Saturday, August 23, 2014

UW's credibility 4SALE

The time was when Wyoming legislators levied severance taxes for the purpose of reimbursing us for the extraction of the state’s wealth. The idea was that if corporations make money taking that wealth they should reimburse the citizens by paying a tax.

Today there are some key Wyoming politicians who think that by paying their taxes, the big oil, gas, and coal companies have bought an ownership interest in the state or at least its only four-year university.

Recently House Speaker Tom Lubnau was a guest on public radio. He was asked about the role of coal in climate change. Afterward, Tom posted this message on Facebook. “I should have known better than to go on a Wyoming Public Radio show about coal exports. The low point was when I told the show's host her question was preposterous. It makes me sad when a UW employee, who's (sic) salary is paid largely by extractive industries, advocates against extractive industries.”

It’s not the first time Lubnau’s been unhappy with UW employees who dared to question the environmental impact of mining. Last year the University responded to his criticism of a piece of art that the Wyoming Mining Association believed to be an objectionable statement about coal. The University destroyed the artwork. The University, Lubnau argued, shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds it.

There’s another sign the industry exercises undue control of the university. Recently an oil company, the Hess Corporation, became the largest corporate donor in UW’s history. Hess’s 10 million dollar donation will be used for research on tapping hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves. Hess’s president says it will be good for business.

It is undoubtedly good for his business but does anyone think the UW School of Energy Resources can conduct legitimate research on fracking or climate change when it relies so heavily of such “donations”?

Since 2007, UW has collected over $40 million from energy companies.

Faculty members told a reporter they have “deep concerns” about where UW’s headed, but are afraid that voicing concerns could jeopardize their jobs. Lubnau’s Facebook post would explain their fears.

There’s a third bad omen. Recently powerful members of the legislature began meeting with UW administrators to “clarify” what they want from the school. Rep. Eli Bebout who chairs the Appropriations Committee, which controls the UW budget, said, "I just think the University, the students, the faculty, everybody should understand in our state, the blessing we have by having the minerals and the importance of those revenue streams."

Perhaps there are other things they should also understand.

Legislators fronting for the mining industry are attempting to replace the appointed UW Trustees and micro-manage the school. Those legislators have little interest in academic freedom and objective research. Their goal is to make the University of Wyoming serves the interests of the mining industry.

Interestingly, this trend toward polluting Wyoming’s education system isn’t confined to the University. In 2013 the legislature enacted legislation requiring the governor’s office to work with industry to develop public school curriculum teaching students the benefits of energy development.

Without politicians willing to “offend” the industry, Wyoming would have continued giving away resources. As it was, Wyoming passed its severance tax 64 years after the first state began taxing mineral extraction. Republican governor Stan Hathaway led the enactment of that tax in 1969. Hathaway’s leadership created a Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, funded with additional taxes on minerals. Republicans in the legislature supported Hathaway over energetic energy-company lobbying against both proposals.

Hathaway and his GOP were willing to buck the industry to do what was right for the state.

The severance tax reimburses the state for its loss of non-renewable wealth. Companies removing our coal, oil, and gas fill the hole with a check. In a rather Kafkaesque twist, Lubnau, Bebout and other politicians seem to think it’s the energy industry that is doing the state a favor.

The University, students, faculty, and alumni should understand the threat this kind of thinking poses to the school’s legitimacy.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Those “not that muches” add up

Perhaps it comes with age. Fixed incomes come with aging. Gradually you become painfully aware of how easy it is for folks to take more money out of your pocket, making it sound so easy.

Older folks tell me they have the feeling younger folks “look through” them. The older you are, and we might add, the poorer you are, the less others notice you. Both groups are on relatively fixed incomes.

Whether its water or trash pickup rates, or another Cheyenne Light Fuel and Power Company rate hike, they’re all justified by the same argument. In each case, they take more money out of our pockets saying, “Ah, it’s not that much.”

All those “not that muches” add up, unless they’re “looking through” some people.

When the city recently raised water rates, the Board of Public Utilities said “it’s not that much.” They explained the increase would cost average residential customers “only” an additional $1.28 per month. Monthly sewer rates will go up about $1.41 for residential customers. That’s another $2.49 on average. Not that much right? But it’s not alone.

There are also increased rates for commercial customers, which will also eventually come out of our pockets as costs are passed along. Commercial customers increases average $3.18 more per month for water, and $3.81 for sewer, combining for $6.99.

That brings the big board total to $9.48 per month.

Coming soon to a checkbook near you are also additional costs for trash services.

Just weeks after the City Council denied an increase, the proposal is back. Council members first wanted to see the results of a long-awaited study of the sanitation program. The study is in and it will provide the council with cover for reaching into our pockets for more than a little loose change.

If the rate increases recommended by the study were implemented, residential customers currently paying $20 per month would be paying more than $29 for the same services in 2019. 

That's a 45 percent increase over five years.

And here comes the argument that “looks through” us. The vice president of HDR, the consulting firm that conducted the study said, "The impact of the increases appears reasonable.” Gould added, "I suspect that it might not even be noticed (by customers). And if it's noticed, it wouldn't create affordability issues."

Easy for him to say, but let’s head on over to the big board. Add in additional monthly costs Gould says we won’t even notice to the additional costs we’ll see on our water bill, and the subtotal becomes $18.48.
Then there’s the ever-present Cheyenne Light Fuel and Power rate increases. CLFP asked the Wyoming Public Service Commission (PSC) to approve a 12.7 million dollar rate increase, which will add $10.41 per month to already-high residential electricity monthly bills in Laramie County.

The argument CLFP trots out is predictable. “Energy still remains a great value for our customers,” Mark Stege, vice president of operations for Cheyenne Light, said. A “great value” is far different from “affordable.”

After hearing concerns from senior citizens and two large industrial consumers, the PSC not only approved the rates but also a process of reducing the “burden” on industrial users by shifting their costs to us.

Between the Board of Public Utilities, the city council, and CLFP, the tote board expropriates additional monthly charges for water and sewer, trash collection, electricity and gas of almost $30 a month from the fixed incomes of the elderly and low income folks. And it’s not as though the current charges are too low!

The legislature repealed cost-of-living increases for state retirees and rate increases greatly exceed the 1.5% cost-of-living increase in Social Security. Thus rate hikes called “not much,” and “unnoticeable” add significantly to the budgets of those already hammered by accelerating food, transportation, and medical costs.

Perhaps the PSC and other rate-making authorities should be required to have low and fixed-income members. Otherwise, rate increases will always seem to them to be “not that much.”

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Why do they hate the children?

When some Americans woke on third base they believed they themselves hit the triple. They don’t have any Biblical sense that they didn’t do it alone, that it was God who brought them up out of Egypt (Leviticus 11:45), or Ireland or Germany or (fill-in-the-blank).

Throughout history, there’ve been only a couple of groups, whites not among them, whose arrival was welcomed. There were slaves who worked without pay and Cuban defectors paid millions to throw or hit 90 MPH fastballs.

The ugliness we’re witnessing now is as American as apple pie. America was a nightmare for my Irish ancestors. A Southern slaveholder explained why he hired Irishmen to drain a swamp rather than using slaves. “That’s dangerous work,” he explained, “and a slave’s life is too valuable to risk that way.”

American politicians were transparent. The 1790 Naturalization Law reserved citizenship for whites only. The words of the law changed, attitudes haven’t.

In his book, “A Different Mirror” Ronald Takaki explained what it looked like in the beginning. “Indians were already here. While blacks were forcibly transported to America, Mexicans were initially enclosed by America’s extending border.”

How is it white Americans are so self-righteous about others coming? What’s the source of their moral authority?

It’s enjoyable watching politicians so eager to ride the tide of bigotry that they make spectacles of themselves. An Arizona candidate for congress put on a performance, running, screaming down a highway, leading protesters to stop what he hoped was a busload of Central American children.

It was a YMCA bus filled with US children on a field-trip.

Congressman Steve Pearce (R-NM) went on a fact-finding trip to Honduras and Guatemala. He refused to leave his hotel room because of the violence but returned to the FOX News cameras saying these kids should be back to live on those same dangerous streets.

In the Bible little children came to Jesus but the “disciples” ran them off just as those white protesters gathered in California to “confront” children coming from Central America and to run them off.  Jesus objected then and he objects today.

An hour’s drive away in Los Angeles, thousands cheered Yasiel Puig, a Cuban defector who plays right-field for the Dodgers. Politicians demand children be deported to countries where the threat to their lives is far greater than what Puig experienced in Castroland.

Puig and other defectors who either throw 90 MPH fastballs or can hit them are cheered while hate-filled protesters jeer children from violent barrios who come here for safety.

Whether protesters cheer the undocumented ballplayers or jeer these children, many want you to know they are “Christians.” They also want you to know they want these children deported. That doesn’t jive.

I don’t often take the Bible literally. Some believers do. I respect that, except when they make convenient exceptions. Many demonstrate penchants for quoting scripture to back up their anti-marriage-equality position. They recite verse and chapter to homosexuality a sin and to deny marriage equality.

Yet, when it comes to these endangered children seeking a better life in the United States, the same people suffer from Biblical amnesia. We shouldn’t have a great deal of tolerance for those who cling to their Bibles when they make their case using a literal interpretation of some scripture while ignoring God’s word altogether when it suits them.

In Leviticus God doesn’t stutter, but says straightforward, "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
As Dallas Rabbi Asher Knight told the media, “We are talking about standing at the border and telling children who are fleeing from a burning building to go back inside.”  People of faith can’t square that with the word of God. "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Visitors…be on your way now!

Been nice seeing you all. Glad you could come but it’s about time for you to head on home. You see, there’s a reason Cheyenne Frontier Days lasts 10 days and not eleven. Over time we’ve learnt that if folks visit any longer than about 10 days, they start telling us how they did things back home. Some of them begin making plans to stay.

We’d be grateful if you all’d plan to be outa here by sundown tomorrow evening. That’ll give us plenty of time to roll up the streets and get back to what it is we do best when nobody is here to tell us a “better” way.

Please know it’s not because we don’t like you, we do. But we’ve kinda figured out how we like things done. The longer you stay the more likely you are to start meddling. Not too long ago some Unitarian Universalist preacher comes to town. You know the kind. Not long after she set up house, she decided she should grace us with her opinion on guns. Well, we haven’t run her out of town yet but don’t think the boys ain’t working on it.

In the last half a century we’ve honed a way of moving backward at a pace we’re comfortable with. Like, it’s 2014, and one of the major candidates for governor says he’ll arrest federal employees “for impersonating law enforcement officers.” Heck, the governor himself doesn’t believe we humans cause climate change. One of our “Equality State” legislators, an Africa-American, begged gays to "please stop carpet-bagging on our civil rights movement."

They’re taken seriously here for a couple of reasons. One, we’ve been pretty successful driving out anyone who thinks differently and, two, the only thing resembling a two-party system in Wyoming is the Republican Party. Among Wyoming politicians there are two types of folks, the far-right and those who don’t believe the far-right is far-enough-right.

We haven’t had a Democrat in our congressional delegation since 1979. Don’t have much to show for it. That’s not the point. We don’t expect them to get much done. They can’t work with Democrats and the Republicans back there take ‘em for granted.

You gotta say, the sound they make raising Cain about the EPA, the BLM, Obamacare, anything Obama and everything that federal gov’mint does, is like the sound of a lullaby in a calf’s ears.

We know what it’d be like if a bunch of you stayed. We’ve a colony of liberals in “The People’s Republic of Jackson Hole.” We used to count on Jackson folks. Then a bunch of lefties moved in. Now they might as not elect a liberal to office, someone who might vote to expand Medicaid to insure folks who can just go to the emergency room if they’re really sick.

Not only are there no Democrats in the congressional delegation, there aren’t any in none of the statewide offices. There’re only 10 Democrats left in the entire state legislature. You can bet we’ve issued huntin’ license for them.

They’re not really “liberals.”  But they ain’t Republicans either. Don’t need their votes. Even with ‘em voting no, we banned the implementation of those doggone national science standards that mention goofy ideas like evolution and climate change. But they stand between us and us becoming the Reddest state in the country. What would we get for that? Not sure.

Still we can’t risk being so hospitable that you’ll spend more than a few days here. We appreciate your money; your ideas not so much. In the meantime I’ve got one question of you. We know Wyoming is the greatest place on earth…and so we wonder if you’re so darned smart, why you’d want to live here?

Be on your way now. That sun’s a’starting to set.

(Note to visitors: I write this morning with tongue in cheek. We’re all real glad you came, hope you had a great experience, and know you’re invited to come back…some even hope you’ll stay!)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Searching for Edward Snowden

A recent Wyoming Tribune-Eagle headline was intriguing. “Embarrassing government records can stay hidden,” described a Wyoming Supreme Court holding that the public records law doesn’t really mean what it says.

What is this thing that public officials have about keeping their work secret from the voters?

The Court’s decision permits public officials to hide public documents upon which they rely in reaching public policy decisions. Having served in both the legislative and executive branches of Wyoming’s state government, I can assure you that these sorts of documents are among the most critical if the public wants to really know why certain decisions were made and just who participated in making them.

That raises a question “Where is an Edward Snowden when we need him or her ?

Edward Snowden became, for many, a pariah, a traitor to his country, and a hunted man in exile. The most powerful forces in the most powerful government in the world issued hunting licenses for Snowden. If anything, he’s become a metaphor for the consequences of severe truth-telling.

Remember the Pentagon Papers? Daniel Ellsberg was the “Edward Snowden” of his day. Ellsberg released them to the New York Times, revealing for the first time that the U.S. had secretly bombed Cambodia and Laos, illegally enlarging the scale of the Vietnam War. The papers also revealed the fact that our government knew the war was unwinnable while they continued sacrificing the lives of young men and women.
For his truth-telling, Ellsberg was charged with several felonies including conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property. Those charges were dropped when it was learned that other secret operations under the Nixon administration included burglarizing Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.

Wyoming could use an Edward Snowden or a Daniel Ellsberg.

Admittedly the issues are not so consequential nor the sort of international sensations involved in the classified material Snowden released. The release of Wyoming’s secrets would not send the truth-teller to Moscow, Rawlins or Lusk. Yet they matter.

The court says officials who may be embarrassed if we actually know how they reached a decision and with whom they consulted along the way can hide the truth. The ruling creates a game of cat and mouse. The court sided with cats who fear embarrassment if their deliberations were known to the mice. (Note: That fear hasn’t deterred the legislature form doing some pretty embarrassing things.)

Wouldn’t the objectives of an educated electorate benefit if we knew what went into making the otherwise inexplicable decision to allow the fracking of oil and gas wells in Fremont County, which led to the severe pollution of underground water supplies? The public would likely be shocked to know the candidly partisan matters upon which legislators and the governor agreed in conspiring to deny 18,000 Wyomingites health insurance by refusing to expand Medicaid.

When this and other columns issued public records requests for emails discussing the decision of the University of Wyoming to rid the campus art the energy industry didn’t like, we learned that public officials were saying one thing privately and other things publicly. When that happens, we should know.

Now our Supreme Court has given them protection from public disclosure. If the truth-tellers tell only the “truth” they are required to tell by law and court rulings, the public will never learn the real truth. Snowden and Ellsberg are extreme examples. Their truth-telling violated the law but so did the secret activities of those public officials who were embarrassed by the disclosures.

The impacts must be balanced. History has proved that public officials make better, more accountable decisions when they fear their actions may appear on the nightly news or the front page of a newspaper. Secrecy is an impediment to good government especially when the quality of government depends on a well-informed electorate.

Public office-holders who “fear embarrassment” are in the wrong vocation. But they won’t fear embarrassment if the Wyoming Supreme Court’s word is the last word. Where is an “Edward Snowden” when we need one?