Rep. Daniel Zwonitzer testifies before the House Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee, of which he was then chairman, in 2017. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

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.”

Committee to review failed bills

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.

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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.

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. Gordon asked the ENDOW committee to study “to study the tax structures of other western, Republican-led states.” Perhaps they should study the state of Colorado. That is the state to the south of us that appears to have growth and economic diversification down to a fine art. They also have good wages and a booming economy. Their state income tax doesn’t seem to phase anyone. Perhaps businesses are more apt to invest where they know what will be expected of them than to invest in a state where each legislative session is a study in confusion when it comes to figuring out how to finance the business of the state. A state income tax doesn’t seem to phase the millionaires and billionaires of Aspen, Vail and Stemboat Springs either. I don’t see them moving out in long winding wagon trains now or anytime soon.

    The amazing thing about Wyoming’s legislators is their conviction that no one in Wyoming would be willing to contribute anything to support our wonderful state. I love Wyoming and have lived here my entire adult life. During my 46 years here I think I have paid something between 6% and 10% of my income in state taxes. Every dollar I spend is taxed at some rate for some thing. Think about sales tax, real estate taxes, fuel tax, automobile registration, lodging taxes…everything … and I have pretty much spent every penny I have ever earned in this state. That doesn’t bother me because it is the price I pay to live in Wyoming. So, as I see it, everyone should pay 6% to 10% of their income to live in Wyoming and not just those of us who spend every penny we earn just to get by.

    I agree with Rep Zwonitzer and his concern about getting no support. The legislature continues to “kick the can down the road” and why should he or any of his interim committee do any work if it is not going to be considered realistically by the legislature as a whole? Assigning an interim committee is a waste of time and resources. There is no magic fix and there does not appear to be enough backbone in the legislature to actually address our total reliance on outdated and failing revenue streams. Think about how fiscally sound our state would have been with a minimal income tax for the last 46 years AND mineral royalties rolling in.

  2. You know you’re living in an energy colony when the quality of your kids’ education depends on the price of oil and the demand for coal.

    Come on Wyoming, let’s get past that!

    1. Maybe we could keep all our kid here after we educate them if we taught roughnecking and oil field production in our schools. That way we would have enough workers to really rape our state and turn it into a western Appalachia. As Wyomingites know oil field workers stay put and don’t migrate with the flow of oil. Dependence one one sector is never an answer. Diversify the economy bet on some thing besides minerals., but change is not good because it brings new ideas and people to populate our vast open spaces.