In highly contested race, Senate candidates offer their views to voters

Posted 8/6/20

In the opening moments, it appeared that a forum featuring the four Republicans running for Senate District 18 — Stefanie Bell of Cody, Tim French of Heart Mountain, state Rep. David Northrup …

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In highly contested race, Senate candidates offer their views to voters


In the opening moments, it appeared that a forum featuring the four Republicans running for Senate District 18 — Stefanie Bell of Cody, Tim French of Heart Mountain, state Rep. David Northrup of Powell and Richard Jones of Wapiti — might get heated.

“I’m real tired of so-called good Republicans in this county getting elected and then going to Cheyenne and voting liberal or very liberal,” French said at the start of the July 28 event in Powell. The conservative, longtime Park County commissioner said he doesn’t like the direction that lawmakers are taking the state.

“They’re leaning it left. … It’s wrong,” French said. “I mean, look what they bring: Antifa, defunding the police, abusing our police officers, Antifa beating the tar out of people. I mean, I don’t want Wyoming to go down that path and I will fight with everything I’ve got against something like that.”

The pointed remarks got the forum started with a bang, but they wound up being more of an outlier than setting the tone. While the candidates frequently differed, they generally avoided direct criticism during the Powell event and one the following day in Cody.

This story combines remarks made at the two forums, both hosted by the Park County Republican Women.

Rep. Northrup, who currently represents House District 50, made the case that he’s ready to step up to the Senate and hit the ground running; he cited his six years as the chairman of the House Education Committee and 12 years on the Powell school board, among other experience.

“Those skills I’ve learned in the House will make me part of the solution …,” Northrup said.

Stefanie Bell, who has served on the Cody school board for the last 20 years, said she has proven herself to be a determined leader and a hard worker for her constituents.

“I will fight for ... all the issues that impact us, from clean water to air service,” Bell said, referencing education, multiple use and access to public lands, among other topics. “We must return to what is precious, and we have to attract what is the best.”

Jones, whose range of experience includes serving as a park ranger and gaming regulator, said he would go to Cheyenne with the intent to “keep them from doing stuff to us here.”

“I’ll work hard to prevent the liberal creep of raising taxes, increasing regulations that harm business, restricting access to public lands in general and restricting any of the freedoms that we’ve come to enjoy by tradition and are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights,” he said.


Tax talk

The state’s bleak-looking budget — and what to do about it — was a major theme during the forums.

Bell said she opposes most tax increases, but “I also believe in paying our bills.” She said some changes need to be made to the state’s tax structure and called for statewide support for Wyoming’s community colleges.

Bell was alone in indicating she would consider a proposed 7% corporate income tax on corporations with 100 or more shareholders.

She said Wyoming’s small and medium-sized businesses need to be protected, but differentiated them from big box stores. Bell said she’s open to a corporate tax as part of “making sure we watch out for our Wyoming businesses.” She noted the argument that the bill would basically just take Wyoming’s share of taxes the companies already budget for.

“It’s very similar in my mind to the number of years that Amazon didn’t pay sales tax,” Bell said. “How is it that something can be delivered to my door but really, really hurts our communities?”

Jones, however, said Wyoming’s current lack of corporate and income taxes represent “a tremendous incentive for people to come here without having to give them other handouts” that the state shouldn’t erase.

He added that, “taxes in general, to me, are a loser” and saying that, “you do better by letting people keep their own money and work with it.”

French, meanwhile, said he doesn’t support raising any taxes. He also said lawmakers need to avoid panicking, because the economy may soon rebound.

“I think everybody down there at the Legislature, they need to calm down for a little bit and think this through,” he said. “We don’t need a whole bunch of taxes. People are really suffering.”

Northrup countered that, “I didn’t think that there was a panic button on taxes yet,” and said the state has reserves that can help cover expenses in the coming two years.

“The question is, what do we do after that?” he said. If the economy doesn’t rebound as is hoped, Northrup said the state will have to explore other options.

“We have to do the right thing for the people of Wyoming,” he said. “There’s more to this than the next two years. We have to get through many years, and depleting our resources may not be the best place to do that.”

Northrup specifically said he opposes a corporate income tax, saying the state needs “to be able to attract new business instead of having them penalized when they get here.”

All four candidates expressed opposition to a state income tax.


Making cuts

As far as what Wyoming should do for future budget cuts, Northrup said to expect another 10% cut — on top of a 10% cut just ordered by Gov. Mark Gordon.

Northrup also said state departments should be allowed to decide where to cut, because “they are the closest to their budget — they are the ones that understand what needs to happen.”

“As far as trying to do it [specific cuts] within a legislative body, it would be like trying to do surgery by telephone; it’s just not going to happen,” he said.

Jones agreed about generally letting agencies decide what to cut. But he also thinks things will get better. Wyoming, Jones said, is well-positioned to export its clean coal, with strong reserves of trona and money in savings.

“Take a deep breath and see what happens in the future,” he said. “I’m optimistic.”

French was also optimistic, but said “this COVID crisis has just exposed the fact that we’ve allowed the state of Wyoming’s government to get too big.” He said the state must look for efficiencies and move “to a smaller, better government that works for the people of this state.”

Bell agreed the state needs to get more efficient, but noted that some of those efficiencies — like updating databases and infrastructure — will require an initial investment. Without those changes, “we’re not going to get more efficient,” she said. “Things are just going to continue to break down.”

Bell also stressed the need for Wyoming to quickly get the state’s $1.25 billion share of federal CARES Act funding “into the hands of the agencies, the counties and the cities so that they don’t have to do these dramatic cuts.”


School choice

Both Jones and French expressed support for school choice, with Jones saying that public schools “have become a monopoly” and are “usually unaccountable.” Jones said the state constitution seems to have been interpreted as saying that K-12 education must get “a blank check,” but he said that’s incorrect.

Both Northrup and Bell said they support parents making the decision as to where their children attend school, but said there are constitutional prohibitions on the government funding private or religious schools.


Medicaid expansion

It’s not in Wyoming’s best interest to increase the range of people eligible for Medicaid, French said, saying expansion has crippled the economies of other states. Jones made similar remarks, noting that states have to cover a portion of the cost of expansion.

“I think in this small state people have pretty good healthcare,” he added.

Northrup said he, too, does not favor expansion. However, the lawmaker noted his vote to look at using Medicaid to help cover the expense of services provided to special education students in public schools.

Differing from the field, Bell indicated some openness to a restricted expansion of Medicaid, describing it as a potential way to help those with low incomes who otherwise couldn’t afford health insurance while boosting rural hospitals.


Guns in schools

Both French and Jones said they support arming trained staff in schools and oppose gun-free zones. Jones called them “shooting zones” and French called them, “a big advertisement to anybody out there that has ill intent.”

Northrup and Bell said they support letting local school districts decide whether to arm staff. Bell also noted that gun free school zones come from federal law.

The four candidates will face off in the Aug. 18 Republican primary election, with only the winner advancing to November’s general election. Video recordings of the two forums are available on the Park County Republican Women’s Facebook page.

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