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Visitors traverse the snow-covered boardwalk along Excelsior Geyser Crater in Yellowstone National Park. Private businesses pitched in to keep the park open during the partial government shutdown.

Wyoming House picks Buffalo over Casper for veterans nursing home as situation continues to fluctuate

The Wyoming House is recommending Buffalo as the best site for a potential state-run nursing home for veterans — but Casper City Manager Carter Napier says Casper could still ultimately be selected.

“Now the conversation switches to the Senate side,” he said. “If there is going to be a turnaround favoring Casper that will probably be our last opportunity for that.”

A state committee initially recommended Buffalo as the best site but switched that decision to Casper earlier this month. This week, a House of Representatives vote reversed the decision back to Buffalo.

“I really think that Casper is a better selection for the veterans,” said Napier, adding that the city’s central location and wide range of medical care would both be beneficial for the nursing home’s residents.

A handful of city representatives made similar arguments last month before the Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee. But it appeared the committee was torn because Buffalo already has the state’s assisted living facility for veterans.

Buffalo has been the site of the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming since 1903. The potential new nursing home would offer a more advanced level of care for veterans.

Sabrina Foreman, the vice president of business development for the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance, said Friday that she firmly believes Casper would be the best spot.

“These are people who can’t really take care of themselves anymore,” said Foreman, who was among those who addressed the committee last month. “… I’m surprised that (the committee) didn’t just say we need to have it in Casper because it has all the medical specialties.”

Foreman said private healthcare providers in Buffalo have also publicly expressed concerns that the nursing home could take away needed medical professionals from the area’s private healthcare sector.

The committee initially considered several cities, including Cheyenne and Riverton. But only Casper, Buffalo and Sheridan were selected as finalists this summer.

In addition to offering a wide range of medical care, Casper officials have also touted the Casper/Natrona County International Airport as an asset.

Being near the airport would be convenient for veterans’ family members or friends who want to visit, Jolene Martinez, the assistant to the city manager, said last month.

“Our airport is open all the time,” she said. “There is only one other place in the state that can say the same thing, and that’s Jackson Hole.”

During the 2018 Budget Session, the Wyoming Legislature instructed three organizations — the Wyoming Veterans’ Commission, Wyoming Department of Health and the State Construction Department — to conduct a study about constructing a veterans state home.

The study will ultimately conclude who the facility would serve, where it would be located and whether or not it should be built.

Casper air traffic controller speaks out against shutdown, saying it hurt airline safety

President Donald Trump announced Friday that the government will reopen for three weeks as budget negotiations continue — but at least one local federal employee isn’t celebrating just yet.

“It was great news to hear, but it’s not good enough,” said David Case, an air traffic controller who worked without pay at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport during the shutdown. “We need a long-term solution.”

Case, who serves as the local representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said it’s unacceptable for politicians to use federal employees as “bargaining chips.” NATCA is a labor union for air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Friday afternoon, hours after Trump announced the shutdown was temporarily over, Case brought a letter to the office of U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi in the Dick Cheney Federal Building. The letter, which Case wrote earlier this week, explained how the shutdown affected the local air traffic control tower.

“Instead of focusing on air traffic, we’re forced to be thinking about whether we will have a paycheck,” he wrote. “We’re wondering how long this madness will continue. That’s not how it’s supposed to be and it’s dangerous.”

Case urged the senator to stand with federal employees and to reject “shutdown politics” as the new status quo.

“Federal workers and the service infrastructure of our nation — including the safety of our aviation system — should never be used as pawns in a political fight,” he wrote.

The senator’s local office was closed Friday afternoon, but Case plans to try again Monday. In addition to his own letter, Case also has a handful of others from his co-workers and their families.

“I’d like to believe that Sen. Enzi will (read them),” he said.

As the primary provider for his family, the 33-year-old said it was nerve-wracking to miss two paychecks. Although he and his wife cut down on their expenses, Case estimated that they would have needed outside assistance by the end of February to stay afloat.

The couple tried to use less electricity and to limit their grocery shopping, but Case said it was difficult to create a financial plan when there was no shutdown end date in sight.

“How do you budget for that?” he asked.

The 35-day stalemate, the longest in U.S. history, stemmed from lawmakers’ impasse over funding for a border wall.

It’s unclear exactly how many of Wyoming’s roughly 5,000 federal employees were directly affected by the shutdown, but Case wasn’t alone among those in Casper who were also hit hard.

Carrie Reece previously told the Star-Tribune that she worried for her co-workers at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper.

As the executive director for the facility’s foundation, Reece said she wasn’t a federal employee and could therefore continue working. Her job largely involves grant writing, which she explained could be done from her home.

But she said the museum’s six full-time federal employees didn’t have that option.

“I can’t imagine how stressful it is for them,” Reece said. “They’re all trying to stay positive...I am watching (news about the shutdown) closely and certainly hoping it will come to an end soon.”

Reece did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Longest shutdown over: Trump signs bill to reopen government

WASHINGTON — Submitting to mounting pressure amid growing disruption, President Donald Trump signed a bill Friday to reopen the government for three weeks, backing down from his demand that Congress give him money for his border wall before federal agencies get back to work.

Standing alone in the Rose Garden, Trump said he would sign legislation funding shuttered agencies until Feb. 15 and try again to persuade lawmakers to finance his long-sought wall. The deal he reached with congressional leaders contains no new money for the wall but ends the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

First the Senate, then the House swiftly and unanimously approved the deal. Late Friday, Trump signed it into law. The administration asked federal department heads to reopen offices in a "prompt and orderly manner" and said furloughed employees can return to work.

Trump's retreat came in the 35th day of the partial shutdown as intensifying delays at the nation's airports and another missed payday for hundreds of thousands of federal workers brought new urgency to efforts to resolve the standoff.

"This was in no way a concession," Trump said in a tweet late Friday, fending off critics who wanted him to keep fighting. "It was taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it's off to the races!"

The shutdown ended as Democratic leaders had insisted it must — reopen the government first, then talk border security.

"The president thought he could crack Democrats, and he didn't, and I hope it's a lesson for him," said the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of her members: "Our unity is our power. And that is what maybe the president underestimated."

Trump still made the case for a border wall and maintained he might again shut down the government over it. Yet, as negotiations restart, Trump enters them from a weakened position. A strong majority of Americans blamed him for the standoff and rejected his arguments for a border wall, recent polls show.

"If we don't get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on Feb. 15, again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and Constitution of the United States to address this emergency," Trump said.

The president has said he could declare a national emergency to fund the border wall unilaterally if Congress doesn't provide the money. Such a move would almost certainly face legal hurdles.

As part of the deal with congressional leaders, a bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers was being formed to consider border spending as part of the legislative process in the weeks ahead.

"They are willing to put partisanship aside, I think, and put the security of the American people first," Trump said. He asserted that a "barrier or walls will be an important part of the solution."

The deal includes back pay for some 800,000 federal workers who have gone without paychecks. The Trump administration promises to pay them as soon as possible.

Also expected is a new date for the president to deliver his State of the Union address, postponed during the shutdown. But it will not be Jan. 29 as once planned, according to a person familiar with the planning but unauthorized to discuss it.

As border talks resume, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he hopes there will be "good-faith negotiations over the next three weeks to try to resolve our differences."

Schumer said that while Democrats oppose the wall money, they agree on other ways to secure the border "and that bodes well for coming to an eventual agreement."

In striking the accord, Trump risks backlash from conservatives who pushed him to keep fighting for the wall. Some lashed out Friday for his having yielded, for now, on his signature campaign promise.

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter suggested on Twitter that she views Trump as "the biggest wimp" to serve as president.

Money for the wall is not at all guaranteed, as Democrats have held united against building a structure as Trump once envisioned, preferring other types of border technology. Asked about Trump's wall, Pelosi, who has said repeatedly she won't approve money for it, said: "Have I not been clear? No, I have been very clear."

The breakthrough came as LaGuardia Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey both experienced at least 90-minute delays in takeoffs Friday because of the shutdown. And the world's busiest airport — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — was experiencing long security wait times, a warning sign the week before it expects 150,000 out-of-town visitors for the Super Bowl.

The standoff became so severe that, as the Senate opened with prayer, Chaplain Barry Black called on high powers in the "hour of national turmoil" to help senators do "what is right."

Senator introduces bill to keep national parks open in future shutdowns

CHEYENNE — In the throes of the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States, Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, was sitting down for breakfast and reading a newspaper.

Workers for the U.S. Department of the Interior had been furloughed, and in the national parks of the West, things were beginning to go into disarray. In Yellowstone, roads went uncleared and in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, trash began piling up, with those responsible for cleaning it nowhere to be found.

Fortunately, it was wintertime and visitation to the parks was at a lull. But Scott began wondering what would happen if a government shutdown — the most recent of which ended temporarily Friday — arrived again in the peak season, thus having an impact on Wyoming’s second biggest industry.

“My god,” Scott said. “That would just wreck our tourist industry. It would do a tremendous amount of economic damage as well as disappoint people from all around the world who come especially to see Yellowstone.”

Working with Sen. Ogden Driskill — who does his business near Devils Tower National Monument — Scott began drafting what would become Senate File 148, which would allow for the state to temporarily seize control of federal lands in Wyoming in the case of a shutdown. The bill is essentially a framework for a future agreement with the federal government delegating what aspects of impacted federal lands the state can work with, such as road maintenance.

The bill also calls for a process to return those lands to the federal government once the shutdown ends.

“We tried to be very careful to be respectful of the fact the federal government does own it,” Scott said. “We would protect the natural features, the government would have some flexibility in deciding what government agencies to use — WYDOT might be involved, for instance, if they couldn’t open the park in a reasonable amount of time and they needed a plow or two.”

“But (the governor) needs some authority,” Scott added. “And this gives him the authority to act.”

Dubious constitutionality

As far as the intent of the bill, there is already a legacy of state governments drafting memorandums of understanding with the federal government in case of a federal shutdown. Notably, Utah entered one during the 2013 federal shutdown, ponying up $1 million to operate the state parks system — an amount that has, notably, never been repaid.

However, said University of Wyoming law professor Sam Kalen, the language used in the bill — the explicit use of the term “seizure,” for one — would likely make Scott’s piece of legislation unconstitutional.

“If I’m a solicitor, I’m probably going to tell my client that is either illegal or not a good policy,” Kalen said.

“I’m not even sure why you would write it like that,” he added. “If the feds won’t enter into (a memorandum of understanding) because of the way it’s drafted, what good does the bill do?”

The bill, as written, has several issues, Kalen said. The bill’s language doesn’t explicitly say the governor needs a memorandum with the federal government to seize control of federal land — only that he or she could if the government were to shut down. Another provision in the bill, Kalen said, that mentions an agreement between the governor and the federal government doesn’t actually require them to enter the agreement, only saying that they “may” do so.

When asked if he had any concern if the bill might be unconstitutional or if he had reached out to the state’s attorney general for their opinion, Scott shrugged it off, saying the intent of the bill was clear: giving Wyoming an option to respond in the case of a federal shutdown.

“That didn’t bother me,” Scott said. “We’re not trying to do anything long-term that’s unconstitutional or will do any harm to anything. We’re trying to help out the federal government and help out the citizens — including our citizens — and the tourism industry. I don’t see any fundamental problems with the bill.”

“When push comes to shove,” he added, “we’re not going to let the foolishness in Washington stand in the way of using common sense.”

Kalen, while clear in the flaws of the bill as drafted, said that the bill language could be massaged, though some areas are problematic: One part of the bill, for instance, gives Wyoming jurisdiction to take over roads entering Yellowstone from Idaho or Montana. Scott said that those details could eventually be worked out either through the states or via the federal government.

As is the nature of a work in progress.

“Part of it is that whenever you draft things, there are always political statements being made — obviously people intend that language will be massaged as it goes through the process, so oftentimes you just introduce something to begin the dialogue,” Kalen said. “The charitable way of looking at this is that it is beginning a dialogue of what the state might be able to do to help the feds during a shutdown.”