Archive | March, 2012

Session ends on high note

Public wins greater accountability

Good session yields passage of job safety and sunshine laws

Sen. John Hastert

As the Legislature’s 2012 budget session drew to a close Thursday, two bills improving the public’s access to both government records and meetings of public boards and agencies were finally passed when the House voted to accept conference committee reports on them. Coupled with the Wednesday passage of job safety legislation, it looks like a good session for the Equality State Policy Center and its allies. Senate File 25-Public records makes clear that the term “public records” includes “any written communication or other information, whether in paper, electronic, or other physical form.” When a document is “readily available,” it must be provided to the person asking to review it. If a record is not readily available and a written request for it is submitted, the new law requires the document custodian to acknowledge receipt of the request within seven days. In what became known as the “grand compromise” between groups representing state and local government agencies and those seeking greater access to records, including nonprofit organizations and the Wyoming Press Association, the ESPC dropped its goal of imposing a deadline for actually providing the records. The final version of the bill dropped an amendment made in the House at the request of Rep. Jeb Steward, HD47, R-Encampment, which would have specifically required public access to documents relating to government funding of improvements to private agricultural operations, such as ditches or pipelines, and to easements purchased with public funds. Sen. Larry Hicks, who authored the section of the bill specifically exemption information agricultural operations provide to the government into to participate in state and local programs, signed off on Steward’s amendment before Steward offered it on Second Reading in the House. But Hicks later reneged on the deal. In the conference committee of House and Senate members working to reconcile differences in the versions passed by each House, Hicks, SD11, R-Baggs, said the Steward amendment was not tolerable and had to be excised for the Senate to approve final passage. Steward ultimately acquiesced to the demand and the amendment was dropped in order to reach agreement with Senate conference committee members. Senate File 27-Public meetings likewise had to get through a conference committee, though a far less dramatic one. An amendment placed on the bill by the House was dropped. The new law requires a quorum to take any action and states that no public meeting can happen electronically unless the public is allowed to sit in and either hear or read any discussion as it happens. It also requires a public entity to to announce publicly the reason for conducting an executive session before going into such a session. This means that important decisions that are not specifically exempted from public deliberation, (personnel matters, real estate purchases, and matters relating to pending or active litigation) are made in font of a public audience. A requirement to record executive sessions was dropped as part of the grand compromise. The bill also requires a board to give at least eight hours public notice of a “special meeting.” These are meetings conducted outside a board’s regular schedule. Boards still have to quickly call meetings in an emergency. The law also gives public entities more time to ratify any actions they take at emergency meetings. ( Neither of the enrolled versions of these bills was available online at 4 p.m. but they should be available by Friday morning here. Scroll down to the Senate File number and click on Enrolled Act.)

Job safety bill passes

In eight of the last nine years, Wyoming has had the worst or second-worst job fatality rate in the nation. Wyoming avereaged a fatality every 10 days over the past 10 years. While workplace injuries overall have declined in recent years, a December report from the state epidemiologist revealed that the number of injuries requiring amputations and requiring hospitalization have increased. House Bill 80 – Workplace safety – employer assistance authorizes the expansion of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) by adding five “courtesy consultants” and enables the Department of Workforce Services to transfer two positions to add two more consultants. Those consultants will work with businesses to develop safety programs. Companies can invite them to a job site to point out violations of safety law without fear of being fined for the violations. The companies must agree to correct the hazards. Increasing the number of courtesy consultants to seven will enable OSHA to respond to requests for courtesy inspections within 30 days, according to the bill’s primary sponsor, House Majority Leader Tom Lubnau of Gillette. The new legislation also authorizes contracts with companies to subsidize purchases of safety equipment. Sen. Charles Scott, SD30, R-Casper, asked for the amendment to address his concerns over the constitutionality of issuing “grants” to companies to do the same thing. One of the Senate’s biggest advocates for the bill, Sen. John Hastert, SD13, D-Green River, defended its constitutionality on the floor, noting that the Wyoming Constitution authorizes spending from the Industrial Accident Fund to support safety programs. Hastert and the rest of the Senate supported Scott’s amendment changing the word “grants” to “contracts” throughout the bill. The House agreed to that amendment and another Senate change increasing the amount of money available to $500,000.
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Public assistance – drug-testing killed

Drug-testing  POWER participants rejected

Job safety bill advances; Coal tax break dies in procedural move

Sen. Bill Landen

A bill that would have forced random drug testing on adult participants in Wyoming’s POWER program – the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families – was rejected by the Wyoming Senate Monday as a wasteful, ill-conceived program aimed at resolving a problem most do not believe exists. Sponsors of House Bill 82 – Public assistance-drug testing contended that their constituents want public assistance recipients to be tested if they must be tested at their private sector jobs. But that’s not enough justification to approve a program  that would “spend $40,000 a year to drug-test the least privileged people we have,” said Sen. Bill Landen, SD27, R-Casper. He described the measure as a “coffee shop bill” – a bill developed in response to an idea cooked up by people sitting around talking with little reliance on evidence. Landen said he had called case workers involved with the POWER (Personal Responsibilities With Employment Responsibilities) program who reported that they see virtually no instances of problems with drug use. Most of the adults in the program are young single mothers, he said. Even the bill’s supporters said they expected the testing to show that very few people in the program use illegal drugs. “I don’t think it’s worth the investment to find out something we already know,” Landen said of the random drug testing proposal. Advocates led by Sen. Ray Petersen, SD19, R-Cowley, said the testing means the state is telling POWER participants that “It’s time for you to pull ourself up by your own bootstraps.” The Equality State Policy Center, League of Women Voters, the Wyoming chapter of the ACLU, Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance and the Wyoming Association of Churches were among the groups opposing the bill, primarily because it needlessly singled out a small group of people for testing without probable cause.

Here’s the vote:

Roll Call HB 82

Ayes:  Senator(s) Anderson, Bebout, Coe, Cooper, Dockstader, Driskill, Geis, Jennings, Meier, Nutting, Perkins, Peterson and Scott. Nays:  Senator(s) Barnard, Burns, Case, Christensen, Emerich, Esquibel, F., Hastert, Hicks, Hines, Johnson, Landen, Martin, Nicholas P, Ross, Rothfuss, Schiffer and Von Flatern. Ayes 13    Nays 17    Excused 0    Absent 0    Conflicts 0  

Job safety

A measure seen as a first step at reducing Wyoming’s appalling job fatality rate by the Equality State Policy Center and its allies won an initial vote on General File in the Senate Monday. Sen. Charles Scott, SD30, R-Casper, argued that the section of the bill – HB 89 – Workplace safety – employer assistance – authorizing grants to companies intent on establishing safety programs is unconstitutional because it is a direct appropriation to an individual or company. Sponsor Sen. Eli Bebout, SD26, R-Riverton, countered  that another section of the Wyoming Constitution {Article 6, Sec. 4 (c)} declares that money in the Industrial Accident Fund can be used for “administration and management of the Worker’s Compensation Act, debt service related to the fund and for workplace safety programs conducted by the state as authorized by law …” Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Phil Nicholas said the programs outlined in the bill – courtesy inspections of job sites which help companies improve job safety without being fined for violating safety laws with grants to help companies purchase needed safety equipment – will save money for the Worker’s Compensation program. “There’s a benefit to the fund to prevent the injuries in the first place,” said Nicholas, SD10, R-Laramie. Scott was undeterred, saying, “I don’t think you can have a grant program.” The bill passed Committee of the Whole on voice vote.

Coal tax break pulled

With many senators’ questioning a bill changing the formula for establishing the value of coal for severance and ad valorem taxation purposes, the chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee used a procedural move to pull HB38 – Coal valuation – industry factors from consideration on Third Reading Monday. The move avoided a vote that likely would have put the Senate on record as opposing the changes to the state’s coal valuation formula. Supporters said the bill would simplify the taxation of coal extracted in Wyoming but they could not show the bill would be “revenue neutral” over the long term. Sen. John Hines, SD23, R-Gillette, used Senate Rule 13-2 to “recommit” HB38 to the Revenue Committee. Since a recommitted bill must go back to General File to again be considered in Committee of the Whole, the move effectively means there is not enough time left to consider it this session. Under the Legislature’s rules, all bills had to be approved in Committee of the Whole by the end of business Monday or they are no longer “active.” Hines later said the Revenue Committee could again take the idea up as an interim topic or be brought back next year as an individual bill. The Equality State Policy Center opposed HB38 because it would have eroded state and local revenues from coal production.
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Workplace safety gains momentum

Minerals Committee members Sens. Chris Rothfuss, Hank Coe, Eli Bebout, and Kit Jennings (back to camera).

Job safety bill sent to Senate floor

Minerals doubles funding for grants to $500,000

It looks like the Wyoming Legislature will step up to promote job safety so that more workers come home from their jobs unharmed. In eight of the last nine years, Wyoming has had the worst or second-worst job fatality rate in the nation. Wyoming avereaged a fatality every 10 days over the past 10 years. While workplace injuries overall have declined in recent years, a December report from the state epidemiologist reveals that the number of injuries requiring amputations and requiring hospitalization have increased. Witnesses representing unions, civil justice organizations, the oil and gas industry, the Wyoming Mining Association, and the Governor’s office testified in favor of the bill, House Bill 80 – Workplace safety – employer assistance, during a Friday lunch-hour meeting of the Senate Minerals Committee. No one opposed it.

Senate Appropriations Committee at work March 2

The committee approved the measure on a 5-0 vote. The Senate Appropriations Committee reviewed and approved the funding proposed in the bill Friday afternoon. The quick action assured that the bill met the Legislature’s deadline requiring bills to be reported out of committee in the second house by the end of day March 2. The bill authorizes the expansion of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) by adding five “courtesy consultants” and directing the Department of Workforce Services to transfer two positions to add two more consultants. Those consultants will work with businesses to develop safety programs. Companies can invite them to a job site to point out violations of safety law without fear of being fined for the violations. The companies must agree to correct the hazards. Increasing the number of courtesy consultants to seven will enable OSHA to respond to requests for courtesy inspections within 30 days, according to the bill’s primary sponsor, House Majority Leader Tom Lubnau of Gillette. The new legislation also will provide matching grants to companies to subsidize purchases of safety equipment. The Senate Minerals Committee amended the bill to double the grant funds from $250,000 to $500,000. The money, including about $1.3 million to pay for the five new courtesy consultants, their regionally based offices, and travel, will be taken from the Industrial Accident Fund. Commonly known as the “Workers’ Compensation Fund,” it derives income from Workers’ Compensation Insurance premiums paid by employers. The fund is used to pay for medical treatment of injured workers, disability payments, and compensation to families of workers killed on the job. When the doubling of grant funds was reviewed by the Appropriations Committee, Chairman Phil Nicholas, known for closely scrutinizing spending, immediately recognized its value: a successful safety program will save money by reducing the number of deaths and injuries. Worker safety advocates, including the Equality State Policy Center, see the bill as an important first step. They told the Minerals Committee that they believe more needs to be done, however, and pointed to the Mining Safety and Health Administration’s considerable success in reducing injuries in mines across the country. The MSHA program works because it keeps enforcement inspectors on the job and it can and does impose significant fines for violations. Wyoming’s OSHA office will have 13 inspectors and consultants if the HB89 passes in its current form, MSHA has 40 enforcement inspectors covering some 18,000 workers in mines across the state. According to Mark Aronowitz, who testified for the Spence Association for Employee Rights, those inspectors include:
  • Nine inspectors in the Gillette MSHA office;
  • Nine inspectors in the Green River office;
  • MSHA District 9 office in Colorado has 7 inspectors who visit and inspect Wyo mines;
  • The Salt Lake City MSHA office has 11inspectors who visit and inspect Wyo mines;
  • The Rapid City MSHA office has inspectors who frequently visit and inspect Wyo mines.
One inspector told Aronowitz, “There’s eyes on everybody to do the right thing all the time.” Kim Floyd of the AFL-CIO, said the bill also can be considered a jobs bill. Smaller companies with safety programs have a better chance of landing contracts with the major energy companies working in Wyoming, he said. The safety grants will help the smaller companies build their own safety programs, land contracts and provide jobs for Wyoming workers, he said. For the record, industry supporters of the bill included Bruce Hinchey, director of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, who said, “We wholeheartedly support the bill.” Nick Agopian of Devon Energy and Marion Loomis of the Wyoming Mining Association likewise endorsed it.
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