Legislators seek support as they study taxes

By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com

The Joint Revenue Committee will once again study tax increases between legislative sessions, despite pointed concerns by its new co-chairman that previous efforts have not gotten sufficient support from state leaders.

House Revenue Committee Chairman Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) said his committee members aren’t interested in sticking their necks out to consider taxes only to see legislative leadership and fellow lawmakers fail to move their proposals.

“They don’t have the interest in getting beat up in the interim period,” he said of his committee members, “if the body is not going to take these topics on.”

Last year, Zwonitzer said, the previous Joint Revenue Committee faced criticism from conservative corners as they worked on their assignment from Legislative leadership — coming up with ways to raise money from new sources in the face of lost energy industry revenues. Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) declined to introduce four of the committee’s draft bills. The tax proposals that were introduced all died.

In a week where Gov. Mark Gordon critiqued the Legislature’s failure to move tax increase proposals during the 2019 session, Zwonitzer’s frustration wasn’t reserved exclusively for his lawmaking colleagues.

“I didn’t see [Gordon] pushing any of the tax increases,” Zwonitzer said of the critical comments the chief executive made in a press conference this week.

Gordon said he “was a little disappointed,” at the lack of action on new revenues, according to a report in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “We saw some pretty mature conversation all the way through the session and then at the end it all kind of rolled back and we ended up in the same place,” the paper quoted him saying.

An endorsement from the governor during the session may have tipped the scales on one of the revenue proposals, Zwonitzer suggested. A once-popular lodging tax died on its final vote in the Senate. A corporate income tax targeting large out-of-state corporations like Walmart or Applebee’s sailed through the House but died when the Senate turned on it following backlash from corporate lobbyists and conservative activists.

“It’s concerning when the governor admonishes the Legislature for not doing anything,” Zwonitzer said. “The governor didn’t say this is the one I’m behind and I’d really like to push. He certainly could have done that if he had a preference on the eight or nine tax bills we had.”

Gordon told reporters he has asked the ENDOW committee — former Gov. Matt Mead’s economic diversification initiative — to study the tax structures of other western, Republican-led states. The ENDOW committee was created to propose ideas for moving Wyoming’s economy away from dependence on the fossil fuel industries. But the imbalances of Wyoming’s revenue structure, which taxes energy and mining while sparing most other businesses and residents of significant tax burdens, means new industries won’t pay their way and could in fact deepen Wyoming’s fiscal troubles.

Zwonitzer encouraged Gordon to work with his committee.

“If the governor was solidly behind one of our tax proposals, the revenue committee would listen,” Zwonitzer said. “If there was one [Gordon] thought was best for the state we would invite him to the revenue committee and listen to his pitch.”

Despite Zwonitzer’s frustrations, his committee will continue to hunt for ways to balance the state’s revenue picture.

How to generate more revenue from renewable energy will be among the topics it considers during its eight meeting days this interim period. (Zwonitzer’s cochair, Lander Republican Sen. Cale Case, is a staunch supporter of further taxes on wind energy.)

The committee will also review failed proposals from the past Legislative session. Those include the corporate income tax and the lodging tax, along with revisions to the state’s sales tax and an increase in property taxes to pay for education.

The state is running on borrowed time if it continues to keep its revenue streams dependent on fossil fuels, Case reminded the Legislature’s Management Council on Friday. The council, made up of leaders from both parties, met Friday in Cheyenne to assign topics to the Legislature’s 12 committees for the coming nine months.

“What if half of all [future] cars sold are electric?” Case said. “What if continued restrictions on oil and gas leasing on public lands… continues to affect the ability of oil and gas to operate in Wyoming?”

Zwonitzer and Case are moving from previous positions as cochairmen of the Joint Corporations Committee to take over Revenue — the Legislature’s most thankless committee. Both are longtime lawmakers with institutional knowledge about the inner workings of state government.

Both men also have reputations as political mavericks who will buck the Wyoming Republican Party. The party actively opposed tax reform efforts during the recently adjourned session. .

Zwonitzer wasn’t confident a grand tax proposal could advance this year, he said, given that it will face the same Legislature in 2020. Instead, he is hopeful the new committee can find “incremental” ways to generate new revenue.

“Tax increases are unlikely in the upcoming year,” he said, “but there is some thought that the new chairman and I can work together on some innovative paths the Legislature can take.”

Investments made today in diversifying the state’s revenues would pay big dividends down the road, he said.

“Right now the projections are we’re in trouble,” Zwonitzer said.


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