Great Ideas, Terrible Ideas in the Legislature: Disability Wages, Sales Tax

It’s early to offer much commentary on the bills being proposed by legislators as we’re in the silly season where just under 3,000 proposals have been sent to Montana Legislative Services and most will never see a committee room, much less the floor, but looking through the requests certainly shows the legislative priorities of Democrats and Republicans.

We’ll certainly offer more in-depth looks at bills as the process moves along, but two bill requests caught my eye today and deserve mention.

Great Idea: Abolish Subminimum Wage for Workers with Disabilities

One, by Helena Representative Mary Caferro, absolutely deserves consideration and passage: her LC2761 would prohibit sub-minimum wage for workers with disabilities. These payments exist because of a 1938 law that created “sheltered workplaces” and certainly had a role helping veterans with disabilities, but I’ve always found it hard to support a labor system that permits workers to be paid almost nothing while CEOs rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation at the very same organizations.

Across the US, almost 200,000 workers are paid subminimum wages, at times pennies for each hour. And disability advocates worry that those laws not only allow the exploitation of disabled workers, but they undermine the promise of the ADA:

“It creates the perception that somehow people with disabilities can’t compete, cannot hold down a job, are not worthy of the same protections all other citizens are,” says Clyde Terry, who chairs the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that makes recommendations to the federal government on policy issues affecting people with disabilities. “Which is really contrary to what the Americans With Disabilities Act is all about: That we all should be able to be treated equally.”

It’s a bill that deserves to be heard.

Terrible Idea: A Statewide Sales Tax

While we’ll certainly be hearing a great deal more about Republican efforts to once again try to reduce the tax burden on the Greg Gianfortes of Montana with an unpopular sales tax, I was astonished when I read the details yesterday on Republican Representative Kerry White’s Facebook page.

White’s proposal would, in addition to the usual, regressive sins of the sales tax, almost certainly fail to fund the state government. He proposes abolishing all property taxes for homes, businesses, farms, and timber and replacing it with a 2.5% sales tax that would not include food, drugs, medical services, or property sales. Additionally, he would create a monthlong tax holiday in October for “any major purchases.”

White claims that 2.5% would not only fund all current government services, but it would also manage to raise an additional $89.5 million annually.

The math seems difficult to believe. Most states with sales taxes also impose local sales taxes as well, so Hawaii, for instance, which has the lowest combined rate in the country and depends on tourism far more than Montana, checks in at 4.3%. Even neighboring Wyoming, with its extensive mineral royalties revenue, checks in at 5.5%.

Under the most charitable take, White is proposing a Trojan Horse that might promise a small statewide sales tax but will almost certainly lead to the imposition of more taxes at the state and local level.

Even if the proposal led to the revenue White claims, it would almost certainly shift tax burden onto Montanans least able to pay it. While White almost comically believes that landlords would, out of the kindness of their hearts, reduce rents by $300/month, sales taxes, even the most carefully crafted, are regressive. Given the massive giveaway to the richest Americans in the recent Trump tax cuts, the last thing the people of Montana need is another unfair tax on those in poverty.

If Mr. White is serious about increasing state revenue and helping Montanans on fixed incomes, a great place to start would be to reverse the disastrous Martz-era tax cuts for the wealthy that have made state revenues and services precarious ever since.

It’s a terrible idea and one that will go to its typical biennial defeat, but let’s remember to pay attention to those who vote for it.

Want to let us know about a great or terrible bill proposal? Drop me a line at [email protected]

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • There are some rational arguments for a sales tax, just as there are for eliminating term limits. On balance, however, the consequences of either would end up favoring the wealthy and politically connected at the expense of the overwhelming majority of Montanans.

    You only have to look at WHO incessantly and loudly proclaims the absolute necessity for these moves to draw a fair assessment of WHY. You only have to look at their distortions, misinformation, and outright lies to conclude that they have a goal in mind that would victimize the people who are most vulnerable.

  • I’m a proud Montana native who is also Progressive in my political leanings. Having lived out of state because of a job transfer for 23 years in a state with a sales tax I have to say I’m not opposed to the idea if it’s done right. Any business that takes MT resources from MT should be taxed and maybe at an even higher rate. Food (except eating out), medical (including eye and dental), medicine, renting of or purchasing of a home are all some of the things that should be exempt. We need to pay property taxes but perhaps at a lower rate than we do now. Instead of a month long tax exemption the state I lived in had a tax free weekend on all school supplies/clothing which seems a whole lot more reasonable. I lived in large city with bedroom communities and the tax rate fluctuated. Mostly it was 8.4% and yes, sales taxes do tend to go up. New car sales, furniture, entertainment systems, recreational equipment were some of the big ticket items that were taxed. Like I said, I’m not totally against the concept if it’s done correctly. I just don’t think a Republican can do it right so I hope a smart Progressive Democrat will jump into the fray.

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