EVANSTON — Candidates for both U.S. Congress and the Wyoming State Legislature attended the Evanston Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum on Thursday, June 28, at Evanston’s Roundhouse. Candidates covered a wide range of topics, including education, public land, the state of Congress, redistricting in Wyoming, local economic development, medicinal marijuana and more.
Two of the seven candidates for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican John Barrasso attended, Dave Dodson (R) and Gary Trauner (D). Two of the five candidates for U.S. House were also in attendance, Rod Miller (R) and Greg Hunter (D). Incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney (R) sent a letter to be read at the event since Congress was in session the night of the forum.
The five Republican candidates for State Senate district 15 were all in attendance, as were the two candidates for State House District 18 and the two candidates for State House District 19. Incumbent Republican Garry Piiparinen is running unopposed in district 49 and did not attend the forum.
Cheney’s letter, read at the beginning of the forum, said she is proud of Congressional accomplishments, including cutting taxes, reducing federal regulations and overreach, rebuilding the military, defunding Planned Parenthood and expanding 2nd Amendment rights. She also touted repealing the Obamacare mandate and said work remains to defend the Constitution and ensure Nancy Pelosi never again becomes Speaker of the House.
In his opening statement, Trauner said the contents of Cheney’s letter were part of the problem with Congress, which is all about blaming the opposing side, avoiding responsibility and blind allegiance to political parties. Dodson also addressed Cheney’s comments. He said he decided to run because his party won the House, the Senate and the White House, and they had nothing to show for it. He also said, “When I hear that we don’t want Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, the way to do that would have been to do a good job, not beg for forgiveness.”
Trauner addressed public lands and the federal payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) program, through which states are reimbursed by the federal government for property taxes not paid on federal public lands. He said these public lands need to remain in federal hands.
“Access to lands is something every single person in Wyoming can use and enjoy,” he said. “The state can’t afford to manage those lands, and the PILT funds are a good way to bring money in.”
Trauner also addressed his support for medicinal marijuana. He said there are millions of people, including veterans, suffering with chronic pain and other conditions who are self-medicating and living in the shadows.
He said, “We need to go after the real drug dealers, the CEOs of drug companies who are flooding our communities with opioids. Let’s take people out of the shadows and help them medicate.”
Dodson was asked a question about combining the federal departments of labor and education. He said they should be combined because the two departments work together. Dodson said federal overreach is obvious in those two areas especially and combining the two would allow for a greater focus on work readiness and vocational training.
When asked how he would stay in contact with Wyoming people if elected, Dodson tore into incumbent Sen. Barrasso, saying while he’s been traveling the state meeting with people he’s seen Barrasso twice.
“I’ve never seen him once show up to answer a question. He gave a speech and then he left. He didn’t listen to anybody.” Dodson said, “If he talked to people he would know that having a job is not the same thing as getting by.” He said it’s the job of a U.S. senator to stay in touch.
Turning to the U.S. House, Hunter was also asked how he would stay connected. He said responding to people via social media is a whole new way to deal with constituents and he is happy to respond. “It helps hone ideas and helps people understand.”
Hunter was also asked about the merging of the departments of education and labor but took the opportunity to address several topics. Hunter said education should be designed for the jobs of the future, public lands should be in public hands and medicinal marijuana should be legalized. Referring to addressing multiple topics, he said, “I did break the rules and I’m going to break the rules, but I’m going to support you in Wyoming.”
Rod Miller added some humor to the forum during his first response by discussing the names of the rider and horse on the Wyoming license plate, before turning to the question about PILT funds. He said the federal government paying taxes on those lands like good citizens only makes sense, although other states who don’t understand public lands always want to cut the program.
Miller also addressed staying connected. He said, “That question is just you asking politely if you elect me, am I going to turn into one of those jerks we never see again.” He continued, “It’s really the people’s House and if I’m elected I expect to come back and get atta boys if I’m doing a good job or get big strips of hide stripped off me if I’m not.”
In the state senate race, Eugene Joyce was asked what should be done with the old buildings on the Wyoming State Hospital grounds. Joyce said the hospital is a point of pride for the community and something worth preserving. “Throwing the baby out with the bath water isn’t a value of this community, we preserve our past.”
Joyce also spoke about the ENDOW initiative and said it would be very important for economic development in Uinta County. “This is a very important initiative that we in Uinta County need to be all over.”
Jaraun Dennis spoke about education. He said the cuts over the past three years have hurt education and communities throughout the state. He said education has had enough cuts. “My stance would be that we not cut. Education is that valuable that we’re not going to cut it anymore.”
Dennis was also asked about what the state’s position should be for the proposed ICE detention center proposal for Uinta County.
“The state’s position is that it isn’t the state’s position,” he said. “This is a local topic and I don’t believe the state needs to have a position.”
When asked about cuts to education, incumbent Paul Barnard said even with the cuts enacted over the past few years Wyoming still spends more than many other states in the country. As for future cuts, Barnard said he would refuse to cut teacher salaries or funding for community colleges. He said the University of Wyoming was given millions of dollars by the state. “I’m glad we did that — it’s now a premiere place to go to college — but now we need to be looking at funds really hard.”
Barnard also spoke about local economic development. He said Uinta County can’t be focusing on the same kind of economic development as cities like Casper or Cheyenne. He stressed he believes the legislature needs to be giving more money to municipalities and letting local officials decide how to best spend it.
Shaun Sims was asked about districting in Wyoming. Sims said the current districting isn’t fair, is confusing and needs to be redone. “I realize there are 9,500 voters in each district and they have to make things different than county and community lines, but the things that went on last time don’t make any sense. There was gerrymandering going on last time and we need to do the districting again.”
Sims also addressed the Wyoming State Hospital buildings. He said it sounds really good to get them in private hands or turn them over to the community, but the buildings were designed for a purpose and there will be significant costs to repurpose them. “I think the state is going to have to step up and help us get them repurposed,” he said. “The state has a responsibility to figure it out. Before they make plans to build new buildings, they should have a plan for the old ones.”
Wendy Schuler also addressed education with her first question. She said any future cuts would have to come from things like administrative travel. “I don’t want to cut anything close to kids,” she said. She said test scores have gone up and efforts in education are working, and — particularly at the elementary level — she doesn’t want to “mess with class sizes.”
Schuler discussed the WSH buildings as well. “Legislators are really excited about this new hospital but aren’t worried about the old one,” she said. Her suggestion was that the buildings could be used as a technical school. She said they could have a culinary school and one building would be great for a nursing school. “We’re one of three counties that doesn’t have a capital facilities tax and we could use that to build it. Visitors would pay it and we wouldn’t even notice.”
In the race for House District 19, incumbent Danny Eyre said he agreed with most of what Sims said about the need for redistricting in the state. “There are some really screwy districts,” he said, although he acknowledged the districting isn’t all bad. “All of Bridger Valley is encompassed in one district, so it’s not all bad.”
Eyre also spoke about economic development. He said Wyoming needs to do a better job of promoting itself. “We have the lowest tax burden of any state in the nation, with no income tax, no sales tax on food… With all the problems developing in the west with overpopulation, it seems to me we could attract some people by advertising the low tax burden, wide open spaces and low population.”
Eyre’s challenger Karl Allred said the WSH is located on “one of the most beautiful pieces of property here in the city.” He said he would love to see it being utilized for something, but it needs to be fiscally sound and not a waste of money. He said WSH is located in Evanston for a good reason and a portion of the funding the facility receives was lost when the decision was made to transfer some patients to a facility in Lander.
On economic development, Allred said right now economically Uinta County is the worst in the state. He shared his view that the ENDOW initiative is “a piece of garbage and a waste of money.” He said he didn’t believe Wyoming should be paying businesses to locate here.
“Somebody got the idea that the government needs to pay companies to come here,” he said. “Weatherby is coming to Sheridan and we paid them to come here. Where is our return on investment on that? Companies will come if we make it business-friendly.”
In House District 18, incumbent Tom Crank said cuts to education should involve educators and the public. “We can cut some, but we don’t want to do it fast or hard all at one time, and we want the public to key in on it and tell us where we’re at. They’re your kids.” He added, “The legislature should be looking at how much should be cut, then others should figure out where it comes from.”
Crank said the legislature shouldn’t be involved in making a decision on the proposed ICE detention center. “I don’t think the state should be telling Evanston and Uinta County what to do. I want it discussed locally. Whatever decision you folks make should be supported.”
Challenger Scott Heiner said redistricting needs to be done in 2022 following the 2020 census. “Our state is controlled by Casper, Cheyenne and Laramie because of the numbers of people. We need to stand together on this side of the state so we don’t get steamrolled.”
Heiner said cuts to education should come from administration. “We’ve been cutting education for three years; have you seen them cut administration costs?” He said there should be boundaries set on administrative expenses and definitions on what expenses are allowed.
In closing statements, all four candidates for U.S. Congress emphasized dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and the belief that Congress was no longer working for the people. Similar thoughts were shared by all candidates for the state legislature, who said the state government needs to be more responsive to citizens all over the state and focus on helping the small communities and not only the larger cities.