If you walk the halls of the Jonah Building where the Wyoming legislature meets you will see lawmakers discussing hot topics related to education, health care, elections and what to do about Wyoming's growing prison population. But like most years the main focus is on money. For several years now lawmakers have worried about unstable revenue sources.
Legislators plan their budget on the amount of money they collect from taxes. As individuals, most of us contribute very little and the industry that contributes the most tax revenue is energy. When energy is going great, Wyoming has money to spend or invest. When prices decline, the state can lose millions of dollars. The buzzword these days is stabilizing revenue. Senate President Drew Perkins discussed during his opening speech.
"We can do that by looking for ways to stabilize our tax base while lowering the tax rate. The object is not to raise more revenue, the object is to stabilize revenue," Perkins said.
Over the years the legislature has allowed a lot of businesses to get a tax break. For instance, many services from a gym membership, to a massage, don't require a sales tax. The new thinking is that maybe businesses outside of the energy industry should also contribute to things like roads and other services the state provides. So, Perkins is calling on legislators to reform Wyoming's tax structure and have the service industry start to contribute.
"The other seven or so states that do not impose income taxes, tax significantly more for services than the state of Wyoming does. We need to have out of state visitors pay a fair share of the services and benefits they enjoy when they come to the state," said Perkins.
Those who have reservations about this approach want to cut the budget first. Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said this week that it's time to try something new.
"We've cut $400-million from our budget and I think at some point you're not going to cut your way to prosperity. And I think we've gotta be cognizant of that and of how we're gonna do this," Harshman said.
Another Casper Republican, Senator Bill Landen laughed when he thinks about how many years people have proposed broadening the tax base. But with the worry over money the past few years he said he's on board.
"You know you're right, we have visited that theme an awful lot during my tenure down here and I think it's time for us to slide up to the table and go to work and see if we can't balance this thing out a little bit so that we can at least take the peaks and valleys off of that boom and bust," said Landen.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss is a huge fan of this idea. Rothfuss has wanted the state to look at taxes in the past, but he thinks this is a good first step.
"I don't think we can put that off any longer and if we can't achieve some sort of legitimate revenue diversification or at least steps towards it, then I don't know what it's going to take," Rothfuss said.
Fellow Democrat Andy Schwartz of Jackson who's a member of the House Appropriations Committee said they are talking about needing up to $200-million dollars a year to keep the budget stable. He noted that in the last few years Wyoming's investment income has overcome the energy downturn, but he's worried about this year.
"Certainly, this year the stock market's volatility raises certain questions as to how much investment income we'll get," Schwartz said.
Cheyenne Republican Dan Zwonitzer will oversee the House Revenue committee for the first time. All revenue bills must start in the House and Zwonitzer thinks there is a lot of momentum in his committee and it's possible minor tax bills could also pass.
"Everyone is in agreement that there is some revenue raising necessary. It's a lot of conversation going on…kind of behind the scenes right now on where everyone is right now personally and what everyone is comfortable with….it's fascinating," Zwonitzer said.
But while he is hopeful, Senator Chris Rothfuss is far from confident. He said it's possible that newly elected lawmakers could put a halt to all of this.
"We know historically that legislators make pledges, they won't support a lot of new taxation or any new taxes, I don't know if that will be extended to this concept that it's not an increase in revenue, but it's a diversification in the types of revenue," Rothfuss said.
He's interested to see what Republican leaders who like this idea are able to do to put together enough votes. He added that he doesn't think the Senate has those votes yet.