Ochenski: Let fee-dom ring 

Call 'em what you like—they're still new taxes

What’s the difference between a tax and a fee? Don’t be surprised if you don’t have a good answer, because there isn’t one. After all, isn’t the bed tax really a fee on those who stay in hotels or camp out? Likewise, the Forest Service’s controversial fee demo program is actually a tax on those who want to access the national forests. The end result is the same: Money winds up leaving the pockets of the citizenry and ends up in the budgets of government agencies. Which is why Gov. Martz’s latest gambit to hide her proposed tax increases under the rubric of “fees” is just another case of transparent political semantics.

Ironically, the governor created this problem for herself. During her campaign she signed a “no new taxes” pledge in an attempt to pander to Montana’s voters. Like much about this governor, it was a short-sighted decision that significantly ignored a large body of information pointing to a revenue and spending imbalance which has resulted in our current budgetary crisis. If you put a graph showing growth in government spending that occurred under the Racicot administration next to graphs showing population and income growth, it becomes obvious very quickly that government spending has outpaced the ability of the Montana population, with its minimal per capita income, to keep up. After all, you can only squeeze so much blood from the same number of turnips.

Unfortunately, the muzzy-headed Racicotfarians were so high on sending their boy to Texas and Florida to work on the Bush campaign that no one seemed willing to see or say what is now obvious—that Governor Racicot left the state in a precarious, fiscally unbalanced, position. And remember, Racicot ran on a sales tax platform, just like his opponent Dorothy Bradley, whom he accused of wanting bigger government while he promised to give money back to Montanans. Luckily, we were spared the fiscal prestidigitation it would have taken to appear to be fulfilling this promise when Montana’s voters slaughtered the sales tax ballot issue by 3 to 1.

Now, however, the bill for Racicot’s spending spree comes due and falls in the lap of his hapless successor, Judy Martz. Sticking with the simplistic reasoning to which we have become accustomed, Martz pondered the issue and has apparently decided that fees are not taxes. Now she feels free to institute fees wherever she wants, for whatever purposes, and still be adhering to her “no new taxes” pledge. Which is, as Montanans know, nothing but hogwash.

Several recent examples clearly show the path of Martz’s twisted logic. Facing an enormous deficit in human services, the governor has two choices: Implement large and hugely unpopular cuts in medical treatment for those in need, or “find” more money to fund the programs. Enter the medical treatment “fee” that will be charged to medical providers for their services. Under the Martz proposal, this “fee” generates revenue for the state agencies. But in the end, it will be passed straight through the care provider’s books and tacked on the bill (with maybe an “administrative charge”) for those who require their services. What this scheme should be called, if Martz and the Repubs were to speak frankly, is a Sickness Tax on the general population.

Just this week, at the monthly Land Board meeting, Martz again exhibited her new-found “fee-dom” to tax. The Land Board was asked by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to approve the acquisition of a new fishing access site on the Madison River. The access site is known as the Three Dollar Bridge because the former landowner required a $3 fee to park there. The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, dubbing it a “voluntary donation,” wants to continue the practice at the site.

The rub is that the state’s 328 fishing access sites have always been free, since the sites are typically acquired and maintained through the license fees that Montanans pay to fish, the federal excise taxes they pay every time they buy sporting goods, and from a portion of the interest earned by the Coal Tax Trust Fund. In other words, through various taxes and fees we have already paid for these publicly-owned sites.

Bob Raney is a former Livingston legislator who sponsored a number of laws to keep many of Montana’s parks and fishing access sites in a primarily undeveloped condition and make them free for Montana residents. In his “camel’s nose under the tent” testimony before the Land Board, Raney noted that charging fees, even on a “voluntary” basis, to use the Three Dollar fishing access site constituted a significant change in state policy designed primarily to benefit the revenue-generation goals of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, not the public.

State Auditor John Morrison, who sits on the Land Board, then grilled the Fish, Wildlife and Parks personnel about future plans. The assurances he received were less than convincing. Yes, FWP could change policies to charge fees at fishing access sites, or raise them in the future, without legislative approval. “Were there plans to do so?” asked Morrison. Well, no, there were no plans right now, but there was a State Parks Futures Committee currently meeting to discuss such issues as revenue needs for the agency, but they hadn’t made final recommendations, etc.

Reasonably enough, Morrison then asked that the record reflect that the Land Board’s approval of the new fishing access site did not constitute an endorsement for making Montanans pay to access their own rivers. Morrison further moved that the Land Board go on record as supporting free access to these public sites in the future. Governor Martz immediately jumped into the discussion to oppose Morrison’s motion, saying we could never tell when “fees might be necessary” for these sites in the future.

Taxes or fees? You be the judge fellow Montanans. But don’t be fooled by semantics. Read her lips. “No new taxes” really means “let fee-dom ring.”

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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