Self reliance

Jul 16, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

Cuts to tax-supported services may require a redefinition of the term in Wyoming

If there is a true tax-and-spend elected official in Fremont County, that person is well hidden. Our local governments are populated almost exclusively by conservative, tax-averse, belt-tightening leaders who believe a penny untaxed is a penny saved.

But form must follow function. Put another way, that means that when times are tough financially, options that once would have been on thinkable get new consideration.

Fremont County meets the definition. Wyoming meets this definition. It is time to consider new taxes.

We just watched a bruising county budgeting process that featured the threatened resignation of one elected leader over a spending dispute with county commissioners, the subsequent closing of a key county office in the largest municipality, and excruciating process of spending reductions whose effects will begin to be felt in the weeks ahead. The new fiscal year is just two weeks old.

The experiences of city and town councils mirror those of county government. As Wyoming's energy recession continues to be felt severely in Fremont County, the municipalities, which have limited revenue-generating capacity of their own, watch tensely as the tips of the state and county financial funnel narrows to a drip.

School boards? Central Wyoming College? Ditto. The college trimmed nearly three dozen positions. Some school districts had layoffs. Others dodged them -- for this year -- through budgeting maneuvers that are the administrative equivalent of a game of twister.

The state, sitting on billions of dollars in permanent reserves, eye-droppered some of it out to the budget while going to great lengths to try to make voters understand why almost all of it must remain untouched. That sales job is harder every day.

So, what is a good, solid, tax-fearing state to do?

The answer, nervously and tentatively, is to whisper the "T word." Taxes. And state legislators are doing just that.

There is a blueprint. Twenty years ago a select committee of lawmakers and other state leaders convened a panel under the name "Tax Reform 2000" to examine revenue-generating ideas as the state struggled through an earlier recession.

Most of it came to nothing, primarily because and utterly fabulous revenue windfall came about because of a boom in natural gas and, to a lesser extent, oil, that had the state awash in excess cash for a full decade.

It is easy to decry taxes in other states that have resorted to them when your state is carrying a billion-dollar budget surplus. Wyoming is finding out that it is much more difficult to do that now that its huge bonanza has turned $1.5 billion in the other direction.

In case you didn't know, the fantastic prosperity that Wyoming enjoyed earlier in the new century was the result, primarily of... taxes, namely, revenues paid by energy producers as they developed our state's great mineral wealth. For some reason, much of the public has been perfectly willing to let the coal industry, the natural gas industry and the oil industry finance the gravy train we all enjoyed. When it comes to spreading that tax burden, however, bloody murder has been screamed.

With energy foundering, perhaps for another year or two or more, a question for all Wyoming is whether a shared burden of added taxation could, or should be born by the rest of us, as property owners, retail shoppers, business people, drivers, drinkers and smokers.

The Tax Reform 2000 research remains relevant in many areas. Opportunities and targets for additional revenue are plentiful enough. Public willingness remains the question mark.

It is na´ve, and perhaps short-sighted, to believe that we in Wyoming are any different from any other place when the effects of deep reductions in public revenues occur. We have our needs - and yes, our desires - just as the people in any other state do. We pride ourselves on being a self-reliant bunch. These current circumstances may put that pride -- and its definition -- to a stern test.

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