A tale of two taxes
Voters in Campbell and Johnson Counties weighed in last week on an issue that has long divided voters in Wyoming: whether to tax themselves for government services.
For the third time in Campbell County’s history, voters faced the question of whether to raise taxes to pay for an independent community college district. The latest iteration was a reaction to significant cuts to Gillette College’s budget by the Sheridan-based trustees of the Northern Wyoming Community College District.
In Johnson County, voters were given the choice to add 1 percent to the local sales tax to fund $36 million in capital construction projects including water line repairs, a new library facility in Kaycee, street repairs and a new civic center.
When the votes were tallied Tuesday, the counties produced two dramatically different results.
Campbell County residents voted by a more than 2-1 margin to split with the NWCCD, creating the state’s first new community college district in roughly half a century.
Voters in Johnson County, meanwhile, soundly rejected their bond proposal with 2,080 “no” votes to only 802 in support following an extensive grassroots lobbying effort against it.
“This tax thing was a major flashpoint for [Johnson County residents] to say ‘we don’t want to saddle ourselves with another 20 years worth of taxes,’” conservative podcaster and Johnson County resident David Iverson, an organizer for the opposition effort, said. “Especially when it’s not clear how that tax is going to play out.”
The county-level initiatives come as the Wyoming Legislature has repeatedly declined to enact broad-based tax reform at the state level in the face of continued revenue shortfalls and the state has urged municipalities to take on a greater share of balancing their budgets. Though just 41 percent of Republican voters supported statewide tax increases, according to GOP polling data obtained by WyoFile, local revenue measures have, at times, succeeded.
WyoFile examines how and why one tax passed while the other failed.
An independent Gillette College has been a long time coming.
The proposal was first floated in the community roughly three decades ago. Then, when significant cuts were announced to the college’s budget last year, local leaders asked the Wyoming Legislature to pass a bill enabling Gillette College to split with the NWCCD, which oversees campuses in Gillette, Sheridan and Buffalo.
After weeks of tense debate in Cheyenne, the bill passed both chambers by broad margins and organizers in Campbell County set to work. Gillette native Josh McGrath, a realtor and candidate for the college’s board of trustees, worked with local partners to form a political action committee called “Our Community Our College” to garner support for the split.
The group hired a marketing firm, which then developed an extensive public outreach campaign that included free merchandise, town halls and thousands of dollars in advertisements. The group even garnered endorsements from major figures in the community, including the late U.S. Sen. and former Gillette Mayor Mike Enzi, who recorded a video in favor of the college prior to his death.“We just felt like from the very beginning that we needed to have a very organized effort,” McGrath said. “When [Gillette] tried [and failed] to get the quarter penny tax passed four years ago, the campaign was a little bit thrown together, for lack of a better word. This effort really was a year in the making.”
The arguments for an independent community college were clear, State Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, said. Over the years, the community had invested roughly $90 million in facilities at the college, and paid taxes to support college operations through the NWCCD.
The Anti Tax Coalition, however, quickly emerged to oppose the college. The group was led by local rancher Jacob Dalby and State Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette. Both had also been involved with a PAC that helped defeat the quarter penny tax in 2017.
The group assembled a slate of conservatives to run for the college’s board of trustees, including Dalby and former Wyoming Rep. Scott Clem. In social media posts, the group compared the pro-college camp to Nazis, accused opponents of bribing voters and stealing yard signs and declared that “true conservatives will never vote for more taxes.”
Estimates provided to local officials pegged the average monthly cost at $4 to $15 per household.
On Tuesday, however, voters supported the measure and did not elect the anti-tax group’s candidates. The former Wyoming legislator, Clem, netted just over 1,200 of the nearly 6,000 votes cast, roughly 500 short of receiving a seat. McGrath, meanwhile, received the most votes of any candidate.
“The liberals had a good push,” Dalby told the Gillette News-Record after the vote. “They had a lot of money. Money always wins.”
In Johnson County, a similarly contentious campaign played out between anti-tax advocates and the local business community, which has long sought funds to replace dilapidated public facilities in Kaycee and Buffalo.
One-sixth of the $36 million proposal would have been earmarked for the demolition and replacement of Buffalo’s Bomber Mountain Civic Center, a former middle school that now serves as the community’s premier public event space. Another $6 million was intended for the construction of a new recreation facility, and $2 million for repaving Buffalo’s Main Street, which has become a tourism destination following its appearance in the television series “Longmire.” Millions more would have been allocated to the repair and upkeep of numerous other county facilities.
“These are all facilities that we currently own that actually have no facilities plan to them, either for renovation or for upkeep,” said Rick Myers, chairman of local economic development organization JoCo First. “So that’s what this whole project was.”
But according to the initiative’s opponents, many of the proposed projects were unnecessary. Elements like a new pool at the local YMCA and new clubhouse at the local golf course, podcaster and opponent Iverson argued, should instead be funded by private sources. Opponents claimed the $36 million price tag could grow to as much as $49 million due to interest on the loan. (Officials contended that anti-tax advocates misread the highest rate the county would be willing to pay as absolute fact, thus artificially inflating the cost.)
The anti-tax advocates were organized. Counting just over a dozen members, Iverson’s group — the Patriot Conservatives of Johnson County — knocked on doors around the county urging the defeat of the tax with concise and consistent talking points. Iverson, dedicated significant airtime on his conservative political podcast toward the merits of defeating the proposal.
Efforts grew contentious. After Patriot Conservatives tabled for their cause at a Buffalo farmer’s market — in which they sold apples to circumvent a rule against political activity — an anonymous detractor purchased an ad in the Buffalo Bulletin accusing the group of lying and deception. The Patriot Conservatives of Johnson County PAC responded by filing a $36 million defamation suit against the newspaper.
Ultimately, the failure of the tax came down to two distinct factors, former State Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, said: The county was asking for too much money and at the wrong time.
In the past, Madden said, the local community has voted to increase taxes for specific, one-off projects, including improvements to the local library and certain street repairs. And in debates about the current proposal, there was a consensus that certain facilities — including the Bomber Mountain Civic Center — are in dire need of repair, if not replacement.
“Our people have always been proud of our citizenry here because if they see a need for something, they do go out and vote for it,” Madden said. “I think this was just too big for them to deal with.”
Iverson agreed. The primary issue with the proposal, he said, was its scope.
“We’re going to have to do something with Bomber Mountain at some point,” he said. “But when you couple that with other projects that maybe we don’t necessarily need to do, the whole thing will get voted down.”
Ultimately, just 27 percent of Johnson County voters who turned out supported the new tax.
The fate of local tax initiatives depends heavily on their context, officials said.
In Park County, an effort by Cody Mayor Matt Hall to introduce a penny tax last year failed in the midst of a conservative surge in the region, though voters also supported a slight increase to the local lodging tax reasoning that tourists would absorb the brunt of it. In Rock Springs last month, the city council quashed another one-cent tax effort in a split decision, with opponents arguing the process had moved far too fast.
Last week’s votes faced similar dynamics. In Johnson County, opponents of the one-cent tax increase considered the vote to be a referendum on “wants vs. needs.”
“The role of government is not to own YMCAs or golf courses,” the Patriot Conservatives of Johnson County wrote in their talking points against the measure.
To supporters of an independent Gillette College, a vote in favor of the proposal was not simply about bolstering services. It was a vote in support of self-governance.
“Sheridan College has been an excellent mentor for us,” Wasserburger said. “But essentially it just got to the point where we have so much invested that it was time for this community to step up and take control of its own college and its own government, and start educating students for a new economy that we have to diversify from coal, oil and natural gas. It was time to develop our own workforce and our own economic diversification.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.