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New West Roundup for April 17, 2017

Today in New West news: House Dems share documents about Bears Ears designation, Gallatin County fields mail ballot questions, Bozeman’s Zoot plans Billings expansion, and a Wyoming carbon tax?

Since its inception in 1906, the Antiquities Act has been the hub of almost apoplectic contention from select Western lawmakers and residents. Throughout the 20th century, some have decried the Act as dire overreach on the part of the federal government, accusing it as a means of superseding state authority. Indeed, many Utah lawmakers (both in state and in Washington) have taken this tack when it comes to Bears Ears National Monument.

Designated in late December, environmentalists and Native American tribes (several of whom formed a coalition to actively lobby President Obama) feted Bears Ears as one of the most singular monuments preserved in recent memory. Many prominent Utah legislators, nonetheless, are hoping President Trump will shrink or even rescind the designation entirely—something never done before, and something many legal experts say is outside the President’s power.

One of the biggest complaints Utah legislators levy against the Bears Ears designation is that they weren’t consulted about the decision. But House Democrats, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, say Utah leaders were thoroughly briefed and consulted about the decision—and they have proof:

After President Barack Obama named the monument in late December, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and members of the state’s federal delegation complained the White House had misused its authority, ignored the will of local residents and shown “little regard” for elected officials who represent the area.

But just a week earlier, Herbert’s policy director, Cody Stewart, sent an email to the Interior Department secretary’s deputy chief of staff, praising their working relationship.

“Thanks again for all your time,” Stewart wrote, according to the House Democrats. “I’m not kidding when I say you’re an amazing example of a public servant. I have the utmost respect for you. Thank you for your time and attention.”

The House Democrats’ memo also notes there were 11 emails exchanged in the lead-up to Obama’s declaration showing coordination of phone calls between the Interior Department and staffers for Herbert and the congressional delegation.

[…]

The House Democrats’ memo offers a different version than the one presented by Utah officials, arguing that then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell had communicated with Utah’s members of Congress as early as 2013 about the Bears Ears area and that there was regular contact up until the monument declaration.

“If anyone wants to paint Bears Ears National Monument as a surprise or the product of rushed or incomplete planning, they’ll have to explain hundreds of emails and dozens of pages of shared work product,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the Natural Resources Committee’s top Democrat. “These documents are an exemplary record of public servants going above and beyond to find a workable solution to a complicated issue, and they show Democrats and Republicans working together more often than not.”
If any governor said “half the nice things that Governor Herbert’s office said about the Interior Department during this process, I could retire a happy man,” Grijalva added.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee chaired by Chaffetz, said the documents provided by Interior showed a close working relationship between the federal government, the delegation and other interested parties.

“Taken together, these documents demonstrate a lengthy and productive working relationship between the [Interior] Department and multiple stakeholders, they include frequent acknowledgment of the department’s eagerness to accommodate third party needs, and they show that many local officials strongly supported a monument designation,” Cummings said.

Utah legislators fired back, alleging that the memo misrepresents, in their view, the debate had over the past three years. Indeed, the Tribune notes that most of the memo highlights debate over the Public Lands Initiative from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), which included a downsized version of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument as a National Conservation Area. It’s clear, however, that since Bears Ears became a monument, no Utah leader wants to view the debate as legitimate.

Over in Montana, we’ve been following developments in the rush to allow an all-mail ballot in state’s special election to replace Congressman Ryan Zinke. After the proposal’s apparent demise in the Montana House, Governor Steve Bullock revived the bill, citing bipartisan consensus that an all-mail ballot would save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the move has also confused voters who, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, aren’t sure whether they’ll have go in person to vote or whether they can be absentee voters. Some are wondering whether they have to re-register. According to Charlotte Mills, Gallatin County clerk and recorder, however, the special election won’t be as complicated as some voters fear—or as simple as they hope. From the Chronicle:

Mills said that even though this election has the word “special” in its name and will happen at an unusual time of year, it’s going to be relatively normal. A voter’s registration is still up to date, assuming they voted in November. Regardless of whether there are polling places, voters on the absentee rolls will receive ballots by mail.

And when all this is over, sometime late on May 25 or early May 26, Montana will have elected a new congressman.

“Just let them pretend that it’s Nov. 8,” Mills said.

[…]

A bill to give counties the mail-only option cleared the Senate but was killed by a House committee. Efforts to revive it fell flat. The issue appeared settled until Gov. Steve Bullock inserted the measure into House Bill 83, a separate elections bill, with an amendatory veto.

That move sent HB 83 back to Montana’s House of Representatives, where it could eventually get a floor debate and vote of the full House. If the bill were to pass with the governor’s suggested amendments, counties planning to use the mail-only option would have to get mail ballot plans to the Secretary of State’s office by April 24, and ballots would be mailed to all registered voters within 20 days of the election.

Whether the bill will move lies in the hands of House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson. Lindsey Singer, a spokeswoman for the Republican House leadership, said in an email the next few floor sessions seem too full to get the bill onto the floor and that the issue is already settled in the eyes of some.

Keeping with Montana news, Bozeman-based tech outfit Zoot Enterprises is planning an expansion into Billings, with designs on the new vacant General Electric Building. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Zoot could employ 25 more people over the next year with its new Billings location:

“This is an exciting time for Zoot. We are marrying the software that we are known for developing with GE-trained staff to deliver a top-notch service to our customers. And what could be better than doing so in my home town?” said Zoot founder and CEO Chris Nelson.

The company signed a letter of intent to purchase the building from Big Sky Economic Development for $8 million, said BSED Executive Director Steve Arveschoug.

“They (Zoot) have a new product line that they’re looking to launch that’s more back office financial services oriented,” Arveschoug said. “We’re excited that they’re coming to the community, making the investment and retaining some of the key staff people.”

“Bozeman has had a great experience with Zoot and we’re looking forward to having a similar great experience,” he added.

Finally, over in Wyoming, according to the Casper Star Tribune, a group of Wyoming groups, in response to national politics, have upped the ante in calling for a carbon tax, a contentious proposal that nonetheless is attracting bipartisan support across the nation as activists continue to protest the Trump Administration’s environmental stances:

The flare-up of activism has also happened in Wyoming, a traditionally libertarian state with conservative political views and an economy powered by fossil fuels. Groups like Wyoming Rising-Northwest cropped up online, and longstanding groups like Citizens’ Climate Lobby attracted new interest.

The Lobby is not one of the march-and-protest groups, its volunteers say.
It’s a policy group, and its mission is to add a fee to fossil fuel emissions per ton. That revenue would be paid back to citizens in the form of a dividend check, making up for an increase in electricity bills.

The fee-and-dividend policy would fuel the economy, supporters say. Operators who export fossil fuels would get a refund on their fee. It would be revenue-neutral and disincentivize the burning of fossil fuels, proponents argue.

Simple or complicated?

The idea of a carbon tax has been around a long time in various forms, with some environmental advocates promoting it as the best way to reach a sustainable future. It’s also being promulgated by many conservatives.

The Climate Leadership Council is pushing a fee-and-dividend plan similar to the Climate Lobby’s, though with a much higher fee on emissions. The group includes conservative statesmen like James Baker, former secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush; Martin Feldstein, former economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan; and Rob Walton, former chairman of the board for Walmart.

Other surprising nods to the concept have come from the oil and gas industry. In a February blog post from ExxonMobil’s new CEO, Darren Woods, the chairman of the multinational oil and gas company said government has a role in both funding energy research and developing sound policy.

“One option being discussed by policymakers is a national revenue-neutral carbon tax,” he said. “This would promote greater energy efficiency and the use of today’s lower-carbon options, avoid further burdening the economy and also provide incentives for markets to develop additional low-carbon energy solutions for the future.”

But digging into the economics of a fee-and-dividend plan can get messy. There are many opponents to versions of a carbon tax that have arisen over the years, who argue it will hurt the country’s GDP, including the group Americans for Tax Reform. Proponents say that’s why the dividend is so crucial.

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