Saturday, October 31, 2015

Wyoming gambled on the lottery and lost

Wyoming has a history with lotteries and it hasn’t been all that good. According to, Wyoming’s current lottery wasn’t the first.  James Monroe Pattee’s 1875 "Wyoming Lottery" was, they say, fraudulent. “There were many 50-cent winners, but little else.” 

Wyoming’s current lottery isn’t fraudulent. Neither is it all it was cracked up to be. Wyoming was gambling when it created the lottery. Some might argue that we lost.

Something’s wrong. It has been nearly three years since the legislature approved the lottery. The bill passed the State House by a single vote. Apprehensions haven’t lessened as the news about the lottery seems to be mostly disappointing.

Some legislators who were reluctant to agree with the scheme were persuaded the lottery would benefit their communities. Their constituents were promised proceeds from lottery ticket purchases would funnel millions to cities, towns, and schools. That’s not happening. Now lottery officials claim to be on the verge of distributing a piddling $200,000 later this year.

The lottery would have been defeated if legislators had known that nearly three years after start up, cities, towns, and schools could share a whopping 200,000-dollar jackpot. This is no laughing matter as the state is starring down a huge budget deficit that will deprive the cities, towns, and schools with badly needed funding.

But while the lottery has been unable to keep its promise to fund these programs, millions of lottery dollars have flowed into salaries, overhead, marketing contracts, and lawyers.

Worse, the so-called “quasi-government” entity the legislature created to run the show puts itself above accountability. The Corporation refuses to be transparent, setting policies as though it was a private enterprise entity that can hold proprietary secrets.

One sage said the lottery is a tax, albeit levied only on people who are poor in math. Maybe it’s not a tax in the strictest terms but every dollar comes from the public. Voters and their representatives were a bit timid about the lottery in the first place. One might think the officials who administer it would consider those opinions and bend over backwards to make sure everything they did was open to public scrutiny.

Now we learn that the Commission has taken out loans or lines of credit but it is none of our business how much and under what terms. The lottery board has a “public information policy” that keeps loan activity secret. They forgot they are playing with the house’s money and the public is the house.

To top it off, while there’s no money to share with cities, towns, and schools, there is plenty enough to hire high-priced lawyers to bring a lawsuit against Ed Atchison, a citizen who dared to question them.

When opponents raised concerns about gambling addiction, $200,000 of unclaimed prize money was earmarked to design gambling addiction programs at the Department of Health. Obviously, the legislature expected the Commission to take this issue seriously. In Atchison’s opinion, they didn’t. He made an issue of their decisions.

When one corporate officer complained about Mr. Atchison to the Wyoming Department of Health, she was told, “It's a balance between letting individuals voice their concerns, provide feedback, etc. while not letting personal agendas interfere with the larger picture.”

That, not a lawsuit, is the response of a public servant who respects the role of advocates in our system. I won’t offer opinions on the legitimacy of the lawsuit. The Court will decide those issues. But a lawsuit seems a heavy-handed alternative to dealing with criticism. What’s more, it’s an odd use of Lottery Commission resources when they haven’t yet been able to distribute a dime to cities, towns, and schools.

Given the Commission’s ill-considered obsession with secrecy and its failure to produce the promised revenue, it’s time for the legislature to reconsider the lottery or, in the very least, to seriously question the manner in which it is being managed.

As Kenny Rogers said, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em. You gotta know when to fold ‘em.”

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Voting NO on city administrator

On November 10, Cheyenne voters decide whether to scrap a system that allows them to choose the person in charge of city affairs or to give that authority to a majority of the city council. I’ve listened to the debate and find no facts to support the contention that the current system is not working.

I will vote no for these reasons. First, proponents failed to demonstrate there is a need for the change. Second, the change will isolate, if not remove, the city’s chief decision maker from voter accountability.

This ordinance appears to be the product of a small special interest group who haven’t always gotten their way with the current mayor. A wholesale assault on the way the people of the community choose those who run it is not the way to address that problem.

The change-agents are asking you to give up your right to directly elect the man or woman responsible for operating Cheyenne and to turn that responsibility over to an appointed bureaucrat who will work for a majority of the council, not for the voters. What could possibly go wrong?

Proponents argue that unelected city managers are removed from politics. That’s the problem. The city manager would be ground zero in most political battles, only farther removed, even isolated from the influence of voters. Today, if the voters are unhappy with city administration, they can change the person at the top. Under this proposal, voters lose that ability. My fear is this move would concentrate power in the office of the city manager.

Supporters say that if the professional bureaucrat isn’t doing the job, the council can fire that person. Have you ever seen that process? It’s a political circus when the council tries to get rid of a city manager. The council is made up of nine individuals, each of whom will have their own personal relationship with this person in power. Just watch those who want to fire a bad one try to get the five votes necessary.

Here is the crux of the problem. Those who favor the change haven’t offered any specific evidence that the current system doesn’t work. What we’ve heard are vague, theoretical arguments about how hiring a high-priced city manager might make things better.

Supporters of a city manager system tell us mayors may not have the management skills of professional administrators. Cheyenne’s current mayor, Rick Kaysen, whom voters gave a second four-year term, is the former president of Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power Company. That position required significant management skills.
Since 1971, the voters of Cheyenne have elected their mayor. With perhaps one exception, the voters have chosen well. Without naming names, that one mistake was promptly rectified at the following election.

Over the years, our mayors have had the necessary administrative and leadership skills. The community has thrived. A handful of developers may not have gotten their way all the time, but the city is safe, attractive and well maintained. The mayor and council are responsive to the voters. Cheyenne provides a platform for economic growth and is as livable as any small city in America.

When voting on November 10, remember this idea wasn’t put on the ballot after thousands of Cheyenne voters petitioned the council to make the change. This came directly from a few special interest folks to a vote of the council. There was no widespread grassroots clamor for such a monumental change.

Councilman Dickie Shanor claims, “The most compelling reason why we need to have this election, because people are so passionate on both sides. So many people have an opinion and so many people want to have that vote to voice that opinion and it’s time we gave them that opportunity.”

That may be true of the small circle of folks with whom he drinks coffee but that “passion” is not evident elsewhere in a community that seems pretty happy with a system that allows us to decide who is in charge of city operations.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Wyoming's "Kim Davis" Case

Those Bible-toting Christians in Kentucky are a hardscrabble bunch. Some even risk death clinging to their interpretation of the Bible. For example, snake-handling preacher Jamie Coots of Middlesboro, Kentucky, never backed away from his beliefs despite state laws making snake handling a crime. Last year Jamie died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a church service.

Jamie’s family refused to summon medical care because their Bible said God would take care of Jamie. Who needs doctors when Mark 16:18 is so clear. “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

But Jamie didn’t recover. Jamie died.

Now another Bible-thumping Kentuckian is willing to take her chances. Kim Davis is the County Clerk who decided to convert her little piece of our democracy into a theocracy. The U.S. Supreme Court told her she must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Southern bigots have always viewed Supreme Court edicts as unlawful interference with their way of life. Kim says she doesn’t work for the Supreme Court. She’s in God’s army.

When all of this washes out, Kim Davis may feel about as snake-bit as Jamie Coots.

Wyoming has its own “Kim Davis.” Pinedale’s Municipal Judge Ruth Neely has not been asked to wed people of the same sex. But she gratuitously announced that doing so would violate her beliefs. “When law and religion conflict,” Neely announced, “choices have to be made.”

The two cases pose an interesting challenge for those who must decide whether public officials can refuse to do parts of their jobs when they make a subjective decision that those duties conflict with personally held religious beliefs. The Judge and the County Clerk do not ask that all the marriage rules of the Bible be recognized. After all, where the Bible is more than a little ambiguous about same-sex marriage, Jesus was clear about divorce. Neither the Clerk nor the Judge asks to be excused from being involved in the weddings of divorced people.

The Wyoming Judicial Conduct and Ethics Commission is doing its job. The Commission is investigating Judge Neely’s conduct. You see, there are rules that even judges must follow.

The first Canon of the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct says, “A Judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” The Commission Rules define “impartiality.” Judges must avoid even an appearance of bias or prejudice against parties or classes of parties.

It is arguable that Judge Neely sent a signal to gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people that they are not considered equal under the law. Judge Neely feels she must choose between her interpretation of scripture and her public duties. While she didn’t elaborate, it’s certain that she, like Kim Davis in Kentucky, believes her narrow understanding of what God wants varies from what the law expects of her.

The ethical question is, “Does any gay or lesbian believe she or he can get a fair trial in Judge Neely’s courtroom?” Those whom the good Judge’s Good Book says are “an abomination” may be concerned that this Judge has not avoided “impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” Any party to a judicial proceeding who happen to be gay or lesbian have a right to be comfortable with the assumption they will be treated impartially.

As a theologian, I find it curious that the scripture is far more certain in its promise to care for the well being of snake handlers than in its rejection of marriages between people in love who happen to share the same sexual orientation. The latter requires a great deal of scriptural interpretive gymnastics.

Christians of good faith may disagree about whether the Bible proscribes same-sex marriage. But that is an entirely religious discourse. Scriptural interpretation is not a part of Clerk Davis or Judge Neely’s job description. Impartial administration of the law is.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Sen. Hunt suicide investigated?

In 2013, I wrote “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins-The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.” Following the book’s release, mock trials were held around Wyoming based on the book’s allegations that Senator Hunt took his own life because of what may have been the criminal conduct of three of Hunt’s colleagues, Senators Styles Bridges (R-New Hampshire), Herman Welker (R-Idaho), and Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin.

One of the mock trials was held in the nation’s capital, sponsored by the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC, the oldest U.S. organization advocating for LGBTQ rights. Mattachine President Charles Francis said the Hunt suicide and its causes are a part of American history that some hoped to hide forever. “The erasure was almost complete,” Francis posted on his organization’s Facebook page, “until Wyoming pastor and historian Rodger McDaniel wrote a breakthrough history in 2013.”

My book detailed the threats and coercion employed by Senators Bridges and Welker as they attempted to force the Wyoming Democrat to resign from the Senate, then controlled by a single Democratic vote. McCarthy joined the alleged conspiracy with trumped up claims that Hunt bribed a detective to dismiss the charges. McCarthy’s announcement that he would hold one of his infamous witch-hunt hearings into those phony charges followed a year of threats that included the ransacking of Hunt’s Washington home. Early the following morning Hunt killed himself.

It was good to know of the book’s impact on Baldwin, but it was not alone. A few months ago Hunt’s suicide was the subject of a documentary produced by renowned journalist and investigative reporter Michael Isikoff. His film is titled “Uniquely Nasty-The U.S. Government’s War on Gays.”

The Hunt tragedy is but one of many such stories Isikoff documents. In the 1950s it was U.S. government policy to ruin the lives of gays and lesbians and your government went about their work with vigor.

This dark episode in American history has caught the attention of a United States Senator who occupies the seat once held by Joe McCarthy. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is the only openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. At the National Press Club this week it was announced that Senator Baldwin has sent a letter to United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking the Justice Department to open an investigation into Lester Hunt’s 1954 suicide.

Baldwin called it shocking that the death of a United States Senator was never investigated either by the Senate or the Justice Department. Indeed it was equally shocking that no Wyoming newspaper or politician ever demanded an investigation. Six decades ago, the popular Hunt, a former Governor and Secretary of State, was quietly laid to rest. His story was buried with him. Almost.

Perhaps Tammy Baldwin and the U.S. Attorney General can remedy that failure. The Senator’s October 1, 2015 letter said, “While decades have passed since this tragic incident, it remains a troubling example of the misdeeds of the McCarthy era and the role homophobia and bigotry has played in the history of our nation including at the highest levels of the federal government.

Baldwin explained to the Attorney general how important she believed an investigation is to maintaining the integrity of the United States Senate.

Baldwin’s letter was the second request Lynch received. In July, Lester Hunt Jr. wrote Ms. Lynch asking the same. The Senator’s son said he’d come to believe his father died “because he was being threatened and blackmailed by three of his Senate colleagues in order to change majority control of the U.S. Senate.”

Cold case civil rights cases are nothing new. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 directs the Department of Justice and the FBI to coordinate the investigation and prosecution of Civil Rights Era homicides that occurred on or before December 31, 1969. 

The act is based on the belief that the truth is good for the soul, even the soul of a nation. Wyoming’s congressional delegation might consider joining Baldwin’s cause. After all Hunt was our Senator.