Debate over a ballot initiative to add a seventh cent of sales tax centered around whether the tax would help or harm Teton County’s working class during a League of Women Voters forum Wednesday.
Teton County Commissioner Mark Barron said adding the seventh cent would hurt the working class, equating to a 17% increase in sales tax — a percentage calculated to represent going from six cents on the dollar to seven cents on the dollar. (See page 5 for pro and con guest opinions).
“I’m not arguing for me, I’m arguing for those people who live on the margins today,” Barron said. “I understand, and hear the words, [that] those are the very people that we want to help by increasing their sales tax, so that government can then spend more on them.”
But those in favor of the tax pushed back, arguing that there’s a real need to shore up the local safety net to help people impacted by the pandemic, among other reasons.
Jackson Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter noted that nine out of 10 elected officials — four town councilors, the mayor and four county commissioners — all support the general penny tax because of what government can collectively do with the money, the majority of which is anticipated to be paid by tourists, and they say it will provide greater benefit than harm to community members.
“So, whether it’s trying to significantly address our affordable housing needs, trying to significantly help our human health and social services needs, trying to significantly help transportation, trying to significantly address environmental concerns; we can do those sorts of things with the extra penny,” he said. “Those will benefit all of us.”
Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen pointed out that unprepared food bought at the grocery store is currently exempt from the sales tax, though some still worry that the state Legislature could change that.
Town Councilor Jim Stanford, meanwhile, questioned the burden on working families.
“There are no working people who have approached me and said, ‘I can’t bear to pay one more penny per dollar I spend,’" Stanford said.
Teton County Commissioner Luther Propst argued that an income tax would be a more fair tax than the sales tax, but noted that is not an option on the table.
If taxes were porridge, Schechter said, local sales tax is the closest option to “just right” because the state Legislature keeps the cupboard pretty bare. A town-wide property tax wouldn’t raise as much as the seventh penny and would put the burden 100% on locals, he said. Visitors would pay more if the lodging tax were increased, but per state law 60% of the revenue must be spent on promoting Jackson Hole.
Barron, however, said he backs an additional percent or two of lodging tax — the county can go up to four, over the existing 2% — as a better answer to raising revenue because the burden would fall nearly entirely on tourists paying for hotel rooms.
Elected officials also debated whether government has a spending problem. Barron pointed to rising revenue over the past 10 years, questioning why town and county government can’t live within their current budgets.
Barron suggested that making tough decisions about spending priorities would be a better way to shore up programs in need while cutting excess elsewhere.
“We spend millions of dollars on planning in Teton County, and the town of Jackson,” Barron said as one example of where to trim.
But other elected officials disagreed with Barron’s assessment that revenues had dramatically risen over the past 10 years.
“Ten years ago, the town and county had gone through the worst budget reductions that they’d experienced in years,” Commissioner Mark Newcomb said. “If you want to go back to 2006, 2007, 2008, it might look a lot different.”
The two sides also debated the benefit of federal coronavirus relief funding. On one side, Barron said the relief funding should help backfill town and county budgets to make up for losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But other elected officials said the rules for using that money were so specific, they weren’t sure yet if the local government could tap into that money.
Watch the full debate embedded below.