2016 Wyoming Legislature

Rep. Steve Harshman of Natrona County talks with Rep. Tyler Lindholm of Crook County and Rep. Albert Sommers of Sublette County in February during the Wyoming Legislature’s budget session at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne. A new poll shows most Wyomingites are supportive of maintaining or increasing government spending in several key areas including roads and social services.

Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune

Most Cowboy State residents want government spending to stay at the same levels or increase, a new poll from the University of Wyoming shows.

The poll also found that a majority of Wyomingites are open to some tax increases — a somewhat surprising result given Wyoming’s tax-adverse reputation — although the taxes they would be willing to pay wouldn’t raise enough revenue to maintain the services they want.

The results come as the Wyoming Legislature considers cutting programs to shore up a $157 million hole in the state budget.

Forty-five percent of Wyomingites who participated in the poll want an increase in state government spending on roads and highways. Fifty-one percent want to keep spending at current levels, according to the October poll, results of which were released Tuesday morning.

Similarly, the survey found the public wants to maintain or grow public school spending, with 44 percent wanting increases and 44 percent preferring spending at current levels. Most Wyomingites also wanted to maintain or increase spending on health and social services (82 percent) and on law enforcement (91 percent), the poll shows.

The state is facing a shortfall this year due to lower-than-expected revenues from oil, gas and coal.

On Jan. 10, 2017, when the Wyoming Legislature convenes in Cheyenne, lawmakers will have to determine whether to raise taxes, cut government spending or dip into the state’s $1.6 billion rainy day fund to fill the shortfall. The Wyoming Constitution requires the state to balance the budget.

While campaigning this year, many Republicans argued there had not been enough government cuts. Early retirement for state employees and other measures needed to be considered, they said.

Some lawmakers even signed a pledge by the Wyoming Liberty Group to not raise taxes over the next two years.

UW’s Political Science Department and the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center’s Survey Research Center conducted the poll by randomly calling Wyoming residents between Oct. 5 and 11. Over 350 people answered questions about state government spending and taxes. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

Eighty-five percent of Wyomingites believe their current taxes are generally reasonable, a number that Jim King, UW political science professor, called an overwhelming majority.

In fact, 63 percent of respondents said they are willing to pay higher taxes — but only in the so-called sin taxes: 81 percent favored raising beer and alcohol taxes, and 78 percent want to raise the cigarette tax.

Fifty-two percent want to raise the mineral severance tax — which will likely be a non-starter in Cheyenne, due to the slump that the energy sector is experiencing.

But for taxes in areas that really hit the wallet, Wyomingites are opposed: 80 percent oppose property tax increases, 59 percent oppose sales tax increases and 58 percent oppose gasoline tax increases.

King noted that Wyomingites’ ideas on government spending and taxes are problematic. He noted that they like their government services.

“But the taxes people want to raise — the taxes on tobacco and alcohol — bring very little money into the state’s coffers,” King said. “And raising the mineral severance tax isn’t feasible when the coal, oil and natural gas industries are experiencing decreased production and lower prices. State decision-makers are in a very challenging position.”

Wyoming does not have an income tax, and the state’s residents are divided on the issue: 49 percent reject the idea of a state income tax, 18 percent approved it unconditionally, 23 percent would accept a tax if another state levy, such as sales or property taxes, was reduced at the same time.

The poll does not indicate substantial support for a state income tax. But it signals a willingness by some Wyomingites to consider it, King said.

“The survey shows a division that leans against a Wyoming income tax but not by as wide of a margin as might be expected,” he said.

***

The Star-Tribune emailed the poll to some state lawmakers and asked to talk to them about their feelings about state cuts and taxes, now that they’ve seen independent data. But they did not return messages Tuesday.

Gov. Matt Mead will be releasing his budget recommendations Nov. 30 to the Wyoming Legislature.

“By law, the governor’s budget recommendations may not anticipate tax increase revenue,” said Mead’s spokesman, David Bush. “Gov. Mead will comply with the law.”

There is a disconnect between the amount Wyomingites pay in taxes and the services they expect, said Buck McVeigh of the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, a group that represents some of the large companies that pay taxes to the state.

McVeigh cites state research showing the average family of three pays $3,000 in taxes if they own a house valued at $190,000.

And they receive about $30,000 in public services — from roads to schools to firefighting and cemeteries.

“The more children you have, certainly the more benefit you’re deriving,” McVeigh said.

Wyoming is heavily subsidized by the minerals sector. People are vaguely aware of this fact, but they don’t fully appreciate how much the minerals companies are really paying, he said.

The Tax Association is opposed to revenue increases at this time. McVeigh said that could change in the future. The group isn’t anti-tax; they were leaders in the coalition that supported the 10-cent-a-gallon increase in fuel taxes in 2013. But for now, the association wants the state to find more ways to be efficient, even if that means cutting some personnel.

The Wyoming Association of Municipalities, on the other hand, wants the Legislature to look at tax increases.

State aid is an important source of money to Wyoming’s cities and towns. The money helps cities provide services from garbage collection to snowplowing and police and firefighting services.

The association’s Shelley Simonton said that she’s happy about the poll, since there is now some independent data that documents people’s feelings on government services and taxes.

“There’s going to have to be a really concerted education and outreach effort to our own constituents,” she said. “I don’t blame them for wanting what they want. They’re taxpayers. They want good services, they want their potholes filled and they want their garbage picked up.”

As the study shows, people like their government amenities, Simonton said. But many cities and towns throughout Wyoming are looking at cordoning off parks to save the city money in gardening and police services and cutting hours of the city pool and the library.

“In Green River, they’re at point where they’re getting 2003 (sales tax) receipts and they have 2016 expectations of services,” she said.

Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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