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New West Roundup for April 10, 2017

Today in New West news: Rocky Mountain Land Library hits funding goal, Montana gov. revives all-mail ballot bill, tribal license plates in the Cowboy State, and Rocky Mountain Power promises big Wyoming wind investments.

A few weeks ago, we reported the Rocky Mountain Land Library was hosting a Kickstarter to transform an old cattle ranch into a “place-based” library aimed at educating and fostering appreciation of the natural landscape. At the time, the organization had raised around $60K of their $125K goal.

We are pleased to report now that the Rocky Mountain Land Library, as of April 8, 2017, has raised $140,320, well beyond their goal. The group says the extra money will go toward several projects outside the main renovation work, including: refurbishing an old caravan to make a tiny house, creating a hillside oven, and building two composting toilets.

In a message from the founders and “the entire Land Library team,” the group thanked backers for their contributions and gave updates on the proposed site of the library:

We are humbled by your support and we’re raring to go. Our hopes for the summer has expanded even beyond our campaign’s ambitious goal, thanks to all our backers. STAY TUNED for regular updates in the coming months (plus more on a step that we are all looking forward to: the fulfillment of REWARDS!).

After our campaign-ending celebration on Friday night, Ann and I felt the strong urge to get up to Buffalo Peaks Ranch. We never seemed to have the time during the last six weeks. The ranch has weathered the winter well. No snow in the long valley leading toward Mount Silverheels, but the surrounding peaks are deep with snow, set against the brilliant blue sky.

A bald eagle flew overhead on our way to the ranch, and once there we were amazed at the signs of elk everywhere. It’s definitely their ranch in the winter.

We also took extra time walking through the Cooks House — knowing now, that WORK WILL HAPPEN this summer, and exciting change is ahead.

Up in Montana, we reported that, after a bill allowing counties to conduct the special May 25 election via mail failed in the Legislature, counties across the state were reporting financial and logistical difficulties. Now, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Governor Steve Bullock has temporarily revived debate on the bill using his veto pen:

The governor’s action caught Secretary of State Corey Stapleton off guard. His fellow Republicans in the House, who had killed the bill last month, were scrambling to see if there was a way to prevent the governor’s changes from being debated and getting a floor vote. They could run down the clock — because they can choose to take up the matter any time during the remaining days of the session.

The 11th-hour political maneuver might be too late for some counties, who are already planning to print ballots, arrange polling sites and assemble thousands of poll workers.

Fewer than seven weeks remain before the special election to fill the state’s only congressional seat, which was left vacant when Ryan Zinke resigned to lead the U.S. Interior Department. Republican Greg Gianforte, Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks are contesting for the post.

“At this point, many of us clerks can’t keep fighting the battle in Helena. Our focus has to be on the election at hand,” said Regina Plettenberg, the chief elections officer for Ravalli County. “At this point, we are planning on running this election at the polls.”

Using his veto pen, Bullock rewrote a separate election bill awaiting his signature. The original bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Bryce Bennett of Missoula, mostly addressed mundane election rules such as noticing requirements and clarifying deadlines for local elections.

“I take seriously my responsibility to strengthen our democracy by helping make sure that more eligible citizens can participate in that democracy, not fewer,” the governor said in a press conference announcing his action. “And what is better for democracy than to put a ballot in the hands of every registered voter?”

The all-mail ballot, floated as a means of saving money by state senator Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls) was blasted by Montana GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann as favoring Democratic chances—a partisan accusation that had people on both sides of the aisle scratching their heads. Nonetheless, the objection was enough to kill the bill in the House.

As mentioned, some counties are already committing to in-person voting, regardless of what happens in Helena. Some, such as clerk Plettenberg, say they can quickly switch gears, however, should the bill pass.

Over in Wyoming, according to the Wyoming Business Report, residents will now be able to purchase tribal license plates, which will in turn contribute to Native American scholarships at the University of Wyoming:

With two failed attempts at pushing a bill through legislation that would allow people to buy special Eastern Shoshone or Northern Arapaho tribal license plates, Rep. Jim Allen, R-Lander, decided to give the idea one more go with help from Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, and Rep. Stan Blake, D-Sweetwater.

“I was pretty proud of the fact I got it out of the House 53-7,” Allen said. “But it died in the Senate twice in a row.”

The tribal license plates bill passed both the House and the Senate on the third try and was signed into law March 6.

Although Allen grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation, he said he was not enrolled as a member of a tribe. But he said he recognized a need for Native Americans to be able to display ancestral symbols.

“They’re very patriotic — a lot are veterans,” Allen said. “This was a way to honor that tribal heritage. It’s a point of pride for my neighbors.”

Because many Wyoming residents have Native American ancestors but aren’t enrolled in a tribe, he said he wanted everyone to have the ability to purchase the license plates, which will be available Jan. 1.

Additionally, allowing all residents to purchase the $70 license plates could boost proceeds from the license plates, which will be divided between two UW scholarships — the Chief Washakie Memorial Endowment Fund and the Northern Arapaho Endowment Fund.

Finally, according to the Casper Star Tribune, Rocky Mountain Power is running to invest $3 billion into Wyoming’s wind future ahead of the 202 sunset of a federal tax credit, which the utility claims is essential for their operations. The announcement came with the release of RMP’s 20-year plan. From the Tribune:

Highlights of the plan include a $700 million upgrade in its Wyoming wind fleet and $2.2 billion invested in new wind and transmission.

The Salt Lake company plans to build up to 1,100 megawatts of new wind and transmission, including 140 miles of the Gateway West line, which will run from Medicine Bow to the Jim Bridger power plant in Sweetwater County.

The firm will attempt a significant amount of expansion in just a few years’ time, but the rush is necessary to keep the savings from federal subsidies, said Gary Hoogeveen, senior vice president of RMP.

Adding new wind capacity or updating existing wind farms by 2020 will restart the clock on the federal production tax credit for the existing wind, providing another 10 years of federal subsidies. New production in place by 2020 will also get 10 years of tax credits.

Federal subsidies save RMP between 2 and 3 cents per kilowatt hour produced.

The Tribune notes that significant hurdles remain to RMP achieving its wind goals. It also notes, however, that coal (which contributes about half of the utility’s output) receives scant attention in the 20-year plan.

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