Opinion

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Guest Column

Keep Airlines Flying in Big Sky Country

A looming tax increase currently being considered in our state Legislature threatens to undermine our pro-growth, pro-business environment

All of us who call this state home take pride in its rugged beauty and limitless possibility. Those things are also what draw so many people to Montana each year. The state of Montana has always been a place for opportunity, and transportation has always been directly linked to our ability to thrive. Hospitality is what we do best, and a vibrant transportation sector helps drive our state’s economy and bring millions of tourists to Big Sky Country.

However, a looming tax increase currently being considered in our state Legislature threatens to undermine the pro-growth, pro-business environment Montana has worked hard to cultivate. House Bill 661 would dramatically increase taxes on aviation fuel, inflating costs for air carriers and passengers traveling to and from our state. And no one stands to lose more than Montana’s travel and tourism economy and the businesses that support it.

In 2018 12.2 million people visited Montana and spent $3.7 billion here. Our elected officials should be thinking of ways to continue to expand on this success and attract more visitors to stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants and shop in our stores, not enact legislation that could threaten to reduce our travel and tourism industry, one of the most important components of Montana’s economy. Tax increases are not the answer.

Georgia, North Carolina and Texas have all completely eliminated taxes on jet fuel and Florida has significantly reduced theirs. These states show that a healthy commercial aviation presence is good for their economies and that they do not need a jet fuel tax at all in order to function smoothly. Why then would Montana, a state so dependent on air travel, consider raising these taxes?

This is about the jobs that rely on our travel and tourism industry.

Airlines and the passengers they bring to Montana already pay for the commercial service airports they use. Each year they pay millions of dollars in fees, leases, rates and charges to keep our airports going, and they are happy to do so. It is patently unfair to ask them to pay for airports they don’t use. Asking them to do that puts our economy at substantial risk.

We may not always think about our airports as part of our fundamental infrastructure like roads and bridges, but they are. We need our airline partners to continue their investments so our airports can grow and improve to meet the needs of future passengers.

We want those investments in our airports, but we need the jobs that the airline industry brings to Montana. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, commercial aviation supports 21,000 jobs in Montana, $1.3 billion in annual gross state product and $655 million in personal earnings. These are good, high-paying jobs for Montanans, and we should not be putting them at risk with new taxes.

HB 661 is at its core a tax hike in Montana. Enacting policies like this make our state less competitive, threaten our booming travel and tourism industry, risk future infrastructure investments from airline partners and most importantly could jeopardize the jobs of hardworking Montanans. These are not the sort of policies that will help us remain a state known for growth, opportunity, and an open door to Big Sky Country.

Matt Sease is managing owner of the Hampton Inn and Suites in Whitefish and chair of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association.