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Legislative committee clearing way for possible new college district
Select committee will begin working on a bill for the 2021 Legislature to consider

The Select Committee on Community College Funding agreed Friday to start working toward drafting a bill that would clarify state statute regarding community colleges and potentially clear the way for the possible creation of Gillette College’s own community college district.

Several parts of the state law, specifically regarding the mill levy requirements for community college districts, needed clarification, said Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, co-chairman of the committee, which is comprised of state senators and representatives.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, adjusts his glasses while listening to Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell speak during a Select Committee on Community College Funding hearing at the Pronghorn Center on Friday.

Questioning statutes

Under current Wyoming law, a county must tax four mills in order to receive state funding for a community college district, or a share of the community college pie, as it has been framed in recent meetings throughout the Gillette College application process.

But it was unclear to the Select Committee whether taxing four mills, or “up to four mills,” is required to create the district itself — regardless of state funding — and how that would affect future state funding during the accreditation process.

“It does not allow for state general funding until the four mills are assessed,” said Sandy Caldwell, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission. “But until the accreditation is received, can they have a lesser amount? We’re trying to get a good answer to that.”

Accreditation is typically a five-year process, but given Gillette College’s existing “robust” campus and infrastructure, Caldwell said it could potentially complete the process in four years, minimum.

The lack of clarity in the law frustrated some on the Select Committee during a meeting Friday at the Gillette College Pronghorn Center.

“I think the statute is duplicitous, it says one thing here, it says another thing over here. And putting it all together ... Chapter 21 is a mess,” Wasserburger said.

“What I thought it said is if you receive no state funds, you can levy less than four mills. Is that correct? Or, essentially we’re waiting for the Attorney General’s opinion.”

The Select Committee and WCCC have been waiting to receive a prior interpretation of the statute made in the past that is believed to clarify some of the discrepancies, they said during the meeting.

“I think we’ve been trying to locate it for two months. It doesn’t make sense to me. Either it exists or it doesn’t exist. Either they have it or they don’t,” said Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, committee co-chairman.

“I’m curious about why it’s so hard to come up with that.”

The committee agreed to draft and send a letter to the state Attorney General in order to clarify their request, in addition to drafting its own legislation to address their own questions about the statute.

Drafting a bill

Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, recommended two bills be drafted by the committee.

One bill would make changes to the statutes that have been a sticking point for a lot of the discussion around forming a new district.

He suggested clarifying how many mills are required to form a new district, considering service areas — counties without community college districts in them — assessing sales taxes as alternatives to counties relying on mill levies and allowing different districts to adjust their own tuition rates, which he said are now controlled by the state.

“If there are ambiguities in statute and we’re trying to rely on (Attorney General) opinions that we can’t find, let’s actually have discussion about those issues and clarify them so that we don’t have to rely on opinions that we’re not even sure exist,” Barlow said.

The other suggested bill would propose the formation a new community college district, so as to be prepared if the WCCC approves the application to form a new community college district in Campbell County.

“If the community college commission approves the district formation application then we would have a bill ready to do that,” Barlow said. “If they don’t approve that for whatever reason, we would both have a bill ready and be able to examine the wheres and why nots.”

Because the Select Committee was created by the Management Council, it does not have the authority to sponsor legislation, said Anna Mumford, operations administer of the Legislative Services Office.

Any bill drafted would be a recommendation to another committee, she said, emphasizing the need to ensure enough time for it to complete that process.

‘Undue burden on industry’

Cyclone Drilling CEO Paul Hladky, speaking as part of the Campbell County Community College Task Force, said the county is in a unique position in regard to funding its potential college district.

“To be eligible for the state appropriations, we are acquired to assess the four mills,” Hladky said during the meeting. “And if we assess those four mills in Campbell County, the state appropriations won’t be needed.”

Gillette College’s district’s annual budget would be about $15.1 million, he said. Based on the county’s current value, four mills would generate about $16.8 million. Based on future projections, which expect the county’s assessed valuation to decline, four mills would bring about $14 million.

With tuition and fees, Hladky said that would be enough to cover the budget without state appropriations.

He proposed a proportional approach, where county’s would be allowed to tax fewer than the currently required four mills, and receive state appropriations based on however many mills they tax and the amount of money that accounts for.

“If we chose to assess fewer mills, maybe two, we would receive ‘X’ amount, some sort of proportional amount to the mills that you are assessing,” Hladky said.

“This solution would allow the districts that currently tax that full amount to continue to get their full state appropriations, but still allows districts to allow a proportional share that don’t need all four mills.”

Because of Campbell County’s high assessed value relative to other counties in the state, he emphasized the need for a change in state statute that would account for the county’s unique standing.

“We’re kind of being hamstrung here where we want to be our own district, fiscally afford to be our own district, but it would put undue burden on industry and businesses to assess that,” he said.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Dr. Walt Tribley, president of the Northern Wyoming Community College District listens to a presentation during the Legislature’s Select Committee on Community College Funding hearing at the Pronghorn Center Friday.

‘Why not?’

A recent budget cut at the state level, in part, led to NWCCD cutting its sports programs and Gillette College and Sheridan College in June, which in turn led to the push for Gillette College to leave its district and form a community college district of its own.

With Gov. Mark Gordon declaring that another 10% state budget cut is on its way, there remain many questions about budgeting.

“One of the things that we need to do is try and address every one of these funding issues,” Wasserburger said. “We know that those issues aren’t going to be popular but nonetheless, they must be addressed.”

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, asked how Gillette College leaving the district would impact NWCCD financially.

Gillette Advisory Board Chairman Robert Palmer explained that overhead costs — such as software infrastructure, IT and HR departments — that are now shared by both colleges would have to be paid by each district separately. The cost for Gillette college could range from $5 million to $5.9 million.

Wasserburger said that money flows through the district to Gillette College, suggesting that the FTE and headcount money distributed to the colleges would not drastically affect either school in the event of them separating.

“The money flows with the students and the money will continue to flow with the students,” he said.

NWCCD President Walter Tribley provided budgeting context and a relatively grim outlook at what may come from the next round of budget cuts.

“If we bring it on as its own college, we need to make sure that it’s healthy,” Tribley said. “Like a child in our family. Not just its first two or three years, maybe some folks locally in the county or otherwise may have one-time funds to make sure it gets up and running, but we need to ensure that it’s well funded into the future.”

He said it would be an easier decision to make if the state and colleges were operating in a better financial context, but that the reduced funding is already stretching thin the pre-existing community college districts.

“We are going to spiral down if all we do is keep cutting,” he said. “We can’t cut ourselves out of a budget deficit, that next 10%, which I’ve been put on notice is coming, is $2.3 million. Over 900,000 for Gillette, and $1.3 million for Sheridan.”

“It gets real, real challenging.”

Gillette College does not have a vote on the NWCCD Board of Trustees, which is something Tribley acknowledged is a problem.

Whether in the form of state budget cuts, determining how many mills to assess or how to split up a shrinking community college pie, the push to form a new community college district is coming at a financially turbulent time for Wyoming.

“If we could find funding to bring on the college, help the state move forward,” Tribley said, “I would ask ‘why not?’”

Election Q&A: As the election nears, county clerk answers frequently asked questions

Election Day is two weeks away, and the act of voting has been a hot topic among political parties and presidential candidates, particularly during this time of COVID-19.

With the pandemic, the number of people voting early or absentee is expected to increase greatly over the last election.

Many states are implementing universal mail-in voting this year, which has been a point of contention. President Donald Trump has claimed it will lead to widespread voter fraud. Wyoming is not one of the states that allows universal mail-in voting, but it does allow people to vote early.

In Campbell County, nearly 4,000 people have already voted by absentee or by coming into the elections office.

County Clerk Susan Saunders, whose office is in charge of elections, has worked in local elections for 40 years, starting in 1980. She said the local election process is secure and ensures every verified ballot is counted, whether one votes early or at the polls Nov. 3.

Below is a Q&A with Saunders on the absentee ballot process, voting at the polls and many other topics related to the 2020 presidential election.

Saunders’ answers have been edited for clarity.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Pads of absentee ballot request forms await being filled out by residents at the Campbell County Courthouse.

What is the difference between absentee voting and universal mail-in voting?

In Wyoming, all absentee ballots need to be requested. With universal mail-in voting, ballots are automatically mailed to all registered voters, regardless of whether they’ve requested one.

Do I need a reason to request an absentee ballot?

No, you do not need a reason if you are a Wyoming voter.

What happens to my absentee ballot when it reaches the elections office?

All of the mail ballots have a label with a barcode on it. When they come back in, they get scanned and that tells us that this ballot has come back. Then, every day, we verify that we have all of those ballots, and they get locked up in a locked room until we go through them on the day of the election.

What is the deadline to drop off a completed absentee ballot?

7 p.m. Nov. 3. We prefer it be dropped off at the elections office. Sometimes they get dropped off at the polling place. Then we have to wait for those ballots to get here before we can process the absentees.

What is the latest day I can mail my ballot in for it to be counted?

The U.S. Postal Service recommends allowing for seven days each way (seven days to get the ballot, seven days to mail the ballot to the elections office).

What if my ballot gets to the elections office after Election Day?

Your envelope containing the ballot would never be opened, and we would give you voting credit. So the people whose ballots come in Nov. 4, their ballots aren’t counted, but that person gets credit for voting.

Is there a way for me to know whether my ballot’s been received by the elections office?

Call us at 307-686-1892.

When is my absentee ballot counted? Are they counted as they come in or are they all counted at once?

After the commissioners meeting on Election Day, I have a group of people who come in and we give them reports of whose ballots are in. They verify that the ballot has a signature, and then they get opened. Ballots go in one pile, envelopes go in another pile. Both get counted, and then at some point in time they get run through the machine.

How is an absentee ballot verified?

Its barcode is scanned, and this verifies that we sent that out and that we received it. But we do not verify signatures. Wyoming is not a state that checks voters’ signatures in order to verify ballots.

Why do I have to sign the envelope that contains my ballot if my signature isn’t being verified?

Because the envelope contains an oath, and signing it says that it is you who filled out the ballot in the envelope. The people that are voting in the office that are putting their ballots into the machine also have to sign an oath.

How can an absentee ballot be disqualified or rejected?

An absentee ballot would be rejected if it’s not signed.

If I mail my ballot in, can I still get an “I Voted” sticker?

Yes. Just stop by the elections office.

If I have already turned in my ballot, but changed my mind on something, can I change my vote?

No, you can’t, because the ballot has already been turned in. Once it’s in, it’s in.

The last time I voted was in the 2016 presidential election. Why do I need to register again?

If you do not vote every two years in a general election, you get purged from the voter rolls.

Wyoming allows voters to register at their polling place on Election Day. What is the benefit of registering ahead of time?

You do not have to stand in line waiting. Four years ago at Cam-plex, the line went from the Wyoming Center to Morningside Park.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

A woman walks past an electronic voting machine at the Campbell County Courthouse.

What happens to a ballot once I vote at the polls? How is it counted?

When you put your ballot into an election machine, your votes are stored on a thumb drive. After the polls close, poll workers will take the thumb drive out of the machine and it gets put into a computer and the votes are tabulated that way.

How do you guarantee that a ballot is counted? What causes the counting machine to reject it?

As you put the ballot into the machine, it tells you that it has taken it. If it doesn’t take it, if you have over-voted, it will tell you that it’s not going to take it. You’ll have a chance to either accept it and let it go through or you can spoil that ballot and get a new one.

If I’m voting at the polls, why can’t I wear a shirt that supports a particular political candidate?

State statute prohibits campaigning within 100 yards of the building where the polling place is located. This is so you’re not swaying anyone’s vote to one party or another. Everything is neutral. And it’s not just clothing. It also includes hats, buttons and other campaign materials.

Do you have extra security this year at polling places?

No. Similarly to four years ago, there will be law enforcement at the doors of the Wyoming Center to make sure no one gets in line to vote after 7 p.m.

If a person feels threatened at a polling place, what should they do?

If they’re at Cam-plex, they should report it to the registration table. If they’re at any other polling place, they should call the elections office at 307-686-1892.

If you turn in an absentee ballot and then try to vote at the polls on Election Day, what happens?

On the precinct list, anyone who has voted absentee has an “A” by their name. In the event someone has an “A” by their name and says, “that isn’t me,” we would check at the elections office.

What processes do you have in place to ensure people aren’t voting more than once?

Voters will only go into the system once. If we say they have voted absentee and they say no, they haven’t and it’s 5 minutes to 7 p.m., they’d be given a provisional ballot and we would straighten it out the next day.

Do I need to bring an ID in able to vote in person?

We just require an ID to register. Bring a valid driver’s license if you plan on registering at the polling place.

If it’s past 7 p.m. and I’m in line but I haven’t voted yet, can I still cast a ballot?

Yes. We’ll get everyone in that building. Anyone in line by 7 p.m. will be able to vote.

Social media platforms have been telling users to register to vote and are linking to voter registration websites. If I see a website saying I can register to vote online, does this work?

No, that does not work in Wyoming. In order to register, they need to come here, their town clerk or city clerk. Yes, you can register by mail, but it has to be notarized, and we have to have a copy of your driver’s license. Wyoming does not allow voters to register online.

Kynzlie Tharp, 7, reacts to a skeleton display as homeowner Tamara Atkins looks on Saturday afternoon.

'Stand Your Ground' law cited in request for dismissal of manslaughter case

The attorney for a Gillette man accused in the June shooting death of his friend has filed a motion to dismiss the case on the “Stand Your Ground” law, arguing that he had a right to protect himself from an intruder.

Joshua Lewis Campbell, 21, has been charged with manslaughter in the death of Tanner Miller, 21, and has pleaded not guilty in District Court.

Attorney Steven Titus argues in court documents that the “Stand Your Ground” law applies in this case because Campbell did not know who was coming through his door at about 9:30 p.m. June 2.

“For one hundred twenty years, the Wyoming Supreme Court has consistently held that a person is not the aggressor and if threatened in his own home, that person may defend himself,” Titus wrote.

Miller died about an hour after being shot at close range in an apartment on Running W Drive in southeastern Gillette.

Campbell, Miller and another friend had been drinking earlier at Campbell’s apartment and then left to buy more alcohol. When they returned, Miller dropped the other two off outside while he went to park.

According to Titus, Campbell believed Miller had left after dropping them off. He heard knocks at the door but couldn’t see anyone outside. About 5 minutes later, “an unidentified individual” came inside. Campbell “panicked” and fired a shot that hit Miller, Titus said.

Campbell “feared for his life,” Titus wrote.

Campbell told police that, “I asked him several times who he was and he would not respond and he came through my door very fast. I was standing off to the side when I defended myself,” according to charging documents.

Titus argues that Campbell was acting in self-defense, which is allowed under the ’”Stand Your Ground,” or “Castle Doctrine” laws.

Titus said that Campbell was lawfully in his own home and not the aggressor and that he had no obligation to retreat. He also said that Miller hadn’t been invited into the home and that he continued to shake the doorknob and knock on the door to get inside.

“The deadly force used in this case — one shot — was precisely what the statute required; no more than needed to prevent an injury or loss,” he said. “The perceived danger and use of deadly force occurred within seconds of Mr. Miller’s entrance in Mr. Campbell’s home.”

Left unanswered in Titus’s arguments was any response to a witness’s version that the incident started as a prank.

In the charging documents, the friend that Campbell and Miller were drinking with told police he and Campbell “as a prank locked the apartment door and shut the lights off” when they came inside after Miller dropped them off.

“They were going to use rifles to scare Miller when he came in,” the friend told police. He said he checked the 30-30 rifle he had to make sure it wasn’t loaded, but didn’t know if Campbell checked the AR-15 he had.

“Miller attempted to enter the apartment a couple of times,” according to the affidavit. “Campbell then unlocked the door and Tanner walked into the apartment and turned on the lights.”

Campbell then reportedly fired a shot at close range when Miller was about 8-10 feet inside the apartment, according to the affidavit. A forensic pathologist estimated the rifle was fired no farther than 3 inches from the left side of his head.

Titus did not respond to a call for more information on the case.

Campbell, who had a blood alcohol content of 0.103%, told police that he thought it was an intruder — and had said he shot an intruder when he called 911 to report it at about 9:30 p.m. June 2, according to the affidavit.

He then said in the 911 call that the intruder was his friend, Tanner Miller.

Titus wrote that Miller called his girlfriend to tell her that he was almost to Campbell’s apartment, where he intended to drop off “the boys” and that he would call her back in 10 to 15 minutes. He intended to visit her later that evening.

“At no point was anyone made explicitly aware that Mr. Miller intended to return to Mr. Campbell’s apartment,” Titus wrote, citing a police incident report.

Campbell County Attorney Ronald E. Wirthwein said he plans to file an answer to Titus’ request for dismissal soon, “but until then I do not have a comment on the record.”

No court date has been set on the request for dismissal.

The case is set for trial April 9.