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Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming. Gift of The Coe Foundation. 8.70. 

Alfred Jacob Miller (1810–1874) painted this watercolor titled “Greeting the Trappers” around 1837 based on his travels to a mountain man rendezvous. 

Kemmerer Coal Mine
Retired from Kemmerer coal mine, workers plead for pensions in company bankruptcy

Perry Norris, 65, worked at the Kemmerer coal mine for 40 years. For four decades he worked three shift rotations. He broke an elbow at the mine in southern Wyoming, broke his back and picked up a persistent cough from years of inhaling dust, he explained in a handwritten letter submitted Monday to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Houston, where Westmoreland is moving rapidly through its Chapter 11 restructuring.

His reason for writing was to object to Westmoreland potentially cutting pensions and health care benefits for retired miners like him.

“I am 65 and my wife is 64,” Norris wrote. “We are barely surviving on our social security and retirement together.”

Similar letters told similar stories: 30, 40, 46 years of work in Kemmerer and fear that income those workers had believed would carry them through retirement would disappear with the approval of a judge in Texas.

Westmoreland Coal Co., which owns the Kemmerer mine and three mines in Montana, filed for bankruptcy in early October, with a lender already on hand and a plan to restructure $90 million in debt. The company, which is one of the oldest coal firms in the country, would also sell off core assets.

In bankruptcy filings this week, the company requested permission from the court to offer incentives to 243 managers, averaging $6,000 per upper-level manager. The company would like to set aside $1.5 million per quarter through the period of bankruptcy for bonuses.

The company argued that incentives — which are not uncommon during bankruptcies — would keep mangers from leaving due to the company’s financial insolvency. Bonuses were also requested of bankruptcy judges in the high-profile Chapter 11 cases of Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural Resources, large Wyoming coal firms whose bankruptcies bookended Wyoming’s dramatic coal downturn.

Westmoreland was the first coal firm to seek bankruptcy protections since 2016, when the largest firms in Wyoming buckled under debt in a narrowing coal market. The pressures that led to those bankruptcies in the Powder River Basin have continued — competition with cheap natural gas, an increase in renewable power on the grid, customer preference for green energy — and they’ve pressured Westmoreland.

But the United Mine Workers of America have protested Westmoreland’s plea for relief at the expense of miners who bargained their retirement plans over decades of work in southern Wyoming.

Weeks after Westmoreland’s bankruptcy filing, the United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to the coal firm’s reorganization plan over retiree benefits. The union argued that the company’s progress was unnecessarily rushed and that Westmoreland’s lender would oversee employee bargaining agreements and benefits.

The union and the company had spatted via letters in the runup to the bankruptcy over this very issue. The union argued Westmoreland had an obligation. The company pressed that economic conditions had changed for the worse.

“The unfortunate reality is that Westmoreland Coal Company and its subsidiaries cannot survive as a going concern without material changes to the retiree medical benefits currently offered to union employees and retirees,” a Sept. 18 letter from the company to the union’s lawyers states. “We will be filing for Chapter 11 protection shortly and we will have no choice but to address this pressing issue.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Nov. 9 that Westmoreland had paid $10.2 million in bonuses to its executives in the year before filing for bankruptcy, a point noted in many of the miners’ letters.

Miners are looking at the possibility of poverty, wrote Steven Hutchinson of Utah, who said he worked at the Kemmerer mine for 41 years before retiring.

“Please be wise and have (compassion) on the worker, his family,” he wrote. “Hold Westmoreland to the (their) moral responsibilities and commitments.”

Calls to Westmoreland’s offices in Colorado were not returned by press time.

The Kemmerer mine employed 286 miners as of June. The union is currently bargaining for a new contract, a process union members report has been slowed by the bankruptcy.

Pacificorp, the lone buyer of coal from the Kemmerer mine, has also lodged a protest to some of Westmoreland’s bankruptcy plans. The Oregon-based utility, parent company to Rocky Mountain Power, said that if Kemmerer were to abruptly shut down it would “advance the interest of private financial creditors over public utilities and their customers.”

The mine and the power plant are significant drivers of local income, as well as two of the few employment opportunities in the rural town.

Jim Vilos worked at the mine for 41 years. His letter to the judge recalls working in subzero temperatures that numbed the feet and hands.

“It was our job and we done it,” he said. “We the miners kept our end of the deal.”

Wyoming lawmakers will consider a lodging tax in the upcoming session

As Wyoming’s primary industry — energy — cycles between times of boom and bust, the state’s other main economic driver continues its steady, if unassuming climb.

Last year, visitors spent nearly $3.6 billion in Wyoming, according to a report prepared by the Wyoming Office of Tourism. Since 2007, tourism spending has increased by about 3 percent annually.

But as the tourism industry continues to grow, the budget for the state’s tourism office has remained flat. In fact, the office hasn’t received a boost in budget or staffing levels for more than eight years.

This has made industry professionals a bit nervous, considering the source of the tourism office’s budget — the state’s general fund — is tied to the success of the state’s oil and gas industry, which is highly volatile.

For several years, state lawmakers have been working to figure out a way to fund the state’s tourism industry independent of the general fund, with little success. In the 2019 general session, however, local governments and industry professionals feel they may have a compromise to do just that, and will introduce a bill proposing the implementation of a statewide 5 percent lodging tax.

If passed, the tax will guarantee funding for the state’s tourism programming on a level competitive with surrounding states (Wyoming currently ranks 31st, behind states like Utah, Colorado and Montana) while locking in guaranteed funding for local governments to allow the flexibility to respond to the impacts of increased tourism.

While labeled as a 5 percent tax, that is a bit of a misnomer: out of the 5 percent, 3 percent will fund statewide tourism promotion efforts — which are subject to executive oversight — while the other 2 percent will go to local governments. This portion of the funding, however, won’t kick in until existing local lodging taxes expire, in order to avoid too much of a burden on municipalities.

An amendment on how that would roll out will be included in the bill when it is introduced to the full Legislature in January.

While industry professionals and lobbyists for municipal governments were admittedly reluctant to discuss any new taxes, reaction among the tourism industry and municipal groups has been largely favorable, with many testifying at a legislative meeting Thursday in Cheyenne that this solution was likely the best compromise to move tourism funding out of the state’s general fund and a more attractive bill than a failed lodging tax proposed last year.

How the funds can be allocated was a significant focus of discussion at Thursday’s meeting. In Teton County, the prospect of spending more tourism money on mitigating the impacts of tourism traffic, rather than further promotional efforts, has become a campaign issue, prompting some to consider amendments that could allow tourism funds for purposes other than promotion.

How to do that was up in the air and, while legislators expressed an awareness of the need to allow local government’s flexibility to spend money to address the problems popularity can bring to a community, an amendment to allow flexible spending of those funds was not considered.

Tariff tensions shadow US, Canada, Mexico trade pact signing

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — President Donald Trump signed a revised North American trade pact with the leaders of Canada and Mexico on Friday, declaring the deal a major victory for workers. But tensions over tariffs, looming GM layoffs and questions about the pact's prospects in Congress clouded the celebratory moment.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is meant to replace the 24-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has long denigrated as a "disaster." The leaders signed the new deal on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires after two years of frequently blistering negotiations. Each country's legislature still must approve.

"This has been a battle, and battles sometimes make great friendships, so it's really terrific," Trump said, before lining up next to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and outgoing Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to sign three copies of the deal.

The signing came at the beginning of a packed two days of diplomacy for the American president that will conclude with high-stakes talks today with Chinese President Xi Jinping on ways to ease an escalating trade war between the two countries.

"There's some good signs," Trump said. "We'll see what happens."

For the new North American trade deal, legislative approval is the next step. That could prove a difficult task in the United States, especially now that Democrats — instead of Trump's Republicans — will control the House come January. Democrats and their allies in the labor movement are already demanding changes.

Within hours of the signing, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the deal must have stronger labor and environmental protections in order to get majority support in Congress and "must prove to be a net benefit to middle-class families and working people."

Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi quipped, "The trade agreement formerly known as Prince — no, I mean, formerly known as NAFTA, is a work in progress."

Still, Trump projected confidence, saying: "It's been so well reviewed I don't expect to have very much of a problem."

Trump is describing USMCA as a landmark trade agreement. But most companies are just relieved that it largely preserves the status quo established by NAFTA: a regional trade bloc that allows most products to travel between the United States, Canada and Mexico duty free. During the negotiations, Trump repeatedly threatened to pull out, a move that would have disrupted businesses that have built complicated supply chains that straddle the borders of the three countries.

The new agreement does make some changes to the way business is done in North America. It updates the trade pact to reflect the rise of the digital economy since the original NAFTA took effect nearly a quarter century ago. It gives U.S. dairy farmers a bit more access to the protected Canadian market.

The biggest changes target the auto industry. The new deal encourages auto companies to invest or expand in the United States and Canada, not low-wage Mexico, by requiring that 40 percent of a car's content be made where auto workers earn at least $16 an hour; otherwise, the cars won't qualify for USMCA's duty-free treatment.

Trudeau said the deal "lifts the risk of serious economic uncertainty" and said Canada worked hard for a "new, modernized agreement." But he also used the ceremony to call on Trump to remove steel and aluminum tariffs the U.S. slapped on Canada and Mexico.

Before Trump arrived in Argentina he injected additional drama into the proceedings by canceling a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Also of interest was whether Trump would have an encounter with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was attending amid global dismay over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump gathered with the leaders for a traditional group photo, but did not appear to acknowledge Putin or the crown prince as he walked by. A senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Trump and bin Salman exchanged pleasantries during a subsequent leaders' session.

At the G-20 summit, U.S. negotiators blocked progress on managing migration, slowing climate change, and streamlining how world trade is governed, according to European officials involved in the discussions.

Security concerns also weighed on the two-day talks in Buenos Aires. Argentina's security minister said eight gasoline bombs were discovered in an area of the capital several miles from the summit venue where a protest in the afternoon drew thousands of demonstrators.

The whole point of the G-20 — formed in the wake of the global financial crisis a decade ago — is finding ways to solve global problems together, but diplomats in Buenos Aires struggled to find enough things all the leaders agree on.

Trump sought to use the summit to make his own trade deals, and angered the Argentine hosts by misconstruing their position on China's trade practices.

Meanwhile, a spokesman with South Korea's presidential office said Trump has reaffirmed a willingness to hold his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un early next year. Yoon Young-chan said Trump made the comments in a meeting Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Private audit finds no issues with Natrona County School District's credit card use

An independent audit of the Natrona County School District uncovered no issues or deficiencies with credit card usage, the district learned earlier this week.

“We are not reporting any (material weaknesses or significant deficiencies) findings,” accountant Diane Cox told the school board’s budget committee on Monday. She added that she was offering no opinion on the district’s internal controls for credit card spending, but she said that had there been a serious issue uncovered, she would’ve been required to report it.

The findings match with previous statements made by officials that they believe there has been no abuse of district-distributed credit cards. The issue was thrust into the spotlight in August, when a contributor for Forbes published a story highlighting the district’s credit card usage and alleging that district officials were hiding the true nature of that spending from the elected school board and the public at large.

The article, written based off of a public records request, detailed nearly $10 million in credit card spending. Millions of dollars were listed as having been spent on travel and entertainment.

The district has carefully rejected any suggestion of impropriety but has acknowledged a lack of transparency. In a press conference held the day after the story was published, business manager Ryan Kelly said the district had identified no misuse or abuse of its credit cards by the hundreds of staff members who possessed them. He and Superintendent Steve Hopkins provided proof that the board was given regular updates about the credit card spending, though those updates were often not posted publicly.

Hopkins and Kelly explained that the listing of expenses as travel or entertainment were designations set by vendors, not the district, and did not necessarily reflect the true purpose of the spending. They said a $6,195 bill paid to Krispy Kreme was for a school fundraiser, more than $10,000 in iTunes spending was for educational apps, and trips to Las Vegas and Nashville were for conferences.

While Hopkins called the story accurate and refrained from publicly criticizing it, board members have been more frustrated. Trustee Kevin Christopherson, for example, scoffed at the Forbes article calling for an independent audit of Natrona County’s books because the district already does that.

In any case, the district has made moves to be more open with the public with its spending. Records of credit card expenditures have been made available on the district’s website, and administrators released new guidelines governing the use of district cards in October.