Tiny taxes

Sep 24, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

With the third year of a gripping fiscal crisis confronting them, Wyoming legislators are warming to the idea, finally, of allowing municipal governments to institute "tiny taxes" of their own rather than having to submit local tax options to a countywide vote - and, importantly, without having to beg Cheyenne to raise and spend money the way the cities and towns see fit.

It can come as a surprise to state government leaders who enjoy railing against the tyranny of the federal government in Washington, D.C., to realize that many Wyoming citizens feel much the same way about Cheyenne.

In fact, you may be familiar with the term "the State of Cheyenne." If you aren't, consider this an introduction to the view that many local government entities feel toward the state capital.

That feeling is manifest particularly in Wyoming's many city halls, where mayors, council members and city managers often wish the state would be less controlling about how the cities and towns get state money and how they raise their own.

So, when state lawmakers announced during their between-session committee work that the notion of giving municipalities the right to institute limited taxation of their own was gaining ground in Cheyenne, that sound you heard across the prairies and echoing off the mountains in the past 10 days was the collective voices of Wyoming's mayors, council members and city managers saying "duh."

The municipal leaders have desirous of more local funding options for a long time. To many of them, being prohibited from passing a municipal tax as a local-option ballot measure is a form of top-down control from the state that is unnecessary, unwelcome, and even harmful.

The issue is particularly interesting in Fremont County, which has six separate incorporated municipalities in addition to a strong county government. And, unlike most Wyoming counties, there are two sizable towns within Fremont County's borders -- Riverton and Lander -- where one town has, at times, been able to cancel out the other's ambitions because the whole county must vote.

Back in 2012, when Lander's old community center was destroyed by fire, immediately there was talk of a short-term tax to raise money to build a new one. But that didn't happen. It would have had to have been placed on the countywide election ballot, where voters in Riverton, Dubois, Pavilion, Shoshoni, the Wind River Indian Reservation and the sizable rural population all would have voted on it.

And the truth is, those voters in Lysite or Ethete might not have wanted to tax themselves so that Lander could have a new community center. (It is to Lander's great and everlasting credit, by the way, that other funding mechanisms were found to build the outstanding community center that has replaced the old one.)

So, more power to the Cheyenne purse string holders who have had the local-tax epiphany. It's irritating, no doubt, for some at the municipal level to hear the legislators strutting about as if they have just had the greatest idea since remote-control TV. But, later is better than never. Too bad it took a crushing financial crisis to give the concept the fair hearing it always has deserved.

One major caveat hovers over the issue. The state must not view its new flexibility in considering municipal-option taxes as an excuse to wriggle out from its obligation to fund cities and towns at the basic level. Remember, Wyoming's incorporated cities and towns, from Pavilion to Lander to Jackson and, yes, even Cheyenne, are state entities. And it must remain the state's responsibility to provide primary funding for those municipalities to exist and survive.

Most city leaders would say it's high time the states allowed more local control over public funding. But if the state takes the step, it must not be as a replacement for obligatory state funding, but as a supplement to it.

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