A series of high-profile stumbles and the resulting displeasure of key interest groups led to the forced resignation last month of long-serving Wyoming Department of Revenue Director Dan Noble.
Appointed to the role by Gov. Matt Mead seven years ago, Noble was a well-respected voice in Cheyenne, and key counsel to members of the Wyoming Legislature on all things tax-related.
Noble is near traditional retirement age, prompting speculation about what could have gone wrong.
“[Noble] was so competent and was likewise so recognized regionally and nationally as one of the main catalysts for the remote sales tax laws that he and I worked on that is now reality,” Michael Madden, a former state representative (and occasional WyoFile columnist) wrote in an email. “If that national measure had not have been enacted, we would have been much, much further into a financial hole today than what is now the case.”
“We all expected him to retire at some point, kind of exit gracefully,” said Senate Revenue Committee Chairman Cale Case (R-Lander). “This was a little bit more sudden.”
Gov. Mark Gordon’s office declined to give a reason for Noble’s departure, but Noble said the governor requested his resignation. Speculation, meanwhile, has turned to recent conflicts between his agency and the influential liquor lobby.
Liquor dealers around the state had publicly expressed frustration with the failure of Wyoming Liquor Division, which Noble oversaw, to deliver product on time over the past year.
National pandemic-related supply shortages were partly to blame, Noble said. But the issue also stemmed from a new computer system rolled out by the state last September to address technology challenges within the division’s Cheyenne warehouse, from which all alcohol sold in Wyoming is shipped.
According to Wyoming Liquor Association director Mike Moser, the system was implemented without first being beta tested, leading to numerous inaccurate orders and incorrect invoices. Some retailers reported receiving holiday promotions after the holidays had ended, Moser said, leading to missed sales.
“It was a liquor division that was hurting my retailers, but it was also hurting taxpayers,” Moser said. “If you don’t get product, you can’t sell it. And the liquor division makes a lot of money for the state of Wyoming. It was just unfortunate. I mean, it breaks my heart. I’ve worked with Dan over 20 years.”
In its latest annual report, the Wyoming Liquor Division accounted for nearly $17 million in tax revenues, roughly 1.3% of the state’s $1.3 billion annual budget.
The industry’s frustrations boiled over at a July 14 Joint Appropriations Committee meeting, in which liquor dealers, fed up with delayed deliveries and a lack of responsiveness from the state, dressed down Revenue Department officials.
Noble resigned shortly after. Gordon announced his replacement, former Laramie County Assessor and recently retired Department of Revenue employee Brenda Henson, on July 23.
Liquor Division employee Nicole Novotny-Smith was asked to resign the same day as Noble, telling the Casper Star-Tribune in a Facebook message that the request from Gordon’s Chief of Staff Buck McVeigh was “unexpected.”
“The issues at the Liquor Division, I’m told, was controllable stuff, items associated with the system itself,” Noble told WyoFile. “The rollout didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped initially. But there were things that happened beyond anybody’s control. The fact that COVID created shipping issues… there’s all sorts of problems that were generated by that, that had nothing to do with the system. It was unfortunate.”
Lawmakers and local governments
Issues with the Liquor Division — which are still ongoing, according to Moser — were not the only challenge under Noble’s tenure, sources told WyoFile.
Persistent problems in implementing the state’s new monthly ad valorem tax payment system frustrated both legislators and county officials, sources say.
The system resulted from a piece of 2020 legislation requiring energy companies to pay some of their taxes monthly instead of racking up big bills over time. The shift was intended, in part, to protect county revenues from the risk of company bankruptcies, and provide greater certainty on county balance sheets amid declining revenues from volatile minerals like coal, oil and gas.
What ensued, however, was more uncertainty. An exemption for annual filers in the system (companies paying less than $30,000 in ad valorem taxes per year) was not implemented on time, impacting somewhere in the range of 300 companies, according to Wyoming County Commissioners’ Association director Jerimiah Rieman. The Department of Revenue proposed a solution to the problem, Rieman said, but it ultimately did little to assuage the concerns of county commissioners, who rely not only on revenue projections from the state but the companies themselves to set and manage municipal budgets.
The DOR continued to experience challenges facilitating tax distributions between the companies and districts they were owed to, leaving the counties unable to properly track where the cash could actually be spent. This was particularly difficult on counties that collect large sums of mineral revenues such as Converse County, where Treasurer Joel Schell estimates three-quarters of the county’s revenues come from minerals.
“There was a lot of frustration about how the Department of Revenue initially proposed to move forward with the transition,” Schell said.
Efforts at diplomacy between Noble’s office and county treasurers also stumbled. Following dissatisfaction with Noble’s answers on a call in early spring, county treasurers invited Noble to their annual conference in the hopes of a more in depth discussion, Schell said. Noble said the invitation was forgotten; a result of a miscommunication in his office over whether he or a representative would attend.
Schell believes Henson, with decades of experience and a reputation as a capable administrator, will do well in the role, he said. But her entry comes at a challenging period of transition for the department that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think [Noble] was in a tough position,” Schell said. “And I think Brenda is coming in a tough position as well.”