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Stop feeding the turkeys

by By JIM ELLIOTT
| June 14, 2024 7:00 AM

I don’t know when the Merriam turkey was introduced to Western Montana, but it was and they have prospered. I can vouch for it. 

In the 1980s and ’90s I broke out about 65 acres of timberland into cropland and I planted a lot of oats to “tame the soil.” I put up a lot of the oats as hay and word spread fast in turkey-dom. 

In short order my haystacks began to look like the rear end of a threshing machine because the turkeys scratched the bales to get at the oat kernels and popped all the strings. This meant that I had to use a pitchfork to load the hay onto a wagon.

I shall be forever grateful to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks whose staff netted some 400 of them and relocated them to the Flathead where I am sure they were welcomed. To me, it was “good riddance.”

So, when a neighbor of mine asked me, years later, “Jim, how do you get rid of these turkeys?” my advice was simple and straightforward. “Stop feeding them.”

Which leads me from turkeys to tourists.

Two Montana County Commissioners, Josh Slotnick, a Democrat from Missoula County and Joe Briggs, a Republican from Cascade County, have been working together to come up with a way to mitigate the hardships imposed on Montanans by the historic increase in residential property taxes. 

One of the first considerations in collecting taxes is what are the political repercussions going to be. And the best way to avoid repercussions in that regard is to tax people who can’t vote for you. Enter the tourist, like the turkey, ripe for the plucking.

To tax the tourists and use the receipts to offset residential property tax increases is not a terribly new idea and has been used successfully in several small taxing jurisdictions in Montana.

A tourist economy is not entirely beneficial. There are costs associated with tourism that residents, not tourists, have to bear, and the argument is that tourists should pay their share of those costs. There are such things as the need for water and septic infrastructure improvements to address the increased use brought on by tourism. 

Places like West Yellowstone and the St. Regis Resort Area did not have the tax base to make improvements on the shoulders of residents alone, and the “Resort Tax,” first put into use by West Yellowstone in 1987, I believe, has helped the town immensely. 

Almost every town in the Mountain West has seen its economy change from one of industry to what the local governments see as their last best chance, tourism. So, we now have tourism as a major industry in Montana.

One of the reasons that is so is due to the implementation, in 1987, of the Lodging Facility Use Tax which was expressly designed to market Montana to out-of-state tourists. 

In the last fiscal year (2023) the 4% tax brought in $59 million dollars of which 82.8% ($48.8 million) went to promote tourism in Montana. Some 60.3% went to the Brand Montana program administered by the Department of Commerce and 22.5% to regional tourism bureaus. (See  https://brand.mt.gov/Programs/Office-Of-Tourism/Lodging-Facility-Use-Tax.)

At one time I suggested to the Legislature that it would be simpler to tax tourists at the border. Years ago, there used to be actual gates on the highways leading into Montana which, except when snow closed the roads, were kept symbolically in the open position with a sign nearby which said “Welcome to Montana, the gate is open.” 

An effort to revive them in the 1989 Legislature failed, but today it might be tempting to re-invent the quaint and simple wooden bars with a tollgate and a sign that says “Welcome to Montana, insert credit card to open gate.”

Conservatives who are not in favor of government subsidies might ask why the State of Montana is subsidizing a particular industry. Surely an industry which brings in an estimated $5.4 billion in income revenue to Montana should be, by now, big enough to stand on its own. 

Could that $48 million in tourism promotion be used to lower property taxes? Sure, but it won’t be because the industry is too vested in the subsidy to permit it being diverted.

Still, at some point you’ve got to stop feeding the turkeys.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.