While drafting the state’s budget, a majority of the Joint Appropriations Committee traveled to the University of Wyoming for an unscheduled and apparently unannounced Saturday meeting with leaders of the school’s energy programs.
At the Jan. 11 meeting, which officials and lawmakers characterized as “informal” when questioned by WyoFile, the influential School of Energy Resources pitched more than $20 million in state funding for coal and petroleum research projects.
The large ask comes at a time when lawmakers and the governor are warning of belt-tightening budgeting decisions ahead. Meanwhile, the meeting’s off-the-books nature caused some transparency advocates to admonish the appropriations committee.
“It smacks of cronyism, frankly,” said Marguerite Herman, the legislative liaison for the League of Women Voters of Wyoming and a longtime advocate for public access, open meetings and open records.
Appropriations Committee members disagreed and said scrutinizing the large ask was part of their duties.
“A few of us asked for technical data regarding the numerous projects listed in the budget,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) wrote in an email. “And for a better explanation of each project. (Have a look at their budget…and I am sure you would do the same!),” he wrote.
The lawmakers volunteered their time, Nicholas wrote. “I wish more of the members could have been present,” he wrote. They also paid their own travel expenses, another committee member said.
When the Wyoming Legislature wrote the Public Meetings Act to guarantee public access to governing bodies, lawmakers exempted themselves from the requirements. Even if the law had applied, however, the gathering at UW might have been legal: Though a majority of the committee was present, lawmakers said it didn’t constitute a quorum — the number of committee members needed to take a legal vote.
The incident, however, raises fresh questions about the open and transparent decision-making in the busy citizen Legislature. The Appropriations Committee meets with a greater frequency than any other legislative committee, particularly every other year as it crams examination of a multi-billion dollar budget into a few weeks of hearings.
Lawmakers on the committee argued they had no choice but to scramble to find time to hear in detail about the projects. Transparency advocates countered that those lawmakers were obliged to at least inform the public of the meeting and what they learned there.
Busy lawmakers receive a torrent of outside information the public never sees, said Mike Massie, a former state legislator and former UW trustee who is concerned about transparency. But questions asked in a public forum should be answered in public as well, he said.
“It’s not enough [for lawmakers] to say that ‘oh we got the information later,’” Massie said.
Informing decision makers
Like every other state agency head, School of Energy Resources Director Mark Northam made his initial pitch to the state’s budgeters in a public hearing on the third floor of the newly refurbished Capitol.
Northam, the only director in the prestigious academic institution’s 12-year history, proposed a significant request amidst tightening budgets. SER wanted the money to pursue a slew of projects Northam said could help slow the decline of Wyoming’s cornerstone coal industry.
“It’s the biggest ask that we’ve ever made,” Northam said.
He faced skepticism from the committee, particularly Nicholas. “I’ve got a few [questions] but we don’t have time,” Nicholas said at the end of the Dec. 18 public hearing. “I’ll follow up.”
When budget writers seek more information, they typically call officials back for another round of public questioning.
SER was not called back. Instead, lawmakers asked UW’s Director of Government Relations Meredith Asay to set up a meeting, Asay said. The meeting was not attended by the Legislative Service Office employees that organize and staff committee meetings, Anthony Sara, that office’s spokesperson, said.
Five of the seven House committee members and two of the five Senate members traveled to Laramie to meet again with Northam and other prominent UW energy researchers. Rep. Donald Burkhardt (R-Rawlins), a longtime supporter of the school according to Northam, was also present.
“This was a voluntary opportunity offered by the UW for those legislative members who wanted to learn more about the science and programs in SER,” Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) wrote in an emailed response to WyoFile. Hicks served as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman as Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) recovered from a surgery.
“Meeting was purely informational,” Hicks wrote. “No action[s] were taken on anything at the meeting.”
WyoFile could find no record of public notice, and Asay said she didn’t recall whether any was offered. The meeting was open to the public, she said: “The door was open it was in a very large room.”
People came and left the meeting at various points, Northam said. He thought the meeting was announced but did not remember where.
A member of the public might have known to search campus for the meeting if they followed the right lawmaker on Facebook.
“The Joint Appropriations Committee is studying SER potential projects that demonstrate high-impact to carbon engineering technologies,” Rep. Jared Olsen wrote in a Facebook post that day. A photo accompanying the post shows a meeting setup like most other committee meetings, with Olsen seated at one table that faced another where witnesses appear to sit. Olsen did not respond to several voicemails seeking an interview.
Northam and other SER officials spoke to the committee for anywhere between three and four hours, according to multiple attendees, further outlining their research projects and fielding questions. Mohammad Piri, a renowned SER professor of petroleum engineering, also discussed a $5 million request for oil and gas research in his department, attendees said.
The requested money would be used to pursue ideas SER says could either slow the closure of coal plants or develop innovative new coal products as thermal coal burning declines. Researchers requested $8.8 million to advance a list of potential new uses of coal ranging from coal-based asphalt for roads to coal building materials.
The school also initially asked for $18.7 million from the state to capture an equal amount of federal funding for an experimental coal-burning power plant where carbon dioxide emissions would be easier to capture. SER subsequently dropped that request down to $12 million, Northam said.
Northam left the December budget hearing in Cheyenne feeling that “there was very little support for … either of the two big requests because they [JAC members] said they didn’t know enough.”
But the Saturday visit was a success, Northam said. “The outcome of that Saturday meeting was that we were able to make them comfortable with two things,” Northam said. “One is that these were good projects for the state to invest in and the second was that there is a mechanism in place through oversight of both the university and the energy resource council … to ensure that the dollars would be used as directed by the Legislature.”
Ultimately, JAC voted to budget $12 million for the experimental power plant, to be awarded only if federal matching money comes through. The committee offered $7 million for the other coal projects — $1.8 million less than requested.
Only Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) opposed the funding.
“We’re kicking the can down the road,” he said as the committee voted on what would go in the budget bill on Jan. 15. “In ten years we’re going to be looking at this and saying, ‘our coal industry isn’t going to support the state and what are we going to do as an alternative?’”
‘Just notice it’
Over time, the Legislature has greatly improved accessibility, Herman said. But poor habits persist among busy citizen lawmakers. Much is “run on a casual, freewheeling basis,” she said.
Several Appropriations Committee lawmakers said they needed the time. “It was an opportunity for us to spend some time asking some questions,” said Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson).
Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) agreed. “We have to do our due diligence if we’re going to spend millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “I wish we could do it on more things.”
Herman didn’t disagree. “They are doing the government’s work and the people’s work and this is how they get it done,” she said. “And that is true but … just notice it. A [Laramie] Boomerang reporter might have shown up or something.”
The Sunday after the meeting in Laramie, the lawmakers were again gathered together, in their official meeting room, Gierau said. “We were just there studying,” he said. “It’s like wow, everybody’s here. It’s a fairly dedicated group.”
Incidents like these call attention to the Legislature’s need to include itself in public meeting laws, Chris Merrill, the director of the Equality State Policy Center, said.
“When it comes to records and meetings, the Wyoming State Legislature governs itself, is accountable only to itself, and is basically on the honor system,” Merrill wrote in an email.
“I understand the Legislature might need an open meetings law that takes into account some of the unique circumstances that can come up during a fast-paced legislative session,” he wrote. “But exempting yourself wholesale from one of our bedrock sunshine laws is not in the spirit of open governance, and is not in the best interest of voters.”
A special institution
Though part of UW, SER has often been treated differently by the Wyoming Legislature. “Right from the very start it had a separate life and a separate track from the other programs,” said Massie, who helped create the school in 2006.
When Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) originally pushed the idea, Massie said, the energy industry was opposed to the school.
“There was concern from the energy industry that they really didn’t want the university delving into research in their field,” Massie said. But with time, the industry came around and supported the idea.
The school was created with its own distinct governing board and budget. Its proponents “didn’t want to see it lost within the [overall budget] of the University of Wyoming,” Massie said.
Today, a number of powerful lawmakers still support it. Bebout is one of three legislators on the 12-member Energy Resources Council. Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Casper) and Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland), the minerals committee chairmen, also sit on the council.
Other board members include the CEOs of Wyoming’s two chief electrical utilities, retired energy industry executives, the UW president and Dave True, chairman of the UW board of trustees and part owner of an oil company.
SER’s funding is far from secured. JAC hasn’t even voted to approve the budget bill draft yet. The state’s two-year budget will go through many twists, turns, amendments and negotiations over the Legislature’s session beginning Feb. 10. But with Wyoming’s energy industries in decline, SER today offers tempting prospects to the state’s politicians.
Many of the projects that involve new uses of coal which Northam sought funding for have been ongoing for several years, he said. Some projects could soon be poised for commercial success, he said.
If the experimental uses — like coal for road paving — find traction, they will create new markets for the black rock, Northam said. The coal consumption proposed for any such uses pales in comparison with burning coal for electricity, however.
“We’ll never ever be able to replace the volumes of coal that have been used for thermal purposes by making products,” Northam said. It could, however, replace some jobs in coal country as mine and plant jobs disappear, he said.
The experimental power plant could help preserve the Powder River Basin’s customer base if the technology can be exported, Northam said. The clock is ticking, however.
“If we don’t do it with a sense of urgency, ten years from now a lot of those plants are gone and they’re not coming back,” he said. Thus the moment for the Legislature to make bets on coal is now, Northam said.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to note that it is the School of Energy Resources, not the School of Energy Research as originally written in error. —Ed.