Survey says…more taxes

Do WEA survey results really support raising taxes for K-12 education? Senator Driskill is not so sure

By Sarah Pridgeon

According to a telephone survey conducted on behalf of the Wyoming Education Association, most Wyoming voters would be willing to pay more taxes each year if the money was dedicated to K-12 schools. However, Senator Ogden Driskill questions whether these results reflect the reality of the situation, which would require significantly higher increases than the survey suggested.

According to the survey, 78 percent of voters are willing to pay something more in taxes each year specifically for K-12 schools and the same percentage believe spending on public education is where it should be or falling short. Only 16 percent believe spending levels are too high.

When voters were asked how much they would be willing to increase their taxes per year to fund K-12, 32 percent selected the highest amount given of $200 or more, while ten percent said they would be willing to pay an extra $150, 15 percent opted for $100 and 21 percent would be willing to pay $50 or less. Just 18 percent of respondents said they would not be willing to pay any extra taxes.

However, Driskill suggests that the wording of the question did not address the real financial impact of raising taxes high enough to address the shortfall in education funding.

“Generally, that would imply a family. When you say $200 per person, most people don’t think that you’re talking about $200 for their kids,” he says.

In the senator’s opinion, the survey should have noted that the shortfall amounts to $660 for every person in Wyoming and asked if respondents would be willing to pay that amount for every person in their family. The total amount that a four-person family would need to pay, for example, is $2640 per year.

Perhaps the wording skewed the results, Driskill says, but they also do not appear to reflect the opinions he’s been hearing locally.

“At least in Crook County, I’m not hearing hardly anyone say they want their taxes raised,” he says.

The survey does suggest that respondents would rather see tax increases within the energy industry than increases that would directly affect Wyoming consumers. While 67 percent felt that increasing state taxes on wind energy would be acceptable; 63 percent supported increasing state taxes on mining and oil and gas; and 58 percent supported an increase on state sales tax, only 39 percent felt that increasing property taxes would be acceptable.

Senator Driskill is not sure how manageable such increases within the energy sector would actually be, considering the financial atmosphere within Wyoming at this time.

“Particularly businesses are not willing to pay for it right now. Any time you’re in a declining economy, it’s a tough time to raise taxes,” he says.

The survey suggested that, while 51 percent of voters were concerned about not spending enough on education, only 40 percent were concerned about going too far in raising taxes. Four in five respondents agreed that, even with the tough budget situation, K-12 funding should not be cut any further, with 63 percent of respondents strongly agreeing.

Finally, nearly three quarters of respondents believed that the Legislature should continue to maintain education quality standards at their current level, while just 19 percent felt those standards should be weakened in light of the budget situation. This view was not significantly affected by whether or not a respondent had children of their own in school.

Senator Driskill, however, is of the opinion that standards within Wyoming’s schools are an issue that needs to be addressed before the question of raising taxes is ever approached. Are we really doing the best we can with the money we’re spending on education, he asks.

“When you’re left with a shortfall like this, it’s probably an appropriate time to ask: are we doing the most efficient, cost-efficient way of educating our kids that we possibly can?” he explains.

“Are we really looking at the kids or are we looking at maintaining jobs for teachers and administrators and at buildings? I think somewhat our eyes left the ball and we’re really worried about maintaining the status quo…We’re looking at infrastructure and people and teachers and we forgot that our real goal is purely to educate the kids.”

The senator suggests that Wyoming needs to look at other states to see how they run their budgets. Montana may not be as rural and Colorado may be different, he says, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a few ideas that could be implemented in Wyoming.

At present, says Driskill, statistics show that 23 percent of kids drop out of school and only 20 percent graduate from college. Before considering the idea of changing the state’s tax structure, he would like to know why this is happening and make any changes necessary to improve those results.

“To me, those are the hard questions that we need to ask. The idea of schools isn’t to provide appointment for a lot of people, it’s to educate our kids,” he says.

“We’ve built the finest buildings and paid for the finest education and we’re not getting results. We’ve got to figure out what we did along this path that’s not working.”

The survey of 500 randomly selected Wyoming voters was conducted in July by Public Opinion Strategies, the nation’s largest Republican pollster. It consisted of 67 percent Republican voters and 33 percent Democrats and Independent, representative of Wyoming’s electorate.

The Wyoming Education Association is comprised of members who work in Wyoming’s schools, colleges and university, who work together in an effort to improve public education and the lives of Wyoming students.