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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Beware the allure of sales taxes

Guest Opinion By Tom Shoush

Courtesy of a recent Ranger-Review editorial, the perennial discussion of whether Montana should have a sales tax is revisited once again. It is both an alluring consideration and a harbinger of a dependency that never seems to do all that it is intended to do.  

Growing up in a state with a sales tax, I saw it slowly spiral upward over the years, always in small, easily digestible increments and always with the hope and promise that the modest new increase was going to solve some new financial challenge facing the state. From 4 percent during early childhood, it was breaking double digits by the time I was old enough to vote.  And it always seemed just 1 or 2 percent shy of solving all the problems it was supposed to solve.

Now I hear the same argument for Montana, about how a simple, low-level sales tax could solve some of our financial woes. But I would suggest that the information provided in the editorial reveals the exact opposite: that it cannot and would not solve the larger financial issues we face as a state.  

The editorial indicated that a sales tax — focused on capturing additional revenue from the tourism industry – would generate $23 million dollars per year. But, in the same article it was mentioned that just the sleepy little town of Glendive is looking at needing $10 million for our water system, $20 million for our sewer system, $37 million for our school system, and we haven’t even begun to think about our town’s crumbling roads, crumbling historic district, or floodplain woes.  

Suddenly that modest sales tax is already falling short of its vision, and that’s just one town as an example in one big state that needs to find money and find money fast. And with a sales tax in place, it becomes easier and more frequent that we consider just one more modest increase to keep up with our needs.

Several years ago, I spoke with a tourist from Colorado.  He indicated that his state’s sales tax is rebated to residents as an adjustment to their state income tax return, essentially making it a non-resident tourism tax that captures some of the elusive “summer money” that passes through their state. That is something that interests me, but not the thought of additional taxation in a state that is already struggling balancing what we need with how so few of us are going to pay for it.  

There is a cost associated with trying to run at the front of the pack, as so many states attempt to do. Now as a Montanan going on 20 years, I have learned to enjoy the simpler things in life and the lack of financial encumbrance that comes with that way of life, and I accept that I would have to go somewhere else if I wanted everything to be bright and shiny, or even just running halfway decent.  

I’m OK with that. Because it is my hope that 100 years from now — while continuing to balance their needs with how they’re going to pay for it — Montanans will still be able to see the stars at night and ask Orion how his hunting season is going.

Tom Shoush is a Glendive resident. He can be reached at 406-939-3939.

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