CHEYENNE – With lawmakers expected to weigh state budget cuts totaling tens of millions of dollars when they meet in Cheyenne next month, a poll of residents found that Wyomingites were most concerned over the possibility of cuts to the state’s K-12 education system, as well as potential tax increases.
The poll, which was spearheaded by Power Wyoming, an interdisciplinary group tasked with analyzing the state’s economic future, was presented to the Legislature’s House Education Committee during a meeting Friday.
The poll focused on five non-exclusive options before the state: raising sales or property taxes, issuing cuts to the K-12 education system, authorizing further cuts to state agencies, reducing state funding for cities and towns and using money from the state’s “rainy day” fund.
The highest share of the more than 400 residents included in the poll, 28.6%, listed education cuts as their top concern, closely followed by 27.1% of respondents who listed property or sales tax hikes as their biggest one.
University of Wyoming energy economist Rob Godby, who is a member of Power Wyoming, told the committee that respondents had to choose from an array of unattractive options, meaning there wasn’t much support for any of the possibilities.
“I often use the example of imagine somebody told you that you’re getting punched in the face or a kick in the stomach – you’re not going to like either one of those,” Godby said. “But if you’re forced to take one or the other, you might have a preference over which happens.”
The poll aimed to reflect the geographic and demographic breakdowns within the state, though there was a slight gender disparity, with a disproportionate number of men sampled. Results were also broken down by party membership, though any disparities were relatively small. Democrats, for example, were slightly less opposed to tax increases, but it was still the group’s second-highest concern behind education cuts.
“While you might think that parties may be radically different, they really aren’t,” Godby said. “You see the same pattern across the board, regardless of what political affiliation respondents were.”
Godby also highlighted a tool that shows how overall support would fluctuate based on different approaches. For example, a state-level approach of neither education cuts nor tax increases, with the use of more than $400 million in the state’s savings account, along with the roughly $250 million in cuts authorized by Gov. Mark Gordon last summer, would generate about 42% support.
The state response that drew the highest level of support from respondents – just over 50% favorability – was an approach with no tax increases, no education cuts, an additional 5% cut to state agencies and a 10% cut to funding for local governments. That combination would still require more than $300 million to be used from the state’s “rainy day” fund.
“It tells us that people in the state are really not ready for major changes in either personal taxes or K-12 education funding,” Godby said. “They’re willing to make the changes we’ve made to that point, but they’re not willing to go much past that, and so it gives us a starting point.”
“Of course, if we were to draw the rainy day fund at this level and not replenish it, there would be a sustainability question that would come into effect,” he added.
Godby said respondents were slightly less opposed to relatively small tax increases than they were to hefty education cuts. Also, while respondents were OK with the agency cuts already implemented, any cuts beyond that would result in drops in support.
“What we can say is there’s really not a clear consensus on a workable solution that fully addresses the structural challenge we might have,” Godby said.
State and local officials should encourage a dialogue with residents across Wyoming, Godby said, as educating the public on the state’s issues could result in changed attitudes.
“Similarly, it may be the case that cuts to agencies … if they result in real pain, could result in changes, as well, and we could document that over time, which might mean that the preference to do other things, like raise taxes or cut elsewhere, might be more preferred than they seem to be right now,” Godby said.
Committee chair Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, said he would like to see a future breakdown of how residents’ opinions differ between sales and property tax increases to figure out which approach might be “the least offensive.”
Mark Peterson, a marketing professor at UW who helped compile the survey data, said he thought the consulting company that conducted the survey could aim to have further results within a matter of weeks.