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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Two-party system hurts Wyoming families

Republicans don't care about state's needy. Democrats lack the power to get things done. There has to be another option.


By Rodger McDaniel

What do Colin Kaepernick and David Petraeus have in common?

One is a quarterback, the other a general. One takes a knee during the national anthem. The other doesn’t. What they have in common is that neither voted in the last election. They were not alone. Ninety-three million of their
fellow Americans stayed away from polling places in November.

Wyoming is no exception. If you think Republicans are the majority in Wyoming, you’d be in error. The majority are those who, though eligible to vote, don’t even bother to register.

When that many voters stay away from the polls, it makes a profound statement about our political system: “If there isn’t someone or something worth voting for, why bother?”

Don’t get me wrong. Voting matters. I’ve always voted. I highly recommend it. But if that’s the basket in which you place all your eggs, disappointment will be your constant companion.

Voting without being engaged in politics and government is like praying without using the voice, hands and feet God gave you: little more than wishful thinking. For progressives and others concerned about a more just state, calling yourself a Democrat or a Republican and hoping for the best doesn’t even rise to the level of wishful thinking.

Take, for example, the basic needs of Wyoming’s people: health care, housing and food security. If you are one of those who actually votes in this state, you elected people who exhibit little interest, even hostility, toward meeting these needs. Not only did they reject health care for low-income working families, they rejected millions in unemployment benefits, eliminated literacy centers and tax benefits for the impoverished elderly and others, cut energy assistance and eliminated dental assistance for the low-income elderly.

Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you,” and the Wyoming Legislature seems determined to make certain they are.

One-time Kids Count Director Marc Homer knows what the data said even before the current economic bust. One of five Wyoming children lives in a home where parental earnings fall below the federal poverty level despite working long hours and multiple jobs. Politicians the voters choose are aware those numbers exceed 50 percent when there is no father in the home. Yet they do nothing to bridge the gender wage gap that worsens the lives of thousands of Wyoming women.

The National Center for Children in Poverty calculates that it takes twice the federal poverty threshold to meet a family’s basic needs. Thirty-six percent of Wyoming’s children live below that level.

Members of the “elected class” know that in order to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, Wyoming wage earners must earn at least $14.98 per hour. Still they refuse to raise the minimum wage, which is currently less than what the pharaoh paid the Israelite slaves.

These grim statistics are nurtured by Wyoming’s two-party system, made up of a Democratic Party without the power to do much and a Republican Party that simply won’t. This session was an example. The Democrats proposed a modest increase in the minimum wage. The Republicans countered by proposing the state wage be hiked to the federal level. Then they defeated that.

This year, the minimum wage was increased in 21 other states because citizens took the matter into their own hands when their political parties and legislators, like ours, failed them.

Wyoming families aren’t asking for much: a livable-wage job, affordable health care and housing, their kids in good schools and a secure retirement.

They will need to discard the old paradigm, which offers only Democrats and Republicans. Just as Minnesota’s Farm Labor Party emerged from economic hardship, perhaps a Wyoming Children and Families Party could emerge from economic hardships suffered here. Maybe there are enough people who care about children and families to organize around a reason to vote. First stop? A ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Watch then who makes voting a priority. Watch then to see who starts to listen to children and families.

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sixth penny for streets? There may be no other choice

You may not like using the specific purpose tax for road projects in Cheyenne, but blocking this effort would mean the loss of some important items.


By D. Reed Eckhardt

Family, friends, even casual acquaintances have been threatening recently to vote against some propositions on the sixth-penny sales tax ballot, which will be up for a vote here on May 2.

Not everyone -- despite the claims of Cheyenne Councilman Pete Laybourn and Mayor Marian Orr -- is happy with the conversion of several key projects to money for streets. The people who I bump into rightly point out that the money being set aside for roadways will do next to nothing to solve Cheyenne's pothole problems since these are one-time funds that will not even be available to the city for years.
The Cheyenne Greenway is set to get sixth-penny funding.

These concerned residents also assert their belief that sixth-penny money -- officially known as the specific purpose tax -- should be used to build Cheyenne and Laramie County forward. They point to examples like the county library and the Botanic Gardens, both previous sixth-penny triumphs. For example, they would rather see the money used to open up the Belvoir Ranch with trails or develop alleyways downtown. They argue those projects would help move Cheyenne forward and make it more welcoming to the younger singles and families that local officials say they want to attract. People don't come here for a lack of potholes, they correctly point out.

The problem is -- as the list below shows -- there is no way to get directly to the streets money without taking out some other important projects. 

For example, opposing the $2.4 million for streets in Proposition 5 also would mean a vote against the expansion of the Cheyenne Greenway. Who wants to take out one of the most beloved amenities this city has to offer? Similarly, Proposition 8, which contains $3.5 million for roadways, includes a planned park for eastern Cheyenne. That future amenity sits right at the heart of current city growth and is an excellent future project. I guess if someone wants to express their anger about the street funds, this is one possible target. Of course, a "no" vote on Proposition 8 would hurt the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County as well. They have $2.1 million worth of projects wrapped up in this bundle.

This always has been the Laramie County Commission's strategy when setting the sixth-penny ballot. The commissioners package the smaller communities' projects with significant city work to garner Cheyenne voters' approval. The towns like Pine Bluffs and Burns fear that if they have to stand alone, city voters will not support them. Combining the towns' proposals with things like the Greenway or Botanic Gardens virtually assures passage. 

Putting the streets money into the packages will have a similar effect, though it is worth noting that Orr and Laybourn wanted that money separate. They believe, perhaps rightly so, that Cheyenne voters will support money for roadways as they indicated in last November's balloting by electing both of these streets-only politicians. Given that Proposition 8 could be a "no" vote target, they may be right.

Regardless, it is important to say -- as has been mentioned here before -- that this push for streets money from the sixth penny is a shell game. Rather than working to find a recurring, long-term approach to streets, which run a $2.5 million annual deficit, Orr, Laybourn and the others want you to be dazzled by the $6 million in these propositions. Yes, it is shiny and new, but it won't come close to solving the city's long-term issue of streets funding. That unfunded work will pile up at least $12.5 million (probably more) over five years -- in addition to present deferred projects -- and continue to build. Sixth-penny money for streets is a delusion being peddled as a concrete solution. 

Voters will have many decisions to make on May 2 as the overall ballot totals $118.3 million (see below). Indeed, there are items among the propositions that I didn't even know were there until I prepared this article. But any efforts to block sixth-penny funds for streets will come with a cost to the future of this city. That makes it tough. In the end, opponents of this streets effort may have no choice but to accept this misuse of tax funds. That's unfair -- but it also is reality.

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

--------------------------------

SIXTH-PENNY PROJECTS ON THE MAY 2 BALLOT

Proposition 1 -- $18 million
-- Laramie County Courthouse remodeling to, among other things, make space for a fourth district court judge, $9 million.
-- Build Municipal Court building or court addition at the Municipal Building, 2010 O'Neil Ave., $9 million.

Proposition 2 -- $16.2 million
-- Expansion of Laramie County Jail.

Proposition 3 -- $15 million
-- Construct Christensen Road from Commerce Circle to U.S. 30, including a new bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad.

Proposition 4 -- $9.9 million
-- Design, construct and equip a multi-purpose building at Laramie County's Archer Complex.

Proposition 5 -- $11.97 million
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $3.8 million.
-- Street improvements in Cheyenne, $2.4 million.
-- Cheyenne Greenway expansion, $3.8 million.
-- Fire station at Archer to serve eastern Laramie County, $2 million.

Proposition 6 -- 11.97 million
-- Multi-purpose indoor athletics facility for Cheyenne, $6.8 million.
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $1.7 million.
-- Radio towers and equipment to improve Laramie County radio coverage, 3.5 million.

Proposition 7 -- $14.9 million
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $800,000.
-- Emergency services storage and medication distribution for Cheyenne/Laramie County Public Health, $1 million.
-- Gym facility at Cheyenne Ice and Events Center, $7.1 million.
-- Fire station and fire engine upgrades for Cheyenne, $6 million.

Proposition 8 -- $8.8 million
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $1.1 million.
-- City of Pine Bluffs debt reduction, $1 million.
-- Street improvements for Cheyenne, $3.5 million.
-- Buy land for future park in eastern Cheyenne, $3.2 million.

Proposition 9 -- $11.7 million
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $2.3 million.
-- Computer upgrades to allow all emergency and fire districts in Laramie County to operate on the same system as 911, $3 million.
-- New fire station for Laramie County District No. 2, $2 million.
-- Improvements in Cheyenne's West Edge project, $4 million.
-- Laramie County sheriff video and technology upgrades, $500,000.

TOTAL: $118.3 million

Not all sixth-penny projects are created equal

Some of the propositions that will go before voters here on May 2 should be rejected. Absentee balloting begins Thursday. Here's how I plan to vote.


More information on the sixth-penny ballot can be found at http://www.laramiecounty.com/SixthPenny.aspx


By D. Reed Eckhardt

When reviewing the projects on the sixth-penny sales tax ballot, one thing becomes clear: This set of proposals has become a Christmas tree on which too many agencies have hung too many projects, bloating the total to more than $118 million. If all of the nine propositions are
The Laramie County Library was a sixth-penny project OK'd in 2003.
passed, it will take more than six years to collect all the sales tax revenue, which will drive up the costs on most of these projects as inflation takes over. That also will delay other important projects, such as the development of the city's Belvoir Ranch

An example of the impacts of a long-term sixth-penny ballot is the expansion of the Botanic Garden in Cheyenne, approved by the voters in 2012. When voted on, it was estimated that the work would cost $16 million. Bids came in much higher than that, so the Gardens has had to turn to cost-cutting and fundraising to meet the project's overall costs.

And some of the proposed sixth-penny money is being misused in these projects. The plan to spend about $6 million of these one-time funds on Cheyenne's streets is sleight of hand designed to fool Cheyenne voters. It will do nothing to solve the city's streets problems, which are a recurring expense. The current deficit is more than $3.5 million per year, and that only will grow over time. This sixth-penny project is a misuse of public funds that tries to pacify the voters who approved "streets" candidates, like new Mayor Marian Orr and Ward 1 council member Pete Laybourn, last November.

Similarly, the proposal to spend $10 million on a multipurpose building for Laramie County's Archer complex east of Cheyenne is another fool's mission. It is designed -- at its heart -- to create a one-site home for the Laramie County Fair. Yet the fair is not an integral part of life for the vast majority of county residents, who live in Cheyenne. They, and their budgets, are so burned out after Cheyenne Frontier  Days that the fair is not even an afterthought. This project squanders $10 million to please a narrow segment of county residents, even though it has been sold as a quality of life project for the entire county. 

Here is how I intend to vote when I go to the polls:

Proposition 1 -- $18 million
-- Laramie County Courthouse remodeling to, among other things, make space for a fourth district court judge, $9 million.
-- Build Municipal Court building or court addition at the Municipal Building, 2010 O'Neil Ave., $9 million.
My vote: Yes
Why: Caseloads continue to grow in this county's courts, delaying justice and lengthening the timelines of civil suits. A fourth judge has been approved by the Legislature with the stipulation that space be made in the County Courthouse. That expansion has forced Cheyenne's Municipal Court out of the county complex. Thus, the $9 million that will go to the city.

Proposition 2 -- $16.2 million
-- Expansion of Laramie County Jail.
My vote: No
Why: A jail expansion approved in 2000 was supposed to meet this county's needs for years to come. Instead, the cells are full. So it ever more shall be. Killing this proposition will force county officials to figure out new ways of doing their criminal justice business other than packing the jail.

Proposition 3 -- $15 million
-- Construct Christensen Road from Commerce Circle to U.S. 30, including a new bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad.
My vote: Yes
Why: Laramie County's growth is toward the east, yet there is no easy way to get there except through Cheyenne. This road and bridge will open up eastern Laramie County and better serve that area's needs both for residents and potential business. This just makes sense.

Proposition 4 -- $9.9 million 
-- Design, construct and equip a multi-purpose building at Laramie County's Archer Complex.
My vote: No
Why: As explained above, this effort to create a single county fairground will serve only a narrow segment of Laramie County's population. This area does need an events facility, but Archer is not the right location. It should be built in the county's population center -- Cheyenne.

Proposition 5 -- $11.97 million
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $3.8 million.
-- Street improvements in Cheyenne, $2.4 million.
-- Cheyenne Greenway expansion, $3.8 million.
-- Fire station at Archer to serve eastern Laramie County, $2 million.
My vote: Yes
Why: Even though I am adamantly opposed to using sixth-penny money for streets, I am not willing to take the Greenway down to prove my point. A new fire station for Laramie County also makes sense.

Proposition 6 -- 11.97 million
-- Multi-purpose indoor athletics facility for Cheyenne, $6.8 million.
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $1.7 million.
-- Radio towers and equipment to improve Laramie County radio coverage, 3.5 million.
My vote: Yes
Why: Cheyenne is leaking millions of dollars as parents travel to Fort Collins, Colorado, and elsewhere to get recreation opportunities for their children. This is a proven need that will pay off for the city in economic development and by adding an amenity for families. This is what the sixth penny was designed to do.

Proposition 7 -- $14.9 million
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $800,000.
-- Emergency services storage and medication distribution for Cheyenne/Laramie County Public Health, $1 million.
-- Gym facility at Cheyenne Ice and Events Center, $7.1 million.
-- Fire station and fire engine upgrades for Cheyenne, $6 million.
My vote: Yes
Why: The argument for this proposition is the same as the one for Proposition 6. It also is essential to keep the city's fire departments up to date.

Proposition 8 -- $8.8 million
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $1.1 million.
-- City of Pine Bluffs debt reduction, $1 million.
-- Street improvements for Cheyenne, $3.5 million.
-- Buy land for a future park in eastern Cheyenne, $3.2 million.
My vote: No
Why: Here is where I take my stand against using sixth-penny money for city streets. I also am not sold on spending $3.2 million for a Cheyenne park that may not be developed for a decade or more. This money should have gone to developing the Belvoir Ranch.

Proposition 9 -- $11.7 million
-- Various projects for the smaller communities in eastern Laramie County, $2.3 million.
-- Computer upgrades to allow all emergency and fire districts in Laramie County to operate on the same system as 911, $3 million.
-- New fire station for Laramie County District No. 2, $2 million.
-- Improvements in Cheyenne's West Edge project, $4 million.
-- Laramie County sheriff video and technology upgrades, $500,000.
My vote: Yes
Why: I was leaning toward a "no" vote here, but the money for the West Edge is essential if Cheyenne ever hopes to attract the young people and young families it says it wants. The West Edge, in combination with developing downtown, is key to this city's future. That makes a "yes" vote important here.

Total of my "yes" projects: $84 million.

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

A huge win for the LGBT-plus community

Wyoming Supreme Court ruling in the case of a Pinedale judge has huge implications for nullifying the idea that Christians have a right to discriminate.


By D. Reed Eckhardt

"In addition to protecting religious freedom, our constitution recognizes the importance of equal rights for all. ... we could not read the provisions regarding religious liberty to render those provisions recognizing equal rights and due process to be inoperative or superfluous." -- Wyoming Supreme Court decision censuring Pinedale Judge Ruth Neely for her refusal to marry gay couples.

Members of Wyoming's LGBT-plus community rightly celebrated on March 7 when their state Supreme Court ruled that Pinedale Judge Ruth Neely has only two choices:
Justice Kate Fox wrote the Neely ruling.
 She can marry all couples, or she can marry none. 

Neely cannot, the court ruled, refuse to marry gays while performing ceremonies for straight couples -- despite her religious belief that homosexuality is a sin. She is entitled to believe as she wishes, Justice Kate Fox wrote in her majority opinion, but Neely cannot act in ways that discriminate or imply that she is anything but an unbiased actor for the state.

That's a big win for the LGBT-plus community and its supporters as well as for those who believe the courts should be impartial rather than the arm of the fundamentalist church or any religious organization. 

This has been the new ground staked out by fundamentalist Christians since they lost the fight against gay marriage nearly two years ago: that they have a right under the First Amendment to discriminate against the LGBT-plus community if its members  offend their religious beliefs. Neely clearly assumed that position in 2014 when she told a newspaper reporter that she would not perform gay marriages, igniting the case that was decided earlier this month. Neely had been threatened with removal from office by the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, so she appealed to the High Court. She now will retain her position after being censured by the justices, though with a stipulation: Either she marries all or she marries none.

Wyoming's Supreme Court now makes this crystal clear: Religiously motivated actions by public figures who seek to void the rights of others are unconstitutional. Neely may not act on her beliefs in the public arena, no matter how firm her convictions. 

But this ruling also foreshadows bigger things. Christian business people, some church leaders and their supporters have argued in Cheyenne -- and no doubt throughout Wyoming -- that they cannot be forced to violate their beliefs when providing goods and services to members of the LGBT-plus community. They essentially have argued for a right to discriminate, based on the First Amendment, and so they have opposed efforts to pass an anti-bias legislation at the City Council and in the Legislature.

Now comes the ruling in the Neely case. And while some will argue that it applies only in the public arena, there are indications in the opinion itself that is not true. Note the quote at the start of this blog about Wyoming's religious freedom clause not negating the rights and due process of others. Elsewhere in the ruling, the High Court now is on the record as saying that "while the freedom to believe is absolute, the freedom to act cannot be." It adds that "the Wyoming Constitution is construed to protect people against legal discrimination more robustly than does the federal constitution."

This means the Neely ruling very well can spread into the private arena. After all, businesses are required to get licenses from the city, and that means they have to abide by the rules of the municipality. If the city cannot discriminate, neither can those businesses. The same holds true, it would appear, in the areas of housing and jobs. No doubt, someone will challenge this, but if it is true that the protections against legal discrimination are higher in Wyoming than in the federal constitution, that person may have a hard time proving his or her case.

It would appear that the Neely ruling is an even bigger victory for the LGBT-plus community than what it seemed on first blush. It appears to set a high standard to discrimination against others based on personal beliefs. That, friends, is just as it should be.

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Apparently Mike Enzi has lost his sense of hearing

Wyoming's senior U.S. senator should be spending more time with his constituents in town hall meetings.


By Rodger McDaniel

Loss of hearing is a sign of aging. Likewise, one sign a politician has been there too long is loss of listening. It’s easy when you win elections with 70% of the vote.
U.S.Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., speaks in Washington, D.C.
How much can the opinions of those other actually 30% matter? Why consider the 55% who don’t bother to register to vote?

Senator Mike Enzi told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, “Most people aren’t interested in what I’m saying.” He thinks they just want to “deliver their message.” Actually, Senator, it’s both. Many want to let you know how they feel while asking you to explain yourself.

For example, at a town hall, you could explain how Republicans spent years trying to repeal Obamacare but had no replacement. What does the Chairman of the Budget Committee think of Trump’s budget-busting $21 billion wall and $54 billion increase in military spending?

You could hear the angst about Trump’s murky relationship with Russia among those who don’t worship the Republican brand. You voted to convict Bill Clinton for lying about marital infidelity but ignore the national security implications of Jeff Sessions’ and Michael Flynn’s perjury and Trump’s delusional Tweets.

At town hall meetings, you’d be asked why you know better than the majority of Americans who think Trump should release his income tax returns. Why do you oppose term limits while 77% of Wyoming voters supported them in a statewide election with polls showing stronger support today? Why did you vote to allow seriously mentally ill people to buy guns?

Think about it. It’s understandable that voters attending your colleagues’ town hall meetings chant, “Do your job.”

Senator Enzi assures those asking him to hold town hall meetings that he doesn’t need public gatherings in order to get the information he needs to do his job. He says he speaks “with a lot of people in different parts of the state” when home on weekends and during congressional recesses. He says that in the past he has held what he calls “listening sessions” and “will consider some in the future.”

He holds telephone conference calls and meets “with people and groups almost daily both in Wyoming and with Wyoming folks who come to Washington.” He assures constituents that town hall meetings are not necessary. They can contact his office or send an email.

To a na├»ve voter or true-Red supporters, that may seem sufficient. It may even sound as though he’s actually listening. It is, however, an admission that he’s been there too long and has grown too comfortable building walls between him and those who have opinions differing from his conservative base.

Are the encounters he describes reasonable substitutes for face-to-face town hall meetings? Most of the alternatives place a staff person between him and the constituent. You call or email and who gets the message? Who drafts the response? Meetings with special interest groups, whether in Wyoming or Washington, are a poor substitute for listening to real people.

Saying you’re listening is different from actually hearing. Politicians who’ve been in office too long can easily deceive themselves into believing that they are hearing when they are not. A town hall meeting would relieve Mike Enzi of that burden. A town hall meeting is where Mr. Enzi will encounter folks the Senator doesn’t hear from in the normal course of his meanderings. A town hall meeting is where the Senator will see the faces and hear the voices of those who are afraid or angry and he’ll feel their raw, unrehearsed emotion in a way that can never be conveyed by an email or a phone call answered by a member of his staff.

During a town hall meeting, Mr. Enzi will be reminded that the sum total of all of his GOP supporters and the special interest groups that fawn over him does not equal the public’s interest in what he does.

The President claims people who come to town hall meetings are paid to do so. They are not, but Senator Enzi, you are.

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

Wyoming lawmakers too cozy with Big Tobacco

Once again the Legislature refuses to increase taxes on cigarettes, etc. despite the public costs of their use.


By Rodger McDaniel

Wyoming legislators have always had an odd relationship with big tobacco. The oddity of that relationship was demonstrated again during this session. Faced with dire fiscal challenges and budget shortfalls, the legislature refused once again to increase the tobacco tax.

The House passed an increase. It was killed by three state senators,
including Laramie County freshman Affie Ellis, who took her first opportunity to back big tobacco.

It isn’t just Wyoming lawmakers who exhibiting an odd relationship with tobacco. It’s been that way since 1612 when the first commercial tobacco crop was raised in Jamestown.

According to “The Tobacco Timeline,” archive.tobacco.org/History/Tobacco_History.html, tobacco has the dubious heritage of being a significant cause for the introduction of slavery into the Americas. At first, slaves were indentured servants. They could be denied their liberty for only a limited number of years. That’s the first time the relationship between tobacco and lawmakers became problematic.

Having to choose between the freedom of human beings and an “affordable” work force to raise and harvest tobacco, Virginia’s legislature passed laws permitting “lifelong” slavery. In 1759 George Washington’s slaves harvested his first tobacco crop.

Soon thereafter, lawmakers began a centuries-long practice of ignoring medical studies warning of lethal health impacts from smoking. In 1761, a British doctor warned snuff users that they were risking nose cancer. But by then, Pope Benedict XIII had taken up smoking and the clergy depended on tobacco revenue then as much as convenience stores do now, making the politics of tobacco more complicated.

Congress first taxed tobacco in 1794. James Maddison protested, giving rise to talking points used by tobacco lobbyists this very day. He said the tax would “deprive poor people of innocent gratification.”

The 1800s witnessed the rise of the tobacco empires of Philip Morris, J.E Liggett, Benson and Hedges, and the Duke family. Anti-tobacco efforts backed by an increasing number of medical studies could was no match for their economic and political power. Even so, there were strong regulatory efforts nationwide, well, almost nationwide.

In 1901, there were 45 states. Their legislatures faced choices between citizen health and tobacco profits. Forty-three of them “either had anti-cigarette laws on the books,” or “were considering new or tougher anti-cigarette laws.” Louisiana and Wyoming were the holdouts.

Whether it was a reasonable tax on tobacco or a ban on public smoking, Wyoming’s legislators inevitably chose the false claims of big tobacco over rational policies based on fact and science. The odd relationship between Wyoming’s legislators and big tobacco is as inexplicable today as it was in 1901. The relationship withstood evidence that tobacco companies lied to Congress about the fact that their products caused cancer and heart disease. Wyoming lawmakers yawned when Philip Morris claimed smoking was actually good for the economy because dying early saved the cost of public benefits.

The odd relationship between Wyoming legislators and big tobacco withstood tobacco companies’ immoral practices of marketing their deadly products to children as well as evidence that higher taxes actually deter kids from using. The relationship persists despite the millions of dollars that tobacco costs the state’s taxpayers for health care and lost productivity.

Here we are in 2017. Wyoming’s legislators no longer even consider public smoking bans. Only seven states, mostly those producing tobacco, have a lower tax than Wyoming.  

The American Cancer Society made sure legislators knew the human and budgetary costs of tobacco use to no avail. Lawmakers are wringing their hands over funding education while eliminating safety-net programs for the poor and disabled. Still they only have ears for the tobacco lobby. The bill defeated this year would have raised the tax by an insignificant amount. Yet it would have provided $3 million toward the costs of involuntary mental health commitments, a program deeply in the red otherwise. The rejected tax would have also generated a badly needed $1.4 million for cities and towns.

Somehow those public benefits are insufficient to overcome the special relationship some legislators have with the tobacco lobby. Odd, isn’t it?

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

An open conversation or ducking the punches?

U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi's conversation with the local newspaper didn't really get the job done. This state's delegation should meet with the people.


By D. Reed Eckhardt

I continue to be conflicted about the recent published conversation between U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. 

On one hand, the local newspaper was able to get the senator to at least sit down and answer questions from his constituents. 
Empty chairs mark the delegation's absence in Jackson.
On the other hand, Enzi was able to dodge having to hear directly from those who are unhappy with his positions on such things as Obamacare and his support for the Trump administration. He knows that could have been unpleasant, given what has happened at other Republican representatives' town halls around the nation.

Perhaps the senator doesn't care what those people have to say, so he probably is satisfied with the WTE interview. He has staked out a position as one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, though he isn't nearly as aggressive about it as other members. And he is well liked in Wyoming, so he really has nothing to gain from being pinned down at a town hall.

But there are people in this state who Enzi should be listening to. Consider a friend whose family was saved by the safety net that Obamacare offers. His child has a severe disease, and it only was through Obamacare that he was able to get substantial coverage. Without it, that child would have been kept out by a pre-existing condition and/or her age. That she was under 26 years old allowed her to stay on the family policy. One wonders how Enzi would respond if told face to face that he was threatening that child's health care by his efforts at "repeal and replace." We'll never know, of course, since that family was unable to confront the senator at the WTE.

Certainly, there are many others -- though not of Enzi's party, probably -- who have personal, social or political concerns that they would like to share with the senator. But he answered questions from the paper, and that provided him with at least an appearance of openness.

It's easy to understand the senator's hesitancy. Confrontation is not his cup of tea. But as a new article on WyoFile clearly shows (http://www.wyofile.com/delegation-applauded-legislators-scolded-constituents/), many Wyomingites want to speak directly with their congressional delegation. In some respects, it is cowardly for them to hide in Washington, D.C., or even in the editorial boardroom of the WTE. These residents are supposed to be represented by their delegation. For Enzi -- or Sen. John Barrasso or Rep. Liz Cheney, for that matter -- to duck them says a lot about who they really think they represent. That Barrasso, for example, chose to attend a fundraiser in Jackson while ignoring requests for a town meeting there speaks volumes.

So give the WTE credit for at least getting Enzi to come out from behind the curtain. Unfortunately, the people of Laramie County got to see only what the Wizard wanted them to see, rather than being able to see the Wizard himself. They, and the rest of Wyoming, deserve better from Enzi, Barrasso, and Cheney. Unfortunately, they won't get it anytime soon.

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