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February 19, 2009 5:01 am

Property tax relief bill still alive despite revenue concerns

Written by Tribune Staff

The 2009 Wyoming Legislature is attempting to balance both ends of an economic teeter-totter as lawmakers work to reduce residents' property-tax burdens while also searching for ways to cope with the state's declining mineral revenues.

Helping lead that effort is House Speaker Colin Simpson, R-Cody.

On Tuesday, Simpson said the House of Representatives passed similar property-tax relief proposals in two forms and handed them over to the Senate last week.

One is House Bill 68, Property tax-homestead exemption, which would give property tax rebates up to $900 to elderly or disabled homeowners with low incomes.

Initially, HB 68 would have given the rebate to qualifying homeowners who had lived in their homes for three years. But representatives amended the measure to apply it to qualifying homeowners who had occupied the home as their primary residence since Jan. 1, thereby eliminating the three-year residency requirement.

Under the bill, the property-tax relief program would apply only during years when the Legislature determined there was sufficient money to compensate for lost revenue.

The Senate Revenue Committee is scheduled to review the bill today (Thursday).

A similar property-tax relief measure is included in the supplemental budget bill passed by the House.

The major difference between the two versions of the proposal is where the money to compensate for the decrease in property-tax revenue would come from.

Under HB 68, that money would come from the state's general fund, which essentially serves as the checkbook for paying state government expenses.

The measure included in the House budget bill takes a different approach by earmarking money from the Capitol Rehabilitation and Restoration Fund, established several years ago to restore the Capitol and repair and replace aging infrastructure in the building.

“Because that would take a great deal of money, we may not be able to do that now,” Simpson said.

Simpson said he proposed using $36 million of the money in that account to pay for the tax-relief proposal. He noted that the Legislature also has planned to use money from that fund to build a new state office building on property east of the Capitol complex sometime in the future.

“I'm in favor of using the money for the property tax refund,” he said.

Property-tax relief measures up for consideration now don't include Simpson's original proposal, which was voted down in the House.

But, he said, “I'm happy that there's anything still on the table in this environment.”

The Senate's version of the budget bill does not include the property-tax measure.

Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, said he disagrees with taking money out of the Capitol Rehabilitation and Restoration Fund.

In an Associated Press story, he noted that money for residential property-tax relief already was included in the Legislature's financial plans through HB 68.

“Why would they let this building deteriorate in order to double-fund a property tax (relief proposal) which is only going to cost $40 million?” he asked.

Another major difference, Simpson said, is that the House version of the supplemental budget bill calls for diverting $100 million now slated to go to the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund to the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account.

Both serve as savings accounts for the state, but money deposited in the trust fund remains there permanently, with only interest earnings on the account available for spending.

The reserve account serves as a “rainy-day” account, with money in that account available to the Legislature for emergency spending.

The $100 million that would be diverted under the proposal is designated to the trust fund by statute, while other money is put there under the Wyoming Constitution and cannot be diverted, Simpson said.

Simpson, who proposed the House amendment to divert the money to the reserve account, said that account now holds about $390 million. The Legislature's original goal was to deposit a total of $1 billion into that account.

By diverting $100 million, “We'd like to get it up to around $500 million,” he said.

Some of that money may be needed to pay government expenses in the coming year, he said.

As of Tuesday, natural gas in Wyoming was selling on the Opal hub for $3.07.

“Our (revenue) projections are for average prices of quite a bit higher than that,” he said. “If we only get $3 for the next year, we need more money to fund the budget we created last year, without even taking into account the money we spend this year.”

Schiffer disagreed with the proposal to divert the money.

“What they're doing is, instead of that money flowing into a savings account, they're putting it into a spending account,” he said in the Associated Press story. “And looking down the road, that will have some real ramifications.”

Schiffer said Wyoming won't be able to invest the money in equities if it's not in permanent savings.

“We'll miss all that growth, so I can't say I'm wildly excited about that move,” he said.

Rep. Frank Philp, R-Shoshoni, supported Simpson's amendment to divert the money to the reserve account.

Philp sponsored the bill that bumped up deposits into the permanent trust fund a few years ago.

“When I passed that bill, I didn't intend that we would just lock away the money and cause catastrophic changes in state government,” he said in the Associated Press story.

Simpson and Senate President John Hines, R-Gillette, will appoint members of a conference committee that will work to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the supplemental budget bill. Simpson said the conference committee will begin meeting Monday, and he expects the Legislature to vote on a budget compromise by the end of next week.

Simpson said Tuesday that the Legislature has a much more cautious approach this year than during the past several years when the state experienced large surplus revenues.

“It's a different atmosphere this year,” he said. “People are just more careful with what they're doing with bills and appropriations.”

Of his experience as House speaker, “I'm thinking (past speakers) might have had a nicer time of it,” he said with a chuckle, then added, “I'm actually enjoying it. I'm having a really nice time.

“I'm glad I was here for the good times. Now we need to be conservative and fiscally responsible. Being here in the past lets me know where things are in the budget and where we can fix things.”