Closing Range

Don’t Tax on Me

Montana citizens, new and old, all of us, need comprehensive protection against out-of-control tax growth of all kinds

By Dave Skinner

I bet most of you feel like taxes (and fees) are just a giant Kabuki game of baiting here and switching there. You’re right! So, here comes some more ballot bait, this CI-121, which promises “tax relief” from what are, by any standard, stupid-high property taxes.

Why stupid high? Well, in Montana, property taxes used to be “easy.” Before Montana was re-mottoed “Big Sky Country,” Montana was the Treasure State – still is. Our state seal reads Oro y Plata and visually represents an agricultural bounty.

This real, first best Montana was a totally place-based economy. All those evil corporations had to be physically present, with immobile, purpose-built physical plants useless for anything else, anywhere else.

Getting rich on Butte copper meant digging in Butte, Montana, America. Period. Growing Montana Golden Triangle wheat to mill into pasta and bread in Minneapolis and Seattle required railroads, to be laid, um, where? 

For a century, Montana’s property tax base was totally, utterly captive. Montana’s Legislature and state government took full advantage of this captivity, gleefully taxing the bejeezus out of Big Whatever – through high business-equipment taxes, not just taxes on real property.

Those taxes made it possible for me to get a quality education at Flathead, then go to Montana State University, while working at “old economy” summer jobs. But starting with Anaconda Copper’s withdrawal, the game changed. 

Ironically, the change was accelerated by high property taxes. Assets showing even the first hints of having outlived, at least temporarily, their usefulness, were torn down and wiped flat, with no chance of being repurposed into trendy, cool artist lofts or, more unfortunately, vital new industries. With industry assets gone, no longer taxable, what taxable assets remained to fill the gap? Agricultural and residential, of course.

I don’t need to get into how Montana property taxes never seem to stop disproportionately bloating, and how local and state government keeps costing more (and yep, doing more). I’m horrified by the crazy increases in my property taxes, on stuff that I thought was paid for, that I wanted to keep the rest of my life – but am no longer so sure I can. How about a break?

Sorry, now there’s a wave of COVID refugees jacking things up even more, especially in “amenity” communities like the Flathead, Gallatin, Bitterroot? Gosh, how to end this?

On the other hand, the ag sector (not just in Montana but nationwide) isn’t looking fat these days. On top of last year’s drought, ag-chemicals are totally off the charts compared to last, there’s Putin’s hot war in Europe’s breadbasket, parts supply chains are a mess … oh right, let’s just dump the tax load on our neighbors who are still working hard for a living – feeding us? Why not? They’re outnumbered!

Well, I’ve had enough of this endless and hypocritical scramble to shovel off the constantly-growing cost of constantly-growing government at all levels onto others. None of these scrambles ever address the core question about taxation: How much do WE really need, want and are willing to pay for, ourselves? 

It’s embarrassing when, for the zillionth time, the narrative is framed as “real Montanans” going against “rich newcomers” or heaping blame on “refugees.” Shame? Lame? Both!

Montana citizens, new and old, all of us, need comprehensive protection against out-of-control tax growth of all kinds.

But taking just one part of the puzzle and pounding it to “fit” through a ballot initiative won’t result in a taxation picture that makes sense. Therefore, I won’t sign the petition to put CI-121 on the ballot, and absolutely won’t vote for it.

I suggest it is time to think really hard, really rationally, and honestly about a, gulp, sales tax. Perhaps at the same time, we should think rationally about perhaps, koff koff, bumping fuel taxes? I’d argue one doesn’t pay much sales tax unless one spends money one wants to spend, on things one wants. Nor does anyone pay fuel taxes unless one is, yep, using the roads!

As for me, I’d prefer to vote for somebody who actually understands the interlocking nature of what is Montana’s dysfunctional system of taxation. In November.