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Counties eye Legislature’s actions with interest

SHERIDAN — What happens in Cheyenne during the 2014 session of the Wyoming Legislature will have a direct effect on cities and counties around the state. That means local government officials have been busy tracking bills these past few weeks, urging amendments, denial or passage as they feel best.

While support or opposition can be conveyed on the phone or in an email, sometimes it’s best to make a personal appearance.

Last week, all five Sheridan County commissioners traveled down to Cheyenne for the annual Wyoming County Commissioners Association meeting to address bills pertinent to counties and to meet with legislators.

Today, several representatives from Sheridan and Dayton — including Mayor Dave Kinskey and Mayor Bob Wood — will head to Cheyenne for the Wyoming Association of Municipalities Winter Workshop, which also serves as a time to track bills and meet with legislators.

WCCA President Bob Rolston, a Sheridan County commissioner, said county support or opposition for bills goes through a thorough vetting process so the WCCA can present a unified front to legislators on key issues.

“We had all but one county there. Upwards of 65 people were engaged in this process,” Rolston said.

When the commissioners arrived, they grouped into six committees regarding land use, health and social services, agriculture, revenue, transportation and government operations.

Those six committees look at the hundreds of bills being considered by the House of Representatives and the Senate and decide which ones the WCCA should address.

This year, 40 bills were chosen to go through a voting process to determine support or opposition.

The WCCA used to vote on which bills to support or not support with a show of hands, Rolston said. However, that process was prone to peer pressure or skewed voting based on what commissioners thought of other counties.

Now, the WCCA uses computerized electronic clickers to vote to support, oppose or remain neutral on a particular bill. Bills that receive a 70 percent vote — to either support or oppose — from the association are then addressed by commissioners to legislators in a variety of ways.

The list of bills being followed by the WCCA is currently at 30, Rolston said. A few key bills include:

• The budget bill

“We have been strongly in support of Gov. Mead’s support of $175 million for local governments,” Rolston said. “The bill went through a lot of jockeying around, but when it came down to it, due to diligent lobbying, the budget stayed the way it was recommended by Mead.”

At one point, the Joint Appropriations Committee suggested pulling $25 million out of the general distribution of $175 million in case funds for Payment in Lieu of Taxes — or money that goes to counties that contain federal lands — didn’t come through. That way, the state could insure it would be able to pay that money to the counties at the end of the two-year budget term.

However, Rolston said counties and cities opposed the bill because it would have lowered the overall distribution and the withheld $25 million would have only been given to counties. Some counties, like Washakie, rely on PILT funds for 20 percent or more of their budget and would have struggled if the distribution was cut at the beginning of the budget term.

Now, the budget bill is back at the level recommended by Gov. Matt Mead.

“We made a big, long end sweep and got right back to the scrimmage line,” Rolston said.

• House Bill 22

This bill, supported by Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, will change the interest penalty on audit settlements that show an energy company underpaid on severance taxes from 18 percent to 12 percent, which will equal the interest penalty charged by counties for underpayment on property taxes.

The WCCA opposes this bill because it believes the bill gives energy companies an undue advantage — both in the decreased interest rate they must pay to counties and in the amount of time it takes to complete a state audit, which gives energy companies time to “sit” on their money, Rolston said.

• Courthouse security

Another bill Sheridan County is following is Senate File 14, which would give money to county courthouses to improve courthouse security.

“Here in Sheridan County, we’ve done a good job of getting courthouse security to what we think is maybe not the best in the world but it’s adequate,” Rolston said.

However, courthouses around the country have been the subject of violent attacks, so it’s a wise move to improve security as much as possible.

About

Hannah Wiest is the government and outdoors reporter for The Sheridan Press. She has lived in Colorado and Montana but loves her sunny home state of Wyoming best. She joined The Press staff in February 2013.

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