A decade ago – before oil prices bottomed out and coal companies began to falter – times were good.
Now, Wyoming has hundreds of millions of dollars less to fund state government. The 2019-20 budget is the smallest in nearly 20 years, with no relief in sight, and in recent legislative sessions we’ve seen little more than a series of stopgaps that have allowed us to squeak by a year at a time.
Some legislators and critics cite spending increases during the boom years as the root of the problem. Government got too big, they say, and money that could have been saved or invested was frittered away. That argument is fair, especially in light of our current circumstances, but we disagree with the implication that slashing state services is the only solution.
But on both sides of the aisle – Teton County Democrats and staunch, rural Republicans alike – most people agree that simply cutting back on spending will not solve our conundrum before it becomes an all-out crisis.
The pro-cut contingent frequently cites statistics showing that, per capita, our state and local governments spend more than almost all other states. But in the nation’s least populous state, those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Paving a highway has a set cost, regardless of how many residents it serves. Every town, no matter how small, needs schools, police and fire departments, sanitation, water and other essential services. Our wealth of wide open spaces means parks, forests, wildlife and fisheries need more professional management than other states, not less.
Those statistics also neglect to differentiate where our government revenue comes from. Wyoming has no personal income tax. No corporate income tax. No estate or inheritance taxes. The effective property tax rate is the ninth lowest in the country. Even through the economic downturn, taxes and royalties from oil, gas and coal have continued to cover the bills. It’s safe to say we pay very little out of pocket in exchange for the quality of life we enjoy here.
Some believe mineral revenues can return to pre-bust levels. But outside of those who have something to gain politically by doubling down on their support for coal, it’s generally accepted that the industry’s gradual decline is not going to reverse itself. Coal will certainly continue to be a cornerstone of the state’s economy for the foreseeable future. But we can’t rely on it like we once did. And regardless of the long-term outlook of Wyoming’s extractive industries, we have economic concerns that must be addressed now.
This is not call for new taxes. It’s an acknowledgement that the situation is complicated.
That said, it troubles us that some lawmakers continue to sign anti-tax pledges circulated by policy groups. Politicians may think these pledges signify his or her dedication to a cause, but it really represents a loyalty to outside influencers as opposed to the voters. To be effective in hard economic times, lawmakers must put all the cards on the table and consider each option carefully.
None of us want to pay more taxes. If you’re committed to not raising them, many people in the state will praise you for it. Perhaps they’ll even vote you into office. But never forget who you are beholden to.
At some point during your tenure – every year, probably – you’ll be faced with a conundrum related to the state budget. The needs or wants of residents and state agencies will come bearing price tags the state can’t afford without making cuts, reallocating funds or finding new revenue. If, in those cases, you’re able to find a solution without raising or creating taxes, we applaud you. However, “I signed a pledge” is not a valid argument for why your plan is the right course of action.
If you – as a lawmaker or candidate for office – are committed to not raising taxes, make the pledge directly to your constituents. Then stand up with your own ideas on how we can manage spending or make appropriate cuts. Falling in line behind an organization with no objectives beyond blocking taxes only weakens your position, and bars you from considering the many factors that must come into play for a balanced solution to Wyoming’s challenges.