Weekly News Roundup: Friday, Feb. 4

Miss the headlines this week? Catch up on conversations with local state lawmakers, free tax prep help and Wyoming's lone winter Olympian.
The Biden administration announced earlier this week that it will invest $35 million to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells in Wyoming. (J.J. Gouin/Shutterstock)

by | Feb 4, 2022 | Weekly News Roundups

Local Leaders Address State Lawmakers 

State elected officials from Teton and Lincoln counties held a marathon day of meetings in Jackson Wednesday ahead of the upcoming budget session. State senators Mike Gierau and Dan Dockstader and representatives Andy Schwartz and Mike Yin heard from local nonprofits, businesses, elected officials and more in an effort to strategize about regional priorities for the session. Kicking the day off, several leaders of human services organizations made it clear that the biggest thing they need is more funding.

“Providing direct support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is hard. It is much more than just taking care of people. It involves all tasks of daily living–dressing, bathing, meal planning, preparations, [and] assisting with medications,” said Carolyn Worth, director of Community Entry Services in Jackson. “The average starting wage for these services is $12.95 [an hour].”

Similarly, Executive Director of the Children’s Learning Center Patti Boyd said the center’s special education program costs about $15,000 per child, but they only get $8,600 from the state.

“I just implore you guys to really evaluate whether that funding can be changed and meet the 21st Century a little bit more,” Boyd said. 

Other funding requests highlighted by human services leaders included more investment in local mental health and substance abuse treatment. 

Next, the electeds heard from the Teton County School District, which Superintendent Gillian Chapman said is facing huge challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff—mostly because of housing issues. Chapman said Feb. 1 was the deadline for staff to submit paperwork for getting accrued PTO days paid back if they plan to leave school at the end of this year, and the demand was staggering.

“As of yesterday, we had 25 resignations or retirements. That is unheard of for us. That is a very high number,” Chapman said.

Many of the state representatives expressed interest in helping the school district with its housing issues, though no specific plans were discussed. Chapman also said expanding capacity at the high school is a priority for the district as the number of local students continues to grow. 

Another presenter Wednesday was the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. Sen. Gierau thanked the chamber for supporting a proposed county-optional real estate transfer tax bill, a policy that has long been supported by Teton County representatives.

“That’s a big one. I mean, the largest chamber of commerce in the state supporting that bill actually I think helps people take a second look at it that might not,” Gierau said. “Don’t underestimate your power in that discussion.”

Several town and county officials also voiced their support in favor of a real estate transfer tax. Another item of agreement seemed to be shared opposition to a bill that proposes exempting temporary structures like glamping operations from the state’s lodging sales tax. The budget session will be held in Cheyenne starting on Feb. 14. 

Fundraising Builds in State GOP Primary 

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney broke her fundraising record during the final quarter of 2021, eclipsing $2 million in just a few months and bringing her total funds raised up to $7.22 million for the year. Her main challenger, attorney Harriett Hageman, raised just $1 million over the past year, but is still positioned to be a tough challenge considering Cheney’s recent outspokenness against former President Donald Trump, who is very popular in the Cowboy State. Both fundraising numbers are quite high in this year’s primary race, even relative to elsewhere in the country, where districts are a bit more competitive between Democrats and Republicans. Cheney continues to vote very conservatively, and Hageman is likely to have similar viewpoints, so political pundits are defining the race as an almost pure litmus test of Trump’s power within the GOP.

Feds to Invest in Cleaning Orphaned Wells

The White House announced Monday that it will be investing $1.15 billion, including over $35 million in Wyoming, to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells. This is part of the Biden Administration’s plan to address planet-warming methane emissions, which the president outlined at the United Nations climate summit in Scotland back in November. 

“This isn’t just something we have to do to protect the environment and our future. It’s an enormous opportunity,” Biden said. “An enormous opportunity for all of us, all of our nations, to create jobs and make meeting climate goals a core part of our global economic recovery as well.”

Methane has a massive impact on global warming—higher than carbon dioxide. And there are over 130,000 documented abandoned wells across the country, though some studies say the actual number is much higher than that. The Biden administration is also studying methane emissions from the beef and dairy industries, as well as tightening regulations for oil and gas pipeline operators to minimize leaks. Climate and public lands advocates across the region applauded the recent move, though some say the bigger solution to methane leaks from oil and gas is not letting fossil fuel companies walk away from their wells if they’re not profitable without cleaning them up. 

Artist Submissions Open for WildWalls 2022

Jackson Hole Public Art is seeking artist submissions for next summer’s WildWalls event. WildWalls turns the streetscape of downtown Jackson into an open-air gallery featuring work by regional artists inspired by the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Carrie Geraci, director of JH Public Art, told KHOL why the opportunity is unique for area artists. 

“First of all, it’s a paid opportunity. It’s high visibility. And all of the organizations that are participating in this are ones that help preserve and protect our ecosystem,” Geraci said. “You know, it’s a feel-good opportunity, too.” 

This year’s artist opportunities include slots for two new permanent murals and a number of woodblock steamroller prints and temporary murals. Applications are due Feb. 14. More information is available at jhpublicart.org.

Homebrewers Rejoice

The Teton County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to update county land development regulations to classify cideries and microbreweries as home businesses. This allows small homebrewers to make products at their residences with a permit and some parameters. The stipulations include the fact that anything sold must be consumed off-site, production is limited to 20,000 gallons per year on small properties, and tours are prohibited. Ian McGregor, co-founder of Farmstead Cider, worked with county staff to help create these changes after he applied to move his operations to a residence last summer and failed. He said during testimony that the new amendment will help promote local small-scale agriculture. 

“It’s something that I think will allow for a good expansion of the possibilities of people’s land use without jeopardizing the state of neighborhoods and people’s ability to enjoy their properties as well,” he said. 

The updated land development regulations are similar to those already in place for wineries, and the Board of County Commissioners approved the changes unanimously. 

Free Tax Prep Help Available

This week marks the start of free tax preparation assistance at the Teton County Library by appointment through early April. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is available for community members who qualify based on income and offers help from IRS-certified preparers. Diana Eden is communications coordinator for the library.

“You can go online and do your taxes for free, certainly, but to get questions answered if you have—if you’re not confident to go ahead and prepare your taxes for yourself, the VITA program across the country is, I think, the only other free way to do it with expert guidance,” she said. 

Individuals earning up to $72,000 annually are eligible for the free help, as are families of five earning up to $111,000. Additional income limits and tax prep packets are available at tclib.org/tax. Eden also said folks shouldn’t wait too long to make appointments.

“It gets really busy at the end and they want to make sure to be able to help as many people as they can,” she said. “So, if you’ve got your documents and you’re ready to go, now is the time to make your appointment and get in there.”

Tax assistance is also available in Spanish through a partnership with One22 Resource Center.

Teton County Resident Competing in Olympics 

The opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Beijing will be held Friday, and one freestyle mogul skier will be representing Teton County. Jaelin Kauf, of Alta, grew up skiing at Grand Targhee Resort and is the sole representative of the Cowboy State at this year’s main games. In an interview with KSDK News, Kauf said both her parents were competitive mogul skiers as well, and that she fell in love with the sport just as they did. 

“I have little stickers that say ‘Deliver the Love.’ It’s like my little motto. Just to remember why I’m skiing, and it’s because I love it and am passionate about it. And that’s how I want to go about life,” she said. 

This will be Kauf’s second Olympics after she placed 7th in 2018. Breezy Johnson, a well-known alpine skier from Jackson, withdrew from this year’s competition due to a knee injury. 

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