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Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune  

Pathways Innovation Center student Justin Widenham welds during a class in May 2017. A bill before the Wyoming Senate would allow Wyoming high school students to qualify for the Hathaway Scholarship with technical education credits. 

Gordon outlines vision for Wyoming in first State of the State address

CHEYENNE — Roughly 48 hours after giving his first speech as Wyoming’s chief executive, Gov. Mark Gordon visited the Legislature to lay out a more detailed vision for the state, pledging new efforts to diversify the state’s economy, stabilize Wyoming’s finances and boost its energy sector while protecting its natural resources.

But he also left a number of questions on the table, leaving those who were present a gentle reminder that his goals cannot be accomplished without cooperation from both houses of the state legislature.

Reiterating a number of his campaign pledges throughout the nearly 45-minute speech, Gordon outlined a number of priorities he has set for his first year in government, from the management of the state’s natural areas to the direction of its economy.

Goals were both tangible and not, with the governor offering aspirations that have yet to take their final form. Where Gordon offered a number of concrete proposals – a high school level program to increase engagement in the state’s budget process, increased independence for the Wyoming Wildlife Natural Resource Trust and a streamlined bureaucracy in state government – he also outlined multiple objectives that remain without a road map, particularly in regards to finding a sustainable way to fund the state’s education systems and to work toward a “Wyoming-based solution” to solving the state’s rising health care costs.

Photos: Mark Gordon celebrates inauguration as Wyoming's 33rd governor

In all, the governor said the state of the state was “strong,” and though it faces challenges in regards to volatility in its chief industries – oil, gas and coal in particular – the governor expressed optimism about the potential to capitalize on other means to expand the state economy, including tourism, workforce development and a greater commitment toward the state’s investment in natural resources.

The tangible

Gordon has often discussed a way forward in streamlining the function of state government. Throughout his address, he brought clarity to what that might look like, outlining not only the specific work he wanted to do within the bureaucracy – from pay raises for public employees to improving workflows – but how to approach the issue to find ways each state agency might better work together.

“Health services, family services, workforce services, insurance and corrections make up some of the most significant expenditures in our state,” said Gordon. “This body has wrestled with how best to meet the needs of our people in a cost conscious and compassionate way. My administration will seek to better integrate our approaches across agencies, not through bigger bureaucracies, but by finding synergies and providing better service to our citizens and streamlining our delivery.”

Fiscal responsibility was a recurring theme throughout his speech, with righting the state’s finances outlined as a headlining priority. While much of the work, he noted in his address, remained with the Legislature, he spoke to his goal of setting parameters for how to spend Wyoming’s rainy day account to help balance the state’s finances, and outlined a number of other financial goals he would support to help increase the state’s earnings in the stock market.

Gordon also said the state needs to contain its expenses, find better ways to fund the state’s savings and deliver its services.

A way forward for the energy sector

Wyoming’s reliance on income from minerals and oil and gas hangs over nearly all the issues currently facing the Legislature this session and, with returns not like they used to be, Gordon was realistic about the challenges the industry – and coal in particular – are facing.

But he also noted that amidst a changing world, there is also opportunity, particularly overseas.

“Around the globe, technology keeps advancing, there is progress benefiting our world by burning coal more cleanly and efficiently,” said Gordon. “Japan and Korea have built the most efficient clean burning fleets of coal-fired electric generation ever. Technologies employed there, when paired with Powder River Basin coal, can reduce the overall carbon emitted to the atmosphere. That is progress that should be a gut cinch for those advocating to control carbon emissions.”

But significant battles remain for that type of progress, particularly on the national stage.

“And yet, our access to these Asian markets remains restricted, tied up in permit after permit,” he continued. “I believe this to be an unconstitutional restraint of trade. And I will strongly advocate for access to all markets.”

Meanwhile, the work to remain on the cutting edge in research and innovation will continue in Wyoming, with Gordon reaffirming his commitment to carbon sequestration technology and other efforts, like an enhanced Energy Office to help speed up permitting and energy development, both for legacy fuels and renewable energy projects. This, he said, was not only to solidify his administration’s commitment to coal, but to work toward combating the effects of climate change as well.

“We in Wyoming are anxious to lead the way to a brighter future, not by following political fashion, but by rolling up our sleeves, doubling down on research and innovation, and solving our world’s energy problems,” he said.

What lies ahead

Health care popped up briefly in Gordon’s speech, with the governor advocating for the elusive “Wyoming-based system” that has yet to take shape in the Legislature.

Photos: Mark Gordon's road to the Wyoming governor's mansion

“We have been given an opportunity to craft a Wyoming solution for health care,” said Gordon. “I look forward to working with the Legislature to bring forth state-led solutions. Health care is too important to our children, our parents, and to each of us. We certainly cannot expand the economy, keep our major employers or attract new businesses if we do not find ways to bring down health care costs.”

While the state’s education department did receive nods for efforts to increase school security, finding a solution to funding K-12 education remains in the air, with much of the answer lying with the Legislature. In his inaugural speech on Monday, Gordon mentioned he would advocate to move beyond a one-size-fits-all solution for education – a point he did not return to in Wednesday’s address.

What he did mention, however, was that he had faith the Legislature.

“I have to say the enthusiasm we have felt over the past couple of days should give us all optimism for our future,” he said. “We are a resourceful people in an amazing state at an important time in our state’s history. Let us make the most of it.”

Government shutdown affects employees at National Historic Trails Interpretive Center

Carrie Reece is worried for her co-workers at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper. The federal museum’s employees haven’t been permitted to work since Dec. 21 due to the partial government shutdown, she said.

“I can’t imagine how stressful it is for them,” she said. “They’re all trying to stay positive.”

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

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

“I am watching (news about the shutdown) closely and certainly hoping it will come to an end soon,” Reece said.

Reece said her co-workers who are federal workers would not be able to comment.

The center is one of Casper’s most popular visitor attractions, and winter is usually an especially busy time for the center, Reece said. Visitors in town for the holidays often stop by the museum, and schools throughout the state organize field trips to the facility.

“It’s a really valuable resource for educators,” she said, adding that the museum has special tour guides for students and brings in musicians and historical re-enactors to help engage children. “We strive for really, really happy visitors.”

The 11,000-square-foot center offers visitors a variety of exhibits and programs design to educate visitors about the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express trails, according to its website. The trails all passed through central Wyoming.

On Dec. 31, center officials posted an apology on the museum’s Facebook page.

“Still no word on when we will re-open,” it states. “We’re so sorry to all the folks who are disappointed by the closure.”

It’s unclear exactly how many of the state’s roughly 5,000 federal employees are directly affected by the shutdown, which stems from lawmakers’ impasse over funding for a border wall, which President Donald Trump has made a signature priority. The shutdown does not appear close to ending. On Wednesday, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders met with Trump and administration officials, but the negotiations apparently went nowhere.

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.

Trump stalks out of shutdown session with Dems

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump walked out of his negotiating meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday — "I said bye-bye," he tweeted — as efforts to end the 19-day partial government shutdown fell into deeper disarray over his demand for billions of dollars to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a negotiating session that was over almost as soon as it began, Democrats went to the White House asking Trump to reopen the government. Trump renewed his call for money for his signature campaign promise and was rebuffed. Republicans and Democrats had differing accounts of the brief exchange, but the result was clear: The partial shutdown continued with no end in sight.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers will miss paychecks on Friday; a little more than half of them are still working without pay. Other key federal services are suspended, including some food inspections. And as some lawmakers expressed discomfort with the growing toll of the standoff, it was clear Wednesday that the wall was at the center.

Trump revived his threat to attempt to override Congress by declaring a national emergency to unleash Defense Department funding for the wall. He's due to visit the border today to highlight what he declared in an Oval Office speech Tuesday night as a "crisis." Democrats say Trump is manufacturing the emergency to justify a political ploy.

That debate set the tone for Wednesday's sit-down at the White House.

Republicans said Trump posed a direct question to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: If he opened the government, would she fund the wall? She said no. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump slammed his hand on the table, said "then we have nothing to discuss" and walked out.

Republicans said Trump, who passed out candy at the start of the meeting, did not raise his voice and there was no table pounding. Pelosi said Trump "stomped" out of the room and was "petulant." Republicans said he was merely firm.

"The president made clear today that he is going to stand firm to achieve his priorities to build a wall — a steel barrier — at the southern border," Vice President Mike Pence told reporters afterward.

Trump had just returned from Capitol Hill, where he urged jittery congressional Republicans to hold firm with him. He suggested a deal for his border wall might be getting closer, but he also said the shutdown would last "whatever it takes."

He discussed the possibility of a sweeping immigration compromise with Democrats to protect some immigrants from deportation but provided no clear strategy or timeline for resolving the standoff, according to senators in the private session. He left the Republican lunch boasting of "a very, very unified party," but GOP senators are publicly uneasy as the standoff ripples across the lives of Americans and interrupts the economy.

Trump insisted at the White House: "I didn't want this fight." But it was his sudden rejection of a bipartisan spending bill late last month that blindsided leaders in Congress now seeking a resolution to the shutdown.

The effects are growing. The Food and Drug Administration says it isn't doing routine food inspections because of the partial federal shutdown, but checks of the riskiest foods are expected to resume next week.

The agency said it's working to bring back about 150 employees to inspect more potentially hazardous foods such as cheese, infant formula and produce. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency can't make the case that "a routine inspection of a Nabisco cracker facility" is necessary during the shutdown, however. He said inspections would have ramped up this week for the first time since the holidays, so the lapse in inspections of high-risk foods will not be significant if they resume soon.

Republicans are mindful of the growing toll on ordinary Americans, including disruptions in payments to farmers and trouble for homebuyers who are seeking government-backed mortgage loans.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was among several senators who questioned Trump at the Capitol.

"I addressed the things that are very local to us — it's not just those who don't receive a federal paycheck perhaps on Friday, but there are other consequences," she said, mentioning the inability to certify weight scales for selling fish. The president's response? "He urged unity."

The Democratic-controlled House on Wednesday approved a bill 240-188 to fund the Treasury Department, the IRS and other agencies for the next year as part of a Democratic strategy to reopen the government on a piecemeal basis. Eight Republicans joined 232 Democrats to support the bill.

The bill is unlikely to move forward in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dismissed it as political theater.

Democrats said before the White House meeting that they would ask Trump to accept an earlier bipartisan bill to reopen the government with money for border security but not the wall. Pelosi warned that the effects of hundreds of thousands of lost paychecks would begin to ripple across the economy.

Ahead of his visit to Capitol Hill, Trump renewed his notice that he might declare a national emergency and try to authorize the wall on his own if Congress won't approve the money he's asking.

Forslund to step down as director of Wyoming Department of Health after legislative session ends

Tom Forslund, the longtime director of the Wyoming Department of Health, will step down after the legislative session ends.

Forslund, who was Casper’s city manager before becoming health director in 2011, told department staff in an email Monday that he would be stepping down. He said in the message that newly inaugurated Gov. Mark Gordon had asked him to stay on until the end of the session and that he had expected to leave office after Gov. Matt Mead — who appointed Forslund to his current post — concluded his term in office.

Forslund also helms and will step down from the state Department of Family Services.

“ ... I did not want to let this opportunity pass without telling you how deeply honored I have been to be the director of the Wyoming Department of Health for the last eight years and also for my time with the Department of Family Services,” he wrote to staff. “The work you each do is often difficult, but I have always appreciated your service to the great State of Wyoming. I’ve met so many impressive, dedicated people over the years.”

A spokeswoman for Gordon said he had not yet made an appointment to replace Forslund.

Forslund led the Health Department through the transition into the Affordable Care Act and has in recent years been pressing state officials to better prepare for the number of Wyomingites who are aging and are likely to need long-term care.

'Extremely rare' antibiotic-resistant infection found in Wyoming hospital patient

A patient at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center was diagnosed with an “extremely rare” antibiotic-resistant infection, according to the state Department of Health, the first time the infection has been confirmed in Wyoming.

The patient, whose identity was not released by the Health Department, is a Cheyenne resident who was ill with an enterobacteriaceae-related infection, a type of bacteria that includes E. coli and salmonella. The infectious bacteria also contained a rare antibiotic-resistant gene known as MCR-1, which is resistant to the class of drugs that are considered last-resort antibiotics but is not completely immune to treatment. Hospital officials discovered it in a urine test of the patient, said Tracy Garcia, the chief nursing officer.

This particular gene was only recently discovered globally, in China in 2015. It was first discovered in the U.S. in 2016, in Pennsylvania. It has since appeared in several American states, a group that now includes Wyoming. Testing by the state and by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the gene was present in the patient’s infection.

“When bacteria become antibiotic-resistant, then certain categories of antibiotic medicines will not work to kill the bacteria to treat an infection,” Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s health officer and epidemiologist, said in a press release.

Kim Deti, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said it does not appear that the patient contracted the infection at Cheyenne Regional and said Wyomingites should not be worried.

Hospital officials reiterated that feeling at a press conference Wednesday. They said it was unlikely they would ever know the origin of the infection and that they were taking precautions to ensure it doesn’t spread. But, they said, it was likely isolated to this individual patient.

Dr. Hoo Feng Choo, the hospital’s infection disease specialist, said that when the Pennsylvania case was confirmed, health officials there tested specimens from more than 100 people close to the ill person, and none showed traces of the gene that caused the resistance.

The patient has since responded to a different antibiotic treatment and is doing better, health officials said, though they declined to provide any more specifics, citing patient privacy.

“We are working closely with the hospital to prevent the spread of this bacteria,” Harrist said in the press release. “Although this finding is unexpected and something we are taking seriously, we believe the contact precautions already in place at the hospital have likely limited the potential spread of the bacteria.”

“I know there’s a growing concern in the health care world about the growth in antibiotic resistance,” Deti told the Star-Tribune. “The fact that this one is involved in that particular class of last-resort medications, that adds to the significance of this gene.”

In a September 2018 post about the gene, the CDC warned that the spread of antibiotic-resistance infections have the “potential to severely impact our ability to provide medical treatment.”

“Although there is no immediate threat to the public, the discovery of mcr -1 (the infection found in the Wyoming patient) vividly illustrates the many domestic and global challenges facing us as we work to slow the spread of antibiotic resistance and improve antibiotic use,” CDC officials wrote.

Choo said the case illustrates the need to be careful with the prescription of antibiotics, both for humans and animals. The CDC warns against using antibiotics to treat viral infections like the flu or common cold, for instance, as the drugs will have no effect and can contribute to making bacteria resistant. Properly using antibiotics — like completing a cycle as prescribed — help avoid making the organisms resistant to medication.

“Overuse and misuse of antibiotics allows the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” the CDC wrote. “Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria (bacteria that antibiotics can still attack) are killed, but resistant bacteria are left to grow and multiply. This is how repeated use of antibiotics can increase the number of drug-resistant bacteria.”