Penny Lane

By on November 2, 2016

Talking the pros and cons of the general excise tax.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Around-robin panel of four debated the merits of a one percent local option sales tax at the League of Women Voters forum October 19. Proceeds from the tax would be dedicated for use on housing and transportation issues in the valley. A Community Priorities Fund has been established by both the town and county, but is awaiting an actual revenue stream. The backside of the November 8 general election ballot will include a general sales tax option, which, if it passes, is expected to generate about $12M a year, to be split 55-45 percent between the county and town, and used 50-50 for housing and transportation.

Luther Propst and Mark Newcomb represented the pro tax side. Propst is the county Democratic Party chair and representative of the Community Priorities Coalition. Newcomb is a county commissioner.

John “Tote” Turner and Bob Culver argued against the tax. Turner is the interim chair of the county Republican Party. Culver is a politically active private citizen.

The big take-away from the debate is over the type of tax, and whether it is best suited to tackle ongoing housing and transportation problems the community faces. Though SPET was not up for debate, it is often mentioned when talking about a general excise tax. SPET offers accountability and specificity but cannot cover ongoing operational costs of maintaining whatever it is it builds. A general excise tax would be better suited to funding things like maintenance and salaries.

“What good is a Rec Center without lifeguards? A library without librarians? Or buses with no drivers?” Propst pondered at the forum. “It is not fiscally responsible to allow us to depend on a funding source that allows us to build buildings without being able to operate them.”

Turner said voters should hold out and bring SPET back in April. “As much as I trust the electeds in this room, true accountability comes from SPET. I would like to see the itemization it offers and it left to the voters to decide.”

Most all the panelists agreed the valley is struggling to keep up with the things SPET has built over the past 10 or 15 years. The pro tax side argued it was an indication a general tax was now needed. Culver said it’s more of an indication Jackson Hole needs to go on a diet.

“We need to separate our needs from our wants,” Culver said. “We’ve been a little bit overzealous in wanting things we thought we needed. Perhaps we should think about whether we have an income problem or a spending problem.”

Another main topic of conversation is whether or not the public has an appetite for the tax. Reductions in state revenue sharing have hit other counties hard but Teton remains somewhat immune from dwindling dole outs from Cheyenne. The invited four were split on just how important a new funding source is to the town and county.

“We seem to be in a very good income position in the town and county. We had a good year. Income is trending upward. We don’t need to panic and pass a new tax that would be permanent,” Culver said, referring to the possibility that a general excise tax could, with an ordinance by elected officials, be taken off the ballot in four years and simply roll over into perpetuity unless five percent of registered voters petitioned to have it decided on again.

Newcomb responded, “The county is an arm of the state. We don’t have a lot of control over our financial destiny other than sales tax. If indeed the state’s 30 percent cuts trickle down and impacts our local services here, we do have to look at sales tax.” PJH

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