Natrona County Special Education Services

School buses sit outside the Natrona County School District's Special Education Services building during a winter storm last month in Casper. A conservative lobby group is looking into Wyoming's education funding and seeks to revive the school choice debate.

Wyoming Liberty Group attorney Cassie Craven made an appearance on Cheyenne talk radio host Glenn Woods’ program last week to offer details about a white paper the conservative lobby group is working on regarding administrative waste in Wyoming’s schools.

The focus of the paper, Craven said, is to look into whether the funding received by the state’s school districts is being allocated evenly to all students across the spectrum.

“It’s a big push in the transparency movement to see how schools are spending our money and if that money is following the student into the classroom,” Craven said.

In her conversation, Craven said that the Wyoming Constitution outlines an obligation to adequately fund education in Wyoming without “waste” — which she said is not necessarily defined in state statutes — necessitating the state to consider some options for reform.

Much of the push by Wyoming Liberty Group, Craven said, is an effort to start a conversation about “funding students, not systems,” and examining whether the bureaucracy is growing too large to do the job.

“All session long, I heard legislators say, ‘We have a constitutional duty to fund education,’” she said. “If we stop and think about what that really means — with inflation and cost of living, all these things are on the rise — are we going to keep funding education at a higher and higher level? At any point, is there going to be a cap on that, or a question on where this money is going in the long run?”

Even after tens of millions of dollars in cuts to the state’s education system, the Wyoming Liberty Group maintains there is more fat to be trimmed from the state’s education budget. One potential solution — as Wyoming Liberty Group has often lobbied for in the past — lies with school choice and accessibility to those choices, which the conversation largely centered around. With the white paper, an heir apparent to the Alvarez and Marsal efficiency study released in 2017, Craven said there could be a “testing of the waters” of legislator’s feelings toward elevated levels of school choice in the Equality State.

To improve offerings for the rural students, Craven named options like homeschooling or even online-based learning as a means to meet the gap.

“The fiscal savings are there, but if you look at other states that have implemented these measures, their kids do better,” Craven said. “Their proficiency ratings are better, more students are going to college … education choice is about finding what’s best for that kid.”

Criticism around expanding school choice has largely centered on concerns for equity, particularly for poor or rural students who might not have the same access to private schools as students in wealthier or more connected families. There are also concerns that a school choice “voucher” system — or state-funded support for private schools — could undermine funding models for traditional public school systems.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states around the country offer some form of school choice.

Barrasso says AG Barr correct to look into alleged ‘spying’ on Trump campaign: Sen. John Barrasso offered credence to United States Attorney General William Barr’s assertions that the Federal Bureau of Investigation “spied” on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, despite former FBI director James Comey’s defense that the court-ordered surveillance of the group could not be considered in the realm of espionage.

Speaking to lawmakers on Wednesday, Barr — who was appointed to the post in December — suggested without evidence the Trump campaign was spied on by the U.S. government throughout the 2016 elections.

This claim was in reference to the FBI counterintelligence investigation that began in 2016, which was intended to observe and report on potential ties between the campaign and the Russian government.

“I think spying did occur,” said Barr, who declined to elaborate on the claims.

In an interview with the New York Times on Thursday, Comey refuted these claims, saying that he never conflated the FBI’s court-ordered surveillance of the campaign as spying. Democrats on the Hill, meanwhile, have said that the attorney general’s comments err into the realm of the conspiracy theories often espoused by the president and conservative talk television shows he is known to defer to for information and guidance.

While Democrats largely condemned the comments as credibility-killing, Republicans have responded to allegations of malfeasance against one of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies with a collective shrug. In a Fox News interview on Thursday, Barrasso called the AG’s comments “very disturbing,” but that he believed if it did occur, Barr was the right man for the job of looking into it.

However, Barrasso did say more detail of the allegations was needed.

“The question is, was it unauthorized or authorized?” he asked. “Did obstruction of justice occur? Was it authorized? Who authorized it? The American public has a right to know what happened and I think we have the right attorney general to look into it now so we’ll all know the truth.”

The issue originates with last summer’s controversy around the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a highly secretive program passed by Congress in 1978 used by the FBI to obtain a warrant to conduct electronic surveillance of former Trump aide Carter Page — who was known to have ties to the Kremlin but was never charged with a crime.

Republicans have alleged that the FBI has overstepped its boundaries in its use of the program under which the surveillance was authorized, and that the warrant was improperly obtained — a charge most prominently on display with the president’s release of a secret memo from the majority members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last winter.

Democrats, meanwhile, have accused Republicans of using misinformation to defend the president.

The Week Ahead

Monday: Federal Tax Day.

Tuesday: None

Wednesday: None

Thursday: A lecture moderated by Dr. Pete Simpson called “Breaking The Boom & Bust Cycle” will take place at 6:30 p.m. at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne.

Friday: Wyoming Promise meets at the Ramkota Hotel in Casper.

Weekend: None

Have an event you’d like highlighted here? Email me with the date, time, and place!

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Wyoming Politics

WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham had an interesting thread on Twitter last week regarding comments made by Gov. Mark Gordon to the Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce two weeks ago, in which he said the press had been trying to drum up controversy around the state budget process.

Though Gordon said the session was “collegial,” there was plenty of controversy around the budget — including very public showdowns between the House and Senate, huge differences in spending between the House and Senate (amounting to a $70 million difference), and Senate leadership very explicitly stating to the press that they wanted more influence on how the budget is drafted, setting up fights for 2020.

Manufactured controversy? Hardly.

Gordon and Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Kate Fox help draw attention to child abuse: The legacy of child abuse goes beyond the pain and suffering that leave permanent scars on both physical and mental well-being. It affects every aspect of society and can even lead to additional strains on mental health services and the judicial system. (via The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle)

Wyoming Gun Owners upset about the 2019 session: Wyoming Gun Owners — arguably the most strident supporters in the state of one’s right to wield a firearm — released a video last week expressing a little bit more than dismay at the fate of this past year’s gun control legislation.

“With the 2019 legislative session in the books, gun owners are furious, as our legislation to repeal ‘Gun Free Zones’ in government buildings was killed by legislative leaders,” their president, David Ball, wrote in a release accompanying the video. “But they weren’t the only ones who must be held accountable. Other lawmakers, who pledged to stand with gun owners, betrayed us when we needed them more than ever.”

The group’s policy director — Aaron Dorr — said in the video that the group had pushed especially hard for gun rights during the primaries, traveling to key primaries to “expose” what they called “anti-gun Republicans,” adding later that “furious gun owners” were behind the effort to elect controversy-prone Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Casper, to office this year.

“We had a lot of great successes where you guys — gun owners — removed people from office who were bad on guns,” said Dorr. (via AmmoLand.com)

Wyoming’s public records fees come under scrutiny: The Powder River Basin Resource Council’s struggles in obtaining public records from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality was highlighted in the transparency blog MuckRock this past week, chronicling what’s new and what’s challenging with the state’s electronic records law. (via MuckRock.com)

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Around Wyoming

State Fair director relieved of duties: The Wyoming State Fair Board relieved Director James Goodrich of his duties after 12 years in the position. The state fair has undergone numerous shake-ups over recent years. Until late 2018, the fair was overseen by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. (via The Douglas Budget)

Broadband Advisory Council keeps focus on expansion: The Wyoming Broadband Advisory Council decided to keep the scope of its mission focused on broadband expansion, and declined to include issues like telehealth and educational opportunities in its broadband enhancement plan. (via The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle)

Undocumented workers in Wyoming struggle to get workers’ comp: Wyoming Public Radio and the Jackson Hole News & Guide collaborated on a piece explaining how Wyoming’s labor laws can be exploited by unscrupulous employers to the detriment of migrant workers. (via National Public Radio)

Sen. John Barrasso was highlighted in a follow-up by Politico on the president’s brain trust to come up with a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, which we reported on several weeks ago.

However, it’s unclear that such a plan is actually in the works, with Senate Republicans largely focusing their efforts on criticizing Democrats and their efforts to implement measures like “Medicare for All.”

On the legislative side, Barrasso sponsored a bill to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to make changes to statutes concerning water quality certification. Barrasso also signed on as a co-sponsor for bills like the Rural Hospital Regulatory Relief Act of 2019 and S. 1170, which would amend the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to establish additional criteria for determining when employers may join together in a group or association of employers — something related to Republican efforts to institute association health care plans nationwide.

Sen. Mike Enzi made waves in the budget conversation last week, saying that while the nation’s defense is important to consider, “we must also acknowledge that one of the gravest threats to our country is the growing fiscal imbalance.”

“If left unaddressed, it could have long-term implications on our ability to provide adequately for our national defense,” Enzi said. “Getting a handle on our fiscal situation means that all aspects of the federal budget must be carefully scrutinized, including defense spending.”

He also received praise for his work on the budget in an op-ed by Judd Gregg, a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.

Rep. Liz Cheney cosponsored H.R. 2207, which would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to repeal the excise tax on medical devices.

On Friday morning, she joined The Hugh Hewitt Show to criticize comments made at an event by Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar regarding 9/11, where she described the perpetrators as “some people who did something.”

Notably, that quote was heavily taken out of context, a small snippet of a speech Omar gave on avoiding widespread Islamophobia in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it,” Omar said at the event. “CAIR (Council on American–Islamic Relations, the group to which she was speaking) was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

However, conservatives — like Cheney — have piled on, despite many saying that the effort could potentially lead to violence against Omar and other Muslims.

Cheney, however, says the criticism is warranted — even if taken out of context.

“They should not try to act as though they are victims and hide behind this notion that somehow they can’t be criticized, because if anybody criticizes them, it’s an incitement to violence. That’s ridiculous,” Cheney said. “Secondly, Congresswoman Omar’s comments were abhorrent. And for her to say 9/11 was ‘some people did something,’ and then for (Rep. Alexandria) Ocasio-Cortez to defend her and say, ‘Oh, you’re taking her comments out of context if you criticize them,’ that, you know, it is shameful, especially for a representative from New York.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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