Legislators study bill to raise taxes to fund schools

CASPER — Lawmakers will consider a bill that would increase taxes for all property in Wyoming and send tens of millions of dollars to public schools here over the coming years. 

The education-funding deficit has been a dominant topic for Wyoming lawmakers for years, as the recent bust created a deficit that was projected to top $1.8 billion by the beginning of the next decade. Two years later, the situation has stabilized somewhat, but the core problem remains unsolved, off cials said. This measure, which would add three mill levies to all property in Wyoming in each of the next three years, would attempt to address that. 

“We still have a structural deficit,” said Sen. Cale Case, a Lander Republican and the co-chairman of the Joint Revenue Committee, which is sponsoring the bill. “We still have to fix the education-funding issue. We’re still funded largely by minerals.” 

This bill, House Bill 68, would try to shift more of that funding burden onto homeowners and businesses. The mills’ implementations would be staggered, so all nine new mills would not be in place for three years. In each of those years, the three added mills would bring roughly $33 million more for public schools. 

Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said the mills had previously been in place for some districts, before lawsuits fundamentally reshaped how Wyoming funded its schools. 

Currently, Wyoming schools are funded by 43 total mills. As it stands, minerals carry much of the education funding load, as they’re assessed at 100 percent of property value. But that leaves the state’s schools vulnerable to drastic downturns when the bottom falls out on the economy, as it did a few years ago. 

“It’s one way to find a stable, reliable funding source for education,” Vetter said of the bill. 

She noted the state had tax credits to shield the older and lower-income Wyomingites from the proposed property tax increases. 

Case said he thought the bill may be a way to put a wind tax — something he’s pushed for years — “in perspective” for other lawmakers. The new mills would be spread across Wyoming, while a wind tax would be borne almost entirely out of state. He noted the poll commissioned by the education association in 2017 that showed a majority of Wyoming voters would support a tax increase on wind production. 

Vetter said she was somewhat surprised by the bill, as the Legislature has broadly been opposed to funding increases to solve the education funding crisis. Lawmakers have heavily leaned upon budget cuts and shifting revenue sources rather than adding taxes. 

Case said this particular bill would likely be more palatable to other lawmakers if there was a companion bill that cut spending. Vetter said those bills have already been considered over the past three years. Wyoming schools have been slashed by as much as $100 million over that time.

“They’ve frozen funding for transportation and special education. They’ve already made a number of those cuts without addressing the funding issue,” she said. “They did the cuts first. Now it’s time to address the funding.”