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Bozeman’s elected leaders deserve an A for persistence in their efforts to get a local option sales tax through the state Legislature. As with past campaigns, this year’s push for the tax is doomed to almost certain failure as a majority of lawmakers continue to resist the idea.

And that’s perplexing. Tourism has become the state’s second largest industry by most measures. Yet we continue to leave tens of millions of dollars on the table by not taxing what tourists buy, with the exception of modest taxes on lodging, rental cars and gas.

Tourist spending is approaching $4 billion annually statewide and almost $1 billion of that was spent here in Gallatin County, the largest share for any county, according to the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. A 3% tax on things tourists typically spend money on would bring in tens of millions of dollars of new revenue.

And we need it. Tourism and population growth are wearing heavily on local infrastructure — streets, sewers, emergency services and more. Right now paying for badly needed improvements to that infrastructure is falling on property owners. But they are becoming increasingly reluctant to raise their tax bill — as evidenced by the failure of a $59 million bond issue for a new Gallatin County law and justice center in 2019. As taxpayer fatigue mounts, funding for schools and other essential service could be rejected. But local government has few other options to turn to under current law.

Smaller resort towns have been able to levy local sales taxes for years. But for some arbitrary reason, law prohibits cities of more than 5,500 population from doing so.

To be clear: Enacting a local option sales tax by the Legislature would not hand local leaders a blank check. It would merely allow a city to ask voters to decide whether to enact such a tax. This time around, officials are getting creative in their efforts to curry favor for the option. One local proposal mandates parts of the revenue raised to go to relief of existing property taxes and back into rural communities whose residents would pay the taxes when they come into the city to shop.

But let’s not kid ourselves. At this juncture, no amount of creative bill drafting is likely to win majority support in Helena. Hopefully the day will come in the not-too-distant future when lawmakers will wake up to the treasure trove we’re leaving on the table by not taxing tourists and at least give cities like Bozeman the option to do so.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Michael Wright, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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