Airport manager predicts return of airport district bill
SHERIDAN — By the time Senate File 4 passed the Wyoming Senate on third reading March 8, Sheridan County Airport Manager John Stopka was convinced of its value.
The bill could provide “another tool in the toolbox” for airports, especially as the budgets for state and local funding sources tighten, Stopka told The Sheridan Press in March. But when the bill died in the House April 1, with the body divided on a 30-30 vote on third and final reading, Stopka admitted he was relieved the bill died.
“Once it got into the House, things started getting really nasty,” Stopka said. “There were amendments proposed that really restricted it, and I think changed the original intentions of the bill. It got pretty convoluted and messy, and, at that point, I was actually kind of glad it died.”
Senate File 4 would have, if passed, given counties the authority to create airport districts. If local voters approved the creation of an airport district, the maximum the district could levy would be three mills, which is currently worth around $1.4 million, according to Sheridan County Administrative Director Renee Obermueller.
Currently, airports are funded through a combination of state and local funding. The airport district model was intended as a way to reduce dependence on those funding sources, according to Stopka.
“State funding keeps getting cut,” Stopka said. “It is getting harder and harder to find that funding required to operate an airport. So this airport district idea would have been one of those tools the county commission or airport board could utilize if other sources of funding dried up.”
During discussion of the bill on first reading in the House, Rep. Joe MacGuire, R-Casper, said “taxation is really the elephant in the room” for the bill. And, when it came time for debate, taxation was the focus of the conversation.
Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, urged a no vote on the bill.
“There are already… a lot of different revenues into these airports including distributions from localities,” Gray said. “…I think they already have the ability to receive federal funds. There’s a variety of programs. They receive their tenant fees… There are stimulus dollars flowing all over the place, and I think it’s inappropriate to be taxing our people an extra three mills for this sort of activity.”
Speaking in favor of the bill, Rep. Chad Banks, D-Rock Springs, noted the body was not approving a new tax if the bill moved forward. Rather, the bill simply gave voters the ability to decide whether they wanted to levy an additional tax for airport districts, much as a bill approved by the House gave Campbell County the ability to decide if they wanted additional taxation for a new community college district.
“It’s just saying let the locals decide if they want to impose this tax on themselves,” Banks said.
Presenting an amendment to the bill, which was ultimately approved on a 28-26 vote, Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, said many of the mill levy funds would be paid not by voters who approved the district, but by commercial, agricultural and mineral extraction properties. In his amendment, Burkhart moved to exempt all non-residential properties from having to pay additional taxes if an airport district was approved by voters.
“The people who really pay the majority of that money do not get to vote on it,” Burkhart said. “So this thing about the people getting to put a tax on themselves is true to a point but not the whole story.”
Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, voted for the amendment and said it was time for the state to stop relying on industry to pay for community services and special districts.
“This is another step in the direction of asking the people who pay all of our other bills to pick up the tab on another bill,” Brown said.
Stopka said Burkhart’s amendment essentially “gutted” the bill and significantly reduced its taxation power. It wasn’t the only time the House attempted to dramatically alter the bill, Stopka said.
An amendment by Rep. Ocean Andrew, R-Laramie, would have required airports to maintain a fee and rental structure prior to seeking a mill levy. This included a landing fee of $3 per 1,000 pounds of aircraft. Andrew ultimately withdrew his amendment before it could be voted on by the body.
Stopka said the bill’s death in the House was not surprising given how much it had changed from the version approved in the Senate earlier in the session. Still, he was hopeful the bill could come back, in something closer to its original form, in a future legislative session.
“It will resurface again because, at the heart of it, it’s a good idea,” Stopka said. “When the bill started off, it was pretty straightforward and that’s the way it needs to stay…I’m not a fan of muddying it up and making changes to the bill’s original intentions.”
Stopka said he was unaware at this time of any efforts to bring the bill back for consideration during the 2022 legislative session.