SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee discussed the potential of legislation that would let Wyoming municipalities create local revenue options during its interim meeting in Cheyenne this week.
Legislative committees have considered the matter several times over the last several years, but have struggled to resolve it.
That the topic has remained so persistent, though, demonstrates the anxiety some cities in the state have about the future of their budgets.
Wyoming Association of Municipalities Executive Director David Fraser said the bill his organization submitted for the committee’s review may need to be tweaked but said at its core, the bill would address a looming issue for cities in the state.
The Legislature has traditionally allocated direct distribution funds to municipalities throughout the state, and cities have come to rely on that money. But with the volatility of Wyoming’s economy, municipal governments have seen money available through direct distribution fluctuate and fear lawmakers will eventually have to cut off the money entirely.
The Wyoming Association of Municipalities has long pushed the Wyoming Legislature to authorize Wyoming’s cities to enact local taxes — that residents in those cities would vote on — as a step toward becoming more fiscally independent.
While that might work for the state’s larger cities — Sheridan has backed WAM’s efforts — it would provide little relief to smaller municipalities. Many of those towns — Clearmont, for example — simply don’t have a large enough population to profit from local taxes.
Representatives from some of those communities and counties in the state have expressed concern that allowing large cities to create their own tax revenues would leave them without recourse. Currently, cities and counties have to partner on tax proposals, like the One-Cent Optional Sales Tax.
If cities stop partnering on county-wide tax options, some of the state’s smaller communities fear they could see already-limited revenue streams dwindle further.
Troy Thompson, president of the Wyoming County Commissioner’s Association Executive committee, gave a succinct assessment of WAM’s proposal.
“The (municipal-only tax) is not a replacement for direct distribution, nor should it be considered one,” Thompson said.
The representatives from both WAM and the County Commissioner’s Association agreed, however, that they would have to some way to address the future of direct distribution funding in the state.
These arguments were familiar to both the lawmakers and the officials making them.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, likened the situation to a scene in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation,” where Chevy Chase’s character can’t manage to change lanes in a London roundabout, and spends the entire day driving in a circle; with each circuit, he turns to his children and says, in an increasingly morose tone, “Hey kids, there’s Big Ben and Parliament.” The scene ends with Chase, still in the roundabout, simultaneously laughing and crying hysterically.
“This bill for me is starting to turn into that,” Ellis said. “And I have a feeling we’re going to hear a lot of the same ‘Big Ben, Parliament’ again. Can you give us any indication that there is movement, or any sort of reachable agreement?”
Fraser said he hoped a local-option tax could be part of a broader solution to municipalities’ reliance on state funding, and said WAM and the County Commissioner’s Association have been working together to negotiate a mutually beneficial solution.
“We’re looking for a win-win — we’re not asking you to choose between us,” Fraser told the committee.
House Chair of the Revenue Committee, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said he recognized the state would have to address the problem, but he does not think it’s found the solution yet.
“We have done nothing as a Legislature recently that has really bailed you out of the problem that I know cities and towns in this state have,” Zwonitzer said. “That being said, I don’t think this is the answer and I don’t think people on (the Revenue Committee) do.”