Yellowstone tax might set a precedent

A 1-cent tax on Yellowstone National Park concessionaire sales proposed by Wyoming legislators to pay for park infrastructure projects likely would be the first of its kind, National Park Service officials say.

Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, filed the bill with the Wyoming Legislature last week. Gingery is the legislation’s primary sponsor, though others back the measure. Sens. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, and Leland Christensen, R-Alta, have pledged their support, as have Sen. Hank Coe and Rep. Samuel Krone, both R-Cody.

While many local and state governments collect sales taxes on sales made by park concessionaires, that money typically goes to the state or municipality, said Jeffrey Olson, spokesman for the Park Service in Washington, D.C. The beneficiary has “never been the National Park Service, not that we know of.”

A collection effort similar to the proposed tax is the Guest Donation Program that lets some overnight visitors contribute $1 to the park they’re staying in, Olson said.

Concessionaires in Yellowstone grossed $121 million last year, said park Superintendent Dan Wenk from his office in Mammoth on Monday. While 1 percent of the gross sales would equate to $1.21 million, Wyoming does not tax all sales, with groceries a notable example.

Still, the sum would account for a small percentage of the money necessary to address the park’s maintenance backlog, according to a January 2012 briefing statement provided by the Park Service.

“As documented and reported to the Congress annually, lack of sufficient funding for operations and preventative maintenance is accelerating the decline of Yellowstone’s aging infrastructure,” the statement said. “A total of $750 million [in project funds] is necessary to bring the entire infrastructure up to a maintainable condition.”

“It’s water plants,” Wenk said of the backlog. “It’s wastewater treatment plants. In Grant Village last year, the roof collapsed under the weight of the snow. It’s really a litany of everything it takes to run a park.”

The legislation, House Bill 49, would take effect in July if approved as written. As proposed, the legislation would place restrictions on the money generated by the tax. Park officials could use the revenue only for infrastructure projects such as roads, sewers, bike paths and trails.

No tax funds for concessionaires

Concessionaires would be barred from using any of the money.

The money from the new tax would be deposited in an account controlled by the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources.

The director of that department would work with the Yellowstone superintendent to spend the money, according to the bill.

The 1-cent sales tax would be collected in addition to the taxes already collected and used by Park and Teton counties and the state.

Teton County currently assesses a 6 percent sales tax.

The new tax would be applied only to the parts of those counties that fall within Yellowstone.

Teton County’s border stretches north into Yellowstone. It encompasses all of Yellowstone Lake as well as Lake Village, Grant Village and Old Faithful — major commercial centers in the park.

Gingery has said the proposed tax should be viewed as a user fee that will be charged to all park visitors.

While applauding Gingery’s intent to fix Yellowstone’s infrastructure, officials with National Parks Conservation Association said the bill could set a bad precedent.

“I think it’s great that the Wyoming Legislature is recognizing the important role that Yellowstone plays in Wyoming and Montana’s economy, but it’s Congress’ job to adequately fund our national parks,” said Patricia Dowd, who is the Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“Maybe with this legislation being introduced, members of Congress will recognize the importance of funding our national parks,” Dowd said. “They’re not prioritizing funding our national parks and other important national programs. That’s why we pay taxes: to support places like Yellowstone National Park.”

Several lawmakers from the region contend that it is more important to support the national park, a major economic driver for the state, than to let it languish because of concerns about supporting a federal agency.

“It’s a big part of what makes this region special,” Christensen said Tuesday, referring to Yellowstone.

Christensen acknowledged the concerns about the state propping up something that should be funded with federal funds. He said the issue likely will be raised when the Legislature convenes next week.

“Would that mean the feds would scale back funding?” Christensen said, offering one potential question about the state helping pay for federal services. “There are conversations that will get fleshed out in the session.”

Superintendent’s plea sparked idea

The group of legislators who support the bill, known informally as the Yellowstone Caucus, met with Wenk in the fall.

During the meeting, Wenk told lawmakers he was having trouble maintaining infrastructure within the park because of federal budget cuts, which sparked the idea for an additional cent of sales tax that would be given back to park officials, Gingery said.

Gingery’s proposal is likely legal under the 1940 Buck Act as long as it targets concessionaires not “something that is purely federal,” Wenk said after consulting the Park Service comptroller and the legislative liaison office.

Wenk said the Obama administration, and therefore the Park Service, have not yet adopted a position about the legislation.

“We’ll follow it,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes.”

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