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HELENA — A Missoula senator is proposing a constitutional amendment to forbid Montana from passing a statewide general sales tax.

Democratic Sen. Dick Barrett introduced Senate Bill 351, at the request of Gov. Steve Bullock.

During his successful re-election campaign last year, Bullock said he would ask lawmakers to put on the ballot a constitutional referendum to ban a statewide sales tax.

His 2016 Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, had testified before a committee in 2002 that if Montana adopted a statewide sales tax, it could eliminate the state income and capital gains taxes, which he called detrimental to business growth.

However, Gianforte conceded then it would be difficult to pass a sales tax because of Montanans’ historic opposition to it. He did not support a sales tax last year.

Barrett, a retired economics professor at the University of Montana, has his reasons for supporting the constitutional ban on statewide sales tax.

“The reason that I’m supporting it myself is we looked at a general sales tax during the Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee,” Barrett said. “They’re just very, very regressive.”

Montana has a number of selective sales taxes or excise taxes that would not be covered by the ban, including taxes on liquor, cigarettes and resort stays, he said.

“Less the level of inequality, the income distribution in Montana is lower than in most states,” Barrett said. “And our tax system is one of the least regressive. I think those two facts are not unrelated. One of the reasons why we’ve been able to have a higher level of (income) equality is because we have a less regressive tax system.”

A regressive tax is one that takes a higher percentage of tax from someone with a lower income than someone with a higher income.

“I think it’s very important we keep it that way, simply because I don’t think it’s any secret if you look around the country or if you look at what’s happened the last 30 years, there are deep and abiding economic changes that are occurring that are leading to greater inequality,” Barrett said. “Elsewhere in the country, it’s been a source of a great deal of social and political distress.

“You can certainly see traces of in the kind of dissatisfaction that motivated people to vote for Donald Trump. It’s well understood that the impacts we’ve seen particularly on the incomes of less educated workers. You see it in Occupy Wall Street. You see it in the kind of discontent that I think accounts in a lot of ways for the appeal of Donald Trump in the presidential campaign. It’s a very deep and divisive issue, and it’s getting worse.”

From the end of the Great Depression or World War II up through the late 1970s, Barrett said, there was growing income equality in the United States and then it turned around.

Asked why Montanans should eliminate a potential tax option they may need in the future with his bill, Barrett said if voters ban a sales tax now, they could always amend the constitution to drop the ban if necessary in the future.

Montana voters have twice voted to reject a statewide sales tax, defeating it by 70 percent to 30 percent in 1971 and by 75 percent to 25 percent in 1993.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce, which historically has supported a sales tax, is uncertain where it will stand on Barrett’s bill, the organization’s CEO and president Webb Brown said. He said the chamber’s board will discuss the bill before the hearing to decide its position.

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