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Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Matthew Savery conducts a rehearsal of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra on Thursday evening in the Casper College music building. Savery lives in Bozeman, Montana, and also conducts the symphony there.

Without a deal on border wall, nearly 5,000 Wyomingites in limbo

With the partial government shutdown showing no signs of ending, thousands of federal workers in Wyoming remain in limbo with several agencies closed or offering reduced services.

It’s unclear exactly how many of the state’s roughly 5,000 federal employees are directly affected by the shutdown. During the shutdown, essential services are still available, meaning some government employees are working without pay. Other services have been shut down and workers have been furloughed for the time being.

As the federal government wound down operations over the weekend, lawmakers looked past Christmas with a wary eye toward negotiations over a spending bill to fund the remaining quarter of the federal government. But they remain at an impasse over funding for a border wall, which President Donald Trump campaigned on and has made a signature priority.

The affected departments with the biggest presence in Wyoming include the Department of Agriculture (1,064 employees) and the Department of the Interior (2,034 employees), according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Photos: Federal shutdown impacts national parks, government offices

Not all employees will be affected however: some essential workers, such as law enforcement, emergency response personnel and others will remain active during the shutdown.

With Congress unlikely to convene until at least Thursday, leadership for both Senate Republicans and Democrats have expressed doubt that any solution containing wall funding could be passed before the end of this year. Over the weekend, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said that the Senate lacked the votes to pass funding for a border wall and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Friday he would not resort to a “nuclear option” to pass border wall funding, saying through a spokesman that Senate Republicans do not plan to change filibuster rules that have prevented them from passing a spending bill with Trump’s demand for border wall funding.

Wyoming’s delegation weighs in

If the government shutdown extends into the next Congress, when the Democrats take the majority, it is highly unlikely that a border wall will be part of the House’s appropriations requests.

Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the upcoming minority, however, believes the wall is essential to border security, hinting that the House of Representatives will, at least, be split on partisan lines in January over the wall’s funding.

“All of us need to stop talking about this from a political perspective,” Cheney said in a television appearance on Sunday. “The president has been very clear, we need to secure our border – the House voted for a bill that does just that – and we need the Democrats in both the House and the Senate to come to the table and get the work done. I think all the calculations over who this helps or hurts, at the end of the day the majority of the American people want the border secured.”

Though a version of a Senate appropriations bill without wall funding passed last week by a voice vote – meaning the voting record of senators was not recorded – Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi voted Friday to take up the House version of the bill, which includes money for the wall.

“I voted to support the government funding bill that included additional funds to be sure we have border security,” Enzi said. “I believe we need to protect our borders against those who seek to enter our country illegally. Unfortunately, it is clear this legislation does not have enough votes to pass the Senate. I hope Congress and the president will act soon to fund the government.”

Several days earlier in an appearance on Face The Nation, Barrasso said he would support a compromise deal to avert a partial government shutdown, though he preferred honoring all of the president’s appropriations requests.

“Shutting down the government, even partially, never benefits anyone,” Barrasso wrote in a statement on Friday. “I voted today to finish funding our government, secure our borders and give Americans in disaster areas the resources they need to recover. Senate Democrats, who supported border security in the past, chose to block the funding necessary to keep our nation’s borders secure.”

The evening ultimately ended with the Senate unable to reach a deal on the bill and without a vote, prompting a partial shutdown of the government.

Wyoming impacts

Wyoming’s national parks – Yellowstone and Grand Teton – will be open to the public during the shutdown. However, guest services facilities like public restrooms and entrance gates will be closed and the parks, save for law enforcement and emergency personnel, will not be staffed.

Wyoming’s national monuments will also be affected. Devils Tower National Monument is completely closed during the shutdown, and all facilities at Fossil Butte National Monument and Fort Laramie National Historic Site are closed. In January 2017, these sites counted nearly 2,800 visitors between the three, according to the National Parks Service, most of which were at Devil’s Tower.

Numerous agencies crucial to other Wyomingites, however, are impacted. With the shutdown of the Department of the Interior, agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian affairs have ceased non-essential activities.

Wyoming’s Military Department is also affected, though with military funding already secured, the roughly 6,000 active and reserve service members in the state will not be impacted by the shutdown.

Former Casper College instructor who spent five years as Lebanese hostage dies at age 79

A retired Casper College instructor who once spent nearly five years being held hostage in Lebanon has died.

Alann Steen, 79, died from cancer on Dec. 13, according to an obituary published in the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington.

Steen taught English and journalism for 12 years at Casper College and also served as adviser to the school’s student newspaper. After his retirement in 2004, he moved to Spokane, where he lived until his death.

But he was best known for being one of several high-profile hostages during a period in the 1980s when American captives were held in Lebanon. The story about his release in December 1991 made the front page of the New York Times.

In 1987, Steen was teaching journalism at Beirut University College when Hezbollah militants took him and three other professors hostage, according to reporting from the Star-Tribune and the New York Times. The kidnapping of the professors came just days after the arrest of a Lebanese man suspected of being involved in the hijacking of an airplane.

Steen escaped for a time during his first year of captivity, but he was later found and beaten badly by his kidnappers. He spent his time in captivity chained to the walls of makeshift prisons in Beirut.

“It was a room that might have been 10-feet wide and 20-feet long under the first floor,” he said, describing one place where he was held. “It was accessed by a ladder — that’s how they came down and they fed us. But the bathroom and everything was at our level so we didn’t have to go up the ladder.”

The experience left him scarred physically and emotionally, he told the Star-Tribune in a 2004 interview. He suffered from epileptic seizures that came from an interrogation in which his captors learned he had served in the Marine Corps. He fell while handcuffed and hit his head against a coffee table.

“I don’t really think you know what freedom is until you’ve lost it,” he said.

After his release, he and his wife, Virginia, were looking for a peaceful place to live. They settled on Casper, where he resumed his teaching career.

His wife, who was an advocate for the release of hostages in Lebanon, died unexpectedly in 2003 after contracting the flu.

Steen later remarried, according to his obituary. He had three daughters, two step children and four grandchildren.

Looking back: Massive sales tax error shook Casper

A massive sales tax mix-up shook Casper in 2018 and left the city’s leaders calling for Wyoming’s sales tax collection and distribution system to be revised.

The city mistakenly received an additional $1.7 million in sales tax distributions after a Sweetwater County vendor incorrectly reported its taxes in Natrona County. The error occurred from October 2013 to December 2015 and was later detected by a routine audit.

After the Department of Revenue learned about the mistake, it deducted the money from Casper’s monthly sales tax distribution in July — much to local leaders’ chagrin.

“It was very discouraging given all the work that we’ve done to keep ourselves self-sustaining ... It’s something that we didn’t anticipate and there’s nothing that we did that caused this problem,” City Manager Carter Napier said at the time.

Casper officials later took a loan from the state that gave the city up to five years to pay back the money. But Napier has said it’s unfair that the state and vendor aren’t held accountable for mistakes.

“The cities, town or counties shouldn’t be the only ones to bear the burden for providing the appropriate relief,” he said. “When there is skin in the game by more than just one party involved, naturally we believe there will be an incentive (to get it right).”

The Department of Revenue currently has a self-reporting system that relies on vendors to correctly report tax information. There are no fines or other penalties for businesses that file in the wrong county, Kim Lovett, the administrator of the Department of Revenue’s Excise Tax Division, said in July.

Several state leaders previously told the Star-Tribune that the current system needs to be examined, including Gov. Matt Mead.

“This is not the first time it’s happened…” said Mead, adding that he received a frantic call years ago from Sheridan’s then-mayor regarding an over-payment issue. “If there was a way to modify (the system) to provide a triple-check or a double-check, that would be worthwhile.”

Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, has said he’s exploring whether the system could be altered so that any county that experiences a significant change in sales tax figures year to year would automatically undergo an audit.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, pointed out that taxpayers who overpay the state only have a limited amount of time to notice the error and request a refund. The representative said lawmakers should consider holding the state to similar standards.

Dan Noble, the director of the Department of Revenue, previously said that any changes regarding how the department operates must come from state lawmakers. The department’s officials are not permitted to lobby for a position, he said.

Solvay, an international chemical company with a branch in Sweetwater County, sent a letter to the City Council in September and identified itself as the vendor at fault.

“We regret that this error, which in no way benefited Solvay, has had a state funding impact on the town,” local site manager Todd Brichacek wrote. “We are working with our tax advisers to prevent this type of clerical error from happening in the future.”

Casper wasn’t the only entity in Natrona County affected by the error. The Natrona County government collected an additional $366,000. Mills ($108,000), Midwest ($13,000), Bar Nunn ($69,000), Evansville ($80,000) and Edgerton ($6,000) also received more than they were due.