Riverton Challenger For Wyoming House Wants To Eliminate Property Tax

Joel Guggenmos said he didn’t want to run for the Wyoming Legislature, but feels a divine responsibility to challenge Riverton House incumbent Ember Oakley, saying he’s against big government and wants the elimination of property taxes.

Leo Wolfson

April 29, 20249 min read

State Rep. Ember Oakley, left, and Joel Guggenmos.
State Rep. Ember Oakley, left, and Joel Guggenmos. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Riverton resident Joel Guggenmos didn’t want to run for the Wyoming Legislature and said he dodged the issue for a few years. But after this year’s legislative session, he could take no more.

He noticed that the only people running for office are candidates who want to be in politics, which he believes is part of the problem. Saying no to running, for Guggenmos, would be akin to “neglecting a responsibility” he believes he was given by God.

“It became more and more clear as time went on that I was supposed to run, as much as I did not want to and still do not want to,” he said. “It became clear I’m being called to do that, and I’m answering that call.”

Guggenmos is running as a Republican for House District 55 against state Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton. He believes Oakley hasn’t effectively represented the district and is a “spending politician.”

“She is for big government and she’s willing to reach into our pockets and pay for it all,” he said. “It’s stuff that we don’t need, it’s nonessentials.”

Oakley confirmed to Cowboy State Daily on Monday she’s running for a third term in office. If reelected, Oakley said she wants to focus on civility, discourse and serious legislation.

She believes Wyoming’s traditional “live and let live” approach to conservatism is being replaced with a shift from people who don’t respect this mantra or pose effective solutions for the problems they complain about.

“I just believe that we need to have legislators focused on real issues for the people of Wyoming,” she said. “I believe that I represent the long-held, even traditional, Wyoming values.”

Oakley is the vice chair of the House Revenue Committee and also a member of the House Judiciary Committee, two relatively prominent committees in the Legislature. She also serves on the Select Committee on School Facilities and the Select Committee on Tribal Relations, the latter a major role considering that she represents the Wind River Reservation in her district.

Guggenmos is a former Riverton School Board member who has lived most of his life in the city.

In 2022, Guggenmos drew attention from the Department of Family Services when he and his wife pulled their then-13-year-old son from chemotherapy because they believed it was no longer effective or necessary to treat his leukemia.

Property Taxes

As a member of the Revenue Committee, Oakley considered more than a dozen bills aiming to provide property tax relief during the last session.

Guggenmos said the biggest issue facing residents in his district is increasing property taxes. He said there should be no more property taxes until two or three independent audits of Wyoming’s property tax revenue are performed, and if it were up to him, there would be no property taxes at all.

“No one should have to pay taxes on what is already theirs,” Guggenmos said. “Private property, that was the draw to America. You could have your own land. Now, if you have your own land, it’s really not yours because you’ve got to keep paying those taxes.

“It is terrible, and it is really affecting people negatively,”

Oakley said Guggenmos’ take on property taxes completely lacks an understanding for how government and property taxes work and what will be done to make up the lost revenue. Revenue from property taxes goes to local governments and schools around the state.

“To say that and espouse that is not only dangerous, but I think it shows profound lack of understanding of how our communities are funded,” she said. “To not have property tax would leave your county sheriff, your roads, your local governance without money.”

There were a few bills passed into law in the most recent legislative session providing various forms of property tax relief. Guggenmos said they fall well short of what’s needed to combat ongoing inflation.

“It was terrible,” he said.

Oakley said legitimate progress was made on providing property tax reform during the 2024 session. One of her proudest achievements from her last term in office was the passing of House Enrolled Act 45 this spring, legislation that puts a 5% cap on year-to-year property tax increases.

“I think we made some good progress,” she said.

Oakley voted against amendments to the bill that would have lowered the cap to 4% and 3%, which Guggenmos said is telling. Guggenmos said he would have voted against the bill as it doesn’t address the elevated level of property taxes when compared to the past.

“Basically, she wanted the highest amount of property tax possible, which she got,” he said.

Oakley also supported legislation that provides tax breaks for long-term homeowners of the state.

She said more property tax relief and reform solutions are needed and mentioned how discussions will continue this summer on Casper Republican Rep. Steve Harshman’s proposal to get rid of property taxes while increasing the state’s sales tax rate.

“I heard so much interest in it from the people of Wyoming,” she said. “I do think it’s ripe for that fuller, broader discussion.”

The Right Legislation

Oakley said she’s also proud of legislation she passed in 2023 allowing state prosecutors to charge convicted thieves with felony — as opposed to misdemeanor — theft after four prior convictions.

Shoplifting is a significant crime in Riverton that she said many business owners wanted a solution for. She mentioned how one local woman was recently convicted on her 23rd charge for the crime.

In her full-time profession, Oakley is a prosecutor for the Fremont County Attorney's Office, which she said has been valuable for her work on the Judiciary Committee.

“We’re definitely able to utilize that to really address something that is a flagrant problem in my community,” she said.

Oakley believes there has been a concerning trend of out-of-state issues pervading Wyoming politics, which she attributes to the work of the farther right Wyoming Freedom Caucus.

She mentioned how certain bills like Casper Republican Rep. Jeanette Ward’s What Is A Woman Act were copied and pasted from legislation in other states. Other bills like Powell Republican Sen. Dan Laursen’s bill to prohibit employers from requiring their employees to have microchips put in them, aims to address an issue that has never been documented in Wyoming.

Based on her conversations with constituents, Oakley believes legislation like this doesn’t represent what they're looking for and is “non-serious.”

“What I notice about those specifically is they’re not solving a current state of Wyoming issue,” Oakley said. “I believe there is a conflation of issues that may be national hot topic buttons but they’re not something that’s currently an issue or a problem facing Wyoming.”

Guggenmos believes national issues are relevant in Wyoming and that Oakley’s votes have allowed for their development in the state, an action he asserts that the majority of her constituents oppose.

“My view is she’s in dereliction of her duty because she is not representing the constituents,” he said.

He mentioned votes Oakley made against defunding the University of Wyoming’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Gender Studies programs at the school. Guggenmos also opposed her vote against bringing back a bill that would have invalidated driver’s licenses for non-U.S. citizens living illegally in Wyoming.

He also was opposed to the addition of 52 new state employees and $9 million overall increase in compensation in this year’s biennial budget, both of which Oakley supported.

Oakley said she found it outrageous that Freedom Caucus legislators voted against the budget.

“Which is a vote to defund Wyoming, which is so egregious,” she said.

Guggenmos said he won’t seek any endorsements for his campaign but would accept an endorsement from the Freedom Caucus if it’s offered.

“As I’m running, my No. 1 goal is to represent the people,” he said. “I want the endorsement of the people, that is the only endorsement that I will seek after.”

The District

House District 55 makes up north, central and west Riverton.

Oakley hasn’t faced a Republican primary challenger since first elected in 2020.

“The only reason I believe she’s in there is because nobody has been willing to step out of their comfort zone and do something they don’t want to do,” Guggenmos said.

In 2022, she fended off Libertarian candidate Bethany Baldes in the general election by 21%. In 2020, Baldes only lost to Oakley by 32 votes in the general election.

Guggenmos said he voted for Oakley in 2020 and then Baldes in 2022.

Oakley said she has hope and belief that Wyoming voters are waking up to a lack of civility and discourse in the Legislature that has increased over the last few years.

“I do think we’re making some headway as far as people finally understanding what’s facing Wyoming,” she said. “I think the good people of Wyoming will get behind a return to serious legislation, a focus on Wyoming, a focus on Wyoming people and Wyoming solutions.”

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter