New tax to fund housing, transportation will face uphill battle
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Councilman Bob Lenz and those elected officials working to find some kind of dedicated funding for housing and transportation issues in the valley face two significant challenges: many people don’t like being taxed, and lawmakers in Cheyenne hate when Teton County comes looking for new tax statute claiming poverty.
At a joint meeting Monday, Lenz said, “I’ve sat here for about five years now and everybody says we need a committed revenue stream for housing and transportation. People come up to me and say, ‘You are taxing me for [such-and-such]’ and I say, ‘Not me. You are taxing you.’ If in fact you really do want some money for housing and transportation.”
An added penny of general revenue sales tax earmarked for housing and transportation failed at the polls last year. Councilman Jim Stanford attributed that to a lack of specificity and warned those opposed to taxes that a bill comes due sooner or later, especially with job growth in the county outpacing housing growth by four times.
“I’ve already heard pushback in the community at the mere suggestion of [a new tax]. For the people who are most opposed to taxation in our county, a lot of them, it seems, are most opposed to the lodging tax, which will be up again next year. If you want to get against the lodging tax and shoot that down in order to cool off our economy and ease pressure on housing and transportation, then we as a community better figure out how we are going to fund our needs. We collect well over $2 million [via the lodging tax] to help make government services run, then we have to be willing to tax ourselves and take care of our own needs,” Stanford said. “So I thank councilman Lenz for giving us one more option. We are only responding to the feedback we got from voters. We tried to do this under the banner of general revenue and people said it wasn’t specific enough. So this is a way to provide more specificity, and there will be a lot more specificity on the ballot May 2.”
Lenz proposed a new sales tax that could be directly targeted—in tenths of a percent—toward specific projects like housing, transportation, and street maintenance. To put it in place in Teton County, it would require tweaking state statute to allow for a seventh definition of excise tax similar to those already designed to fund economic development, or travel and tourism promotion—but this one would allow a county or municipality to fund operations, maintenance, salaries, advertising and capital expenditures.
Selling it in Cheyenne, however, would be no easy task. Town administrator Bob McLaurin teed up the discussion explaining how SPET could by a lot of things like shiny new buses but they would be sitting idle in the barn without money to pay the salaries of bus drivers. McLaurin then erroneously explained the tax would not be an increase in sales tax above the current seven cents.
Lenz corrected him, saying it was his intent to go to an eighth cent, especially if all 10 SPET ballot propositions passed in May, which would tie up a seventh penny for as much as seven years. It might take that long, anyway, McLaurin half-joked, to push it through the Legislature. “Everything down there takes a long time,” he said.
“I think it’s very unrealistic to think the Wyoming Legislature is going to increase the capital sales tax but we can propose it. And remember, in a budget session next year, it has to have two-thirds of the House and Senate vote. Realistically speaking, we are probably looking at [two years from now],” McLaurin said. “Then we’d have to get one of our local legislators to get LSO to draft a bill, and then find a sponsor from somewhere [other than Teton County] because as you are well aware we are not very popular down there. And I was down there for seven or eight days and if I heard ‘I wasn’t sent down here by my constituents to raise taxes’ once, I probably heard it 15, 20 times.”
The joint board decided Monday to continue discussions about pursuing a new sales tax at a later date.