Tax relief ballot initiative gaining traction, in Teton County and around state
By Jasmine Hall
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Sen. Dan Dockstader isn’t surprised that a petition to get property tax relief on the ballot is gaining statewide traction.
In fact, he signed it.
“Because we’re not getting property tax relief out there,” said Dockstader, an Afton Republican who represents Lincoln and part of Teton counties. “The system is broken. We need to fix it.
“If there’s no other priorities I have going into the legislative session, it’s this property tax situation.”
Within the first month of it circulating, Dockstader signed the petition to get former Republican gubernatorial candidate Brent Bien’s initiative on the 2024 ballot. It would exempt property owners from paying tax on 50% of the assessed value on their primary residence as long as they live in the state at least one year and in the home for at least six months.
He’s the only one of the Teton County delegation to sign onto the initiative.
The rest of his colleagues say it will cause problems for every county in Wyoming, from losing local government services to impacting education funding.
“It’s pretty easy to sell an initiative that’s cutting taxes,” said Rep. Liz Storer, D-Jackson. “And especially if that’s all you talk about, right? It’s harder to sell an initiative that’s also cutting services that you depend on.”
The initiative is considered a popular solution to rising property taxes by residents, as booklets fill up with signatures quickly. Teton County organizer David Scheurn said last week that 15 out of the requisite 16 counties had met their initial signature mark, and Teton County was nearing completion.
His team had acquired more than 800 of the 1,553 signatures needed and expected to get all of them, and more, before the deadline in February. The reason organizers want to exceed the 1,553 threshold is to ensure the initiative gets certified for the ballot, even if some signatures are invalid.
The early momentum could mean voters would decide both the exemption and a proposed constitutional amendment that Dockstader worked with Storer during the last session to place on the ballot. The amendment would create a new and fourth class of property called “residential real property” and allow the Legislature to develop a subclass for owner-occupied residences that could be assessed at a lower rate.
“I’d like to have both there,” Dockstader said.
It was one of the last actions taken in the Legislature before the bill deadline and one of only two property tax bills passed. The other expanded the state’s property tax refund program, which sent out $8.26 million in tax relief to residents this year, including $1.57 million specifically to Teton County.
Dockstader said it wasn’t enough, considering there were more than 20 bills, and his amendment was worked on at the last minute.
The state senator sees the ballot initiative as a way to pressure lawmakers to develop a long-term solution, as well as to get other stakeholders in local government and education involved in the dialogue. He contacted the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and Wyoming Education Association and told them the initiative had traction, so it’s in their best interest to give input.
“They’re as much a part of this battle as not, because if we cut 50%, they’re going to see a definite difference in the way we do business in the state,” he said. “And I’m saying that it may be possible out there, especially in Lincoln and Teton — people have just had it.”
When asked if it was a gamble to sign onto a ballot initiative that would have such a significant impact in order to draw attention, Dockstader said it’s not keeping him up at night.
“We need people to get involved,” he said. “They can’t sit back, and especially our local leaders, they have to get involved in the discussion. Our educators have to be involved in the discussion. Everybody benefits from these taxes.
“And we forget that. We just suspect that money’s always going to be there without any discussion of how it gets there. It’s because somebody lives out there, and they pay a tax on a property.”
The rest of the Teton County delegation said the petition gaining ground highlights how much hard-working residents are struggling. While they expressed their sympathy and understood why the initiative was being pushed to the ballot box, all four reps in the House and Senate didn’t want to see the overarching cut.
Instead, they want to see the constitutional amendment come to fruition and more work done in the upcoming session.
“Ultimately, my worry is that people are not going to vote yes on the constitutional amendment if they see that ballot question,” said Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson. “My biggest worry is that they won’t work on the long-term solution.”
Rep. Andrew Byron, R-Hoback, said he has spent countless hours with the Revenue Committee, along with Storer, working on bills that wouldn’t eliminate services. Storer noted two of them were homestead exemptions, one with a broader exemption along the lines of 25% and another for older, longtime residents of the state.
Byron said he was disappointed to find out about how much progress had been made on petition signatures in the past month.
“It takes time to get this done,” he said. “In the late 1980s, a lot of property tax relief measures came. They all passed, and then all of the sudden we were operating in the red overnight. We have to be aware of that.
“We have to continue to drive policy that targets folks that are on fixed incomes, that are in need of relief, not just across-the-board measures,” he said.
Yin and Byron said Teton County won’t be the one to suffer if the ballot initiative makes it past the finish line. Although the most revenue loss likely will be seen in Teton County as multimillion-dollar homeowners receive a tax break, it is often a recapture district. This means the county brings in a surplus of revenue funds for its local government budgets and can send back money to the state to distribute to municipalities without enough local revenue for education or government services.
Yin added government officials have room to up how many mills Teton County charges.
However, he said communities with no opportunity to increase the number of mills in their water or small improvement districts would be left defunded.
“It gives the biggest tax break to the wealthiest people,” Storer said. “And we already have a tax system that is upside down and asks not that much of people who are wealthy and a lot more of people in the lower end. So, that’s just going to exacerbate the problem.”