Senate, House hopefuls discuss energy

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Nathan Wendt wraps up a response to a question during the League of Women Voters' candidate forum at City Hall in Gillette Friday evening. A dozen candidates took part in the forum, which covered a variety of topics including coronavirus and the state's energy industry. (Photo by Mike Moore, Gillette News Record)

GILLETTE — The COVID-19 pandemic, health care and the future of the energy industry were among the topics addressed at the first Campbell County League of Women Voters candidate forum of the local primary election season.

Most of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives hopefuls answered questions from a panel at the Gillette City Council chambers Friday.

There are 10 Senate candidates who want to replace U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, who is not running for reelection this year. For the Democrats, they are Kenneth Casner, Mirav Ben David, Yana Ludwig and Nathan Wendt. Republican hopefuls are Mark Armstrong, John Holtz, Cynthia Lummis, Donna Rice, Robert Short and Josh Wheeler.

All the candidates attended the forum while only two U.S. House of Representatives candidates came, Democrats, Carl Beach of Saratoga and Lynnette Grey Bull of Fort Washakie. They, along with Republican Rod Miller, are challenging U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming.

Most candidates agreed that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act the federal government enacted was necessary, especially the $1,200 direct payment to millions of people, but they didn’t agree on how much and how long the government should continue to spend on relief efforts.

Lummis, a former U.S. House rep for Wyoming, said she supports the CARES Act, but “I don’t support additional funding going forward into our economy until we allow the CARES Act to work for individuals, for business and for communities.”

The country needs to take a wait-and-see approach, she said.

The idea behind the CARES Act was well-thought-out, but it buried regulations that make it nearly impossible for small businesses to access the money in a way to allow them to use it to help employees who were impacted, Short said.

The $1,200 checks were a help, but the government needs to be careful with the national debt, Wheeler said.

“Continuing to hand out money is not an answer,” he said.

Other candidates, however, said there is more the federal government should do.

The country should issue direct payments to Americans until the economic crisis has passed because it will stimulate the economy, Wendt said.

Casner went a step further and proposed that people earning up to $80,000 a year should receive stimulus money based on their average tax returns over the prior two years.

Ben David offered a three-pronged approach to addressing COVID-19:

Rescue: The government should provide people with enough money to ensure they can still feed their families until the crisis is over.

Re-imagine: The country needs to think about the economy down the road and become creative.

Rebuild: How do we implement inactive new technologies? For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the Public Works Administration, which put people to work and helped get the country out of the Great Depression.

Improving the health care system was an issue most of the candidates agreed needs to happen. What they didn’t agree on was how to go about it.

Rural hospitals and health clinics run on razor-thin margins and use multiple funding sources to survive. A single-payer or universal system would provide them with the money and ability to supply equitable treatment for all people, Beach said.

Armstrong suggested government should defund Planned Parenthood and put that money toward rural health care.

Regardless of one’s background, health care is a necessity, not a privilege, Grey Bull said.

For the first time, renewable sources are outpacing fossil fuels for electricity production.

To address that, some candidates suggested diversifying, like carbon capture and renewable energy, while others said that for the near future it is important to stay the course with oil and coal.

To offer the high-paying jobs the state needs to attract industries and to do so, the state should improve its infrastructure, health care system and maintain its education system, Ben David said.

Rice agreed with diversifying.

We need to have some jobs for our young people,” she said. “Wyoming is gaining (and) we need our young people.”

The energy portfolio in the United States continues to evolve, but that does not mean “we should abandon our natural resources,” Short said.

The country should use current technologies and develop new to help use the abundant and economical resources we already have, he said.

The energy shift is something that will happen eventually, but until there is a viable source of renewable energy other than lumber, “and when I say viable I don’t mean wind,” Wheeler said.

“When we’re looking at Casper, Wyoming, our landfill is filled with blades from clean energy (that are) taking up about three years worth of landfill space because those cannot be recycled in any way,” he said. “So, come to me with renewable energy that is viable and I’m more than happy to look at it. Other than that, coal needs to go out to Asia. It needs to quit being blocked and we need someone strong to say stop this and let it go through.”

Armstrong proposed the creation of two federal energy policies.

The first would use all fossil fuels cleanly and the other would stabilize the nation’s active rig count. For example, the country should start storing oil if the price dips below $40 a barrel and to start buying strategic reserves if prices go below $30.

“That will stabilize the rig count, keep families working and stop the boom and bust cycle that has plagued the oil and gas industry forever,” he said.

Lummis said she not only supports oil, gas and coal, but she wants to build a coal export terminal. She also wants to create small distributive nuclear power.

“Wyoming is the largest source or uranium and it needs to use that source of clean power,” she said.

Lummis added that the country needs to reduce the royalties on soda ash to compete with China, and she supports the Integrated Test Center near Gillette.

Ludwig said the well-being of coal miners is important.

“I believe that coal is essentially a beloved member of Wyoming community that is in hospice, and it is not doing to us any good to be in denial about that,” she said. “I would like to see us diversify the Wyoming economy so that coal miners have really good options to be able to stay here, and I also really want us to make sure that we are protecting coal miners’ pensions and other retirement benefits, which is something that our electorates in Washington, D.C., have been terrible at.”

The shift in energy resources is happening, but the country needs to figure out a way to get miners and other blue-collar workers transitioned to 21st century jobs, Beach said.

Candidates offered mixed opinions as to what they think the role of the United States should be in the world.

“I believe in peace through strength, so I support a strong military, but I do not support using that military in endless wars,” Lummis said. “I believe a strong military with a presence that’s appropriate in the world is something we have to evaluate constantly.”

The United States should consider getting out of the United Nations if it continues to take more money from the U.S. than anywhere else, Wheeler said.

Ben David, on the other hand, said she thinks the U.S. needs to rejoin the World Health Organization and collaborate with other countries to combat COVID-19 and other diseases.

The U.S. needs to stop being antagonistic, Beach said.

“That is not the traditional role of the U.S.,” he said. “That does not position us to again be the leader of the world. To withdraw from these difficult organizations is incredible faulty.

“We need to build alliances, and to be a good leader is to build alliances across countries, across cultures.”

Most candidates agreed it is important for politicians to find common ground and work together.

“Things don’t get done if you can’t agree on things,” Wheeler said. “We need to be able to talk to each other, work together and get things done. We represent the people and we represent our state.”

Bipartisanship is not accomplished when people from across the aisle bicker, Short said.

“Civility is something we must bring back into the national dialogue,” he said.