Committee approves real estate transfer tax bill

JACKSON — A real estate transfer tax is on the table this legislative session, sponsored for the first time by the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee.

But some Teton County officials aren’t overly optimistic that legislators will pass a bill authorizing counties to impose the tax when they convene this winter. That’s because this year’s session is a budget session, and bills need a two-thirds majority to be considered in the house where they’re introduced.

And that can be a high bar, something Jackson Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen noted Wednesday shortly after the Revenue Committee voted 8-4 to advance the bill that would authorize counties to impose a real estate transfer tax.

Jorgensen, who testified before the committee, told attendees of a Wednesday town hall that achieving a two-thirds vote in the Wyoming House or Senate was “unlikely, frankly.”

“Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised,” he said. “But what it really does is set up this issue for next year, which is a general session.”

Real estate transfer taxes have been proposed for years, mostly by Teton County’s delegation to the state Legislature. They and other local officials see the levy as a way to raise public dollars from Jackson Hole’s booming real estate market, which saw a record $2.455 billion in sales in 2020.

The idea is to use the money to fund affordable housing or other public services, and the language of the bill advanced Wednesday doesn’t constrain how the funds can be spent.

Other resort communities like the city of Aspen, Colorado, have raised millions of dollars from real estate levies. In 2020, the municipality collected over $26 million from $1.8 billion worth of free-market and commercial property sales, directing roughly a third toward the city’s performing arts center and the balance to housing, according to The Aspen Times.

Rep. Mike Yin, D-Teton, described the levy as a sales tax on “$2.5 billion in transactions in my county alone,” transactions which he feels have had some “negative consequences for our community.”

“We’re trying to figure out how do we mitigate some of those,” he said, suggesting using the money to pay bus drivers or fund a public-private partnership for developing housing.

Laurie Urbigkit, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Association of Realtors, spoke against the measure as she usually does: “We are opposed to this bill,” she said. “We always have been and probably always will be.”

But others, including representatives from the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of the bill.

“Giving the choice to the town and county to look for solutions that work for their environment is something that we really support,” Jackson Chamber President and CEO Anna Olson said.

Des Jennings, president of the Teton Board of Realtors, did not return a request for comment before press time. The local Realtors’ board has declined to take a position the bill.

Local housing advocacy group Shelter JH was supportive.

“As the housing emergency permeates Wyoming, we are optimistic that this county option bill would retain local control while diversifying revenue streams for the state and participating counties,” Shelter JH co-founder and board Chair Mary Erickson said in an email Wednesday afternoon.

This go-around, the real estate transfer tax bill advanced by the Revenue Committee would authorize a “county option” tax, meaning voters or town and county officials in each of Wyoming’s 23 counties could put it on the ballot and give residents the option to choose whether they want to impose the levy.

If the bill passes, Teton County residents could put the tax on the ballot with a petition signed by roughly 740 people: 5% of the number of votes cast in the 2020 general election. And Jackson Hole’s local governments could put the tax to voters via a resolution if the Teton County Board of County Commissioners and Jackson Town Council both agree.

The bill would also allow counties to choose where the tax could kick in.

Yin proposed an amendment, which passed, that would allow counties to exempt the first $1.5 million of a sale from the levy and impose a 1% tax for all value above that threshold. Legislators debated whether the real estate transfer tax was designed to solve a “Teton County issue.” Setting the floor at $1.5 million was discussed as a measure to keep the lower ends of Jackson’s hot real estate market, which are typically more available to local workers, out of the picture.