Local governments watched the 2021 legislative session closely. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with Wyoming County Commissioners Association's Executive Director Jerimiah Rieman about how county governments fared in two issues the association was keeping an eye on throughout the session. Rieman began by discussing what changes lawmakers were considering on how local governments get revenue.
Jerimiah Rieman: Counties have experienced revenue losses, in very much the same way that the state has. So, they're concerned about what the revenue picture might be looking forward. So one of our major initiatives was to try and protect direct distribution, which is the state's assistance to local governments to help with general government operations. We certainly saw lots of conversation around that. We saw it on the Senate floor, [and] it fizzled out when it got to the House. I think a lot of House members really understood the dramatic impacts that local governments had faced, many of them already taking 20 up to 40 percent reductions. And it didn't make sense to add to that pain by reducing direct distribution. So we were able to defeat that measure.
Catherine Wheeler: Moving forward, what is there kind of like a reframe that has to go on? Or will you kind of be pushing the same sort of messaging to legislators?
JF: Yeah, I think for us, it's continuing to offer up ideas and show what the pros and cons of all of those different scenarios are. And I know a number of people say, well, let's just increase property taxes, that helps local governments a lot. Well, the reality is, when you dig into the numbers, 73 percent of all property taxes is collected in seven counties in Wyoming, which leaves the other 16 with very little gain in that sort of a scenario. If you looked at sales and use tax, we have, again, a number of counties that are very dominant in that and others that really can't generate much from a sales tax. So I think it's continuing to offer, again, those ideas and the background on what the mechanisms look like once they're implemented. And frankly, being more creative about it, I don't think we have to think about them in the traditional sense of how we distribute funds.
CW: And while I know you spoke on behalf of a bill that would have created a pandemic taskforce to study the past year, and that ultimately failed, but a bill did pass and we'll see if the governor signs it, but that bill lawmakers touted giving more counties more control over public health orders. How did your commissioners end up feeling about that?
JF: Yeah, certainly heard conversation on the floor that they felt county's got more control. And certainly you could say, 'Hey, commissioners get to have a voice in those public health orders'. But I am concerned that it also has the potential to delay, in some instances, much needed protections. The reality if you really dig into the situation is that once the county health officers are appointed, they're really adherent to the state health officer and to the state apparatus and must follow that scheme. So I don't know that what I saw offered really disconnected and allowed counties to go above and beyond or even short of health orders that the state might implement. It certainly wasn't part of what my members were pushing for. We really have 23 different experiences amongst the counties. And if you break it down even further, we have hundreds of experiences even within that approach. And so my members wanted to have a very detailed conversation about all of the various angles of our public health statutes and didn't know that that should be litigated through the legislature without having all the facts and all the various individuals that were part of this process.