City Hall File

The sun shines on Bozeman City Hall in this file photo.

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Bozeman city commissioners Tuesday night worked through goals for the upcoming Montana legislative session, drawing off of the city's strategic plan to identify some potential priorities for the lawmaking session set to begin in January 2021. 

Major goals identified in a report presented by city manager Jeff Mihelich and echoed by several commissioners were a local option sales tax, affordable housing and working with other cities to support policies that could be beneficial. Other potential priorities include legislation on special election dates, supporting Gallatin College facilities and allowing blood draws for first-offense DUIs.

This isn't the last time the commissioners will discuss priorities for the upcoming session — the commission also plans to discuss and narrow down priorities at September council meetings. 

It's also not the first time commissioners have identified a local option sales tax as a priority. That was also on the docket for both the 2017 and 2019 sessions of the Montana Legislature.

The working list divides legislative priorities into several sections, which also draw on the city's goals: an engaged community, an innovative economy, a self and welcoming community, a well-planned city, a sustainable environment and a high performance organization. The list is long, and several commissioners emphasized the need to narrow down the list. 

"There's a lot of things on here that are, I think worth discussing," said deputy mayor Cyndy Andrus. "Writing policy or helping to write policy ... that's not easy work. It takes some time, and I think we really need to think about prioritizing what legislation we really want to work on." 

Andrus identified affordable housing, climate items like energy and water, and the local option sales tax as her major priorities, but emphasized that the tax should be presented in a new and different way than in years past. 

Commissioner Terry Cunningham introduced the idea for a tax fairness bill that would split any money collected from a sales tax into several pots. Under Cunningham's draft bill, a quarter of local option sales tax revenue would go to property tax relief, another quarter would go into a rural revenue pool, 5% would go to administrative costs and the remaining 45% would be spent on infrastructure and affordable housing. 

"I think we need to be creative (about the local option sales tax)," Cunningham said. "Doing the same old thing and hoping for a different response is the definition of insanity." 

Commissioner Michael Wallner offered the idea of a soda or sugar tax on sugary pops and drinks, similar to the tax in place in the city of Seattle, as a creative way to collect tax money from tourists. 

"We have to find a way to bring in additional revenue streams and, just like the sales tax, we have to find a way to tax tourists here in the city of Bozeman," Wallner said. "They are one of our main economic drivers in the community and we are missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenue." 

Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy, who also owns I-Ho's Korean Grill, proposed adding one major thing to the working list: working to change the way Montana's beer and wine licenses are doled out to restaurants. 

"The alcohol rules in Montana are outdated leftovers from prohibition," Pomeroy said. "The licenses are very valuable, but only because the state has created an artificial shortage ... the state, in fact, is in the business of providing unfair advantages to the limited number of restaurants who have a beer and wine license." 

For decades, Montana alcohol licenses were given out on a lottery system. The state now sells those licenses in an auction, which happened for the first time last year. That means the highest bidder gets to sell beer and wine and, according to Pomeroy, have an increased chance to make more money and draw in more customers. Her proposed solution is to offer those licenses for sale at 1% of the gross revenue for a restaurant. 

Mayor Chris Mehl said his main priorities for the session are the local option sales tax, affordable housing and climate policy. He also said that the COVID-19 crisis has revealed additional areas that need attention, like child care and access to broadband. 

"These are things that already exist as a problem, and COVID has revealed them to be severe problems," Mehl said. 

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651. 

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