Montana Viewpoint
May 28, 2007

There’s been a fair amount of speculation about who won and who lost in the legislative session just ended, but I will tell you that the biggest victory was the come-from-behind win of the Big Business lobbyists when they eliminated the specter of getting tough against out-of-state tax evaders. It was pure defensive action against a public desire to see tax cheats brought to toe, and a legislature that for the most part actually wanted—at least at one point—to pass the legislation.

What I want to know is who are they trying to protect? No, that’s not right, I want to know why they are trying to protect them, and you should, too, because it’s certainly not in the interests of the honest people of the state of Montana.

The purported guardians of the interests of big business may have the word “Montana” in their names, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have powerful members from out of state, and some of these powerful members are known to have bought into illegal tax evasion schemes. That’s a Federal felony, by the way, but it’s not a felony in Montana, and it won’t be anytime soon because the legislation that would have made it one got defeated.

Whenever there is a whiff of a chance that some measure to close business tax loopholes may raise its weary head we hear cries of, “It will have a chilling effect on business in Montana,” or, “It sends an anti-business message to anyone thinking of moving a business to Montana.” Like who? tax cheats?

Give me a break. Nobody claims enforcing laws against drunk driving will have a “chilling effect on Montana tourism.” Why then should collecting taxes from out-of-state tax cheats have any effect at all on honest businesses? The answer is: it won’t.

I take that back, it will. It will see that honest Montana businesses and citizens don’t get taken for suckers by national and multi-national conglomerate tax cheats. It will put Montana businesses on an equal competitive basis with out-of state tax evaders because there won’t be a tax cheat discount; everyone will pay their fair share.

Now I have tried for a long time to be reasonable and objective and, yes, even fair to those I disagree with in these columns. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to err on the side of caution; but friends, a crook is a crook, and people who protect them are no better.

As the drama around tax cheat legislation unfolded the halls of the Capitol swarmed with corporate lobbyists, buttonholing individual legislators, escorting them to their committee rooms so they could have the last word with those with whom they might have a chance. When the tax cheat legislation passed the Senate there was a look of desolation on their faces.

It made me angry. Corporate interests have had a good ride in Montana these past twenty years, pretty much being able to write their own legislation (electrical deregulation), lower their taxes (and raise ours), and being virtually immune from scrutiny of their tax returns thanks to a gelded Department of Revenue.

What has been conspicuously absent is a victory for the Montana homeowner or Montana small businesses. Yes, there has been token tax reduction, but only to be eaten up by higher property taxes; and thanks to the defeat of the tax cheat legislation, there won’t be any permanent property tax reduction for homeowners again because it was part and parcel of the bill.

Before someone tries to claim that Jim Elliott hates all businesses, let me tell you who I do like: I like the Stillwater Mining Company which wins awards for their environmentalism and doesn’t pretend that their sole reason for existence is to provide jobs for Montanans. (“Senator,” a Stillwater executive once told me, “we’re in the business of making money, OK? Any jobs we might create are a side benefit.”). I like Montana Resources which makes a public display out of paying their taxes because they believe in carrying their own weight. I like any main street Montana business that is trying to make an honest buck by providing services for its customers and believe in treating its employees right.

It is not a lot to ask that everyone pay their fair share of taxes, even out-of-state multi-national companies, and it is not a lot to ask that those organizations which purport to represent the “Montana Business Community” don’t act like it is.

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