Off the ballot

Apr 10, 2020 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

Backers of an optional half-percent sales tax in Fremont County had hoped to put the measure on the 2020 election ballot, a move which requires the approval of the Fremont County Commission.

Last week, however, the commissioners voted not to allow the measure to go before voters.

They might have thought that was a good way to get rid of the idea, but they got that part wrong. If anything, it will only keep the matter alive.

As proposed, the tax would have been directed toward economic development efforts across Fremont County, with the money distributed proportionally to municipalities, county government and the Wind River Indian Reservation. It wouldn't generate a huge sum, honestly, but it could have been put to use for promotion, business relocation efforts, recruitment and other activities as determinead by the recipients.

In denying the ballot placement, the commissioners didn't mention any of that. Instead, they fell back on familiar platitudes about not wanting to impose new taxes on the people of Fremont County.

That is a popular political position, of course, and in virtually everyone in our county agrees with it in general principle. But simply placing the tax on the ballot would not have imposed it on anyone. It simply would have given the voters a chance to decide for themselves if they wanted to pay the extra half-percent -- and require visitors to the community to pay it as well -- then use the money for a new and specified purpose.

It only would have been imposed on the citizens had a majority of them voted for it. That's how things get done in the democratic process. If a majority vote is defined as an imposition, it could be said that the commissioners themselves, or any other office-holders, are being "imposed" on the county because they got elected.

The majority of the county's mayors had spoken up for the idea, as had local economic development entities, fearing that further restrictions in funding from the state of Wyoming could be coming up. Those fears have worsened amid the state's fiscal weakening due to the coronavirus crisis.

Typically a ballot proposition is denied its place in the election because there is a flaw in the proposal which could mislead voters or get the county in trouble if the proposition were to pass. When backers of the optional 1 percent sales tax now in effect for transportation infrastructure were preparing their initiative, they took painstaking care to make sure that the question put before voters was as specific and ironclad as they could make it - with little or no room for misinterpretation or redirection in its uses.

The last thing anyone wants is a wishy-washy proposition that gets voted in and then turns out to be something different from what was advertised. Again, however, that did not seem to be the problem with the half-percent development tax in the commissioners' eyes. If it was, no one on the commission who voted against it made that argument. They simply stuck to the "no new taxes" mantra, and killed the ballot placement on that basis.

It's not the best idea to deny ballot placement for a proposition because you are afraid it might win. Proponents of the development tax now will be able claim that's what the commission did. Already there's talk of reviving it through a petition drive to see if it could be placed on the ballot over the commissioners' objections.

That's a very tall order, but it seems that backers of this proposal are going to try it. If nothing else, it will keep the idea alive in the minds of the public, something that would not have been nearly so easy to do had it been placed on the ballot and defeated.

Taxes that are handed down from "above," are the most unpopular. Taxes such as this one, which "bubble up," as the saying goes, can find support even in conservative populations, if they are initiated by the people, specified for targeted uses by the people, and can be extinguished by the people via the next election.

Again citing the 1 percent tax for infrastructure, it has been approved twice by voters, who have seen the ongoing work and tangible results of the taxation and have been willing to renew it. Not all county commissioners loved that idea back in 2014, but they did let it come to the ballot so voters could decide the question.

Maybe the commissioners' decision last week will be the end of the half-percent development tax idea. We suspect it won't, however. A majority vote of the electorate would have been the better way to accomplish that.

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