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March 13, 2012 8:36 am

EDITORIAL: Legislature ends with ups and downs

Written by Tessa Schweigert

The 61st Wyoming Legislature adjourned a day early last week, finishing its four-week budget session.

As with any legislative session, some bills sailed along smoothly while others stirred up controversy. Here are a few highs and lows:

• Highway funding: Wyoming’s roadways provide essential lifelines for agriculture, energy development, tourism and other industries. But many miles of pavement are in poor shape, and state lawmakers have done little to fund roadwork adequately or consistently.

Gov. Matt Mead has rightfully called for a permanent source of highway funding so that the state isn’t taking money away from education or health care to fund needed road maintenance.

A permanent revenue base could come in the form of a fuel tax increase or highway toll — unpopular proposals among legislators.

“Whatever option or combination of options that they look at, as painful and distasteful as they are, to do nothing and say we’re going to continue to take out of the general gund, is to say, ‘we’re going to fund roads, but we’re not going to continue to fund education. We’re going to fund roads, but we’re not going to fund health care. Or we’re going to fund roads, but we’re not going to fund something else,’” Mead told The Associated Press.

To their credit, lawmakers will give $100 million to the Wyoming Department of Transportation in addition to its base budget through federal funds. However, that’s only a third of the roughly $300 million the department requested. We hope in future sessions, legislators find a way to consistently fund Wyoming’s roads. Neglecting needed maintenance will only cost more down the road.

• Wolves: Wyoming may be another step closer to managing its wolf population, but we’re not breathing a sigh of relief yet. The state isn’t in the free and clear. Wyoming’s dual classification plan — which allows for the predator to be shot on sight in most of the state — likely faces further scrutiny and courtroom battles.

Through a bill signed last week, legislators and Gov. Matt Mead moved closer to ratifying the state’s agreement with the federal government. However, Wyoming lawmakers can’t fireproof the plan from lawsuits — only Congress can do that. In an election year, that step is unlikely.

Whether you love wolves or hate them, we can all agree that we’re tired of the legal battles and management headaches. Idaho and Montana have found ways to manage their wolf populations through controlled hunts in recent years.

We certainly hope Wyoming will get there soon.

• Prison nursery: Inmates with infants at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk may get more time with their babies in coming years. Legislators approved $1 million for construction of a prison nursery, where eligible inmates with children up to 6 years old will be allowed to have overnight visits with their kids. Babies may be able to stay with their mothers for up to 18 months. Research shows that prison nurseries benefit both the babies and mothers.

“The reality is that the women here (in Lusk) will get out of prison, and they will be back in the communities,” Phil Myer, the center’s warden, told the Casper Star-Tribune. “And we want them to be successful at raising those children so those children don’t repeat the sins of the parents.”

We’re glad Wyoming is establishing a program aimed at reducing recidivism rates and improving families’ lives while a parent is incarcerated.

• Workplace safety: Wyoming has a long way to go toward making workplaces safer. In recent years, the state has consistently ranked among the highest in the nation for workplace fatalities.

On average, one Wyoming worker died on the job every 10 days over the last 10 years, according to a state report.

Aiming to increase workplace safety, lawmakers are funding five consultants to conduct voluntary inspections. If they find problems, they won’t be able to fine or cite employers. The state also will provide $500,000 in matching grants for companies to receive safety training or equipment.

Employers and the state need to do more to ensure safety on the job, but this is a good starting point.

• Tougher DUI penalties: As they should, drunk drivers in Wyoming will soon face stiffer penalties. For drivers who clearly don’t get it — racking up four or more DUIs in 10 years — harsher punishment is necessary.

It never made sense for repeat DUI offenders to only face a maximum of two years in jail. Whether it was the fifth DUI or the 12th, Wyoming law only allowed for up to two years of jail time. That’s an awfully light sentence for repeat offenders charged with multiple DUIs.

Under the new law, repeat offenders with four DUIs or more will face up to seven years in prison, and a $10,000 fine or both.

It is a more appropriate penalty for drunk drivers who pose a great danger to society and themselves. Wyoming’s priority needs to be protecting the rights of innocent drivers and passengers on the road — not those who choose to drink and drive repeatedly.

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