During his eight-year tenure, Gov. Matt Mead earned a reputation as a strong supporter of local governments — and he’s still continuing to advocate on their behalf as his days in office come to a close.
“This year and every year, I’ve asked for additional money for local governments, for our towns and our counties,” he told the Star-Tribune Wednesday. “I believe that that’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of the stability of our state — making sure local governments are strong.”
Wyoming is one of the few states that do not grant cities or towns independent taxing authority, leaving these communities largely reliant on state money. The amount of direct distribution allotted biannually for local governments tends to fluctuate between $100-$175 million, and some state legislators have grown weary of this financial burden.
“Some (lawmakers) are suggesting we need to quit funding local governments,” Mead said. “... Well, you got to give them a plan B. And plan B needs to make sure that not just the large but the smaller communities also have a method of getting the necessary funding.”
Due to concerns that direct distribution may be reduced or eliminated in coming years, Casper’s leaders are pushing state lawmakers to empower municipalities with other ways to bring in revenue.
But one of the ideas the state’s Joint Revenue Committee had been working on — a bill that would have allowed municipalities to tax themselves — failed a roll call vote last month and subsequently won’t be introduced as a committee bill in the 2019 general session.
Mead said the state can’t have it both ways.
“We cannot fail to fund local governments and also say you have no way to fund yourselves,” he said.
Casper’s leaders echoed similar sentiments last week after learning that the bill had failed its roll call vote. City Manager Carter Napier said it’s unrealistic to expect local leaders to begin weaning themselves off state money without providing another way for cities and towns to raise revenue.
Mayor Ray Pacheco said he doesn’t understand why state legislators often voice support for empowering local governments and then refuse to pass legislation that would give municipalities more independence.
“They talk about local control and then they don’t give us the opportunity,” he said. “It’s a bit frustrating.”
But not all local leaders were rooting for the bill.
Residents in small towns often use the state’s larger municipalities as shopping hubs, meaning they would likely be affected by taxes that residents of larger communities choose to approve, despite not having any input themselves. In his written testimony last month to the Joint Revenue Committee, Burns Mayor Ralph Bartels said the bill would therefore lead to “taxation without representation.”
Pete Obermueller, speaking on behalf of the Wyoming County Commissioner’s Association, told the committee that the legislature needs to first examine larger cities’ relationships with other local governments before granting independent taxing authority.
Although the Joint Revenue Committee shot the bill down, Pacheco and Napier said they are hoping it will still be brought up during the legislative session, either independently or by another committee.
Mead said he wouldn’t even try to predict whether state lawmakers will warm to the concept of allowing municipalities to tax themselves.
“I couldn’t (predict the legislature) when I was there,” he said. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to do it now.”
On Wednesday, Mead also voiced support for examining the state’s sales tax collection and distribution system.
Casper’s leaders are urging the legislature to revise the system after the city mistakenly received an additional $1.7 million in sales tax distributions because a Sweetwater County vendor incorrectly reported its taxes in Natrona County. The error occurred from October 2013 to December 2015 and was later detected during a routine audit.
After the state learned about the mistake, it deducted the money from Casper’s monthly sales tax distribution in July. Casper officials then took a loan from the state that gave the city up to five years to pay back the money.
“Cities don’t have that sort of money sitting around,” Mead said. “If there was a way to modify (the system) to provide a triple-check or a double-check that would be worthwhile, because it does set in a certain amount of panic and disruption.”