OPINION: Citizens’ Tax Initiative Stands Up to Over Taxation

OPINION: Citizens’ Tax Initiative Stands Up to Over Taxation

This opinion piece was written and submitted by Richard Weber of the People’s Initiative to Exempt 50% of Assessed Value on Primary Residences.

The following piece is the opinion of TRN Media’s News Director David Martin, and doesn’t reflect that of TRN Media.

Sweetwater County Assessor Dave Divis’ response to this article can be found here.

Dear Citizens of Sweetwater County,

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The people in Wyoming have no advocate in the municipal county or state government. Scores of articles have been written about the explosive rise in residential property tax, but it falls on deaf ears in our capitol. Next year is an election year so guess who is trying to find their voice to do damage control since this citizens’ ballot initiative was introduced in October. In recent articles there is no mention of the People’s Initiative to Exempt 50% of Assessed Value on Primary Residences. No legislator has stepped up to endorse this bill. All we hear is silence or criticism. Where are our elected representatives?

You folks in Sweetwater heard Tax Assessor Dave Divis say your services and education will take a hit if residential property tax is reduced. His rhetoric is vague on Al Harris’s “Let’s Talk” show Oct. 30. Ask Divis and the commissioners what is going to be cut before the next election.

Sweetwater County property tax went from $135,382,460 in 2021 to $168,425,837 in 2022. That is an increase of $33,043,377.

Taxes in Sweetwater went up again from $168,425,837 in 2022 to $200,416,689 in 2023, That is another increase of $31,990,852 or 20%.

Where did $65 million go? Expenses did not go up 87%. Sweetwater County has $40 Million in reserves.

It would be political suicide for your assessor and county commissioners to cut services over the loss of $589,490 in residential property tax that (the Peoples Initiative to Exempt 50% of Assessed Value) would remove. Especially since Sweetwater had that increase of $65,034,229 in tax revenue over the last 24 months.

To the implied threat of harm to education – Wyoming education 2023-2024 received $1.9 billion and is fully funded. In 2024-2025 $2.2 billion is budgeted. Again, fully funded.

To the threat of cuts in services – the state legislature and Gov. Mark Gordon propose putting another $579 million in savings but say they cannot afford a $140 million cut to residential property tax? That is after budgeting $9.9 billion for operating costs.

Wyoming has $28 billion in savings reserves. Saving is good. However, 3,000 Wyoming homes have tax liens. Explosive property tax increases left unaddressed by local and state politicians that like the status quo of excess dollars have stretched homeowners to their limits. No one should have to choose between food, heat, automotive fuel and government rent (property taxes) especially in this state.

The state legislature failed to get 21 tax bills to the governor’s desk, so we are stuck with no tax relief.

Three citizens stepped up formed a committee and drafted a citizens initiative bill to reduce residential tax. We are circulating a petition and statute requires 30,000 signatures to place it on the November 2024 ballot. Then you have to vote on it. If the Legislature fails to enact meaningful property tax relief this Initiative is your firewall to slow runaway property tax increases. The sad part is it won’t go into effect until 90 days after the election which is 2025. We couldn’t change that. Property taxes have gone up 87% since 2017. They will go up 170% by 2033 on the current trajectory. This is the people’s decision by ballot and petition. This bill bypasses the legislature and the governor and goes straight into law. Our wise forefathers that drafted the constitution foresaw a time when the legislature would grid lock over meaningful legislation, so they gave this authority to the people.

County politicians complain this citizens’ initiative will cut their revenue by half. Not so. We are not removing 50% of property tax revenue, we are cutting residential property tax which is only 1% of property tax. The Wyoming Department of Revenue prepared a Fiscal Impact Statement that revealed only $140 million that will be impacted across the 23 counties is less than 1% of the state’s budget. More proof? The state and counties put in an additional $2 billion in savings in the last 14 months. Would they do that unless there was excess tax revenue?

Chairman of BCR Brent Bien of Cody said, “It is all about Freedom. We left England because of property rights. Excessive taxes are an infringement upon those rights. This state and its revenue belongs to the people not the government or politicians.”

Cheryl Aguiar of Thermopolis, the second member of the committee, went into more detail. “This state has a $10 Billion current budget and a proposed $9.9 Billion that includes putting another $600 million more in savings. The new Consensus Revenue Estimating Group forecast an increase of almost a billion dollars in state revenue from oil gas and mineral extraction in the next 36 months. How much is enough? That state savings account is only there to save government. It is not there to save the people that make this state what it is. Counties have millions in reserve accounts and more in 600 coffee cans we don’t see.”

State government employees have enjoyed pay raises, salary increases, and increase to their retirement and benefits packages since COVID that citizens have not had. So have the Sweetwater County Treasurer and tax assessors. Forty-seven out of every 100 employees in the state are supported by the taxpayer.

Critics suggest that education might be negatively impacted. The third member of the committee, Richard Weber, from Story said, “This initiative to exempt 50% won’t take effect until 2025. It is the only firewall to slow down increases if the legislature fails in the 2024 budget session. Education is fully funded through 2026. While administrators’ salaries are increasing student achievement levels are in decline and enrollment has declined from 97,000 to 95,000. The University of Wyoming gets a billion dollars every funding session for about 12,000 students and 800 employees. Out of state nonresident students comprise 41% of the student body. Only 30% of the graduates remain in Wyoming. They have a $900 million endowment fund. School funding is broken and full of pork and waste. How much more do they need and where is the benefit?”

Brent Bien added, “Government has to be about people and not about growing more government. This governor and legislature in February spent $80 million on climate initiatives such as carbon sequestration, $7 million on electric vehicle charging stations and more on Windmills. Gordon has given the Wyoming Business Council $40 million for “Business Ready Communities.” That is code for welfare projects, housing for homeless and illegals. In the budget is $20 million down payment on affordable housing for teachers. Why? In one county the funeral district and weed and pest combined has almost a half million dollars sitting idle. How many people are they expecting to die? Another county is building a $78 million dollar hospital where there are no patients. Worse, no medical staff or doctors are available to work there. This is another tax burden to the taxpayer. Folks, you gotta know that isn’t free health care once it’s built. You will still have to pay the hospital bill after your visit and all the operating costs will be passed on to the taxpayer. The governor calls that diversification of industry. Another example of waste is an athletic field in Campbell County that has a $400,000 a year maintenance budget. How many months a year do we mow grass? Are we going to take people out of their homes for that?

The people being abused and hurt in this state are the taxpayers. Sign the petition folks and pay attention. Next year is an election year. It is unconscionable that our elected politicians tolerate this abuse and try to justify and cover it up. Politicians make promises then follow them with token gestures to make it look like they are doing something. It is all choreographed theater for the cameras. In the back room and committees it changes. Write your representatives. Wyoming is in the top three in oil gas and mineral revenues in America. Wyoming doesn’t have a revenue problem the politicians have an over tax problem and a spending problem they don’t want to fix. Politicians raise taxes but never cut spending.

At a recent townhall one woman said, “If you are going to back me into a corner and ask me to choose between a road grader and keeping my home then I choose my home. I can’t live in a road grader.”

I extracted my figures from the Department of Revenue, the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, the governor’s new budget proposal and your county budget published in an online magazine article from June of 2023.

Richard Weber
BCR Voter Initiatives
Operations Manager