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On the ballot

Feb 10, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

There hasn't been a formal vote of authorization yet, but every indication points to the Fremont County Commission's willingness to permit voters to decide whether to impose an additional 1 percent sales tax to be used for specified improvements across the county's cities and towns.

Speaking at this week's commission meeting, Commissioner Travis Becker, of Riverton, illustrated the difference between advocating a higher tax versus a ballot question.

"I'm certainly not opposed to it," he said, referring to placing the measure on the November ballot. But, he said, "I'm not so sure I'm going to go out and be a cheerleader for it," referring to the tax itself.

It's a deal. No one is asking the commissioners to be cheerleaders for a higher sales tax. On political terms, that's almost never something an elected official in Wyoming could ever be.

But the 1 percent tax will have plenty of cheerleaders all the same, including many from Fremont County's municipal governments. They already tend to feel they are left with the crumbs of public funding after all the bigger government dogs have eaten.

Sales tax revenue is their most consistent revenue stream. The national recession didn't do our cities and towns any good, coming as it did on the heels of a repeal of the sales tax on most food sales statewide. Promised compensation from the state for those lost revenues has never panned out the way the mayors, councils and department heads were hoping it would.

And now there is another problem. All the economic forecasters are saying the downturn in natural gas prices could send Wyoming's tax revenues plunging by as much as $300 million over the next two years. That's far from certain, and the track record of these soothsayers in Wyoming has been one of inaccurate underestimation, but the legislators who plan Wyoming's budget have no choice to presume for the time being that the price of our gaseous gold will stay flat.

One hard, cold winter could change things in a hurry, but if that doesn't happen soon, it won't be a good environment for increased revenues to our hungry cities and towns.

The anti-tax credentials of Wyoming residents are well-established and harder than reinforced concrete. That goes from the state level to the Fremont County Commission to our county's mayors and councils. If there is a "tax-and-spend liberal" in the bunch, that person is well disguised.

Even so, when demands for basic public services are great at precisely the same time revenues are down, it is a simple matter of common sense and civic responsibility to examine all viable funding options.

An optional 1 percent sales tax is one such option. There will be a donnybrook as the pros and cons are batted about, but that's just fine. The idea deserves a fair hearing, a vigorous debate before an informed vote on election day, and it looks like that's just what we're going to get.

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