Legislature Day One

A man takes a photo of the senate chambers as employees of the Senate are sworn in during the first day of this year's Legislative session. Lawmakers are looking at options for raising revenue.

LANDER – Wyoming is not earning enough money to pay for its schools. Communities around the state are not taking in enough money to make their budgets work. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s taxpayers – who have long benefited from the successes of the state’s fossil fuel industry – have long been let off the hook.

Numerous analyses have highlighted Wyoming as having one of the nation’s lowest overall tax burdens, a distinction perpetuated by failed new taxes and revenue-raising bills that have left the state in a position where further cuts to its already strained budget may be required.

Meanwhile, long-term prospects for oil, gas and coal are hazy at best. Down the road, fossil fuels are likely to become increasingly unreliable sources of the funding needed to pay for Wyoming’s infrastructure and its K-12 education system, which is currently facing a more than $200 million structural deficit heading into the 2020 budget session.

“We are the state where revenues are at risk because of global concerns about climate change,” Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Revenue last week.

Wyoming's fiscal outlook brightens amid energy sector improvements

Meeting in Lander, the committee considered ways to raise revenues for the state in the wake of a 2019 session full of failures, considering everything from its failed lodging and corporate income taxes to a small gas tax increase and a personal income tax – a nonstarter in the committee.

The idea to gain the most traction was a slight bump in the state’s property assessment rate for “all other” property classes (i.e. everything that’s not minerals or industrial) by 1 percent. This bump would also increase the state’s residential rates from 9.5 percent to 10.5 percent.

“Property taxes get distributed in a variety of different ways – some going to the state, some staying locally, some to schools,” said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, a member of the committee. “If we raise that 9.5 percent, what that does is raise a significant amount of additional funds.”

Though the specific, potential impacts of an increase are currently not known, lawmakers believe raising the property tax rate could have significant effects for both local and state governments – which rely heavily on property taxes to balance their budgets – and bolster the state’s revenues enough to ease its general fund obligation to municipalities. That could both help balance the state budget and give local governments increased flexibility in how they coordinate spending.

“Some of those mills go to the city, some go to the library, but at least three of them go into education,” said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, the committee’s co-chair. “So not only does it help fund education statewide, but raising that assessment benefits local government. It costs more to the taxpayer – residentially or commercially – but it goes not only to cities, but to education.”

The valuation changes would not impact the extractive industries – which already pay 100 percent of their assessed value in taxes – nor would it impact the tax exemptions property owners across the state already earn against their assessments. It does, however, leave intact the flexibility to introduce new exemptions or refunds through the legislative process to ease the burden on certain groups.

Wyoming political leaders discuss how to break the boom-and-bust cycle

It is unclear how much money such a concept would raise. While the Legislative Service Office is currently working on a white paper exploring the topic, a similar bill introduced in the 2017 session – which would have raised the assessment rate on industrial properties only – offers some hints. According to a fiscal note attached to the bill, House Bill 162 – which would have imposed a 2 percent rate increase on industrial properties – would have raised roughly $140 million in new revenues for state and local governments if passed.

“I’m hoping the white paper incorporates that,” said Zwonitzer. “But I’ll make sure it does over the next couple of months.”

The former director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Billings office, Daryl Lacounte, ascended to leadership of the agency last week after serving more than a year as acting director. Lacounte might be most notable in Wyoming for his role in the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ failure of oversight several years ago, allowing the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes to misuse $6.2 million in federals funds between 2013 and 2015.

As director, Lacounte was also tied up in a lawsuit between the two tribes in 2017, along with other officials in the agency.

The Week Ahead

Monday: Blockchain Task Force meets in Jackson. Gov. Mark Gordon to sign several proclamations in Cheyenne recognizing National Economic Development Week, National Travel and Tourism Week, Wyoming Environmental Stewardship Week and Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

Tuesday: Mark Gordon to speak to the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce in Gillette.

Wednesday: Task Force on University of Wyoming Housing meets in Laramie.

Thursday: None.

Friday: None.

Weekend: None.

Have an event you’d like highlighted here? Email me with the date, time, and place!

Wyoming Politics

Uinta County Republican Party Chairman Karl Allred got a stern talking to from Sen. Cale Case about open-carrying at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Revenue last week, which was hosted at a facility he owns.

After speaking during the public comment phase of the meeting, Allred – who took to the microphone with a handgun holstered on his right hip – was asked by Case, the committee chairman, whether or not he had requested permission from the owner of the facility prior to entering with a firearm.

Allred responded he had open-carried in the facility before without a problem. However, Case – the hotel’s proprietor – responded that Allred should have asked permission first.

Concealed carry is prohibited in legislative meetings; however, open carry in meetings is not regulated under state statutes.

Allred is notable for being privy to a controversy regarding the legality of gun bans on public facilities, after open-carrying on the University of Wyoming campus at the 2018 State Republican Party Convention in Laramie.

Bills to secure miners’ health benefits lack Wyo pol support: Two bills to protect retired Wyoming coal miners’ healthcare benefits from being lost to bankruptcy have been introduced in the U.S. Congress. Neither has the support of any member of Wyoming’s congressional delegation thus far, and it’s unclear if they’ll get it. (via WyoFile)

Lawmakers consider ways to reduce youth e-cigarette use, including new tax: After a pair of bills intended to curb the use of tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vaporizers among minors failed in the 2019 session, lawmakers met last week to contemplate whether or not a tax on such products, or some other deterrent, could help curb e-cigarette use among minors. (via Trib.com)

Jackson, Teton County study hiring lobbyist: A draft Teton County budget includes $30,000 for “legislative liaising,” and the town’s draft budget includes another $30,000, Town Manager Larry Pardee said. “We can wait and let legislation happen to us,” Pardee said, “or we can become more proactive.” (via The Jackson Hole News & Guide)

Around Wyoming

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Albany County to digitize a century’s worth of records: The auxiliary building on the Albany County Courthouse’s east side will have a new tenant this year. That building, which the county clerk’s office uses to host early voting and process election results, will be used by contractor ArcaSearch to begin digitizing more than a century’s worth of county records. (via The Laramie Boomerang)

Virginia businessman no longer buying troubled Kemmerer coal mine: The Virginia businessman who’d planned to purchase and operate a troubled coal mine in western Wyoming has backed out after a failure to secure bonding ahead of a deadline. (via Trib.com)

Teton Sheriff seeks stipends for housing assistance: Sheriff Matt Carr says that for him to run a successful sheriff’s office his employees who live in Teton County should receive housing stipends.

“It’s critical,” he told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday morning during his 2020 budget presentation. “In the last five years we have had 35 employees leave within their first year largely due to the cost of living.” (via The Jackson Hole News & Guide)

Ski resort visitation up: According to the National Ski Areas Association, visits to member resorts in the U.S. topped 59 million for the 2018-19 season, an 11 percent increase over last year. In the Rocky Mountain Region (New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Colorado) visitation rose 15.6 percent, with more than 24 million visits. (via the Western Governor’s Association)

Eye On Washington

Sen. John Barrasso was the key figure in a report from the New York Times this week on Republicans changing their tune on climate change, a significant shift from leadership for a party that has long made skepticism of climate change – or flat-out denial – a common trope in its rhetoric.

Part of the shift can be chalked up to sheer opportunism, the story read, meant to appeal to two blocs of voters – young people and moderates – that will soon become crucial for a political party that has long courted and relied on older, white voters.

“Denying the basic existence of climate change is no longer a credible position,” Whit Ayers, a Republican political consultant, told the newspaper.

In the lead-up to a vote on a resolution supporting a “Green New Deal” earlier this year, Barrasso – who notably wrote in 2014 that the human influence on climate change was “not known” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – argued that investing in innovation in the fossil fuel industry, not divestment from fossil fuels, was the best and most practical way to address the looming dangers a changing climate could have for the United States economy and the planet.

Barrasso is currently in the midst of a partisan split over one of the last remaining bipartisan issues in American politics: infrastructure. While Democrats in the House have proposed a plan that will be paid for with a 1 cent increase to the federal gas tax – the first such increase in 26 years – Barrasso and his GOP colleagues are unlikely to support any such plan, though Politico reported it is unclear how the GOP-led Senate will pay for their infrastructure proposals. While Democrats believe they have a proposal that can pass muster with President Donald Trump, according to the New York Times, some in the administration believed any deal with Democrats was likely a nonstarter.

Meanwhile, the IRS has begun a process to implement carbon capture tax credits, a program championed by Barrasso as an alternative to the “Green New Deal” to try an encourage cleaner use of fossil fuels.

Sen. Mike Enzi took to the Senate floor last week to warn that the Social Security and Medicare programs remain on an unsustainable fiscal path, with insolvency likely by 2035.

“We are facing a strong demographic headwind,” Enzi said. “An aging population and rising health care costs continue to increase the gulf between mandatory program spending and dedicated revenues. For decades, experts have warned of the budget pressures we would face as members of the Baby Boom generation aged and became eligible for Medicare and Social Security.”

With Barrasso, Enzi also co-sponsored a bill to repeal the multi-state plan program, which was introduced under the Affordable Care Act to help increase competition between insurers.

Rep. Liz Cheney voted against a Democrat-backed resolution to compel President Donald Trump to reenter the Paris Climate Agreement, a multinational compact to reduce carbon emissions in an effort to try and counteract climate change, arguing it would “unfairly penalize our country on the global stage, while costing us hundreds of thousands of jobs, hiking energy prices and electricity costs on families, and leading to a national GDP loss of $2.5 trillion.”

Instead, Cheney advocated for “free market solutions” as the best method to deal with the worst effects.

Have any tips or suggestions to make this newsletter better? Let me know! Call me at 307-266-0634, email me at nick.reynolds@trib.com or follow me on Twitter, <&underline>@IAmNickReynolds</&underline>

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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