It’s safe to say there’s no love lost between the Wyoming House of Representatives and the Secretary of State’s office.
Last week’s Joint Revenue Interim Committee in Buffalo took their simmering conflict to a new level. People in attendance should feel lucky neither side was armed lest they be caught in a crossfire.
The Revenue Committee wants to add four lines to a Secretary of State office form that collects information about registered businesses’ gross receipts. The committee’s goal, spearheaded by freshman Rep. Jerry Obermueller (R, H-56, Casper) is to collect enough information to evaluate and potentially establish a tax that would primarily be paid by out-of-state businesses.
The Secretary of State’s Office was asked to review the impact the proposal would have on its operations. How much could adding four lines cost?
Plenty, Deputy Secretary of State Karen Wheeler said — about $263,000.
“We could not even consider implementing this bill,” Wheeler said. “It would be impossible.”
“That’s beyond belief,” said a stunned co-chairman, Rep. Mike Madden (R, HD-40,Buffalo), about the potential price tag. How could such a minor addition to a form cost so much, he asked. He sat back in his chair, waiting for a response.
“This is not my first rodeo,” the co-chairman added, sparking laughter from the crowd. Madden would be celebrating his 74th birthday the next day and certainly didn’t consider Wheeler’s news to be an early present.
Wheeler and the secretary of state’s Technology Division director, Andrea Byrne, explained that the bill would create insurmountable additional work and problems for the understaffed office. Businesses wouldn’t understand what material they were being asked to provide, the deputy director said, and staff would be flooded with phone calls.
Byrne said rewriting the digital form’s code would be the most expensive element of the change.
Wheeler added that, as a revenue-generating office, costs borne by her team would equate to withholdings from the state’s general fund.
Sen. Cale Case (R, SD-25, Lander), was flabbergasted. “This was pretty negative. It was pretty over-the-top,” he said of the entire presentation. “I view it as obstructionism from the secretary of state.”
But State Revenue Director Dan Noble confirmed that writing code for software programs is expensive. “I agree there’s no free lunch,” he told the committee. “There is a cost associated with it.”
The total amount sounds like a lot of money,” he added. “But you’ve got to have the time to [write the code].”
Obermueller clearly wasn’t buying any of this explanation. The bill, he said, only asks for information that companies already supply to the Internal Revenue Service on tax returns.
Wheeler said her office had been under the impression the new information was being added as part of a one-time survey. She said if it was to be collected every year the cost could change. But she didn’t say whether it would then be more or less expensive.
“This is more than a survey,” Obermueller said. “There’s also an economic analysis component. There are bigger implications than just taking a survey.”
He added, “One aspect that bothers me is I’m worried about software wagging the dog,” instead of legislators making decisions that are best for the state.
Noble, suddenly thrust into the position of peacemaker, agreed that the additional information required under the bill would be valuable — particularly if the state eventually considers implementing a corporate income tax.
According to our good friends at Wikipedia, who know more than I do about gross receipts taxes, it’s “a tax on the total gross revenues of a company, regardless of their source. A gross receipts tax is similar to a sales tax, but it is levied on the seller of goods or consumer services.”
Put simply, Obermueller’s bill is an attempt by Wyoming to squeeze some tax money out of corporations that do business in the state but don’t pay the state taxes on their sales. When the Joint Revenue Committee considered Obermueller’s proposal at an earlier meeting, it decided to draft a bill to gather information from the Secretary of State’s Office to see if it was worth implementing a gross receipts tax.
As is often the case in such heated disputes, there’s a backstory.
During the past legislative session Obermueller sponsored a bill that would have tripled the cost of annual filing fees that businesses pay to the state from $50 to $150. Murray blasted the idea, saying such a hike would be detrimental to Wyoming’s “business friendly” environment and harm the state budget more than it helps.
The House Appropriations Committee reduced the increase from $100 to $25, but the secretary of state said any increase at all was unacceptable.
Murray also harshly criticized Obermueller for not conferring with him first. He said the person who initiated the bill is “irresponsible and lacking in transparency.” That drew the ire of the House, whose leaders promptly struck back to support their colleague with a press release countering Murray’s argument. It stated that the ease and cheap cost of registering businesses in the state has at times “left it open as a haven for fraud.”
The House passed the bill 43-17, but the Senate Corporations Committee refused to consider the measure and it died.
The eruption of bad blood between the committee and the secretary of state’s representatives may have alarmed some witnesses and bored others to tears, but not me. I was as happy as I could be.
I’ve spent probably a quarter of my 40-year journalism career in meetings like this one. That’s a decade — 10 years of my life that I’ll never get back (though I could use them now, more than ever).
So when I’m sitting in a hot meeting room trying desperately not to doze off while people drone on and on about subjects like a gross receipts tax, such candid animosity, complete with a flurry of potshots, is a literal wake-up call.
Stay awake? Boy howdy! Imagine you’re a bird-watcher and you’ve just seen a species you’ve never spotted before in your life. Well, I was more excited than that. When Wheeler essentially told the committee to kiss off, we’re too busy to do your bidding; and Case responded by basically saying how dare you act with such impudence before your superiors — it was music to my ears.
And it kept getting better. After more than an hour of discussion the Revenue panel voted 7-3 to keep the bill alive. That means we can expect another round as it’s considered for sponsorship as a committee bill in a future session.
Don’t tell my editor, but I’d buy a ticket to watch that show and try to sneak it in as a work expense.
As I left Buffalo later that afternoon I paused to take a special look through my rear-view mirror at a city that’s always been one of my favorites, but now holds a special place in my memories. “Buffalo, old friend,” I thought, “you’ve given me a gift I can never repay. God bless you, God bless the Revenue Committee and the Secretary of State’s Office, and God bless Wyoming.”