With a taxing (and not so taxing) legislative session behind them, Teton County’s lawmakers have returned home to recover, reflect and prepare for the interim.
One overarching narrative of the past two months in Cheyenne was the lack of any movement regarding new revenue in Wyoming’s perpetually precarious economy.
Several attempts to legislate the state into financial stability fell through, including two bills that survived into the final days of the session before faltering.
“We had a lot of bills to help revive our tax structure,” said Rep. Mike Yin, Teton County’s newest legislator. “All of those failed on pretty much all fronts, so that was really unfortunate.”
Two tax bills — a statewide lodging tax and a corporate tax — lasted far longer than the rest. But after breezing through the House of Representatives they collapsed in the fiscally conservative Senate, despite targeting out-of-state business and tourists.
The National Retail Fairness Act, which would have created an income tax on big-box stores, won an easy victory in the House with a 44-14 vote. In the other chamber it never got out of committee.
The lodging tax came even closer to passing. It had the same support base in the House, and it progressed all the way to third reading in the Senate — no small feat.
But at that final consideration the Senate lost its appetite for the tax, fearing it would also burden in-state travelers.
Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, sits on the Management Council, the group that decides which topics lawmakers will consider between regular legislative sessions. He doubts those taxes, or others, will arise in the interim.
“To me the message seemed pretty clear,” Gierau said. “The majority of the body isn’t too interested in revenue raising. I would tend to doubt there will be a lot of discussion about it.”
That likely means the Legislature will have to consider the other side of the coin: budget cuts.
According to the Casper Star-Tribune, Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, the chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee, said the 2020 state budget could bring decreases to funding for mental health care and education, the budget for which has been eroding tens of millions of dollars at a time in recent years.
Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, and Gierau both sit on the Appropriations Committee, which crafts the state’s budget. Gierau said solutions won’t come easily.
“After what happened this session, revenue’s not there,” he said. “So we’re going to have to look very hard.
“The question is, what do we do? Do we consolidate school districts? Do we close schools?”
The death of the lodging tax holds particular significance for Teton County. Schwartz amended the bill to give local governments more flexibility in how they spend the tax’s revenue, a major area of criticism among local opponents.
“We’re just going to have to try that one again,” Schwartz said. “And obviously I’m going to have to try my amendment again, because that would’ve been the most important thing for Teton County.”
Schwartz and Gierau noted some financial achievements. For example, they acquired $1.25 million to split between a property tax refund program and a low-income tax relief program.
“It’s not nearly enough,” Gierau said, “but it’s something.”
The session also brought a handful of contentious bills to reduce local control. The most high-profile, which originated with the Jackson Hole Classical Academy, extended to private schools the exemptions from county regulations that public schools enjoy.
But another, which Schwartz called “the most dangerous,” failed early on. It would have removed authority from towns and counties to require that developers offset their projects by paying a fee or building homes.
The bill threatened Teton County’s affordable housing strategy.
The bill originated in the 2018 session, and Schwartz doesn’t think Wyoming has seen the end of it.
“We managed to push that one back a year,” he said.
But he’s heard rumors it could come up in the interim.
“That’s front and center in my mind right now,” he said.
One of the biggest successes for Schwartz this session was the passage of his bill to establish a Wyoming Public Lands Day, separate from the federal holiday.
“Getting Public Lands Day was a pretty big deal,” he said. “It’s not one that’s going to have the biggest impact on the state, but there were a lot of people that were glad I did it.”
His other legislation wasn’t so lucky, though.
Schwartz’s flagship bill, to expand Medicaid eligibility to people who fall below 133 percent of the federal poverty level, died a quick death on the House floor, as similar bills have repeatedly since the inception of the Affordable Care Act. But he has pledged to push for expansion until it passes or he leaves office.
He said he ran into the legislative staff member who wrote the Medicaid bill after the session ended.
“I saw him the day before I left,” Schwartz said, “and I said, ‘You can file that one for next year.’”
The Management Council will meet later this month to outline the agenda for the interim, and legislative committees will meet several times between then and next December to cover the topics the council deems most important.