By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE – Leadership in both the House and Senate talked up the Wyoming Legislature’s successes as the 2019 general session came to a close this week.
Whether it was dealing with opioid abuse, judicial reform or passing public records reforms, Republicans in both chambers said they and their membership had made great progress for Wyoming.
But one of the biggest issues coming into the session, how to diversify and broaden Wyoming’s revenue streams, remained out of reach as several tax bills failed to make it to the governor’s desk.
House Bill 220, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Obermueller, R-Casper, would have imposed a 7 percent tax on profits for certain retail, hospitality businesses and restaurants in Wyoming with 100 stockholders or more. And House Bill 66 would have put a 5 percent statewide tax on lodging sales.
Both bills died in various stages of the process in the Senate after passing out of the House of Representatives.
Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said the failure of HB 66 and HB 220 were disappointments. But he pointed to the passage of other bills, including House Bill 69, which allows large online marketplaces like Amazon to collect sales tax on behalf of sellers, as part of the progress the Legislature made this session on the issue.
“I don’t know that you have to have revenue (reforms) right now," Perkins said. "When you look at the Legislature and what we’re trying to do here, there’s things we’re trying to fix immediately, then there's some things in the midterm in the next three to five, six years we have to look at, then you’re looking at the long term. We’ve saved enough (money) from this session that we can fill two-thirds or three-fourths of the anticipated gap next session.
“Those tax issues are more intermediate or long-term issues. We have to continue to work on those.”
Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said the Legislature had made progress, but there still was work to be done. What needs to happen now is an effort by supporters of the ideas in HB 220 or HB 66 to work to educate people on what they’d actually do and why it was necessary for the fiscal future of Wyoming.
“Eventually, the people drive it, and I think it's an education process. When more of that happens as we meet around the state, I think people will realize that it’s the right thing to do,” Harshman said. “In the meantime, we’re going to keep our fingers crossed for high oil prices and good investment returns.
“I think at some point we’re going to have to do it.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, was against HB 220 and the idea of a corporate income tax. But he said the Legislature would eventually figure out a way to make those big box stores pay their way in the state.
Bebout said given the failure of attempts to raise taxes, the next step to balancing the state’s budget could be making cuts to education and public health.
“I think we've got to look at education – take a responsible look at education and programmatic cuts," Bebout said. "We really are spending a lot more money in the (Wyoming) Department of Health. We still want to provide the citizens what they need and what they demand. And I hope we can do that and look at reductions.
“We’ve tried to broaden (the tax base), and we just can't seem to get there.”
While broadening state revenues might not have been a glowing success, the Legislature did make strides in bipartisan efforts to restrict opioid-based medications, improve public records access and reform the judicial system. There also were multiple bills that expanded scholarship opportunities for things like career and technical education and other workforce training programs.
“We did a lot of good. There were a lot of good education bills,” Harshman said. “There’s a lot of little things that people (might not notice) that will make a big difference.”
On the criminal justice side, Perkins said the package of four bills approved by the Legislature to help reform the state’s probation system will not only save money, they will reduce recidivism. A large portion of the state’s prison population is due to parole and probation violations.
“I think that is huge and could potentially could make it that we don't have to build a new prison for a number of years,” Perkins said. “And the other important thing is just helping these people get reintegrated back into society.”
Two bills made it through the process that backers say will help alleviate the spread of opioid abuse. Senate File 46 will limit the amount of opioid-based medications that can be prescribed to a new patient to a seven-day supply. Senate File 47 will require doctors to receive ongoing education for how to prescribe opioids, and to check the Wyoming Prescription Drug Monitoring Program before writing a prescription for an opioid-based medication.