A journey of a ten thousand steps begins with the first step, and it appears that property tax reform is poised to take that first step.
Gov. Mark Gordon said on Friday that he will sign Senate Joint Resolution 3, which was amended at the 11th hour of the 67th Wyoming Legislative Session to revive a bill asking voters whether to put residential property tax into its own category.
That change is seen as vital to targeting relief to homeowners. Right now, residential property tax sits in the “other” category, along with commercial and agricultural property, and the Wyoming constitution spells out that lawmakers must treat all three property types in that category equally.
That has stymied lawmakers again and again when it comes to targeting property tax relief to struggling homeowners, amid double digit rate increases across most counties in the Cowboy State.
Getting to this point required last-minute compromise among strange political bedfellows, as well as a most unusual substitution.
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson had initially brought the idea of a category specifically for residential property to the Joint Revenue Interim Committee. Two bills, House Joint Resolution 2 and Senate Joint Resolution 12, had come out of that effort, each with slightly different language.
But both bills died early in the legislative session. House Joint Resolution 2 never made it out of committee. It had sought to tie in a property tax cap along with the category change.
Senate Joint Resolution 12, meanwhile, which did not have a cap on tax rate increases, made it to a floor vote. But it failed to gain the required two-thirds majority, with members of the Freedom Caucus voting against it as a bloc, on the third and final reading.
Getting Outside The Tax Relief Death Box
The joint resolution bills weren’t the only tax reform and relief bills to die this session. No less than 21 bills devoted to either property tax relief or reform were proposed this legislative session, and, as the 67th Legislature neared its end, most of them had died.
The Legislature, despite all campaign promises to the contrary, had turned into the place where property tax relief and reform bills go to die. Just two bills had escaped the death box. House Bill 99, which expanded an existing refund program tied to income eligibility, and House Bill 100, a study bill that proposed looking at whether residential property tax should be based on purchase price instead of fair market values.
Because the latter focused on residential property, House Bill 100 wasn’t too meaningful, Gov. Gordon suggested, given the death of both resolutions to ask voters whether residential property should have its own category.
Regardless of what the Legislature did or didn’t do, however, old, beat-up trailers were still selling for $675,000 in Republican Sen. Dan Dockstader’s (R-Afton) county, while in Rep. Liz Storer’s (D-Jackson) county of the jagged peaks, property tax rates had leapt an eye-popping 36 percent.
Both lawmakers were highly motivated to do something more for property tax reform with just days remaining in the legislature.
Senate Joint Resolution 3, brought by Dockstader, was the only tax reform/relief vehicle still running in the Legislature. It had sought to write into the constitution a homeowner’s tax exemption for the elderly and infirm.
But Wyoming already has a program that does something similar.
Could that language be replaced with some of the language of House Joint Resolution 2, which had been sponsored by Speaker Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale?
Behind the scenes, Storer, Dockstader, Yin, Sommers, and other lawmakers who had promised voters something aimed at reform were all coalescing behind that unconventional idea.
In addition to convincing the House to approve such an amendment, they would also need to convince a few more lawmakers in each chamber to change their vote on the matter of a residential property tax category. They needed a two-thirds majority in each chamber to get it across the finish line to Governor Gordon’s desk.
With so many lawmakers disappointed at the Legislature’s outcome for property tax reform and relief, this wasn’t mission impossible after all. There were enough lawmakers in each chamber eager to tell their voters they’d made a real difference for their constituents.
“This legislation wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work and perseverance of Rep. Storer (D- Jackson), who adapted my original bill into a more comprehensive solution for the people of Wyoming,” Dockstader said. “We all worked together to make this happen.”
A Long Road Ahead
The ballot measure pulling residential property into its own category is really just a beginning. By itself, it won’t create property tax reform, even if voters approve the measure when it’s placed on the ballot in the 2024 General Election.
Lawmakers will still have to decide what exactly to do for residential property tax, once it has its own category.
“So that’s where the fun will begin,” Storer told Cowboy State Daily. “As we debate what we do with this new shiny tool, right, that we’ve just created for ourselves here.”
Storer suggested there are several approaches lawmakers could take, once residential property exists in its own category. That will make it the subject of future debates, which means a long and winding road could still lie ahead for property tax reform.
“This is really about people’s hopes, right?” She said. “And that’s where we want to focus our effort. I mean, our Wyoming tax system still needs comprehensive changes.”