The Wyoming Legislature adjourned on Friday March 3.  There were a couple of items that passed the body that concern me.

One item that concerns me is a proposal to forward a Constitutional Amendment to the voters that would establish another class of property.  Senate Joint Resolution 3 (SJ3) will ask voters to approve four classes of property. If passed by the voters, this Constitutional Amendment would add one more property class to the Wyoming Constitution.  The class proposed would establish residential real property as a class of property. Another part of the amendment would allow the Legislature to create a subclass of residential real property for owner occupied primary residences.

Currently, under the Constitution, the three classes are 1) minerals and mine products, 2) property used for industrial purposes as defined by the Legislature and 3) all other property, real and personal.  Of course, the biggest part of that “all other” category is homeowners.

Some may remember when Wyoming’s property taxing system was found to be unconstitutional because it wasn’t uniform.  Once the court found our system unconstitutional, the process to establish a constitutional assessment process began.  Critical to this system was the establishment of classes of property that could use different systems. We in agriculture fought hard to get agricultural lands assessed based on the lands ability to produce agricultural products.  At the time there were two schools of thought; one to only have two classes and the other to have three classes.  The big argument at the time was that once we started down the path of having multiple classes then it becomes easier and easier to just keep adding classes until the whole system is so complicated nobody can understand it.  Another concern was once you started carving off different classes of property, then those property owners soon become fair game to pick off when it becomes necessary to raise some money.  Our legislative body has been reluctant to raise taxes, even during the downturn, but we’ve seen in other states where legislators didn’t mind raising taxes on small groups of voters.

Wyoming Farm Bureau supported having three classes even though members recognized that a two-class system would be simpler.  In 1988 voters amended our Constitution to establish three classes of property valuations.  This necessitated the Legislature funding a statewide reappraisal method that would bring uniformity to the established classes. Since then, the State Board of Equalization and County Assessors have worked hard to stay within the Constitutional requirements of uniform valuation within those classes.  However, in an effort to provide a mechanism for tax relief to property owners, SJ 3 was passed and signed by the Governor.

Farm Bureau policy only supports three classes of property. Given the previous arguments about making our system complicated and carving off segments of property, we are concerned SJ 3 may do just that.  Not only that, but it is beginning the process of establishing subclasses within a class, something that can add even more complexity to our tax system without providing the envisioned tax relief.

The second item passed by the Legislature that concerns me is the funding of a recreation trust fund.  WyFB policy has always opposed establishing trust funds since that basically puts agencies on automatic pilot.  The power of the purse is one of the most important powers a legislative body has in its toolbox to guard against a runaway bureaucracy.  Once you’ve given an agency a self-funding mechanism, that power is greatly reduced.  WyFB argued against the establishment of the wildlife trust fund, we argued against the establishment of a trust fund to support suicide prevention, we’ve argued against a trust fund to fund state land projects and we’ve also argued against automatic cost of living increases for agency budgets because of the importance of holding agencies accountable to the voters.  Even when it would have benefited agricultural producers, we’ve not supported such funding mechanisms because of this fundamental belief.

We only have to look at our current US budget and all of the “off budget” items that Congress has provided so they can’t vote on whether to cut an agency or program.  It’s not a sound fiscal policy on a national level and it isn’t on a state level.

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President