Wyoming Republican Party leaders delivered a resolution against new taxes and raising existing ones to the Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee on Monday, telling lawmakers the party platform demanded they not do so under any conditions.
The State Central Committee, which has representation from every county party, passed the resolution unanimously in August, said party secretary Charles Curley of Thermopolis, who presented the resolution. Republican party committees in Uinta, Laramie, Natrona and Campbell counties also passed the resolution and Lincoln County’s committee is considering one, Curley said.
“The Wyoming Republican Party calls upon the State Legislature and the Governor to practice fiscal restraint, rein in spending and cut unnecessary budget items rather than increasing revenue streams,” the final paragraph of the resolution states. Curley read that paragraph to the Joint Revenue Committee.
Curley spoke to the committee during public testimony following a day-long meeting in which lawmakers discussed both tax increases and diversions of existing revenue streams. The committee is tasked with finding hundreds of millions of dollars in new or existing revenue to fill deficits in education and general government operations. The Legislative Service Office last estimated the shortfall at around $770 million for the coming two years.
“We don’t need new tax revenue, new revenue streams, new revenue enhancements, nor do we need any more euphemisms for tax increases,” Curley said. “Consistent with the Republican party platform, we need the fiscal probity and restraint of which Wyoming was once justifiably proud.”
Lawmakers have been considering a combination of tax increases, new taxes and existing revenue stream diversions over the course of five meetings since the end of the 2017 general session. It’s a high number of meetings for an interim committee, but legislative leadership authorized four extra meetings given the state’s fiscal situation.
The central committee had not discussed revenue stream diversions when crafting and voting on its resolution, Curley told WyoFile in an interview. Personally, he does not believe redirecting money headed for savings will solve the state’s long-term problems, he said. Cutting spending was the best way to do that, he said.
During discussions Tuesday, it was revealed that in tax increases alone — not counting revenue diversions — the committee has identified $463 million in potential new revenue. That number is based on draft bills that would increase general sales and use taxes, property taxes, alcohol sales and tourism. Legislative Service Office staff said the estimates were derived from the current drafting of the bills and could change. A proposed tax on cigarette sales was not included but will be considered when the committee meets again in December.
The most politically feasible bill is likely a tax on tourism, which has support from many in the industry it proposes to tax. Alcohol taxes also seem popular, at least with committee members, as the money could be directed to substance-abuse programs that have seen significant budget cuts in recent years.
The Wyoming GOP’s declaration, however, could further dim the already slim possibility that any of those revenue raising efforts will pass. Tax increases must originate in an increasingly conservative House. Measures that survive the House will face more entrenched resistance in the Wyoming Senate. Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), has appeared at various committee meetings over the last nine months to express his opposition to tax increases without further budget cuts.
Even as the Joint Revenue Committee continues to work on bills, some of its members have expressed a reluctance toward tax increases. At an August meeting in Thermopolis, Senate Revenue Chairman Ray Peterson (R-Cowley) advised members to “hold your nose and vote aye” to keep moving draft bills through the interim process. If they vote against the same bills during the next legislative session, in February, he’d understand, he said.
Peterson himself has expressed support for Bebout’s position. “I certainly respect this letter,” he told Curley on Monday. “I agree with a lot of it.” However, he asked the Republican Party secretary if committee members had discussed the overarching concern beneath today’s budget crisis — the fact that 70 percent of the state’s revenue comes from the volatile mineral industry.
“When is Wyoming going to address that 70-30 percent ratio on revenue streams, that boom-and-bust cycle we continually go through, and when are we going to get serious about that problem?” he asked. “And do [party committee members] see it as a problem?”
Curley said increasing other taxes weren’t a solution. “We’re very much aware of that problem Senator,” he said, calling the solutions being looked at today “temporary fixes.”
Wyoming’s state government has seen unprecedented growth in government since 2000 and is the number-one state in the ratio of government employees per capita, the Wyoming Republican Party Central Committee’s resolution said. State leaders, including Republican Gov. Matt Mead, have disputed that criticism. Those who say the state has a spending problem relative to other states ignore the state’s rural nature, the governor told WyoFile in February.
Republican lawmakers — who hold 78 of the 90 seats in the Legislature and often face their stiffest electoral challenges during primaries — may need the support of the state party apparatus soon. Wyoming heads into an election year following the coming legislative session. Whether lawmakers who work against the resolution would lose such support remains to be seen.
What effect the resolution delivered on Thursday will have on Joint Revenue Committee lawmakers could become clear soon. On Dec. 4 the committee will meet to vote on which of the tax increase bills to endorse for consideration by the full Legislature.