Gillette Schools

Students pass through the halls of Prairie Wind Elementary School on Feb. 18 in Gillette.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

More than three-quarters of Wyoming voters are willing to pay more in taxes to fund education in Wyoming, and nearly 60 percent would accept raising the sales tax to fill school coffers, according to poll results released Wednesday by the Wyoming Education Association.

“Wyoming voters put education first and are willing to pay for it to ensure our children continue to receive the high-quality education that they are currently receiving,” said Kathy Vetter, the president of the education association, at a press conference.

Notably, the poll shows voters would accept raising taxes on wind energy and on mining, oil and gas. Fifty-eight percent said the same for an increase to the sales tax, which lawmakers have discussed before and — at one point — included in a bill that passed the House in February. Fifty-one percent of Republicans polled said a sales tax increase would be acceptable.

Only 39 percent of those polled said that an increase in property taxes would be acceptable.

The poll adds a wrinkle as legislators and the consultants they hired are in the early stages of evaluating Wyoming’s education system and deciding if it needs to be overhauled. The state faces a $530 million school funding shortfall in the coming two-year budget cycle, and lawmakers remain divided over how to handle the deficit.

Some — including House Speaker Steve Harshman — have called for cuts, the use of savings and small revenue increases. On the other side stand lawmakers, led by Sen. President Eli Bebout, who remain staunchly opposed to tax hikes and instead have called for further cuts.

Harshman and Bebout were not available for comment Wednesday. A woman in Bebout’s office said he was out of the office until next week.

At a joint meeting of the revenue and school finance re-calibration committees in early June, Sen. Chris Rothfuss said legislators didn’t know what the public wanted.

“Would the public prefer to see cuts to education or would they prefer to see additional taxation?” he asked.

Poll findings

Wyoming Education Association officials say their poll has answered that question. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay something more in taxes every year to fund schools, and 32 percent said they’d pay at least $200 annually if it went to school finance. Fifty-one percent said they were more concerned about cuts to education than they were to taxes being raised too high.

Vetter said she doesn’t know if the poll will sway anti-tax legislators.

“I hope it will cause them to start talking to all of the voters,” she said. “Our sample was two-thirds Republican voters from across the state.”

Lawmakers, particularly those averse to tax increases, have said that as other parts of Wyoming government face cuts, education should shoulder its share, as well. But 80 percent of voters said that even in the current budget crunch, education should not be cut.

Buck McVeigh, the executive director of the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, said it was “a hard stretch” for him to believe that voters want to raise taxes here. He said he believes many still want to see more cuts first.

“I don’t know if the average, truly informed taxpayer is truly supporting paying more taxes for education when I don’t believe we’ve seen a proven demonstration of efficiency of government,” he said.

Vetter said she wasn’t surprised by the polling results. The survey was conducted by nationwide Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies between July 19 and 22. The company spoke with 500 registered Wyoming voters — two-thirds of them Republican — by phone.

“I had a feeling that the general public, the voters, truly do support public education and are willing to ensure that we continue to have a high-quality education system here in Wyoming,” she said after the press conference.

Of the Republicans surveyed, 74 percent said they were willing to pay more in taxes to fund education. Sixty-six percent of all voters polled said they would either have a great deal or quite a bit of concern if the Legislature instituted further cuts to K-12 schools. Seventy-three percent said lawmakers should maintain the current quality standards (though educators have said that if cuts continue, the Legislature should consider lowering what schools have to offer).

The survey also asked voters what they thought was most important to maintain in schools. Sixty-five percent said avoiding cuts to the number of teachers was either extremely or very important, while 58 percent said the same about maintaining low class sizes.

Districts across the state have had to institute layoffs, hiring freezes or buyouts to help absorb cuts. Lawmakers have considered raising class sizes, and in March they passed a bill that repealed a 16-to-1 classroom ratio of students to teachers in lower grade levels.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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