No More Not Even Once: The cost of living in a “tax friendly” state

By on October 25, 2017

Wyoming is one of the nation’s largest consumers of methamphetamines. It’s also the most tax-friendly state. If you think those two facts are unrelated, think again.

Kiplinger, a business and finance forecasting publication, recently named the most tax-friendly states, and, of course, Wyoming was at the top of that list.

Meanwhile, social services across the state are trying to dig themselves out of financial crisis in the wake of massive budget cuts. Not all have survived.

The Casper-based nonprofit “Wyoming Meth Project” is joining the ranks of fallen nonprofits this year, thanks in part to a major lack of funding.

The methamphetamine prevention and education program announced its plans to shut down at the beginning of the month. The nonprofit continues to run ads on TV, though, likely through the end of the year, says executive director Jean Davies, but then it will dissolve.

“It’s a tough world for nonprofits right now,” Davies said.

The nonprofit’s primary funding came from the Wyoming Department of Health, which faced a $90 million budget cut last year (for a two-year budget).

That loss trickled down to a $2.1 million cut in suicide and substance abuse prevention — never mind that Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the country.

“So where do they cut? Suicide prevention,” Davies said. “It kind of boggles my mind.”

Meanwhile, Wyoming residents shoulder one of the lowest tax burdens in the country, “thanks to abundant revenues that the state collects from oil and mineral rights,” Kiplinger reports.

“Wyoming is able to keep resident taxes low in part because of its significant mineral wealth and the severance taxes it imposes,” said Kiplinger reporter David Muhlbaum.

But those industries are in rapid decline. The U.S. Department of Energy reported recently that coal production in 2016 was at its lowest point in 35 years.

Taxes haven’t caught up to the industry decline: Wyoming residents don’t pay state income tax. Property taxes are the ninth lowest in the country (which is good news for Teton County second homeowners, we guess).

Gas tax (for consumers) is 24 cents per gallon—eight cents lower than the national average.
These numbers all make Wyoming an appealing state for second homeowners and newcomers, which is really who Kiplinger’s data are for, Muhlbaum said.

“It’s of most direct importance to people considering a move and who may have latitude over where they choose to live,” he said.

For those residents who already live in the state, a low tax burden comes at the cost of education funding ($35.4 million loss) and social services like Wyoming Meth Project.

In February, Wyoming legislators voted against an added cigarette tax that would have provided $2 million to substance abuse and suicide prevention.

Wyoming’s chapter of the national nonprofit started in 2003 as a response to a string of meth-related homicides in Casper. The U.S. Department of Justice has dubbed methamphetamines the primary drug threat in the state, and Wyoming continually ranks number one for meth use among young adults ages 12 and up.

Davies’ own family fell victim to meth use: One of her kids has been clean for 11 years now, but not without their share of violent encounters.
“When you get your front door kicked open twice,” Davies said, you realize something has to change.

And it’s not a picky drug.

“It doesn’t just impact people with no money,” Davies said. Addiction knows no income.

By now, its affects are well known: A euphoric first high that users can never achieve again, but are “always looking for.”

A deep depression when they’re not using. Paranoia.

“It damages internal organs because… well, Drain-o?” Davies said.

In her experience, many of the substances people are using to get high are household staples: fertilizer, Drain-O, Sudafed.

“It always boggles my mind. Who sits down and says, ‘mix all these things together, that’s gonna be a really good thing.”

Approximately 10 percent of Wyoming’s young adults do, apparently.

Scare tactics

You know those bone-chilling “Meth: not even once” billboards and television ads? Those are Wyoming Meth Project’s work. They’re designed to terrify: Images of young people picking away at their skin, ads of overdosed kids being abandoned at a hospital entrance.

“It’s aimed at kids to not even want to try this drug,” Davies said.

But such scare tactics don’t always work when kids see meth in the real world, their real world, and it doesn’t look like the billboards, Davies said. When the person selling it at a party has all their teeth, and unpicked skin.

So Wyoming Meth Project also started going into classrooms, and building meth education and prevention into school curricula. Personal, face-to-face interaction makes a difference.

To measure progress, Wyoming Meth Project administered surveys to randomly selected school across the state. Each of the five surveys documents a slight shift in attitudes around meth.

From 2008 to 2011, for example, the amount of kids who think there is a “great risk” in taking meth increase by nine points, to 62 percent.

“With each survey, there has been a change, percentage-wise,” Davies said. “That’s where we can show that our program is working.”

And it’s not hard to convince kids about the dangers of meth when they’ve already seen it for themselves, Davies said.

“When you talk to kids, they all know about it,” Davies said. “They all know somebody that’s been affected by it.”

Exhibit A: Wyoming Meth Project has hosted two art contests the past four years, asking kids to visually portray what meth means to them. Last year, they got 141 entries from 22 counties across the state.

“They all had a personal story about how meth had affected them or someone they knew,” Davies said.

Davies recalls an entry from the first competition: a 15-year-old girl from Rawlins submitted a “phenomenal” picture of a little girl, presumably the artist. Text in the background read: “Before meth, I was important to my mom.”

Wyoming Meth Program will shut down by the end of the year, but Davies said she will find other ways to carry its mission. Prevention is her passion.

“Everywhere I go, I hear that: Jean, this can’t happen,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do about it. But we’ll keep up our fight one way or the other.”  PJH

About Shannon Sollitt

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