Lawmakers want to see cuts before new revenue for education
By TESSA BAKER
Jul. 25, 2017
POWELL, Wyo. (AP) — If lawmakers are going to support any new taxes to meet Wyoming's estimated $400 million annual funding deficit for K-12 education, they want to see some education budget cuts.
"It's a hard sell as it is," Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, said of tax proposals that have been tossed around. "It will be an even harder sell if the schools and the education committee and recalibration committee come forward with no reductions. Because the citizens will say — I promise you — the citizens will say, 'Then forget your tax increase.'"
Peterson gave a presentation on state education funding during a meeting in Powell recently.
Kimberly Condie, who serves on the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees, offered a different perspective.
"We have had some cuts, so I think we need to see some revenue," Condie said.
During the 2017 session, legislators trimmed around $34.5 million from K-12 education.
But Peterson noted that is well short of the projected $400 million shortfall.
Before the Wyoming Legislature begins its 2018 budget session in February, legislators are grappling with how to address that deficit. Peterson, who chairs the Senate Revenue Committee, said lawmakers are looking at ways to generate extra revenue or divert funding from other accounts to go toward education.
"We were told, 'Leave no stone unturned. Look at everything,'" Peterson said.
He said the revenue committee is laying it all out on the table and also reviewing a tax study. Right now, committee members are just talking about ideas and gathering information. Ultimately, they'll bring proposals to the Legislature next year, Peterson said.
The Powell Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/2vXTsGE ) that without any additional cuts to K-12 budgets, the state could generate $363 million for education through one of the following ways:
— Increase the statewide sales tax by 2.3 percent
— Add another 4 percent severance tax on all minerals
— Increase property taxes by 6 mills
Peterson said he doesn't like the property tax increase, calling it unfair for property owners; hiking the severance tax, meanwhile, would hurt energy companies that are already struggling, he said.
"Increasing that 4 percent would be kind of killing the goose that's laying the golden egg," Peterson said.
A sales tax would be paid partly by tourists, he said, and also "spreads the pain a little more evenly than the property tax."
Peterson said lawmakers also are looking at the lodging tax or whether to do away with exemptions, such as the exemption for real estate.
"The low-hanging fruit is the cigarette tax, beer tax, the sin taxes," Peterson said.
If the $400 million deficit was divided among Wyoming taxpayers, each would see $1,500 more in additional taxes annually, Peterson said.
"Are you ready for that, folks?" he asked. "How do I go across the street to a retired couple and say your taxes are going up $1,500?"
Peterson said he understands how difficult it is for residents on fixed incomes. He said it's important for schools to cut their budgets where they can.
He said education is a priority, noting more than half of the state budget goes toward education.
"The challenge is to maintain the quality of education we've worked so hard to get to in Wyoming — how do we do that with less money? I think it can be done. I hope it can be done," Peterson said.
A 10 percent cut — similar to what other state agencies cut — would amount to $150 million out of K-12 education's $1.5 billion budget, Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell and chairman of the House Education Committee, said.
Peterson said the state has already taken hundreds of millions of dollars out of savings or rainy day accounts to fund K-12 education.
"A lot of people out there don't know that and they keep telling us, 'It's time — it's raining,'" Peterson said. "And we've been tapping into that (savings)."
Northrup said voters could choose to divert about $127 million in severance tax money annually from a savings account toward education.
Information from: Powell (Wyo.) Tribune, http://www.powelltribune.com