Wyoming's Teton Ranges. Shutterstock
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Booming coal, natural-gas and oil industries have brought prosperity and a high population growth rate to this starkly beautiful state, but there are still only 568,000 or so hardy souls living here, and they’re spread over 97,093 square miles.

“Wyoming remains the most western of states in spirit — largely unsettled, relatively few people, and a thin veneer of civilization stretched over a forbidding and beautiful land,” says the Almanac of American Politics.

What that rugged landscape yields politically, is, first and foremost, a cultural penchant for individual privacy. Whether you believe the myth of the independent, stoic cowboy who wants to be left to his own devices is good for society or bad, it is ingrained in the culture of Wyoming.

That culture is perhaps best illustrated in a joke that Wyoming Senate President Jim Anderson once told on the Senate floor.

Why don’t Wyoming drivers use turn signals?

Because it’s nobody’s darn business where they are going.

The independent, libertarian streak here also promotes a hefty distrust of government, especially a government run by “professional politicians.” Folks here want their government run by real people, and Cowboy State lawmakers argue passionately that invasions of privacy will discourage citizens from running for office.

That argument makes for some rough edges in defining what is open for public discussion. Consequently, Wyoming income disclosure laws for elected officials, judges and lobbyists are weak or nonexistent. Other benchmarks of transparency and openness don’t fare much better. And so the Cowboy State gets a grade of F and a numerical score of 52 from the State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 48th among the states.

Getting to know you

Wyoming is the least populated state in the union. People here like to say that the Cowboy State is really a city with very long streets. That small population means the political and business elites in Wyoming are conspicuous members of their communities. While there is a traditional skepticism of government in generic terms, constituents feel like they know their citizen lawmakers, said former State Auditor Rita Meyer. And often they do because campaigning for elective office in Wyoming is very much a door-to-door, chicken-dinner, face-to-face activity.

Meyer said that elected officials become acutely aware that the public is watching both elected officials and state employees. And many folks here prefer that kind of ethics oversight to a bunch of intrusive laws. Constituents, say Meyer, looks for such tell-tale signs of corruption as changes in lifestyle.

“Our constituents know us, and part of any public official’s job is to continue to build trust through transparency,” Meyer said. “It’s more important to hire the right people than to have a lot of rules.”

The skepticism of intrusive government frequently extends to news media outlets. Letters to the editor in the state’s largest newspapers frequently express the idea that state and local government works better when some aspects of decision-making are secret.

In October, the Cheyenne-based Wyoming Tribune Eagle responded to a common reader complaint about the newspaper challenging local government to produce sensitive records.

“We live in a republic in which we elect leaders to make decisions and the public judges the actions of those leaders,” wrote a reader.

The Tribune Eagle responded that Wyoming residents need to realize that they have a responsibility to play a role in the process of government. “Certainly, trust is important,” editorialized the newspaper. “But even President Ronald Reagan knew that is not enough. Recall his words: ‘Trust, but verify.’ ”

There is some good news on the transparency front. For example, Wyoming’s budgeting process is widely accessible. It involves the governor, department heads and Joint Appropriations Committee operating mostly in open sessions. And the Legislature has started broadcasting and providing recordings of the audio of Appropriations Committee hearings and discussions on the Internet.

Open records?

In addition, workers in state and local offices generally want to fulfill the requirements of the state’s Public Records Act of 2003, said Jim Angell, the executive director of the Wyoming Press Association.

Bruce Moats, a Cheyenne attorney who specializes in Wyoming open records and open meetings law, said Wyoming has a to-the-point law that the state Supreme Court has said favors openness. But there are ominous attempts to fiddle with it. “Most of the time when they add language to open records law it is for exemptions,” Moats said.

In 2006, for instance, members of the Legislature —dominated by Republicans —overrode a veto from Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal and exempted themselves from much of the open records law. So draft legislation is secret, as is communication with staff and constituents, right up until the time lawmakers file a bill for introduction.

More recently, the taxpayer-funded Wyoming Association of Municipalities has been lobbying the Legislature for changes. The association has been pushing to weaken the open-records law by exempting e-mails sent to members of city councils, school boards and other elected bodies.

The municipalities association also pushed the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee to consider a so-called “deliberative-process exemption” to exempt documents used in initial policy discussions.

The language considered by the Joint Judiciary Committee drew complaints last fall. The Casper Star-Tribune’s editorial board said in September, “Some Wyoming legislators apparently believe that government can only work well when citizens don’t know what’s going on.”

“The deliberative process exemption under consideration would be a disaster,” adds Angell of the Wyoming Press Association.

The Judiciary Committee trimmed proposed legislation of the controversial changes to public records and open meetings laws for the 20-day March budget session. Committee members said they would take another look at the proposals during the longer general session next year, however.

Most denials of open-records requests, Angell said, occur because the clerk in an office confronted with a request for records does not understand the law. And most are resolved when the law is understood. But Angell and Moats believe the state open-records law needs some tweaking and government employees need more training about what the law entails.

While state-level entities tend to comply with law, Moats and Angell said, employees in smaller government entities often are untrained. Wyoming has a variety of boards and commissions dealing with matters like irrigation and managing property and resources that are subject to open-records and open-meetings laws, but ignorant of its nuances. For example, the joint city-county board that oversees the development of a former Amoco oil refinery site near Casper took an illegal e-mail vote in July 2009 to make emergency repairs to a flooded golf course. The board’s rules allowed for such a vote, but it did not comply with the Wyoming open-meetings law, requiring public notice. Other violations appear deliberate. In 2010, the mayor of the small town of Mills pleaded no contest to illegally holding an unannounced town council meeting to hire a fire chief.

Wyoming scored poorly on disclosure rules in the State Integrity Investigation, which didn’t surprise good government advocates like Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, a nonprofit legislative monitor. While sympathetic to the problem of recruiting people to run for office, Neal said, the state leaves itself open to corruption with the current requirements.

“Taxpayers need to know who is trying to influence government and how and why for the democratic process to work,” said Neal.

Annual financial disclosure reports for state officials and judges omit such items as investments, board affiliations and the economic interests of spouse and dependents.

Lobbyists only have to file spending reports itemizing “each loan, gift, gratuity, special discount or hospitality paid or given” of $50 or more that benefits state officials, lawmakers or employees. Lobbyists are required to reveal the sources of their funding, but not the amounts, when they register. There is no disclosure of operational expenditures, and lobbyists have resisted past efforts to require it.

There is no restriction on lobbyists’ donations to political campaigns. Individual limits on contributions to candidates for elective office are easily circumvented, as well. Individuals can contribute no more than $1,000 to a candidate for a primary election and $1,000 for a general election. But political action committees can donate an unlimited amount to a candidate.

In 2006, Casper developer Mick McMurry and his wife, Susan, formed a political action committee supporting a single county candidate. The PAC allowed the developer to legally donate more than $11,000 to the candidate. That loophole still exists, and a legislative committee has been unable to agree on a solution to the problem.

The desire to protect officials from unnecessary embarrassment affects the way Wyoming handles ethics complaints against judges, as well. Wyoming is among just a few states in which laypersons participate in deciding ethics complaints against judges. Three attorneys, three judges and six laypersons serve on the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics.

Commission members and testifying witnesses who disclose even the existence of a proceeding against a judge may face contempt charges. Supporters of the policy argue that public disclosure of investigative proceedures dangerously undermines the integrity of the courts in the public square.

The problem is that the tightly enforced secrecy prevents the public from adequately assessing the commission’s performance.

The good times stop rolling

Wyoming’s prosperous energy industry kept the state budget in surpluses for at least five years in the first decade of the 21st century. The taxes from energy, particularly natural gas, delayed the national recession’s effects on Wyoming for about a year. By 2009, however, falling energy prices meant Wyoming politicians had to make some difficult choices and state-agency budgets were cut by about 10 percent.

The weakness in energy prices continues. As lawmakers arrived to begin the legislative session in February, revenue forecasts had them looking at 5- to 8-percent cuts for the 2013-2014 biennium budget. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said Feb. 7 a projected 75-cent reduction in natural-gas prices per thousand cubic feet would drop state revenue about $113 million for the 2013-2014 biennium.

“We have to start out with the premise that we have to be fiscally conservative now, to make sure that we don’t put ourselves in a hole down the road,” said Mead, a first-term Republican.

This belt-tightening is constraining critical oversight functions in places like the Wyoming Department of Audit. The agency audits other state agencies and local governments – including school districts. It also audits tax and mineral-royalty revenue and regulates state banking and financial institutions. All with 116 employees. The Department has lost four positions over the past four years. That may not seem like a lot, but the number of personnel is decreasing while the responsibilities are increasing.

“Wyoming’s oil and natural gas production has continued to grow in order to meet worldwide demand,” says the department’s strategic plan for 2009-10. “The risk factor for compliance increases significantly with the increased oil and gas activity.”

And the southeast portion of the state is preparing for more drilling still as companies in Wyoming tap into the same geologic features already fueling a boom in northern Colorado.

“I think any department director would like to have more people,” then-Department of Audit Director Michael Geesey said, “but we have to do the best we can with what we have.” Geesey said technology and office efficiencies will make up for fewer employees; he has since left the Department to become Executive Director of the Wyoming Banking Association.

And it’s not as if there’s no proven need for the audits. In January, Sweetwater County sheriff’s investigators arrested the treasurer of an improvement district, alleging she stole almost $150,000 from the district over three years, according to the sheriff”s office and press reports. The 39-year-old woman posted $10,000 bond in late January and awaits trial on a felony charge that could mean up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. She has not yet entered a plea.

In a recent document, the agency said compliance with reporting requirements for local governments decreased from 75 percent to 67 percent over the last three years, even as the agency has been increasing its assistance provided to towns and medium-sized special districts.

The report says, there is still a need for additional training, investigation, audits and enforcement actions.

Other state regulatory agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Engineer’s Office, have also seen budget cuts that could diminish regulatory enforcement.

At a forum on the use of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” held at the University of Wyoming, one reporter said, “Across the board, regulatory officials admitted they don’t have enough staff to do the amount of field inspections and enforcement as they’d like.”

Former state Rep. Pete Jorgenson, a Democrat from Jackson who retired in 2010, said that even in the boom times there is reluctance to regulate.

Despite Wyoming’s budget surpluses, Jorgensen said, “I watched, for eight years, DEQ (Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality) request for more inspectors, and those were defeated with the obvious desire not to know what’s going on.”

Managing the money

Wyoming does not face the steep deficit problems in its retirement system that many states do. The Joint Appropriations Committee has led a bipartisan effort to rebuild from losses in the 2008 economic crash and to make the system sound for the future. The state Retirement System Board board is not immune from state politics, but when Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal shook it up with four new appointments in 2010 there was no great cry from Republicans.

Wyoming is fortunate to have a $5 billion Permanent Mineral Trust Fund built on royalties from energy-generating minerals. It is managed by the state Treasurer.

Both the retirement system and the mineral trust fund use private-sector money managers.

To protect competitive advantages in the market place, private money managers have contracts with state officials allowing them to keep secret the specifics of how the taxpayers’ money is being invested. State Treasurer Joe Meyer recently said that the secrecy of the money managers puts elected officials and state employees overseeing the funds in a difficult situation. He urged legislators to consider ways of making those types of investments more transparent. But he admits there are no easy answers.

Some here argue the money managers should just be trusted. Wyoming’s cultural commitments to individualism and “small government” run by citizens and not professional politicians are intended to maximize freedom. Adherence to those lofty ideals, however, may be putting the state at risk.

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