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Taxes Continue To Be A Hard Sell For Many Lawmakers

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This week, Gov. Mark Gordon started addressing Wyoming's $1.5 billion shortfalls with $250 million in budget cuts.

The cuts are due to the economic fallout from COVID-19 and a sudden drop in energy prices. Gordon has said he would like to see cuts, reserves, and some new revenue sources used together to address the shortfall, but that remains difficult.

Recently, the legislature's Joint Revenue Committee considered a wide range of revenue options. They included removing many of the exemptions allowed for sales tax, like restoring a tax on food, increasing the sales tax by one percent and looking at getting more revenue from property taxes.

Casper Representative Pat Sweeney noted that the committee was not being asked to approve any taxes, they were just considering sending a bill to the full legislature for debate.

"Even if you signed a pledge and are totally against raising taxes, that the committee moves this forward, because it is going to be a three-legged stool… cuts… revenue and using some of our savings," said Sweeney.

But to no avail, because one by one the committee voted down the proposed legislation.

Many on the committee have pledged no new taxes, at least until serious budget reductions are made. Sheridan Representative Cyrus Western said the issue is simple. "The reality is, we are entering a time where we are going to have to really, really prioritize our tax dollars," he said.

Western, a member of the revenue committee, added that Wyoming can no longer continue to provide all the services it has in the past. He said cuts are necessary and acknowledge they will hurt. "These are our neighbors, our friends, our families, people who live in our communities. It's going to be very, very painful," added Western.

But he said they have no other choice. Fellow Sheridan Lawmaker Sen. Bo Biteman also voted against the proposals this week, which was no surprise. During the past legislative session, he used terms like "the party is over" when he tried to get fellow Senators to support his proposed reductions.

"I've been kind of yelling from the rooftops that this kind of spending is not sustainable and here we are," said Biteman. "We as a body have not had the appetite to make the hard cuts. The cuts to K-12 education, the cuts to UW and personnel cuts, not just cutting unfilled positions."

Laramie Representative and House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly finds such proposals appalling. "I mean how do we attract people to Wyoming, how do we have an educated workforce and educated citizenry… right? I don't want to cut education," she said.

But many do. It's because education has been deemed off-limits due to a funding lawsuit in the '90s. So, over the years, education spending has gone up while a lot of spending in state government has gone down.

Because of the school funding model, the governor cannot make direct cuts to education but during a recent news conference he urged school board members to make ten percent cuts on their own.

Which probably will not lead to much, so Representative Western is ready to propose some reforms to the model. He wants the legislature to remove some education requirements and take extracurricular activities out of the model.

"These are very important things that can really enhance a child's educational experience…right? But me as a policymaker, if you are going to put me in the position where I must prioritize our dollars, I'm going to choose STEM." Western added, "I'm going to choose to pay these STEM teachers a good solid wage, so we can recruit and retain good teachers."

Western and Biteman say that Wyoming has got to rein in the services it offers the state, but Minority Leader Connolly points out that services cost a lot because Wyoming is so spread out. She noted that you must have things like the Department of Family Services offices available to all residents. Connolly said it is going to be important for the state to educate people about such things. Gov. Gordon said part of the problem is that people hear a lot about Wyoming's reserves.

"What I think most or many Wyoming people may be thinking is we've got all this money, we've got our permanent funds, we've got the LSRA and we need to get that down to a very simple approach so that people understand that there just isn't that much money," said Gordon.

He also believes that those who oppose taxes will only come around when the state is in dire circumstances, the same thing that Gov. Jim Geringer and Gov. Mike Sullivan faced in the 1990s.

Minority Leader Connolly has a strong reaction to that sentiment. "I think it's irresponsible of us as legislators to go down that road and say not until our neighbors are harmed, our communities are harmed that we're going to do something about it," she said.

Connolly said it is refusing to do what is necessary. The House Revenue Committee will meet again this fall and can reconsider these bills, along with other proposals. Chairman Dan Zwonitzer said he hopes at least a couple pass, so they can be considered by the full legislature in January.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Bob Beck, at btwo@uwyo.edu.

Bob Beck has been News Director of Wyoming Public Radio since 1988. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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