It’s difficult to avoid viewing politics as a visceral fight these days. Many politicians and partisan news sources egg their team on, promoting to die-hard Republicans and Democrats an ideology of us vs. them, of all-or-nothing, of black and white.
Where legislators once saw value in advancing bills for debate, even if they had reservations, they now risk political backlash, often from their own party.
But while many politicians and news organizations encourage this culture, we can’t help but feel like we, the voters, bear the ultimate responsibility.
Take the Jan. 30 vote by the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee, for example. Time after time, the committee voted down every single new revenue stream idea that came before them. From a leisure and hospitality tax supported by the local industry to a tobacco tax unlikely to receive much opposition, lawmakers killed every single one.
As a result, substantive attempts to diversify revenue sources never advanced. Even though the tax measures proposed wouldn’t have been enough to meet the anticipated shortfall, they deserved debate by the full legislature.
Many lawmakers appeared to be taking comfort in the moderate twitches within Wyoming’s energy economy, which hinted at improvement following the past several years of bust.
While we think it’s unrealistic Wyoming’s extractive industries will ever recover to boom levels, it’s not surprising to see lawmakers embrace the illusion.
After all, it’s behavior too many of us, the voters, have rewarded time and again. From Congress to the Wyoming Legislature, lawmakers receive ridiculous praise for signing documents such as the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which states they will in no way consider “tax increases” in any form.
Such a line of thought is particularly toxic in Wyoming. For too long, we have allowed energy revenues to act as a form of welfare, sheltering us residents from contributing significantly to near universally accepted priorities such as education, emergency services, and infrastructure.
When it looked as if lawmakers might finally broach the subject of marginal revenue increases through items such as a 1 percent statewide lodging tax — which is mostly paid by out-of-state visitors — or an increase in the staggeringly low tobacco tax, they instead chose to latch on to a little bit of good news and use that as an excuse to once again do nothing.
And that’s a shame. Sooner or later, probably when all other options are exhausted, our lawmakers will have no choice but to face the music and make some hard decisions.
Our fear is that will only happen when the state is broke and local communities and education have been cut to the bone.
The tax measures proposed this year were not enough to meet the anticipated shortfall, but at least they should have been advanced for serious debate. Once again, we have a body of lawmakers who have failed to do their jobs.
But until we demand change by voting against officials who put party interests over the benefits of open debate and empower those with voices of compromise and moderation, we shouldn’t expect them to do anything else.