GOP Legislative Candidates Spar Over Experience, Pot Legalization, Economic Development
Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
A veteran Republican House member from Natrona County ripped into his primary opponent at a debate Tuesday for not understanding how the legislature appropriates money.
Tom Lockhart chided Chuck Gray a couple of times who said the Appropriations Committee automatically granted annual increases of agency budgets during a debate sponsored by the Natrona County Republican Women at the Parkway Plaza.
Then Lockhart, who has represented central Casper since 2001 and is a retired electric company executive, had had it by the time he gave his closing statement.
"It's very clear that my opponent doesn't like the way the state is being run," he said.
Gray also said the state's economy is stagnant, but Lockhart responded the unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the nation, the state has money saved for lean times, and some agencies have reduced in size.
"We've done a good job as Wyomingites," he said. "Can we do a better job? You bet. Should we do a better job? You bet. But it doesn't come from people on the outside throwing hand grenades into what we've done, (at) people who've worked hard for our state and have had a proven record of what can be done and what is being done by the Legislature."
Gray has a conservative talk show on KVOC-AM. The station is owned by Mount Rushmore Broadcasting, which is being sued by the U.S. Department of Labor for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying employees. Company owner, Gray's father Jan Charles Gray, has denied the allegations.
The debate in preparation of the Aug. 19 primary was moderated by former House Speaker Roy Cohee, who asked questions crafted by local Republican leaders.
Gray and Lockhart agreed about a question regarding the legalization of marijuana. Both opposed it.
But some candidates didn't.
Sen. Drew Perkins, SD 29, flatly opposed it. "The last thing we need is another legalized substance."
Challenger and local developer Robert Ide said he doesn't condone its use, but people should have the right to make their own decisions whether they want to use it. Drug laws, he added, are a huge failure like Prohibition was.
Rep. Kendall Kroeker, HD 35, didn't endorse legalization, but like Ide, he said the justice system shows the failure of drug laws with upwards of 30 percent of the prison population being incarcerated for drug use.
however, Kroeker's challenger Ed Opella took a hard line against it. "Sorry, I don't have a lot of sympathy," said the former Casper mayor and Natrona County commissioner.
Some candidates also questioned support of the state's involvement in economic development, especially with the passage of a bill in the 2014 Budget Session for system to grant state loans for large projects, including $24 million for Lannett Co. Inc.'s lab in Cody.
Greg Flesvig, is challenging Rep. Steve Harshman, HD 37, said such funding burdens the taxpayer. Flesvig also cited the case of Magpul, a gun accessories manufacturer that was lured to the state in part with up to $13 million authorized by the State Loan and Investment Board for Laramie County. Magpul Industries, he said, should make a decision with its own money.
Harshman, however, said such loans enable leveraging other money that would not be available otherwise for projects such as MagPul and data center.s
Likewise, Kara Linn, who is challenging Sen. Bill Landen, SD 37, said she was skeptical of just projects because the state can violate the free market by choosing one business over another.
Landen, however, said these funds can leverage more money and help pay for infrastructure such as $4.5 million water project in Natrona County.
Landen and Perkins said if states don't compete they lose in the economic development game.
Perkins added that the state exerts care in how it reviews projects and approves grants to avoid "corporate welfare."
Ide said that wasn't enough, saying he's been in competition with businesses that have received help from the Wyoming Business Council and he has not.
"Eliminate subsidies to private corporations," he said. "The Wyoming Business Council was well intended, but it has turned into crony capitalism."