Eli Bebout

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, leads the State Senate on Jan. 11, at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne.

File, Star-Tribune

Wyoming voters prefer spending reductions over tax increases to balance the state’s budget and are open to cutting administrative education spending, according to a poll released Tuesday by the Wyoming Business Alliance.

The survey also showed that voters were opposed to increasing “sales and property taxes” in order to balance the state budget by a 46 percent margin.

“(T)he level of intensity against tax increases is extremely high,” Robert Jones, vice president of the GS Strategy Group, which conducted the poll, said in a statement.

The business group’s survey contrasts with one released by the Wyoming Education Association in August, which found that more than three-quarters of voters in the state were willing to pay more taxes to fund the cost of public education.

Wyoming is facing a $700 million deficit for the next two-year budget cycle ahead of the Legislature’s February session. Of that, the school operations account faces a $340 million funding gap, according to the latest revenue estimates.

At the time of both polls the deficit was significantly higher, close to $1 billion overall, with more than a $500 million deficit in the school operations account. Those gaps shrunk following the release of new state revenue projections last week.

But the two surveys do not directly contradict each other.

Mixed results

The business alliance poll showed that 71 percent of voters opposed “increasing sales and property taxes” to “help balance the Wyoming state budget.” When asked which single option was preferable, 69 percent of voters favored spending cuts over tax increases to balance the budget.

However, the survey did not separate sales from property tax and did not specifically ask respondents about using taxes to fund education, instead asking about the entire state budget.

The WEA poll found that while 58 percent of voters said it would be acceptable to increase state sales tax to fund education, only 39 percent said it would be OK to raise property taxes. Solid majorities supported increasing taxes on wind energy and on mining oil and gas.

In the business alliance poll, 80 percent of respondents said that Wyoming “can afford” to cut school administration costs while just 15 percent said that “any cuts” would harm the education system.

In the education group’s survey, 78 percent said that the Legislature should not cut funding for K-12 education in the state, though the poll did not ask specifically about administrative costs.

WBA President Cindy DeLancey said that the poll’s results were not meant to encourage the Legislature to exclusively pursue spending cuts to balance that state’s budget.

“Wyoming has options available to it beyond simply raising taxes or cutting spending,” DeLancey said in a statement.

Specifically, the group would like the Legislature to change the laws governing how investment revenue can be spent, essentially allowing more of the gains to be spent directly rather than being funneled to reserve accounts or back into the investment account’s corpus. In a question prefaced with a criticism of Wyoming’s current investment policy, 83 percent of respondents said they would support changing the investment strategy.

“Improving our investment performance and taking a real, serious look at administration costs and reforms can bridge (the) funding gap without raising taxes or cutting classroom spending,” DeLancey said.

DeLancey was not immediately available to comment on the survey results Tuesday.

The WBA poll surveyed 500 likely voters in Wyoming and was conducted between Oct. 7 and 10. It has a margin of error of 4.38 percent. The research firm that conducted the survey, GS Strategy Group, is an Idaho-based company that works primarily with corporations and business advocacy groups, according to its website.

Independent and Republican voters were more opposed to raising taxes than Democrats. Independents opposed increasing both the sales and property tax by a margin of 48 percent and Republicans by a margin of 56 percent. Democrats were also opposed, but by a much smaller margin of just 5 percent.

Legislature’s decisions

Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, has said he will seek to block any tax increases to fund education before major spending cuts are made. However, the joint revenue committee is considering a handful of options to increase revenue by several-hundred-million dollars, including tax increases.

The release of the business group’s poll comes ahead of the committee’s meeting next week in Cheyenne where it will discuss various proposals for raising revenue.

Lawmakers, including Bebout, have appeared relatively open to a so-called tourism tax that would target the hospitality and recreation industry in a form similar to local lodging taxes currently used by cities and counties to fund travel boards.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, has also requested that raising the cigarette tax be brought back before the revenue committee next week. However a similar proposal was shot down by the committee over the summer.

Other tax measures to be considered include subjecting services to sales tax, adjusting the property tax assessment rates and increased taxes on alcohol.

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Arno Rosenfeld covers state politics including the Legislature and Wyoming’s D.C. delegation, focusing especially on the major issues facing the Cowboy State like economic diversification and what it means to be the most conservative state in the nation.

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