To understand how a glamping operation and 800 self-storage units could possibly be in the best interests of Wyoming’s school children, it’s necessary to recall the recent history of legislative failure. With the steady decline of revenues from fossil fuel extraction, Wyoming has had shortfalls in education funding for several years, yet far-right Republicans have stymied any effort to raise revenues from other sources. This had led the Wyoming Education Association and the school district in Cheyenne to recently sue the state for failing in its constitutional duty to provide equitable and adequate public education.
Wyoming requires that all schools receive an equitable amount per pupil – this is both a noble and practical approach to funding education given the disparities in county economics. Until 2018, the state provided funds to Teton County schools, but that trend has now reversed. With Teton County’s global demand for housing driving up prices, we are now sending an astronomical amount of property tax revenue – estimated to be $54M this year – to pay for schools in other parts of the state. This represents over one-third of all property tax collected in the county. Only three other counties out of 22 contribute along with Teton County, and they are all based on mineral revenues.
In the meantime, the state faces what is estimated to be a $192.8M shortfall in education funding for the next biennium* – even with Teton County’s property tax windfall – since the Republican-led legislature has refused to find other revenues to make up for mineral revenue losses. Many legislators oppose funding public education and are happy to continue this path of destruction, hobbling the strongest pillar upon which a future diversified economy could stand.
In the face of such obstinance, other legislators want to squeeze more revenue from the state trust lands that are held in trust to generate revenue for our schools, passing a bill in 2020 that calls for maximizing income from state lands in Teton County, while all the other counties need only “optimize” revenues, meaning they can keep grazing leases below market rates, give tax breaks to oil and gas producers, and generally manage these lands without regard for maximizing revenue.
As a result, we have this Office of State Lands (OSLI) clown show here in Teton County – leasing the most valuable land in their entire portfolio without any sort of environmental review or overall plan, and as a “temporary use permit” to avoid local rules ensuring fire, safety and public health. This translates into a “glamping” operation without any plan for treating wastewater or protecting wetlands at the headwaters of Fish Creek, and 800 self-storage units at the entrance to one of the premier ski resorts in North America. All so it can generate a few hundred thousand dollars that will hardly make a dent in that $200M shortfall. Meanwhile, OSLI staff ignored an offer from Teton County and neighbors to match this revenue while keeping the land in grazing and open space.
It is a failure of government in Cheyenne that we find ourselves in such a predicament – a failure by the legislature to raise revenues for education, a failure by state bureaucrats to consider a cooperative process with our local community or consider an offer from Teton County and neighbors to match this revenue while keeping the land in grazing and open space, and a failure by state officials to direct the office to do better.
Our community has already stepped up and offered solutions – generous ones, mind you – for the protection of the Antelope Flats parcel in Grand Teton National Park, for a proposed conservation lease on Munger Mountain, and for what will likely be the need to protect the state land above Kelly Warm Springs. At the very least, the leadership of the State Board of Land Commissioners should bring the parties together to find real and lasting solutions.
Most importantly, it’s time to create a state tax policy that works for the 21st century – that is broad, sustainable, and equitable and can deliver on education for all our kids, especially those from our working families for whom our communities ask so much and who are less likely to get the education they deserve with diminished resources. We had the opportunity to do so 20 years ago and didn’t...but the next best time to do so is today.
I hope I can count on your vote November 8th.
*High oil and gas prices are now predicted to improve current revenues, but the boom and bust nature of the state’s fossil fuel revenue sources remains problematic over the long term.