The two most powerful figures in the Wyoming Legislature said an education group’s poll that showed a majority of residents would pay more in taxes to fund education was interesting but didn’t believe it would change lawmakers’ thinking.
“I don’t think things like these sway anybody,” House Speaker Steve Harshman said. “I think it’s all part of this process. ... It’s just one more thing to get more engaged and work on this problem because it’s a problem.”
The poll — conducted by Public Opinion Strategies in mid-July at the behest of the Wyoming Education Association — showed that 78 percent of the 500 respondents said they would be willing to pay more in taxes if it went to fund education. Fifty-eight percent said they would accept an increase to the sales tax, while more than 60 percent said they’d accept a tax on various energy sources.
Public Opinion Strategies is one of the nation’s largest Republican polling firms. It contacted 500 registered voters across the state who were likely to cast ballots in 2018. Two-thirds were Republican.
Both Harshman and Sen. President Eli Bebout said their private conversations with friends and constituents suggested otherwise, that Wyomingites aren’t interested in tax hikes. Both said they personally didn’t want to see any increases.
Bebout said when he talks to constituents, he tells them that “we’re spending a third more than any other state and the outcomes we’re getting are marginally different.” In that case, he said, the people he speaks to are more interested in “responsible cuts” to education.
He added that he would have liked to see a poll from the taxpayers’ perspective, rather than one conducted by a group of educators. Buck McVeigh, the executive director of the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, said last week that he didn’t believe most Wyomingites want a tax increase.
In the past, Harshman and Bebout have backed opposing solutions to tackle the estimated $530 million shortfall facing schools in the coming years. While Bebout has repeatedly said he opposes raising taxes, Harshman supported a bill that included conditional increases on the state sales tax. That measure was heavily amended by Bebout’s Senate; it eventually passed without tax increases but with a provision to tap state savings to help pay for schools.
The poll results didn’t seem to change either man’s way of thinking. Harshman said he still supported having all options on the table, including the potential of raising some tax. He said Wyoming is “really the lowest in everything” in terms of tax rates and that lawmakers should “talk about that.”
Bebout said the survey “had an impact” on him, but that he still had the same attitude of cuts first, tax increases as a last result.
Neither was surprised by the results.
The poll was a piece of information that lawmakers should use and consider as they move forward with a broad examination of the state’s funding system, Bebout and Harshman said.
“Sometimes, with the legislative process, you can’t solve all the problems,” Harshman said. “Sometimes it has to get a little worse or a little more of a crisis. ... I think it’ll be a process where you’ll have public input, a lot of people working at it, and eventually the best ideas will rise to the top and get approved. But I think it’s so important for people to be involved in this.”
“Before I make a decision, with all the issues we have, more information is better, absolutely,” Bebout said.