WHAT BANG FOR THE BUCK?

Pat Stuart
Guest Editorial.

Thinking about Wyoming’s sovereign wealth and the legislators discussing raising taxes, maybe we need to look at our situation from a drastically different perspective … like, dah … maybe putting the money we already have to work? Here’s a column from the Powell Tribune of 30 January 2019 titled “WHAT BANG FOR THE BUCK”

Here’s a stunning bit of not so trivial trivia: Wyoming’s sovereign wealth ranks among the 100 richest in the world. With a total of $20.8 billion, we aren’t quite in the same class as Norway or Kuwait, or even Alaska and Texas, but, for what it’s worth, we’re better off than the rest of the American states.

Knowing this explains why we’ve been able to enjoy low taxes. While I couldn’t find current figures, in 2013, an average Wyoming household paid 3.7 percent of income on taxes compared to a national average of 10 percent. Not bad, hum?

So, maybe, I should be happy for small miracles and shut up.

Except that we do pay taxes. Except that people keep talking about adding an income tax or raising the sales tax to ensure that we don’t have budget shortfalls in lean years. And why, with our money, do we have shortfalls?

Well, for one thing, our sovereign wealth doesn’t net us that much income, with only 0.1 to 2 percent return on investment. To put this in perspective, other states’ investment programs outperform us by long margins. Some get returns of as much as 8.4 to 9.4 percent.

Given these statistics, I don’t understand why the people concerned with economic diversification and development focus only on tax reform (i.e. adding an income tax and restructuring property taxes). Why don’t they press for reform of the way the state manages — or doesn’t — its helter-skelter hodge-podge of funds, investments, and multiple other pots of money.

That Permanent Mineral Trust Fund of ours — our biggest money pool at $7 billion — earns only around 2 percent, putting its return on investment in the bottom quarter of funds of comparable size. Almost every other similar fund makes more, and I’d say that merits some reform. Don’t you? A WyoFile article in January 2017 quoted an estimate that, if our Permanent Mineral Trust Fund just managed to earn a modest half of the returns of comparable funds, Wyoming would have gained an extra BILLION DOLLARS between 2014 and 2017. Yikes!

This fact is of particular importance to you and me because a portion of the income the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund does generate is divided between the counties and towns while another percentage finances the state’s rainy day account. Thus, more income equals more funding of local infrastructure projects — and, in lean years, fewer efforts by the Legislature to slash and burn social and educational budgets.

Imagine! A 2017-18 in which no one talked about cutting school funding. As for the upcoming 2019 legislative session, revenue is up, but that hasn’t stopped talk down in Cheyenne of where to slice into our already threadbare social safety nets.

As you may know or have guessed from reading the above, much of Wyoming’s wealth gets lost in the shuffle, literally. To find some of the money, refer to the annual Budget Fiscal Data Book. Listed there is what we might call (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) Wyoming’s financial diversification and wealth dispersal schemes. Here’s a sampling:

Workers Compensation Trust, $1.6 billion; Capitol Building Rehabilitation and Restoration Account, $138.6 million; Water Development Account, $170 million; State Facilities Construction Account, $26.4 million; Tobacco Settlement Trust, $16.5 million and on and on.

And I haven’t even mentioned the reserve accounts of towns and counties, of special districts and special trusts.

Where is all this money? Much is stashed away in bank accounts or in investment pools managed by the state treasurer’s office. Who gets the earnings? They go back into those ear-marked accounts.

That’s where you’ll find Park County’s reserves of $17+ million — a bit was put in one of the investment pools a few years back where it earns, on average, less than 1 percent. The rest sits in state-approved banks that are required to pay interest at rates of around 0.1 percent. In short, our local “investment” strategy is better than a kick in the head but not by much.

And this in a booming economy.

Properly managed … say that even half of our state sovereign wealth was pooled and invested at a low-to-moderate rate of even 4 percent? Do the math on $10 billion at 4 percent.

Staggering, isn’t it?

Legislators, take note. With state financial management reform, your life would be a whole lot easier. Still, you’d face some really tough and divisive questions. Like, maybe you would eliminate the sales tax? Copy Alaska and give us dividends? Or you might fund free health and other public support plans like Norway or disburse financial stimulus checks as in Saudi Arabia? So many choices …

Ah, for the day when you and we have such problems

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