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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Needs vs. wants" is a false choice

Many of the items on the sixth-penny sales tax ballot are essential for a modern community. Labeling them as "wants" is simply an effort to devalue them.

By D. Reed Eckhardt

Here we go again.

Every time there is a sixth-penny sales tax election, those who oppose this specific purpose tax trot out the threadbare argument of "needs vs. wants." They argue that most
of the proposals on the ballot are "wants," and they encourage Laramie County taxpayers to oppose them.

If you want to view the argument in its extreme, you can check out a recent column in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, "Starve the sixth-penny beast."

Expanding the Cheyenne Greenway is a proposal on the sixth-penny ballot.
But the idea that this a black-and-white choice -- support the "needs,"
such as streets, and oppose the "wants," like the two propositions supporting athletics facilities here in Cheyenne -- is false. It also is based on whose lens you view it through: If you like something on the list, it is a "need." If you don't like that same something, you classify it as a "want" and seek to cast it aside.

There are several truths that the "needs vs. wants" crowd ignores. The first is that a so-called "want" often becomes a "need" later. I suspect there were many people here who opposed the Greater Cheyenne Greenway as a "want" when it first was introduced. But the Greenway has become so interwoven into the fabric of the community that its expansion now is accepted as something the community "needs." Many other items labeled as "wants" in recent elections have more than proven themselves as things that a modern community "needs" if it is going to adequately serve its residents.

Similarly, many items seen as "wants," such as those athletics facilities, the Greenway expansion or funding for the city's West Edge, really are not. They are "needs," things that are essential if Cheyenne and Laramie County hope to compete for potential residents, to grow the workforce, and industries, to provide good jobs. These things are part of what modern communities -- like those along the Front Range -- offer. And if this area hopes to compete for the hearts and minds of young families and singles, then it is going to have to step up and offer them. The "needs vs. wants" crowd may not like that -- indeed, many of its members don't even want new faces, companies, and growth here. But the people of Laramie County have proven in recent tax elections that they understand the principle: Either you compete, or you wither away.

The bottom line is that if we want Cheyenne and Laramie County to grow and prosper, we are going to have to step up and take care of it ourselves. We have to put our pennies to work for this community through the specific purpose tax. There may have been a time when local residents could expect money to flow from the state or feds to fund some of that work, but those time are no more, and probably never will be again. Moving Cheyenne forward is on our shoulders, which means the "wants vs. needs" crowd must be rejected. Instead, each project on the May 2 ballot should be evaluated only on whether it will make this area better for current and potential residents alike.

Please understand, this does not mean every proposal should be blindly approved. Elsewhere on this blog, you will find another entry, "Not all sixth-penny projects are created equal." In it are my recommendations, and not all of them are "yes." But regardless, whichever measuring stick you use to support or oppose these projects, it should not be "needs vs. wants." That is a false approach which is best assigned to the dustbin of local history.

D. Reed Eckhardt is the former executive editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. He has been a resident of Cheyenne for 18 years and has written about every sixth-penny election here since 2000.

Trump's climate change order is a bad dream for Wyo.

If this state's leaders think the global economy will return to coal and other carbon-based fuels, they are fooling themselves -- and us.

By Rodger McDaniel 

We watched as Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing his predecessor’s Clean Power Plan. Trump was right. Those “job-killing” regulations were unnecessary.
The Happy Jack wind farm west of Cheyenne.
Climate change was, in fact, a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Liz Cheney told us, “Barack Obama is more interested in killing Wyoming coal that in killing ISIS.” Maybe Cheney wasn’t just talking like a run-of-the-mill ideologue.

Obama’s war on coal was over.

The joy was unbridled. Wyoming’s governor convened a special session of the Legislature. Giddy lawmakers repaired the damage recently done to the state’s economy in the face of Obama-caused revenue losses in the coal industry.

They reinstated millions of dollars they’d recently stripped from Wyoming’s schools. Class sizes wouldn’t have to double after all. Teachers forced into early retirement were rehired. Funds deprived to cities and towns were returned, potholes were filled, parks built. Legislators restored the tax rebate for the poor and elderly. Literacy centers, closed during the downturn, were reopened. Cuts in health care were reversed now that the state could afford those costs.

In Gillette, they were dancing in the street as hundreds of laid-off miners were rehired. Foreclosure notices on vacant homes were rescinded. Businesses that had been shuttered were filled with happy customers. New mines opened as orders for Wyoming coal poured in from China. Power plants that had converted from coal to natural gas converted back to coal. Alternative energy sources such as wind and solar were exposed for the trendy fraud they were.

Alas, my alarm clock went off. The dream ended. None of that happened, except the part about Trump signing the executive order.

The dream could become a nightmare. The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of the Presbyterian Church Office of Public Witness, understands. Trump’s executive order was “a tragic turn for the future of this nation and for the entire planet.” This isn’t simply a political issue to be decided by pandering politicians:

“Our concern as Presbyterians lies not only in our mandate to protect God’s creation, but in the knowledge that the ruins wrought by climate change will fall disproportionately on the backs of the poor, indigenous and citizens of the Global South.”

Nathan Hultman of the Brookings Institute reasons the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide was science-based. Seems cleaner air is healthier. Who’d have known? EPA scientists knew. They found President Obama’s CPP would save billions in health-care costs. 

“The EPA,” Hultman writes, “previously estimated substantial benefits from the CPP, including $14 billion to $34 billion in benefits accruing just to health.” Cleaner air prevents “3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks and 300,000 lost work and school days” annually.

If Trump is going to get his way, he’ll have to convince the court these benefits are alternative facts. He also has to face changing energy economics. It’s not fake news that Department of Energy statistics demonstrate that while the coal industry employed 66,000 miners in 2015, nail salons employed 69,000, clean energy 3 million.

Rendering it unlikely Trump’s executive order will revive Wyoming coal is this fact: California uses 40 percent of the West’s electricity and expects that by 2030, half will be generated through green energy. Unlike Trump, California takes climate change seriously and can be expected to exceed that goal.

According to High Country News, “California’s climate change programs force the adoption of cleaner electricity across the West because the state imports 20 percent of its electricity from states like Nevada and Wyoming and requires that power to meet its clean energy standards. This encourages the growth of large-scale renewable energy and the closure of dirty coal-fired power plants.”

Wyoming’s politicians choose to ignore the science and the economics. As Rocky Mountain Power invests billions in wind energy, the market continues to leave Wyoming's leaders behind.

Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He resides in Laramie. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Cheyenne's logjam has to break

Capital City leaders have to do more -- much more -- if they hope to create a workforce big enough to diversify the local economy.

“It’s not all about jobs. You’ve got to have it be a place where people want to live.” -- Charley Ballard, a regional economist at Michigan State University

By D. Reed Eckhardt

There is mixed news for Wyoming, and Cheyenne in particular,  in a recent article from the New York Times, "The States That College Graduates Are Mostly Likely to Leave," that recently has been passed around Cheyenne on Facebook.

As the map at right shows, Wyoming is a break-even state when it comes to net migration -- its losses of college-educated people under age 40 is matched by its inflow. That is in contradiction to its Western neighbors (other than Colorado); they see much larger drains of youthful energy, creativity, and brain power.

The map seems to run against the argument, made even in this corner, that Wyoming is losing many of its young people to places like Fort Collins, Colorado, and beyond. That would be the good news side of this story, though I'm not necessarily convinced. There certainly are many parents here in the Capital City who tell a different tale. And, of course, there are those nagging reports that many of these young people work but don't live here.

Besides, the bad news from the map is that Wyoming is not moving ahead either. Without an influx of the "young college graduates," the Cowboy State cannot hope to truly diversify its economy. Witness a recent story in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, "Smucker's rejects Cheyenne for plant site largely because of smaller workforce." ( In it, one learns that Smucker's chose Longmont, Colorado, over Cheyenne for a $340 million factory that will provide 500 jobs because, says economic development leader Randy Bruns, there is not a sufficient workforce here.

True, the problem is chick-and-egg. You need the jobs to draw the workforce, but you need the workforce to attract the jobs. But the quote from economist Charley Ballard above also must be factored into the equation. Wyoming, and Cheyenne in particular, must work harder at becoming "a place where people want to live." Cheyenne City Council member Richard Johnson made just that point in the WTE article:

"If Cheyenne had more amenities to offer, it would encourage more of our youth to stay here, therefore increasing our workforce. If we had more people, we would entice more companies like this to come."

Let's be frank: This city's leaders are not making aggressive enough moves in this area. In the same WTE article, Mayor Marian Orr can be heard chirping about "incremental growth" for the city when she should be committing to an all-out battle to move Cheyenne forward. 

Indeed, Orr's continued emphasis on streets over amenities -- as reflected in her choices for the sixth-penny sales tax ballot -- puts a brake on efforts to build a more progressive city. And her other actions, like fighting the Civic Center Commons, similarly are problematic. She could make her staff get 100 percent behind the project, like she did with the unwise parking lot for the Hynds Building. Instead, she is letting her city engineer and others get in the way of this essential piece of growing the city's West Edge.

The voters of Cheyenne have a role in this as well. Many of the projects that are coming before them on the May 2 sixth-penny sales tax ballot (absentee voting already is under way) can play a role in creating a place where young singles and families want to live. Expanding the Greater Cheyenne Greenway and growing the West Edge as well as important athletics facilities await the voters' approval. Here's hoping that happens.

The bottom line is that Cheyenne's residents still have a long way to go to recognize the importance of working harder to create a place for young people. Their election of Orr last November is proof of that. Her go-slow mentality will not well serve efforts to create a more progressive community.

None of this is new. It has been said many times before. But it needs to be said again and again until the logjam that represents old-time thinking here breaks. Cheyenne just being Cheyenne -- and demanding that potential newcomers accept things as they are -- is not going to get the job done. The map above is more than proof of that.

To read the entire New York Times story, go to 

D. Reed Eckhardt is the former executive editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. He has lived in Cheyenne for more than 18 years.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wyo. wastes precious resources hassling pot users

While Colorado and other states have seen the value of legal marijuana, the Cowboy State squanders its funds on a new Prohibition.

By Rodger McDaniel
People who smoke marijuana, either for medical or recreational purposes, are playing musical chairs with the law. The music begins in states where marijuana is purchased legally.
A Denver woman celebrates the legalization of pot in January 2014. 
The music continues until they cross, as Brewer and Shipley said, “one toke over the line” into Wyoming.

Here’s the deal: Someone buys marijuana in Colorado. They pay a steep tax. The Denver Post says, “The revenue from retail marijuana sales is helping communities address homelessness, send children to college, patch potholes, secure water rights and fund an array of projects.”

The 62 Colorado cities and 22 counties allowing retail sales of the green leafy substance cashed in to the tune of more than a billion dollars last year, which brings me back to the “someone” who bought the marijuana in Colorado and paid the tax into that state’s coffers.

That person then loads the marijuana into a vehicle and heads to a prohibition state like Wyoming, where there is a market hungering to have a toke. Along the way, some of those vehicles are pulled over by law enforcement. Why would someone hauling a load of marijuana down a Wyoming highway be speeding? Who knows, but most are stopped for that reason. The trooper then sniffs the unique odor of the drug, and an arrest follows.

At that moment, the same marijuana that is helping Colorado communities meet the needs of the homeless, send children to college, patch potholes, secure water rights and fund an array of projects becomes a serious drain on Wyoming’s dwindling resources.

Now, what started out as a revenue generator a few miles down the road and across the border becomes a revenue eater in Wyoming. In addition to the cost of the law enforcement and the arrest, there are taxpayer expenses incurred for detention, public defenders and prosecutors, the judge, jury and disposition of the case, be it jail, prison or probation.

Here where I live in Albany County, more than half of 2016’s felony drug cases in the district court were filed against out-of-staters. Not all those charges involved marijuana, but almost a third of them named people who came here from states where marijuana is legal. In addition, Wyoming Highway Patrolman Lt. Mike Simmons told the Laramie Boomerang that “many of the misdemeanor cases his troopers see come from Colorado.”

In 2016, 24 people were charged in Albany County with felony possession of marijuana, i.e. holding 3 ounces or more. Three-quarters of them were from out of state. Among them were people from a dozen other states, nine of which have legalized marijuana in some form or another.

Peggy Trent is the Albany County attorney. She prosecutes these defendants. Among the evidence law enforcement hands over to her for the trial are receipts from Colorado marijuana dispensaries that tell what the drugs cost at retail and the amount of tax revenue collected. Trent says, “You’ll notice that there’s more than one individual in a vehicle, and they’re going from dispensary to dispensary, and they have all the receipts.”

Trent laments that Wyoming can’t return the confiscated marijuana for a full refund. That would help our state offset at least a portion of our taxpayers’ costs of shepherding these cases through Wyoming’s criminal justice system.

According to, a little more than half the states have legalized marijuana in some form. It isn’t just blue states either. Among those states legalizing marijuana for either or both medical and recreational use are a growing number of states where Donald Trump won, including Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Montana, Ohio, Florida and Michigan. A bill is on the verge of passing in neighboring Nebraska.

Perhaps those genuinely conservative legislators best understand the uncomplicated economics of prohibition. In any event, the I-80 and I-25 corridors make it certain that a lot of marijuana, legally purchased elsewhere, will make its way into Wyoming.

Ah Wyoming, proud always to reject that which makes sense to nearly every other state. Memo to Wyoming lawmakers: what was once frighteningly progressive has become comfortably conservative.

Rodger McDaniel  is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He resides in Laramie.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"Wyoming's doctor" is ignoring the cries of his patients

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso is more interested in scoring political points than he is in taking care of the people he says he represents.

By Rodger McDaniel
It came back to me as Congress debated whether to replace the Affordable Care Act with legislation that would take away the health insurance of 24 million Americans.

It was several years ago. I saw her obituary. She and her
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is a staunch opponent of Obamacare.

husband had once been close friends. Time passed. They divorced. We lost touch. I hadn’t seen her for a long while and was shocked to learn of her untimely death. During her memorial service, I learned my friend died of cancer. One of her close friends offered the eulogy. She recounted the long nights of pain my friend suffered, unable to afford pain meds or adequate treatment.

She had the same health insurance then as she would have had under Trumpcare – none. In all honesty, as a low-wage working person, she probably wouldn’t have had insurance under Obamacare either, since she lived in Wyoming, a state heartlessly refusing to expand Medicaid.

What is it about Wyoming’s politicians that enables them to watch the suffering of others and do nothing to end it?

Take U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, for instance – he who nominated himself “Wyoming’s doctor.” As this physician became a senator, he exchanged his Hippocratic Oath for photo opps standing next to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. People in Washington joke sarcastically that there is no more dangerous place on Earth than the few square feet between Barrasso and a Fox News camera.

The senator thinks a more dangerous place would be a town hall meeting. Actually, both are wrong. There is a far more dangerous place. It’s the dreadful space in which people without health insurance find themselves. The uninsured have few, if any, sources for preventive care or treatment other than the limited care provided in emergency rooms. As a result, they get far sicker and die much earlier than those with insurance.

Inexplicably, “Wyoming’s doctor” doesn’t empathize with the uninsured. He believes health care is not a human right, but a privilege to be rationed only to those who can afford it.

He makes self-serving claims about how he once provided charity care for the uninsured. Perhaps he did. But the stories most often heard are told by people who are turned away without an appointment when they can’t present an insurance card.

Telling the uninsured they should be satisfied that some docs provide charity care is like church leaders supporting cuts in food stamps because their congregation donates food to the food bank. First, neither is sufficient to meet the medical or food security needs of the community. Second, each begs the question of government’s role in meeting both obligations.

Stories like that of my friend could haunt the members of Wyoming’s congressional delegation if they bothered to hear them. Alas, they’re not haunted by anything other than what they derisively call “Obamacare.”

How do you make politicians like John Barrasso aware when what he really craves is status among his party’s elite, and status among them depends on being unaware?

“Wyoming’s doctor” is sadly unable to correctly diagnose the health-care policy issues confronting his constituents. Most often, when a doctor is unable to correctly diagnose a patient’s ailment, it’s because the doctor isn’t listening closely enough.

The senator could cure this problem with a town hall meeting. There he’d hear from victims of his choices and the stories of people for whom repeal of Obamacare may be a death sentence. He’d feel the angst among those who, for the first time, have insurance but fear they would lose it under Trumpcare. Wyoming’s doctor might be surprised to learn how many of his “patients” support a single-payer system.

If Barrasso’s allergy to town hall meetings persists as the GOP prepares another run at “repealing and replacing” Obamacare, maybe he could take time to sit in the emergency room of a Wyoming hospital. Meet the people who come there. Hear their stories. Talk to their families. Listen as they speak about their fears.

“Wyoming’s doctor” might learn something there that he will never learn at a party caucus.

Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He resides in Laramie.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

It's time to get on board with Medicaid expansion

Now that everyone knows Obamacare is "the law of the land for the foreseeable future," there is no valid reason for the Wyoming Legislature to oppose it.

By D. Reed Eckhardt

One could always hope -- I suppose -- that Wyoming's lawmakers are paying attention. But I'm not holding my breath.

In the wake of the collapse of Trumpcare, legislators in Kansas last week offered their poorer residents health-care insurance through the Medicaid expansion outlined in Obamacare. Last year this idea was anathema. Indeed, the Kansas Senate even tossed one of its own off a key health care committee when she dared to suggest supporting the idea.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead came late to support Medicaid expansion.

That's right, one of the reddest states on the nation's political map now has seen its Legislature offer an additional 150,000 of its residents help through Medicaid, supported with funding from the federal government.

Now, it is true that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has vetoed the measure. But that does not mean his legislature is any less persuaded that the idea is a good one. And other states across the nation are climbing on board. Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina also are looking at passing expansion, the Washington Post reports. All three have been stalwarts against it in the past.

It is the failure of Republicans in the U.S. House to "repeal and replace" Obamacare that has created this new momentum. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., admits that the Affordable Care Act "is now the law of the land for the foreseeable future." So states that formerly refused Medicaid expansion for fear -- or hope -- that Obamacare would collapse are looking at joining the 31 others that have moved forward to care for their people.

This is long overdue. It is tiresome to hear politicians who either get (thanks to their government positions)  -- or can afford -- health care for themselves and their families, deny it to the working poor. Of course, many of the neediest needy get support from Medicaid, and others who make a little more money can get it through Obamacare with the aid of federal subsidies. But those who fall in the middle of those two groups are forced to go it on their own, usually ending up in emergency rooms even for a common cold and then failing to pay their bills. This care is then funded by you and me (if we have insurance) through increased medical costs and higher health insurance premiums.

There are about 20,000 Wyomingites who find themselves in this gap. They have been dissed by their legislators, who treat them as if they choose to live in poverty and who pretend that if these people would just get jobs, they would not need expansion. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of these people work; they are our family, friends, and neighbors who take care of us in restaurants or greet us at Walmart. It is an insult that only lawmakers who never have been without health insurance or without enough money to keep them fat and sassy would deal out.

One of those was Gov. Matt Mead, who opposed Medicaid expansion to gain reelection in 2014. Then he came to the party in support of it once he had been returned to office. Unfortunately, that was too little too late, and the expansion, which had failed in previous years, was not even discussed in the most recent session of the Legislature.

Part of the problem is that Mead and others who support expansion wait too long to get the ball rolling. And the governor has been unwilling to climb onto the bully pulpit to encourage state residents to put pressure on their lawmakers to take care of the needy among us. It is going to take a concerted effort, and Mead has been unwilling to fight for expansion even after saying he supports it.

Now that Obamacare is not going away, this would be a good time for the governor to build a coalition and start talking about it again. Yes, the next session is more than nine months away. But if Mead and others would begin talking about it now, and keep talking about it, and keep talking about it, then maybe things would change. Certainly the lawmakers' argument that the state is going to be left holding the bag when Obamacare fails no longer holds water.

Yes, Wyoming is facing its own fiscal crisis. But that only means that more people are going to need help from the expansion. The money is there, squirreled away in the rainy day fund or some other coffee can or being diverted into the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. It's astonishing -- but no surprise -- how quickly the Legislature can rush to help the minerals industry when it cries for support. How nice it would be to see, just one time, similar concern for the state's needy from the governor and his legislative cronies.

D. Reed Eckhardt is the former executive editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mead should reduce prison population

Wyoming's governor could free those who are not a danger to the public. This would save money and show fairness.

By Rodger McDaniel

Years ago, I accompanied former Wyoming Congressman Teno Roncalio as we drove past Rawlins. From the interstate, we could see the original prison in the heart of the town. From the late 1800s until the 1970s, it was Wyoming’s only prison.

Teno glanced at the aged facility and said,
Wyoming's prison was featured on the TV show, "Lockdown."
“They should open the doors and let ’em all out.”

That might shock those who didn’t know Teno. He was a compassionate man who occasionally used hyperbole to make his point. He didn’t mean “all.” He knew some couldn’t be released as a matter of public safety. A former prosecutor, he also knew there were many who shouldn’t have been there at all and others who had served more than enough time to pay their debts to society.

We learned during law school that prison sentences have four purposes: retribution, isolation, deterrence and rehabilitation. In practice, it’s retribution that underlies too many sentencing decisions.

As a result, the U.S. has the world’s second-highest incarceration rate. Seychelles, an Indian Ocean island archipelago, is first. Wyoming does more than its fair share to help the U.S. compete for the “incarceration nation” trophy.

Prisons are extraordinarily expensive, as Wyoming is learning from the debate over whether to build another at a cost that could exceed a quarter of a billion dollars. Maybe policymakers should ask themselves whether the people filling our prisons are there because we’re afraid of them or because we’re mad at them.

There are 2,116 men and 290 women imprisoned in Wyoming. Thirty percent are there not because their original crime warranted prison sentences, but because they violated probation. Of those, 70 percent languish in expensive prison cells because their probation breach involved using drugs or alcohol. That tells you that hundreds are incarcerated because the criminal justice system is mad at them for failing an alcohol or drug test.

Most of them could be supervised less expensively and more effectively with a much smaller investment in drug courts or by prioritizing them in the community mental health system, which Wyoming already funds to the tune of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Of the 2,116 men in prison, a third are there for violent crimes. A slightly larger percentage is incarcerated for property and drug crimes. Among the 290 women in Wyoming’s prison, 44.5 percent are there for drug crimes, 26.6 percent for property crimes and 19.3 percent for violent crimes.

There is another option, the one to which Teno alluded and President Barack Obama took. Wyoming should consider how many of the current inmates the taxpayers must continue to warehouse.

The former president reviewed the cases of thousands of federal inmates. He concluded that about 12 percent of them, including nine from Wyoming, could be safely released, even though their full terms had not been served. He granted clemency to 1,715 inmates. Another 212 received pardons. For the most part, they were nonviolent drug offenders. That totals 1,927 people the taxpayers no longer pay to house.

Obama considered the pardons and commutations a recognition that the criminal justice system is broken, and he felt he could, thereby, restore a sense of fairness. Gov. Matt Mead should consider taking similar actions in order to restore some sense of fiscal responsibility, as well as fairness, to Wyoming’s justice system.

The governor is, however, a former prosecutor. But sentencing is not a science, and vengeance is expensive.

There are some whose sentences were wildly disparate from the crime, and others who received a fair sentence, but their conduct has demonstrated rehabilitation.

Eliminating those imprisoned for violent crimes, the governor should create a system designed to ferret out how many of the remaining 1,416 men and 234 women could be safely moved from costly prison cells and into the community. Then the Legislature needs to fix the system so that those who are sent to prison are there because we are afraid of them and not because we are mad at them.

Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He resides in Laramie.