The great American humorist Mark Twain was contacted by a journalist inquiring about rumors of his ill health and imminent demise. Twain famously quipped that “rumors of his death are greatly exaggerated.”
In a similar vein, last week I bemoaned the loss of any real prospect of permanent property tax reform.
But I am glad to say I was premature with my announcement of permanent reform demise. In the waning days of the session, there were those who felt, as I did, that it would be shameful to spend all those weeks in Cheyenne and come away empty handed on a permanent solution to the property tax issue.
Here is what happened. A bill in the Senate for a constitutional amendment to create property tax relief limited to “the elderly and infirm” – SJ3 - had languished in the House, awaiting action. It looked as though the bill was going to die there.
Then, Tuesday of last week – the last week of the session – an amendment was adopted by the House that completely rewrote SJ3. Currently there are only three classes of property for taxation: minerals, industrial and all other. Residential property is lumped under the latter class.
As retooled, SJ3 would modify the Wyoming Constitution to create a fourth class of property tax – residential property. Our constitution also prohibits “sub-classes” of property. The changes to SJ3 allowed a subclass of residential property - owner occupied primary residences.
Once approved by the voters, the legislature could then tax owner occupied homes at more favorable rates than is currently possible.
The amended SJ3 quickly passed the House and went to the Senate for concurrence. So far, the story seems simple. But there is a major constitutional issue with such a consequential rewrite of a bill. The Wyoming Constitution provides “no bill shall be so altered or amended on its passage through either house as to change its original purpose.”
This is intended to prevent “the old switcheroo” where a bill intended for one purpose at the outset is changed to something nobody expected.
That very issue was passionately debated in the Senate consideration of SJ3. There was no question, by many, that the bill had in fact been modified as to change its original purpose, contrary to the constitution. However, the rewritten SJ3 was our last shot at permanent tax reform, and it passed the Senate – one day before the end of the session - with the necessary two-thirds majority – by a one vote margin.
The argument that carried the day, I think, was this: SJ3 will go on the ballot for the voters to consider; leave it to the public to approve or reject as it sees fit. It is their prerogative to afford weight, if any, to the concern about the last-minute changes to the bill.
Last week I was pessimistic – and wrong – about the prospects for permanent property tax reform. Like Mark Twain, I am happy to report that the rumors of demise were greatly exaggerated.
Dave Kinskey represents Johnson County and eastern Sheridan County in the Wyoming Senate. A businessperson and former mayor of Sheridan, he can be reached at his legislative email at Dave.Kinskey@WyoLeg.gov.
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