with a new design for the barrier he contends must be built along the southern border. His administration has already spent millions constructing wall prototypes near the border in San Diego.