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ARCHIVED  January 1, 1997

Education, gas tax top Wyoming’s agenda

CHEYENNE — When Wyoming’s Legislature convenes at noon on Jan. 14, it will embark on what likely will be a historic journey to reform the way the state finances public education.

The Legislature must comply with a 1995 Wyoming Supreme Court decision declaring the state’s school financing system unconstitutional, and the outcome probably will have profound implications and impacts on every person and every sector of the state.

Business people obviously are interested in education taxation, but they also have a stake in a good education system.

“Employers are interested in the quality of education, so there can be a qualified work force,´ said Lynn Birleffi, executive director of both the Wyoming Retail Merchants Association and the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association.

But beyond education issues, legislators will tackle a variety of other issues that will affect business — such as gasoline taxes, interstate banking and regulatory reform. And because of the education time table, they likely will tackle many of those “other” issues first.

The Legislature convenes by law on Jan. 14, but a key component of the school financing package – a study by a California consultant to determine the appropriate basic cost of education — won’t be finished until mid-February. So the Legislature plans to defer many of the education issues until a probable special session later this spring (tentatively planned for the week beginning June 2).

Of prime interest to business groups will be any proposed tax increase – from sales tax or elimination of sales-tax exemptions to excise taxes on tobacco and liquor. One that is certain to gain attention is a proposal to increase the state’s gasoline tax from 9 cents a gallon (one of the lowest in the nation) to 14 cents a gallon.

That might seem like a no-brainer, given the importance of highways to link Wyoming’s sparsely populated communities and given the repeated warnings by state highway officials and highway users that highway construction and maintenance needs are underfunded by at least $50 million a year.

But this is Wyoming, where taxes are only slightly more accepted than rustlers, and there will be lots of organized opposition.

Although the gas-tax proposal has support from various highway users groups, such as truckers and the Lodging and Restaurant Association, other business groups are split or opposed.

Two-thirds of the members of the National Federation of Independent Business in Wyoming oppose the increase in a survey taken by NFIB Wyoming director Tom Jones.

“I think the biggest reason is it just increases the cost of doing business for everyone,” Jones said, arguing that his members believe roads are in good shape or believe that state highway funds could be spent more efficiently.

Supporters of a gas-tax increase argue that motorists can “pay now or pay more later” if roads deteriorate to the point they must be rebuilt rather than merely resurfaced, and Don Diller, retiring director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, asks “What does a deteriorating road system do to business?”

(Ironically, to cover the $50 million annual highway-maintenance shortfall would probably take an increase of 12 cents a gallon and a change in the distribution formula to give more to highways and less to local governments. But the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee is pushing only for a nickel-per-gallon increase because its members believe that’s the best they can get).

Also on the agenda will be interstate branch banking. Wyoming is one of the last states to consider whether to opt in to the new national interstate branch-banking system that goes into effect this June. A legislative committee is recommending that Wyoming opt in, with some qualifications. Most bankers in Wyoming support the legislation.

Other business-related issues include liquor-license amendments, work permits for minors, regulatory reform and tort reform.

Jones said the NFIB members also are very concerned with the state Department of Environmental Quality’s failure to draft regulations to implement a 1992 law that provides for DEQ to make courtesy inspections of small business and assist them in meeting regulations, without automatic penalties.

CHEYENNE — When Wyoming’s Legislature convenes at noon on Jan. 14, it will embark on what likely will be a historic journey to reform the way the state finances public education.

The Legislature must comply with a 1995 Wyoming Supreme Court decision declaring the state’s school financing system unconstitutional, and the outcome probably will have profound implications and impacts on every person and every sector of the state.

Business people obviously are interested in education taxation, but they also have a stake in a good education system.

“Employers are interested in the quality of education, so there can be a qualified work force,´…

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