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Ray Peterson

Increased beer tax puts burden for service where it belongs

in Column/Ray Peterson
2611

By R. Ray Peterson

Recently, the Legislature’s Labor and health Committee voted down a proposed increase to the malt beverage tax.  This tax has not been increased since 1935!  

The tax on malt beverage in Wyoming is still at 2 cents per gallon or less than two-tenths of a cent per 12 oz. can.  Wyoming ranks 50th — last of all the states — with the lowest tax on malt beverage products.  All other states around us tax beer at an average of 20 per gallon.  

So why are we so reluctant to raise this tax?   There seems to be a disconnect from the costs incurred by the state from this market and what we charge in tax to help meet those costs.  

Here are some figures that might surprise many.  The direct cost that our state incurs from the abuse of alcohol is projected at around $27.6 million, (WYSAC 2010 study). 

The current tax on beer at 2 cents per gallon generates about $265,000 annually.  This leaves the state having to come up with $27.3 million to pay for the services we provide that are associated with alcohol abuse, for treatment centers, law enforcement, court costs, emergency services and correctional facilities.  Indirect costs, such as lost productivity, associated with alcohol abuse was estimated to be in the area of $800 million dollars.

The arguments against raising the beer tax in the past have been that it would only raise $2.3 million in additional revenue, which would not come close to meeting the $27 million costs to the state.  Another was that we would have many of our citizens driving to surrounding states to buy their beer and that it would put many of our beer retailers out of business.

First, if the tax was comparable to surrounding states, such as the 20 cents per gallon amount, there would be no savings by driving to another state to make your purchase.  The tax would need to be competitive with surrounding states eliminating that concern.  And second, $24 million in subsidies is better than $27.3 million.  

We seem to not have a problem with raising the tobacco tax over the years to help meet the costs associated with tobacco use as well as persuade folks to reconsider the health risks, but alcohol seems to be thought of differently.  Perhaps we don’t really associate these estimated costs to the abuse of alcohol.  Or maybe that alcohol abuse is not considered to be a health risk.  

What ever the disconnect is, or has been, the end result is millions of dollars over the years have been spent from the general fund to cover the costs that are directly related to alcohol abuse.        

This question should be asked if this money could be spent or used for things that could serve our state better?  These funds could be used for local government distributions, K-12 education funding, senior citizen centers, libraries, streets, bridges, recreation centers, ball fields, parks, tourism, economic development and on and on.   

For the last 84 years, Wyoming has chosen to subsidize the beer drinkers with a portion of the excess revenues we’ve enjoyed.  Now those excess revenues are diminishing and yet, we still can’t quite bring ourselves to the reality that services cost money, and now, with money that we don’t have.   But, for some odd reason, we take pride that we have the lowest beer tax in the nation.  Perhaps we have some that are looking at this as economic development by attracting more drinkers to our state by keeping the tax on beer low.  We even had serious attempts to do away with the sales tax on beer completely because it just did not generate any large revenue.  I don’t think I need to look up the definition of stupid.  

But not to worry folks, a healthy dose of reality is knocking at our door in the Cowboy State and our leaders will be forced to come to grips of making every dollar stretch. You can bet on one thing as we keep the tax on beer the lowest in the nation, that the costs that we all incur from the effects of alcohol will continue to increase, making the figures even worse with each passing year.  

For me, while I served, it was a matter of being practical with our state’s revenue as well as the fairness of the issue.  I made two attempts at raising the beer tax in Wyoming and was overwhelmingly defeated both times in the house, where all taxing bills must start.  I compare this issue with how we fund our highways.  Those that use our highways pay a tax for having a vehicle in licensing, registration, sales tax and fuel tax.  With the beer industry and our drinkers, they want nothing to do with helping pay for the expenses that are created by them.  Same old story: Let someone else pay for my expenses both now and in the future.  

My final thought on the subject.  I would be OK with eliminating the malt beverage tax and the alcohol tax in Wyoming as long as we eliminate all services that are provided for those who choose to use or abuse alcohol.  Wait, what?  How cold is that?  Funny how drinkers don’t recognize the costs associated with drinking but how dare we cut or eliminate the services they receive when they’ve had a bit too much to drink.  

When will we recognize that everything has a cost and who better to meet that expense than those that create the cost in the first place.  Now it should be understood that I don’t have a problem with the drinkers of Wyoming.  My problem rests with the state’s failure to properly tax those who create the tax burden.  As I served as the Senate Revenue Committee Chairman, I always tried to be fair and equitable in sharing the tax burden, as we considered each tax proposal.  In this particular case, it certainly is not fair to under-tax the users while expecting others to pick up the tab.  The one comforting thought I have in this matter is that state revenues are shrinking and as the money for budgets disappear, we will be forced into making these so-called tough decisions that we have put off 84 years.

Cheers everyone!

R.Ray Peterson is a Cowley resident who served as a state senator from 2005 to 2018.

Cameras in classroom would increase school accountability

in Column/Education/Ray Peterson
2583

By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley, WY 

Accountability from our schools has been an ongoing concern for years as the Legislature has struggled to understand how much the state spends for the results received. I remember a bill I sponsored years ago in an attempt to address this issue. 

The measure was nicknamed the “camera bill,” but its actual title was “Improving Teacher Evaluations.” It passed introduction, only to fail in the Senate Education Committee by one vote. Simply put, it was a concept for a pilot program to put cameras in the classroom to use for evaluations and provide security for both teachers and students. 

I thought it was an ideal time to implement the concept as we were building schools at a fast pace. The pilot program was to involve four schools, each of a different size, around our state. The program would continue for one year and a report on its effectiveness would be given to the Legislature.

The nexus of this concept came when I asked a few retired teachers how they were evaluated over the many years they had taught. Their answers were varied and inconsistent, which led me to believe that teacher evaluations across our state were somewhat of a “hit and miss” process. Stories of teachers suing school districts for wrongful termination or superintendents being reluctant to fire teachers with guaranteed contract status because of the personal hits they took led me to take a serious look at the evaluation process or how we might improve the process to address these concerns.

Think of it! The student and teacher would never know if the principal or instructional facilitator were watching! This alone would have a positive affect for both the student and the instructor. 

I only wish that every citizen from our state could have seen my presentation of this bill to the Senate Education Committee. Many certainly would have been entertained while listening to the point/counter-point between the Wyoming Education Association representatives and myself. It was classic. Perhaps this is where I made myself an enemy to these folks. 

Anyway, this idea was meant to be an additional tool an administrator could use to evaluate teachers. No disruption of the classroom with personal visits, no tip-off to give the teacher a chance to prepare. And the best part? Now a recording could be reviewed by the teacher, principal, the instructional facilitator and one of the parents of a student. 

Wait, a parent? How dare we suggest such a thing! Hold on, let me explain. The parent was to attend the viewing and submit a simplified evaluation form. Did the teacher seem prepared? Did he or she seem to maintain class discipline? Simple and basic questions. Then the parent representative would be asked to leave. Then the three people remaining in the room would get down to business while making recommendations and assignments for improvements as needed. The instructional facilitator would be assigned to work with the teacher in certain areas and all three would be required to sign off on the evaluation report. A work plan for improvement would be made, assignments given and a follow-up visit would be set to re-evaluate for these areas to be worked on. Think of the effect this would have on wrongful termination lawsuits. Or more importantly, how the schools could address the strengths or shortcomings of a teacher or administrator!

So why the parent involvement? In order for this to work, we must first, insure that the evaluations are happening. The parents group representative attends the monthly school board meeting to report on how many evaluations parents have participated in that month. Now everyone is on the hook! Not just our teachers and students but everyone from parents to administrators. No personnel problems or employee confidences are threatened. Just a quick report on whether the evaluations are happening to the school board and superintendent. 

Make no mistake, evaluations are the hardest part of school administration, but also the most critical. New school buildings and curriculum have less to do with a student’s education than a teacher’s desire and ability to teach. I would encourage parents around our state to ask their school administrators how teacher evaluations are performed in their own school districts. How often they are performed? How is the follow up performed? Who is involved in carrying out the improvement plans for an under-performing teacher? What you may find out could surprise you. It is as varied as you could imagine, from no evaluations to some. 

When I asked for myself, I was surprised to find out that the teacher was asked by the principal if the principal could attend a class sometime in the future. The time was set by the teacher and I’m sure the preparation began. I’m sure everything went to plan and the evaluation was deemed a success. I thought to myself, ‘How many things were wrong with this type of an evaluation?’ From reporting the evaluation to the effectiveness of the actual evaluation. Where was the hook or accountability for any of the players that we deem critical to our child’s education?

Second, we would reduce the wasteful wrongful termination lawsuits. Not only would we have documentation of the evaluations signed by all parties, but also from the instructional facilitator. This person is the best qualified teacher in each district, assigned the task of assisting other teachers become better instructors. The principal and the instructional facilitator would both work at improving the quality of teaching in our schools. This would also reduce concerns of personal attacks, inconsistent evaluations, new administration, personality conflicts and surprise terminations. Proper and consistent evaluations should remove all of these concerns.

Third, this proposal would involve and make more players accountable than just our teachers. Parents need to be more involved. How could a principal use the recording of a parent’s child struggling in one of their classes? How could parents reporting to the school board each month help improve the performance of our principals in conducting regular evaluations? If I were serving on a school board and the parents reported to us that they had been invited to only one evaluation that semester in a school with more than 20 teachers, I would think that we have a problem in evaluating our teachers consistently and properly.

Finally, this program would focus the efforts of not only our teachers and students but also our instructional facilitators, principals, parents, school board members and superintendents on educational excellence. If we really believe that education is the most important thing we do in this state, then I would ask the question, what is wrong with this concept? These are public institutions of learning and we have the technology to improve our efforts, so why not implement a pilot program to see what the effects might be? 

As a closing thought, having cameras in most parts of a school would only add to the security of our students and faculty. Bullying would be handled properly with video evidence being used to show all parties involved. 

Throwing additional money at a problem does not always solve the problem. Sometimes more effort is required. Maybe some courageous legislator can blow the dust off of my old bill and introduce it again. But beware of those that want nothing to do with accountability in our schools because they will come out in droves in opposition to this effort. More money is what they want.

I remain convinced that if implemented, this one improvement could do more for the quality of education in this state than anything else we could possibly do. More so than additional money or higher salaries, new buildings, more activities or even improved curriculum. This one effort to improve evaluations in our schools would hit the bullseye for boosting the quality of education in Wyoming. It would certainly eliminate the wrongful termination lawsuits. It would blow a hole through the guaranteed contract status of teachers and would provide the proper incentive to continually improve education efforts in schools. 

I’ve always believed that if evaluations were done correctly, we would have better teachers, happier teachers, accomplished teachers and better test scores for our students. Is it any wonder why our friends at the WEA were opposed to this concept? It did not fit with their desire for higher wages, guaranteed positions with less accountability. Perhaps it’s time for a new organization that puts our students first. W4E. Wyoming For Education. I would hope that such an organization would not fear innovation, technology, accountability, and responsibility.

Now who is serious about educating our children?

Ray Peterson served as a state senator for 13 years, from 2005-2018. He lives in Cowley.

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