Sweetwater GOP opposes tax proposal
September 16, 2021
A general purpose tax initiative being voted on in November has garnered opposition from the Sweetwater GOP as government leaders grapple with how they can inform county residents about how it will be used.
The tax proposal would specify 75% of the tax to be spent to provide emergency ambulance services and funding to the Sweetwater County Joint Powers Combined Communications Board, which handles emergency dispatch services throughout the county. The other 25% would be used for economic development purposes, primarily funding efforts by the Sweetwater County Economic Development Coalition. It is unclear how the economic development money would be split as others, such as Green River City Councilwoman Sherry Bushman, have voiced support for some funding going to more localized economic development efforts, such as initiatives being pushed by Green River Main Street.
The one-penny tax initiative was originally set forth in July with all but the Rock Springs City Council voting to back the initiative. Support for the initiative failed in Rock Springs after a deadlocked vote. The tax was seen as a solution to ongoing funding issues related to ambulance service in the county, something the Sweetwater County Commissioners announced they would no longer fund.
Over the weekend, the Sweetwater GOP issued a statement on its website opposing the tax. The party cites a plank on its 2020 platform opposing unnecessary taxes, claiming the tax will bring in more than the needs specified. The party also has concerns with the future of another specific purpose tax being proposed for 2022 if the general purpose tax is approved in November. The specific purpose tax mentioned is something county voters are familiar with. A 1% specific purpose tax was approved in 2012 to tackle infrastructure projects throughout the county.
A majority of the taxes went to uses like road and waterline repairs, though a portion was used to purchase new ambulances for Castle Rock Hospital District and the construction of Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County’s Medical Office Building.
Should the general purpose tax get approved, a specific purpose tax would then become a seventh-penny tax and lessen the chances it would pass voter scrutiny according to the Sweetwater GOP.
A key difference between a specific purpose tax and a general purpose tax is the fact the specific purpose tax has a natural sunset period, the day when the full amount approved by voters is collected. A general purpose tax can continue to be reinstated every election cycle, unless it is made permanent by the county’s governing bodies -- a point the Sweetwater GOP takes issue with. The Sweetwater GOP claims the governing bodies can’t promise a future group won’t come in and make the tax permanent.
Not having support from the Sweetwater GOP is only one problem local governments face with the upcoming ballot initiative. Many officials are unsure of how to inform residents about how the tax will be used without promoting it.
During an intergovernmental meeting Monday, elected officials discussed the fine line they see when it comes to the difference of informing voters about the tax and promoting it.
According to state statutes, taxpayer money can be used to provide information about a tax initiative, but cannot be used to promote passage of a tax.
“This has to be nothing more than providing factual information, period,” Rock Springs Mayor Tim Kaumo said.
A draft pamphlet shared amongst elected officials concerned Kaumo because he views some pieces of language as promotional in nature and he recommended changes to the pamphlet before it is released.
Commission Chairman Randy Wendling said Kaumo’s concerns “hit the nail on the head,” saying the pamphlet, which will cost $6,800, will not be released until the attorneys representing the cities and county approve the language.
According to Kaumo, there is also a sense of time running out.
“We need to move on this ... We don’t have a lot of time left,” he said.
Kaumo said the groups don’t have a memorandum of understanding in place, with the cities having pulled their interagency memorandum of understanding because additional legal language is needed.
Green River Mayor Pete Rust said the timing of releasing information is not far off as they originally aimed to have it released in mid-September.
“As you know, this pamphlet just came out today ... we need to get that feedback as soon as possible, make those changes and get them back out,” Rust said.
Rob Zotti, a Rock Springs City Councilman, said the group is walking a fine line between marketing and information and he questioned what else will be done to inform voters.
To him, there isn’t much difference between providing information about a tax proposal and promoting it.
“For me, I’m uncomfortable with that completely because it’s an extremely thin line,” he said.
Rock Springs City Attorney Rick Beckwith agrees with Zotti’s point of view, saying people can promote the tax and talk about it on social media and through public statements.
“When you begin to use government money to encourage or discourage someone from taking or not taking a vote, then you are overstepping the bounds given to you under the Constitution,” Beckwith concluded.
Beckwith said a third-party group could be formed to promote passage of the tax, but the government entities could not promote it themselves.
“This is our number one priority, or at least it should be,” Rust said.