Dec. 1, 2017
The pressure is intense on the state legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee to not pass any proposals that would raise new revenues for Wyoming public schools.
On Friday, the committee’s co-chairs, Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo) and Sen. Ray Peterson (R-Cowley), presented an update on their work to the Special Committee on School Finance “Recalibration.”
To illustrate what happens to Wyoming lawmakers who support tax reform, Madden described the effects of his helping increase Wyoming’s fuel tax by ten cents in 2013.
“Prior to the fuel tax bill, I had a full head of hair, I was handsome, everybody liked me—you can see the rest of the story,” Madden joked.
But when it comes to questions of tax increases, far-right organizations like the Wyoming Liberty Group don’t joke around.
As WyoFile reported this weekend, an anonymous newspaper ad appeared recently in Madden’s hometown accusing him of being Wyoming’s “Most Prolific Tax Hiker.” And at the most recent Revenue Committee meeting in November, former Wyoming Liberty Group board member Charles Curley, who’s now a committeeman for the state’s Republican Party, all but threatened the committee’s members with primary election challenges from the right if they voted for tax proposals.
The effects of this far-right, no-taxes-ever mentality are no laughing matters, either. If they refuse to raise new revenues, lawmakers will almost certainly attempt to further cut funding to Wyoming’s education system during the upcoming budget session. The Legislature has already slashed $55 million from the annual education budget over the past two years, resulting in 577 public school jobs eliminated, at least five public school closures, and 44 of the state’s 48 school districts cutting programs. All of this is due to lawmakers’ lack of political will to diversify Wyoming’s tax base.
Co-chairman will encourage bills, but the committee needs encouragement
Despite the threats and harm lawmakers might face, we shouldn’t lose hope.
Sen. Peterson, co-chair of the Revenue Committee, is an advocate for education funding cuts and often the target of Better Wyoming’s scorn. But at the “Recalibration” meeting Friday, Peterson gave a surprisingly heartfelt speech on behalf of tax reform. He reiterated an important point he made to Curley at last month’s Revenue Committee meeting—that Wyoming needs to move away from its reliance on mineral taxes for 70 percent of its revenue. He also admitted that Wyomingites pay far less in taxes than basically every other state.
“When my constituents tell me they’re overtaxed, I’ve got all the facts and figures to tell me otherwise,” Peterson said.
Peterson said he’ll do his best to encourage the Revenue Committee to sponsor bills for the full Legislature to consider at its upcoming budget session in February. But in order for the Revenue Committee to support any tax bill, it’s going to need to hear from Wyoming citizens who support funding education and moving Wyoming away from its mineral dependence.
A progressive property tax proposal
Among Wyoming’s slate of ultra-low taxes are its property tax rates. We’re 50th overall in the nation if you average categories like residential, commercial, and industrial.
Madden described a proposal under consideration by the Revenue Committee that would raise property tax rates across the board by 2 percent, from 9.5 to 11.5 percent of a property’s market value, phased in over a two-year period. With that increase, he said, Wyoming’s commercial rate would still be 50th in the nation, our industrial rate would move to 49th, and domestic rates would be 46th.
This proposal would raise roughly $90 million each year for public schools, according to Legislative Service Office estimates. For a residential property valued at $100,000, the homeowner would pay an estimated additional $5.50 per month the first year, and $11 more per month after two years (these figures are calculated using Wyoming’s effective property tax rate, which is roughly .62 percent).
Not bad for saving Wyoming public education from the chopping block, right?
Reducing the tax burden for low-income homeowners
What makes the proposal even more attractive is that it would reinstate a provision to provide property tax relief to low-income homeowners. For years, the Wyoming Property Tax Refund Program offered a refund amounting to half of all property taxes paid to folks whose incomes were three-quarters or less of their county’s median income. But the Legislature cut the program in 2016 as a result of—surprise, surprise—a lack of revenues.
This new progressive property tax proposal would dramatically reduce rates for thousands of Wyoming homeowners on low and fixed incomes, which would particularly provide relief to elderly people who have paid off their homes but have little money coming in.
Madden said that, for these reasons, his committee has faced little resistance to the property tax proposal … so far.