An open letter to the Montana House Taxation Committee

Friday, March 15, 2019

Business owners in the upper Yellowstone watershed have convened over the past year to look for opportunities to maintain municipal infrastructure, support property tax relief, better steward our open spaces and keep our working agricultural landscapes. We realize that without action from ourselves and from our elected leaders, we will continue to watch millions of dollars in potential revenue from tourists flow through the Yellowstone and disappear without an effort made to capture the treasure.

The House Taxation Committee can offer Montanans the ability to entertain and enact local solutions through the gateway local option tax and amended resort tax. We ask you as a governing body to preserve our freedom and enable us the opportunity to decide as a collective body of local individuals whether a tourism tax is the right fit for our community.

Park County faces dire problems related to maintaining roads, providing emergency services, stewarding our open spaces and maintaining our agricultural heritage. The problems are exacerbated by an enormous outdoor recreation and tourism industry concentrated in a rural county with a small population and a smaller tax base. The fact is our limited local tax base of 12,000 properties can’t keep up with the needs of 5.4 million people who travel through Park County annually. There are 250 visitors per county resident, the largest ratio, by far, of any county in Montana.

But we are not alone. Other gateway counties to Yellowstone and Glacier National Park suffer from similar challenges. Over the hill, in Gallatin County, the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport went from 400,000 annual passengers to 1.5 million in a matter of years. Forty percent of all traffic in Montana went through Gallatin County to Yellowstone National Park last year. Gallatin County’s ratio of visitors to residents is one hundred to one. Tourism, no doubt, is a magnificent benefit to our economy, but it also burdens our municipal and natural resources.

This situation is unsustainable. We need to do something.

We need another tool. The current tax code that funds basic services needed by the businesses who provide the economic engine for the working people who fund those very taxes is broken. It’s not good enough.

The notion of taxing tourists to generate needed additional local revenue in places of significant visitor travel has support across the state where this issue is most germane.

The Park County Commission and City Manager of Livingston are working together on this. As are the City Manager of Kalispell, the Bozeman and Billings Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Association of Counties, the Montana Infrastructure Coalition and the League of Cities and Towns. Even the lobbyist for the Montana Taxpayers Association has acknowledged the value in raising the population cap of the resort tax code to support more communities relevant to the growth of Montana’s modern, and leading, tourism economy.

When it comes to entertaining solution-based legislation that gives local communities autonomy and liberty to preserve their own order and economic wellbeing, the House Taxation Committee has repeatedly shown disregard for these principles.

Since Montana’s 66th legislative session teed off in early January of 2019, the House Taxation Committee has convened hearings on several bills that would give local communities the ability to choose by popular vote the need to implement a local tourist tax to help off set the stress placed on basic municipal infrastructure and emergency services from millions of out of state travelers each year. So far, in every bill brought to executive action, the House Taxation Committee has denied local Montanans the option to choose their destiny.

Whether considering a local option tax or an amendment to the existing resort tax code – a law limited by population and currently implemented by ten communities across Montana with proven community support and much-appreciated generated revenue – the House Taxation Committee has proven to be a billkilling committee. What’s more, the committee has turned this into a partisan issue. Democrats have supported the bills; Republicans have opposed them, except for chairman Alan Redfield from Park County who voted in one case to raise the population cap of the resort tax code. (Thank You, Representative Redfield.)

The seemingly partisan rift is adversarial in practice and troubling in the jury of public opinion. Most Montanans value a federalist system of government that brings power closer to the people. Most Montanans value choice. We care to preserve the sanctity of liberty of the individual and community, not a paternalism of a few that restricts the freedom of the many to decide what is best for ourselves.

For this reason, and many more, on behalf of several businesses in Park County, we ask you to support legislation that gives locals the option to decide if an amended resort tax or local option tax is the right tool for our community. Livingston Representative Laurie Bishop’s Gateway Local Option Tax (House Bill 435) will receive a vote in the House Taxation Committee soon. We ask that you vote to support this bill and others of its kind.

Thank you,

Jeff Reed, ReedFly Farm; Dan Gigone, Sweetwater Fly Shop; Paul Robertson, Sage Lodge; Matson Rogers, Anglers West; Dale Sexton, Timber Trails; Sabina Strauss, retired Park County business owner