Guest Column

Yellowstone Flood Exposes Silly Secret

Gianforte has let Montanans down, not because he took a vacation, but because he was secretive about it

By Jim Elliott

On the same day that the 50th anniversary of the Montana Constitution was being celebrated in the chambers of the Montana House of Representatives as producing the most open government of all the 50 states, it was revealed that the governor of Montana was keeping a secret from the public: his location. He was, his office said, on a previously undisclosed “long-scheduled personal trip,” the location and timing of which were also undisclosed for “security reasons.” The deception was discovered because inconveniently, and simultaneously with the governor’s “long-scheduled personal trip,” the Yellowstone River decided to take leave of her banks and created some of the worst flooding in Montana’s history, requiring action on the governor’s part. The governor promptly declared a disaster emergency, but it was noticed that it was signed by the lieutenant governor, who has authority only when the governor delegates it. It then came to light that the governor was not in Montana, but in Italy, presumably on vacation.

So, the governor was on a vacation, so what? Disasters happen at inconvenient political moments, but the only thing politically inconvenient here was that the governor’s office treated a vacation as a big secret. Governor’s take vacations. They’re entitled to some time off. Sometimes they go out of state to do it. Imagine the inconvenience of a Montana governor vacationing in Montana. Everybody knows who they are, they can’t exactly just be incognito, although former Gov. Marc Racicot came near to pulling it off when he stopped at the Deep Creek Café east of Townsend in the late 1990s and was told by the store owner that he looked a lot like the governor and that must be a tough burden to bear.

If he really wanted to be cute about his whereabouts, he could have said he was going to Florence, allowing us to think he meant the town south of Missoula. Few would have noticed the difference, except maybe the folks in Florence who might have expected to run into him at Carl’s Café. But the Florence he went to was in Tuscany, which is an Italian province. Mistakes happen. Sometimes Google gives bad directions.

But why even bother with the secrecy? Well, it appears Gianforte likes to keep things close to his chest and seem surprised when discovered. Like the time he testified in favor of a piece of tax legislation in 2007. This was Senate Bill 494, a bill that would give a special capital gains tax rate of 2% on the sale of stock acquired while working for a company. And not just any company, but according to the Fiscal Note one that: “… [M]ust be headquartered in Montana, have at least 25 full-time employees residing in the state, have more than 50% of its officers residing in the state, have at least 30% of its employees in the state, and not be closely held by related persons.” Which oddly enough must have fit Gianforte’s company RightNow Technologies to a “T,” just like it did in 2003, when Gianforte lobbied for Senate Bill 463, which was almost identical to the 2007 bill. Neither of them became law.

When Mr. Gianforte testified in favor of Senate Bill 494, he did not mention that a 2% tax rate on capital gains would be offset by Montana’s 2% credit on capital gains and that if he were to take advantage of it his personal tax rate on the sale of stock in his company would be zero. That had to be pointed out by a committee member.

But back to the Montana Constitution; Montanans have a right to know about the workings of government, and part of that would be the physical location of our elected officials as reflected in their office schedules. It’s important that our elected officials act in the spirit of the Constitution, as well as the law it embodies.

Gianforte has let Montanans down, not because he took a vacation, but because he was secretive about it. 

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. 

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