Montana Viewpoint

August 8, 2005

Recently, I, along with virtually every other American elected official from dignitary to dog catcher, was given an opportunity to sign the “No New Taxes Pledge” offered up by Americans for Tax Reform. Because I have never seen any need to wed myself to any political philosophy originating in Washington, DC, and authored by people who haven’t a clue to what life is like where I live (and yes, that does include the National Democratic Party), I gave it my usual treatment and round filed it. 

Does my refusal to sign such a pledge signify that I favor more taxes? Not hardly. I have a long legislative history of making my mind up on a case-by-case basis, and have probably voted against proposals that increased taxes more often than I voted for them.

Governing does not take place in a static world, and no wise person should ever take a vow that would preclude a certain course of action if times warrant it. That’s the stuff that Greek tragedy was based on—binding ones’ self by oath to a bad decision. I exercise my best judgment for the people I work for, and if they think I’ve done a poor job they’ll let me know in no uncertain terms.

The starkest example of committing to this course of idiotic dogma was given to me not long ago by a fellow legislator. Whatever were we to do, I was asked, about the then-recent Supreme Court decision of school funding in Montana? I just threw the question back and asked, “Well, what do you think we should do?”

Here’s the answer I got - verbatim: “Well, we’ll have to raise taxes, but I can’t vote to do that because I signed the No New Taxes Pledge!” Apparently, admitting a mistake wasn’t in the cards for that legislator.

Pledges like this give lots of over-cautious politicians fits. They feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and hunt for plausible reasons to avoid signing on. Most of those reasons are centered on semantic issues…what is a tax, and what is not. However, the Pledge is pretty specific about this, allowing their signers only leeway to vote for “users’ fees,” and only if the payer is the direct beneficiary of the service and the fee covers no more than the cost of providing that service.

As users’ fees go, I’ve long been a supporter of charging tourists a “Montana Fresh Air Tax” for the privilege of breathing Montana’s purest, but I’d have the deuce of a time figuring out how much it actually cost to provide the fresh air. Likewise, after decades of cleaning up Montana’s air and water, how do we figure out the appropriate user fee to charge our own citizens for it?

There are many ways a politician can look good on taxes, and still provide the same services. The most famous example is cutting taxes on business property, but allowing local governments to recover their loss by raising mill levies. That’s a tad intellectually dishonest, but politics, like Andy Warhol’s art, is what you can get away with.

It’s a lot easier for me to save myself the anguish of a political decision by voting on a proposal on its merits, not my re-election prospects. My pledge to my constituents is to represent their interests to the best of my ability, and I’ve never had to feel bad about making it.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620