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Mead: State cannot do anything on mineral cuts

Apr 7, 2013 - By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

Wyoming's Attorney General's Office has determined that the state has no legal basis to challenge recent federal action cutting more than $50 million in mineral payments to the state, Gov. Matt Mead said Friday.

Mead late last month announced that the U.S. Department of Interior had informed the State Treasurer's Office that it would reduce mineral payments to the state by 5 percent, or $53 million, through this summer.

As the nation's largest coal-producing state, Wyoming gets the lion's share of federal mineral payments, nearly $1 billion a year.

Sequestered funds

Interior Department officials have said they were forced to cut payments in most of their programs by 5 percent in response to the automatic federal spending cuts that kicked in last month.

Mead and members of Wyoming's congressional delegation have criticized not only the cuts, but what they say was poor communication from the Obama Administration before the state was blindsided by the news.

'Snowball's chance'

Mead said Friday that he had ordered the state Attorney General's Office to review the matter in case there was a chance the state could challenge the cuts in court.

"I said, 'if there's a snowball's chance on any legal theory, I want to press it,'" Mead said. "Obviously I'm paraphrasing, but the word back is there's no snowball."

The cut in the mineral payments follows congressional action last fall stripping Wyoming of more than $700 million that had been promised to the state in coming years for mine land restoration. Although other states saw cuts, Wyoming suffered the brunt of reductions to the program.

Pat Etchart, spokesman for the Interior Department's Office of Natural Resources Revenue in Denver, said last week that the federal budget cuts required the agency to cut mineral payments to states. He said his office recognizes the cuts may impose hardships on states but said it has no choice under the budget-reduction law.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently wrote to county governments, including many in Wyoming, informing them that the federal government was cutting payments under a program that reimburses counties for tax revenues lost because of federal land in their borders.

Salazar said he's aware that states and counties rely on the federal funding to maintain critical services. He said if federal funding cuts are rolled back, his agency would reimburse the lost funding.

Mead emphasized Friday that he's dissatisfied with how the federal government has trickled out information about reductions to various programs. He said his office hasn't been able to get an overall picture from Washington about the total amount of federal cuts to the state.

"The sequestration seems to be maximizing on disruption and minimizing on good planning, it seems to me," Mead said.

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