A recently released annual report on tourist spending in Montana contained few surprises. Tourists are still spending billions here, making tourism the state’s second largest industry. For the fourth year in a row, more of that money was spent in Gallatin County – more than 20 percent of the total – than in any other county.

And Montana is still being played for saps by visitors from around the country and the world.

Think about it: When we vacation elsewhere, we pay sales taxes, value added taxes and myriad other fees and taxes levied on the goods and services visitors use. But when tourists come here from elsewhere, they pay little to nothing – just modest taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars.

The annual report, produced by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, says that out-of-state tourists spent in excess of $3.7 billion in Montana last year. And $814 million of that was spent right here in Gallatin County. That’s $155 million more than they spent the previous year and $200 million more than they spent in Flathead County, the second highest county for tourist spending.

If we taxed tourist spending statewide at 4 percent, it would have raised nearly $150 million for state and local coffers. If we just allowed city and county governments to levy a voter-approved local option tax on tourists here in Gallatin County, it would have raised more than $32.5 million.

That’s a lot of money to leave on the table. But lawmakers have stubbornly refused to consider any kind of a sales tax – even one that is charged on people who don’t live here. And they have also refused to authorize local governments to seek voter approval for a local-option tax – except in small narrowly defined tourism-heavy communities like West Yellowstone, Big Sky and Virginia City.

The rest of the cities and towns around the state are asking property owners to pay ever increasing taxes for schools, jails, roads, sewers, law enforcement and fire protection. And those property owners are reaching their breaking point. Alternative sources of revenue need to be found. And tourist spending is the obvious place to start.

We need to get over our historic phobia about taxing the sales of goods and services and find a way to tap into the vast and growing revenue stream of tourism dollars.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Don Beeman, community member
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Sarabeth Rees, community member
  • David Swingle, community member

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