BY D. REED ECKHARDT
Tax wind energy. Tax electric vehicles. Tax car registrations and licenses. Tax the corporations. Tax anything except who really needs to be taxed: the people of Wyoming.
For too long your Legislature’s mantra has been, “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax the man (or woman) behind the tree.” Your lawmakers have so entwined themselves with their pledges not to raise taxes that they are driving this state over a cliff – and taking Wyoming’s children with them as education is about to become the latest victim in the cut-the-budget frenzy.
They have gotten so desperate that now they want to turn the Cowboy State into the nation's garbage dump for spent nuclear fuel rods. It’s an old idea made new again by their
self-imposed anxieties. Indeed, state Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, was kicking this the idea around way back in 2002 when he was making a bid to become governor. It’s a good thing Democrat Dave Freudenthal came out on top in that race or the whole nation might be seeing Wyoming glowing green at night.
Please, gentlemen and ladies, STOP! It is time to get real about helping the people of Wyoming see that they should be helping themselves.
That used to be a conservative principle, that people should help to pay for the services they get. But then Wyoming conservatives aren’t even conservatives at all. They really are populists, cut from the same cloth as Louisiana’s Huey Long, who laid down the principle of making the corporations pay the freight more than 70 years ago.
Ole Huey took from the Standard Oils of his day and used those funds to grow his state. “Rob from the rich and give to the poor” was his byword. Just like it has been in Wyoming for decades. Lawmakers have made the carbon fuels industry pay for everything from hunting licenses, to schools, to the renovation of the State Capitol and everything in between.
Problem is, that Wyoming chicken in every pot is now coming home to roost. The coal industry is plunging downward, taking the state budget with it. And that is what has created such desperation among lawmakers that they now are turning to dumping nuclear fuel into Wyoming soil in hopes of avoiding the taxes they have promised not to levy.
Forget about it. This nuclear rod foolishness is just one more distraction. Even if the Legislature does move forward with it, it will be tied up in the courts so long by environmentalists that there never will be an immediate impact on the state’s budget, except to pay for legal fees.
Of course, there always will be those right-wingers who argue they can cut their way to safety. They falsely assert the state expanded so much during boom times that just a few trims here and there will solve all the problems. Not so. Much of Wyoming’s budget growth in the early 2000s was about catching up, providing services that had been slashed or gone unprovided in the lean 1990s.
You can argue about whether the state’s budget is “right-sized,” but cutting education and tossing the needy into the streets is heartless politics. Of course, one might debate whether this state’s conservatives have a heart: They are doing well in their law offices, ranches and businesses, thank you. Screw the rest.
And before you get all huffy about having to pay “more” taxes, it is time to dispel the myth that the people of Wyoming are overtaxed.
Consider a piece by WalletHub from this past March, “2019 Tax Rates by State” (https://wallethub.com/edu/t/best-worst-states-to-be-a-taxpayer/2416/). It proved that there are only three states that have lesser overall taxes than Wyoming – Alaska, Delaware and Montana. Overall, Wyomingites pay about 8.5 percent of their income on local and state taxes. That is 25.2 percent less than the national average for residents in all the other states.
Similarly, QuickBooks ranks Wyoming as having the third-lowest tax burden in the nation behind only New Hampshire and Alaska (https://quickbooks.intuit.com/r/the-most-and-least-taxed-states-in-the-u-s/). And USA Today also ranks Wyoming as third-lowest as well (https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/taxes/2018/04/06/states-highest-and-lowest-taxes-3-6/482944002/).
Legislators should not be allowed to perpetuate the fable that you are suffering under a crushing burden of taxes.
So where do we go from here? Unfortunately, not very far.
Your lawmakers are committed to do anything, anything, to not raise taxes. State Rep. Landon, R-Cheyenne, asserted recently in an Facebook exchange that he and other Republicans have not signed a “no new taxes pledge.” So what? You don’t have to sign a pledge to give tacit consent to legislative leaders’ no-tax policy. When Brown brings a true tax measure before the Legislature – not like his phony levy on electric vehicles – only then should anyone believe what he says about “the pledge.”
No doubt, legislative leaders’ first move on new taxes – if they find the guts to make one at all – will be toward a corporate income tax. Why? Because you won’t feel that in your pocketbooks. But that is just more of the Huey Long populism that allows you, residents of Wyoming, to escape your responsibilities to fund the government operations from which you benefit.
Choose, my friends. For me, a graduated personal income tax is the way to go – just a state leaders recommended nearly 20 years ago in Tax Reform 2000. Those who most enjoy the benefits from living in Wyoming should share the wealth with those who have been left behind.
You disagree? Then go for a sales tax increase. But please, no bull manure about that being the “fairest form of taxation.” It is not. Impacts the poor more because it eats up a larger percentage of their income.
As for a gas/fuels tax hike, that is long overdue, and it is a must. Wyoming’s crumbling infrastructure is a direct result of lawmakers’ anti-tax fever. My best guess is that delayed maintenance of city, county and state roadways is well into the billions of dollars. And let’s not forget the interstates, which this state also struggles to maintain but are our transportation lifelines.
Essentially, Wyoming residents are like the “welfare queens” they so love to denigrate. They rely on their government – funded by the money of the others “behind the tree” – to provide them with free services or subsidies on such things as hunting licenses. It is time they pony up for their beloved Cowboy State.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe they really love Wyoming when they run so hard away from making a monetary commitment to it.
D. Reed Eckhardt is the former executive editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.