The SPET is a rarity in the world of taxes. Most aren’t optional, and the electorate can’t usually decide precisely how its money is spent once the government extracts it.
But with the specific purpose excise tax, a 1% charge on sales, Wyoming voters have the power to select which endeavors are fit to fund.
On Nov. 5, Election Day, the residents of Teton County will do just that, considering a list of 10 projects that elected officials curated earlier this year. They cover a range of public services, from recreation to historic preservation to firefighting.
“The beauty of it is, the citizens can choose,” Town Manager Larry Pardee said. “They get to say yea or nay.”
At a total of $77 million, it’s the largest request the town and county have ever made through SPET. But that doesn’t mean more money out of anyone’s pocket. Because the tax is tied to “specific purposes,” officials will simply keep collecting it until they’ve funded all of the projects. At an estimated $15 million a year, it should take about five years.
That’s assuming voters approve the whole slate of projects. Elected officials and some community advocates have run a “yes on all” campaign over the past few months, encouraging voters to support all 10. A political action committee, “Jackson Hole Votes Yes PAC,” even formed over the summer on that premise.
Such all-out wins are not unprecedented, but historically they are rare. The last time it happened was 2006, for a total of about $30 million. In the most recent election, in 2017, voters signed off on just $34 million of about $70 million in proposed projects.
Pardee said some people envision the tax as to be used only under unique and unusual circumstances (for example, to fix the Broadway landslide that threatened homes, infrastructure and its namesake thoroughfare in 2014).
But he insists it’s just another funding tool for local government, and a much-needed one at that, particularly with the town’s potential property tax going unused.
“I just want the community to know this is a valid, highly important local funding source that can be paid for both by the guests and the residents,” he said.
The $15 million a year the SPET brings in at the current collection rate isn’t guaranteed. Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle said that amount is subject to change as the economy fluctuates. For example, if fewer tourists travel to Jackson and locals cut back on spending during a recession, it could take several years longer to pay off $77 million in projects.
Alternatively, if the economy stays strong but voters approve only a portion of the full amount, collections could be complete within a couple of years. In that case the town and county would have to come up with new projects and hold another election sooner.
After election day, as collections start rolling in for whatever voters approve, officials must decide in what order to fund them. To do so, the relevant departments work together to create a “distribution schedule,” based on the status and financial requirements of each one.
“Some projects are shovel ready and need it right up front,” Daigle said. “Some won’t be ready for a few years.”
Voters can cast their ballots Nov. 5. They can also vote early by going to the absentee polling site at the Teton County Administration Building or by contacting the county to apply for an absentee ballot.