When I tell people that I moved from Utah to Wyoming (we’ve now lived here for seven years), they assume that our move was due to cultural differences. The reality is that our reasons were entirely economic and political and based mostly on tax rates and political leanings. This generally amazes people, since Utah is such a staunchly Republican state whereas Wyoming is generally Republican, but often swings both ways politically, as the winds carry. Contrary to general perception, though, the fluctuation in Wyoming’s leanings is indicative of why, politically, this is a better place to be.
To be honest, while the culture in Utah has its nuances, I didn’t find it particularly bad. The Utah culture is dominated by two things: heavy Mormon influence and anti-Mormon sentiment. Generally, there is no middle ground: you’re either Mormon or you aren’t. In general, those who aren’t Mormon tend to flaunt the fact to make sure that all of the others who aren’t Mormon know they’re with them. They do this by doing particularly non-Mormon things like getting tattoos, smoking, drinking alcohol, and so forth. For a long time, I was part of that culture because I believed that this was how one “rebelled.” In reality, though, it’s no different than pretending to be Republican because the Democrats are “evil” or, on the other side of the coin, being Democrat because you want to counter the “evil” Republicans.
At about the time that I realize that the GOP and DNC are just two ends of the same lame stick, I realized that being anti-Mormon was just as stupid as being rabidly Mormon. I’ll explain more about this in a moment, but the gist of it is, politically, most Mormons don’t act like Mormons and most anti-Mormons act worse than their supposed opposition.
Like most places, politics in Utah are rife with contradictions and “insider trading.” This is not unique to Utah as it happens around the globe, although some portions of how that happens are relatively unique to the Mormon culture that dominates Utah politics. It’s generally left unsaid in Utah, but there is a definite “good ol’ boys” club that dominates and it’s based around two gathering places common to the state: church and Masonry. It’s telling that the first building that began construction in Salt Lake City when it was founded was not the Mormon Temple or the Governor’s Mansion (those were #s 2 and 3 respectively), but the Masonic Temple. It’s still there, right down the street from the Salt Lake Temple and looking relatively innocuous and bank-like in comparison. It’s at these two places (churches and Masonic gathering places) that most of Utah’s politics are actually decided. Most people assume it’s only the former, but insiders know it’s both. This is not unique to Utah, however, and happens all over the country – probably the world.
Now back to economics. The real reason we left Utah was purely over economics and taxation.
To start with, sales taxes in Utah are high. Not California high, but still pretty high. Where we lived, in the Salt Lake City area, the sales tax is 6.85 percent. That’s about the middle ground for sales taxes throughout Utah, most range between about 6.5 and 7 percent with the worst of them being in tourist traps like Park City and Alta, which 7.45 and 8.35 percent respectively.
In Wyoming, sales taxes are by county and no city tax is added with cities instead taking a percentage of the overall county tax. Our tax rate just raised to 6 percent here in Laramie County, up from about 5.85 percent when we moved here because of a couple of additions by the state. Less than one percent may not sound like much, but if you add up what you spend over a year and then calculate that by taxes spent, it can add up pretty fast.
This one is much easier. Utah has an income tax on both persons and corporations. For individuals it’s about five percent. Wyoming has no state income tax for individuals or corporations with assets totaling less than a million dollars. Hence in Utah, I often paid an effective state tax rate of 7-10 percent whereas in Wyoming, I pay nothing.
Utah, especially in Salt Lake and Utah Counties, has an extremely high property tax rate. Compared to other Western states, that is. In Salt Lake City, property tax is about 0.004575 on weighted average. Property values are also high, which mean it’s difficult to buy and taxes are relatively high.
In Wyoming, property taxes are on a mil rate of 9.5 percent of the market value of the home. So a home worth $100,000 is taxed on $9,500 of that value at a rate of about .8 percent in most counties (the state caps what counties and municipalities can add on). Property values are generally low, but tend to remain stable, even through the economic downturn of 2008.
Where we lived in Utah, a two bedroom, 1,800 square foot duplex (considered exceedingly modest) on less than an eighth of an acre of property was valued at $180,000 and had a tax rate of over $823 per year. Properties around us were worth far more because they were in better condition and larger. It was not unusual for property taxes on even relatively modest homes to be in the thousands per year.
Where we live in Wyoming, our home is about 2,100 square feet (not a duplex) and on roughly half an acre of town-zoned property. Our tax rate is $340 per year with a home value of roughly $95,000.
Cost of Living
Most economic indices only count a few values when calculating a cost of living. By most of those indices, Wyoming and Utah and roughly the same. Where Utah costs more in housing, Wyoming costs more in transportation. While utilities are generally cheaper in Wyoming, groceries are more expensive. However, these indices do not include two other things that I believe are highly important: healthy living items like air quality and stress.
In Utah, air quality is generally horrible. This is a combination of congested living quarters in the main population centers of the state (Salt Lake and Utah counties) and the mountains that surround things and create a “bowl effect” to trap air in an inversion.
In Wyoming, however, the largest cities are Cheyenne and Casper, both of which have populations of under 60,000 people, and traffic jams are non-existent. Air quality is almost always good, though it will often have a hint of manure in it. What’s more, on a cloudless night, you can see Carl Sagan’s “billions of billions of stars.” In Utah? Not so much.
Now, let’s return to politics. I’d mentioned before that Wyoming is often a “flip-flop” state where Democrats have a far better chance of seeing terms in office than they would in purely Republican states like Utah. That’s because in Wyoming, voters are generally cynical about things like party affiliation and length of terms in office. In fact, on the state and local level, terms in office are limited to two, so we have a fairly regular turnover of political figures. In Utah, however, it’s not unusual to have politicians-for-life in nearly every elected position.
Running as a Republican in Wyoming is rarely a guarantee of winning office. Voter turnout is both states is pretty low, though Utah’s is lower than Wyoming’s. When you look more closely, however, the number of straight Republican votes in Utah is very high whereas in Wyoming, there are far fewer by percentage of votes cast. This indicates that Wyoming voters prefer to pick-and-choose rather than vote a straight ticket.
Not surprising once you get to know politics in Wyoming. In Utah, the GOP is often confused with GOD – an honest mistake, given how close the letters are, really. In Wyoming, politicians in general are seen as suspect from the get-go, no matter their political party, and even the Democrats who get elected to office are often so fiscally conservative that they’d make Ronald Reagan blush. Former Governor Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat who was in office when we moved to Wyoming, had the highest approval ratings in the nation by his electorate. Further, most political scientists who analyze Wyoming’s politics will point out that the libertarian side of the argument on an issue often wins out over the socially conservative.
Hence, politically, we are far more at home in Wyoming.
Economically and politically, Wyoming was a far better choice for us because we are generally in agreement with lower costs of living and taxes, higher living standards, and less political intrusion on our life. Other factors, such as the difficult employment situation in Utah (there is a glut of education and at that time, were a lot more people than jobs) and low income rates were more factors. Of course, the jobs in Wyoming are not as diverse as they are in Utah, but for those interested in working, there are always jobs available – our unemployment rate tends to be far below the national average.
Wyoming isn’t for everyone, of course. If you lean politically left, want to smoke pot legally, or don’t like small town living, then this probably won’t be a place you’d want to go. Wyoming is decidedly non-leftist and has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the nation (likely THE highest). We also have not (yet) legalized marijuana. The largest towns are still small by comparison to nearly everywhere else in the nation – the whole state is actually the smallest in population by land mass. So if you aren’t comfortable knowing all of your neighbors and understanding what that means, this isn’t the place for you either.
On the other hand, the air is clear, the weather fluctuates to keep things interesting, and it’s homey and generally friendly. Except for Jackson Hole, which is just another way of saying “California” to folks in this state.