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Lawmakers drafting anti-vaccine mandate bills; Dems push back on special session
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Some Wyoming lawmakers are already working on bills for the impending special session aimed at fighting the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for all companies with over 100 employees.

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, has requested two bill drafts, he told the Star-Tribune. One of his bills would ban vaccine passports, while the other attempts to ban vaccine mandates.

Gray’s bill banning mandates is not confined to companies over 100 employees. It classifies firing, demoting, promoting, compensating or refusing to hire based on vaccination status as a “discriminatory or unfair employment practice.”

If companies violate the provisions of Gray’s bill, they may face civil penalties of a $500,000 penalty payable to each victim. There would also be criminal penalties: a misdemeanor with jail time of up to six months, a fine of up to $750, or both.

The $500,000 payments, if adopted, would far exceed most other employment discrimination awards. Most claims in Wyoming — which can stem from discrimination on the basis of disability, age, sex, race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or pregnancy — are paid out on a case-by-case basis based on the employee’s lost income and legal fees, and average around $40,000 per claim according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

It’s unclear what kind of effect the bill would have. The U.S. Constitution gives federal law precedent over state statutes.

Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, is taking a workaround approach that would also institute a misdemeanor penalty.

His bill bars any “public servant” from enforcing or attempting to enforce “any act, law, statute, rule or regulation of the United States government relating to mandating covid vaccination,” James posted on Facebook. Anyone violating the rule would be guilty of a misdemeanor and face up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $2,000, or both.

“This goes to show that we can bring something that prevents government overreach and does not infringe on the private sector,” James added.

The final version of both bills will be posted online for the public to view a few days before the session is proposed to start on Oct. 26.

The special session is intended to fight back against the Biden administration’s executive order issued in early September that mandates employees at private companies with over 100 workers get vaccinated or be tested weekly for COVID-19. It’s unclear exactly how many Wyoming companies meet this criteria, but sources have estimated between 200 and 300 businesses.

The federal mandate is not yet in effect, and must still go through the federal rule-making process. In practice, this means that it’s next to impossible to know exactly how to fight back against the vaccine mandate until those details are released, multiple lawmakers have said.

All of Wyoming’s Democratic state lawmakers said they plan to vote against the impending special session and have urged others to do the same, according to a statement issued Tuesday.

“All members of our caucus intend to vote “NO” on the vote for a special session, and “NO” for any proposed rule changes if the vote for a special session is successful,” the letter stated.

The letter from the Wyoming Democrats stated that a special session “would only serve to create an opportunity for grandstanding instead of constructive problem solving.”

To hold a special session, the legislators need to pass three votes all with different thresholds.

The first vote, which has already been successful, required 35% support from both the House and the Senate. No Democrats voted in favor, according to Matt Obrecht, director of the Legislative Service Office. The second vote is a public tally that requires a majority from both chambers for the special session to move forward. Lawmakers must send their votes by mail and have them postmarked by Thursday, meaning results of the poll could be delayed due to the recent snowstorm that closed highways around the state.

If that vote succeeds, a special session would occur. Once lawmakers convene, they need to vote on rules for the session, which requires a two-thirds majority. Technically, they could use the rules of the 66th Legislature if they do not reach the supermajority, but legislative leadership said they will not allow that outcome.

Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, and Speaker of the House, Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said they would request that the session be dismissed if they do not reach the supermajority needed to enact the proposed rules.

The proposed rules mainly confine the session to a couple days and require the session to only address vaccine mandates, among other parameters.

Democrats are taking issue with the fact that speeding up the the session to only a couple days excludes public input. Committee meetings would be limited to the first day of the session, according to a copy of the proposed rules provided to the Star-Tribune.

Meanwhile, Republicans have repeatedly said that many of their constituents have reached out to them in support of the special session and with concerns about the federal vaccine mandate.

Support for the special session does not fall along party lines.

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said he’s working to get others to vote “no” for the special session, too. Case has expressed doubt that the matter can be fixed legislatively rather than judicially.

“There will be quite a few ‘no’ votes,” Case said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there would be no committee meetings at the special session. As proposed, there would be committee meetings on the first day.

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Storm dumps more than a foot of snow over Casper, causes multiple highway closures
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A powerful, early season storm dropped more than a foot of snow over parts of Wyoming on Tuesday and Wednesday, resulting in widespread highway closures.

Overnight Tuesday, most of Interstate 25 and Interstate 80 were closed, as was a large section of Interstate 90. Multiple other highways also shut down for a time due to the heavy, wet snow and gusty winds.

For a time, most major highways connecting Casper to the rest of the state were closed including sections of U.S. Highway 20/26 and Wyoming 220.

By Wednesday evening, the interstates had reopened, though some of the smaller highways remained closed.

Along with the heavy snow, the storm brought high winds to parts of the state, making travel difficult to impossible in places. Blizzard warnings were in effect for a time in Converse, Niobrara, Goshen and Platte counties, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm dropped nearly 13 inches of snow in the Casper area, 18 inches near Buffalo and 8 inches in Lander, according to preliminary snow totals from the National Weather Service.

Schools remained open in Natrona County, but students in Midwest attended classes remotely, according to the school district there. Schools in Goshen County were closed, as were schools in Campbell County, media there reported. Glenrock schools were also closed due to the weather, according to a Facebook post from that district.

The Natrona-County Health Department cancelled a scheduled flu clinic amid the storm. The scheduled Oct. 23 clinic at the Mike Sedar firehouse is still expected to go forward from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

As of Wednesday morning, the Casper Police Department had responded to 16 reports of road accidents since the snow started Monday night. The Natrona County Sheriff’s Office received five calls reporting accidents in the same time period. Of all accidents recorded, three were reported to have possible injuries.

Casper Fire-EMS public information officer Andrew Sundell said Wednesday in a video briefing that the agency also sent vehicles to several road accidents on Tuesday.

Social Security checks getting boost
  • Updated

WASHINGTON — Millions of retirees on Social Security will get a 5.9% boost in benefits for 2022. The biggest cost-of-living adjustment in 39 years follows a burst in inflation as the economy struggles to shake off the drag of the coronavirus pandemic.

The COLA, as it’s commonly called, amounts to an added $92 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates Wednesday from the Social Security Administration. It’s an abrupt break from a long lull in inflation that saw cost-of-living adjustments averaging just 1.65% a year over the past 10 years.

With the increase, the estimated average Social Security payment for a retired worker will be $1,657 a month next year. A typical couple’s benefits would rise by $154 to $2,753 per month.

But that’s just to help make up for rising costs that recipients are already paying for food, gasoline and other goods and services.

“It goes pretty quickly,” retiree Cliff Rumsey said of the cost-of-living increases. After a career in sales for a leading steel manufacturer, Rumsey lives near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He cares at home for his wife of nearly 60 years, Judy, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Since the coronavirus pandemic, Rumsey said he has also noted price increases for wages paid to caregivers who occasionally help him and for personal care products for Judy.

The COLA affects household budgets for about 1 in 5 Americans. That includes Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees, nearly 70 million people in all. For baby boomers who embarked on retirement within the past 15 years, it will be the biggest increase they’ve seen.

Among them is Kitty Ruderman of Queens in New York City, who retired from a career as an executive assistant and has been collecting Social Security for about 10 years. “We wait to hear every year what the increase is going to be, and every year it’s been so insignificant,” she said. “This year, thank goodness, it will make a difference.”

Ruderman says she times her grocery shopping to take advantage of midweek senior citizen discounts, but even so price hikes have been “extreme.” She says she doesn’t think she can afford a medication that her doctor has recommended.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins called the government payout increase “crucial for Social Security beneficiaries and their families as they try to keep up with rising costs.”

Policymakers say the adjustment is a safeguard to protect Social Security benefits against the loss of purchasing power, and not a pay bump for retirees. About half of seniors live in households where Social Security provides at least 50% of their income, and one-quarter rely on their monthly payment for all or nearly all their income.

“You never want to minimize the importance of the COLA,” said retirement policy expert Charles Blahous, a former public trustee helping to oversee Social Security and Medicare finances. “What people are able to purchase is very profoundly affected by the number that comes out. We are talking the necessities of living in many cases.”

This year’s Social Security trustees report amplified warnings about the long-range financial stability of the program. But there’s little talk about fixes in Congress, with lawmakers’ consumed by President Joe Biden’s massive domestic legislation and partisan machinations over the national debt. Social Security cannot be addressed through the budget reconciliation process Democrats are attempting to use to deliver Biden’s promises.

Social Security’s turn will come, said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee and author of legislation to tackle shortfalls that would leave the program unable to pay full benefits in less than 15 years. His bill would raise payroll taxes while also changing the COLA formula to give more weight to health care expenses and other costs that weigh more heavily on the elderly. Larson said he intends to press ahead next year.

“This one-time shot of COLA is not the antidote,” he said.

Although Biden’s domestic package includes a major expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision care, Larson said he hears from constituents that seniors are feeling neglected by the Democrats.

“In town halls and tele-town halls they’re saying, ‘We are really happy with what you did on the child tax credit, but what about us?’” Larson added. “In a midterm election, this is a very important constituency.”

The COLA is only one part of the annual financial equation for seniors. An announcement about Medicare’s Part B premium they pay for outpatient care is expected soon. It’s usually an increase, so at least some of any Social Security raise gets eaten up by health care. The Part B premium is now $148.50 a month, and the Medicare trustees report estimated a $10 increase for 2022.

Economist Marilyn Moon, who also served as public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, said she believes the current spurt of inflation will be temporary, due to highly unusual economic circumstances.

“I would think there is going to be an increase this year that you won’t see reproduced in the future,” Moon said.

But policymakers should not delay getting to work on retirement programs, she said.

“We’re at a point in time where people don’t react to policy needs until there is a sense of desperation, and both Social Security and Medicare are programs that benefit from long-range planning rather short-range machinations,” she said.

Wyoming defensive tackle Jordan Bertagnole celebrates following a play against Boise State last season at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie. The Natrona County High graduate had eight tackles in last week's game at Air Force.

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For slow-moving chronic wasting disease, mitigation efforts will also take time
  • Updated

It’s been more than a year since the Wyoming Game and Fish Department finalized its Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Management Plan. As the pathogen continues creeping westward, wildlife officials warn that mitigation will happen gradually, too.

“CWD is a very slow disease,” said Hank Edwards, the agency’s wildlife health laboratory supervisor. “When you try and do management, that management takes a long time before you see any results. It could be five years, it could be 10 years, it could be longer than that.”

Discovered in 1967 in a captive mule deer, CWD was initially found in wild Colorado deer and elk in the early 1980s. It was first detected in Wyoming deer herds in 1985, and in elk the following year.

Since then, the disease has spread through Colorado and Wyoming, affecting deer, elk and moose, and has shown up in 23 other states. But its geographic expansion isn’t the only worry. In areas where CWD has already been identified — which now make up roughly three-quarters of the state — more and more animals are becoming infected.

“Basically, it increases in prevalence every year,” Edwards said. “Not that every area does; certainly, we have some areas that increase in prevalence faster than others. But generally, it is a slow increase in prevalence.”

What to do now

CWD is an always-fatal prion disease that eats through animals’ brains. It can spread not only through contact with infected bodily fluids, but from environmental contamination, which can persist for years.

According to Edwards, infected deer can live for up to three years; elk may survive for seven. Most don’t show symptoms — which often include weight loss, drooping ears, excessive salivation and lack of coordination — until a few months before they die.

Though no human has been known to contract CWD, the CDC still recommends that hunters test deer and elk from areas with known transmission, and avoid consuming CWD-positive animals. Research on the subject has been mixed, Edwards said, with some studies finding high transmission risk, while others report little to none.

Because Game and Fish advises against eating infected meat, the late onset of physical symptoms can be frustrating for hunters who harvest seemingly healthy deer or elk, only to have the animal test positive for CWD, Edwards said.

With more parts of the state opening for deer hunting on Friday, Game and Fish has been actively reminding hunters of its CWD protocols.

Game and Fish requires those who kill deer in hunt areas 96 and 97, near the center of the state, to submit a sample for testing. And while officials recommend testing deer and elk from dozens of other hunt areas, anyone hunting the species in Wyoming can submit a sample for testing.

The agency posts negative results online, and notifies hunters by letter and email when an animal tests positive. If the positive animal is from an area where CWD hadn’t already been found, Edwards calls the hunter personally.

“We want those submissions, in those areas where CWD has not been identified, because that’s how we track the spread of the disease,” Edwards said.

Nearly all of the deer and elk that Game and Fish test for CWD have been killed by hunters. A much smaller share are targeted by the agency for testing, or die in traffic accidents. Still, Edwards said, the vast majority of hunters don’t submit samples.

“We really rely on the hunting public for our samples,” he said. “I would have a hard time doing my job if it wasn’t for hunters taking the time to submit a sample.”

What comes next

Game and Fish has tracked the degenerative brain disease for decades, and its spread, though sluggish, has proven unrelenting.

“We’ve been in surveillance mode for over 20 years, and that hasn’t gotten us anywhere but these herds of high prevalence now,” said Martin Hicks, Laramie wildlife management coordinator for Game and Fish. “What we learned, at least in southeast Wyoming, is doing nothing does not work when it comes to CWD.”

Researchers believe that Laramie’s deer and elk herds — including the Laramie Mountain, South Converse and Goshen Rim mule deer herds and the Laramie Peak elk herd — were the first Wyoming herds to contract CWD.

The Laramie Mountain herd was also one of the first to be chosen for experimental management. Though its CWD prevalence of roughly 24% pales in comparison to Goshen Rim’s 40%, the herd inhabits an area with a much higher share of public land, making oversight significantly easier.

“If it works there, my goal is to move it east into the Goshen Rim herd and try the same thing in that herd unit,” Hicks said.

It could take years to see results, but if preliminary efforts are successful, Game and Fish will likely begin implementing CWD management strategies throughout the state.

The agency began developing its CWD plan in early 2019, but in the Laramie region, it’ll be at least another year before any of the proposed strategies are implemented. That’s because mitigation is intended to be a public process.

Hicks, then the agency’s Wheatland wildlife biologist, held five public meetings on the plan this summer and convened a working group of 11 attendees, including landowners, sportsmen and concerned citizens. The working group will meet this winter to provide input on potential management options, such as reducing artificial feeding to prevent crowding, or adjusting hunting regulations to curtail high-risk populations.

While the working group won’t make the decisions, its recommendations will shape the agency’s approach. Hicks expects that type of stakeholder review to become an annual process.

“Since it’s the public’s resource, ultimately, they have the final say in what we do,” he said.