Monday, April 16, 2007

Dropped calls

The Sidney Herald carries Rep. Walter McNutt's response to Gov. Schweitzer's veto of HB 469, which will result in a doubling of the tax rate that cell phone companies pay in commercial property taxes. McNutt had sponsored the bill, knowing that his constituents and other rural Montanans would be the primary victims of the veto.

The governor justified the veto by saying that the bill changes law, rather than clarifying it. This is a case where the governor could actually, we imagine, have used an amendatory veto in a way that wouldn't be unconstitutional, as Jeff Mangan very credibly argues the governor's use of such an amendatory veto was on the county bridge bill.

On that note, Montana Headlines has expressed a strong opinion on the need to preserve the prescriptive aspects of Montana's stream access tradition. And yet, the population growth and shifts of Montana mean that some landowners are hit much harder than others, and much harder than any Montana landowners in the past were hit when Montana's access tradition was developing.

The old rules in their exact forms may not fit current realities, and thus there is a need for affected landowners and Montana's sportsmen to come to legislative compromises -- perhaps in the form of allowing landowners to apply to the state for limitations in access based on traffic and wear-and-tear. Or there could be usage fees for certain access point, or the affected landowners could receive some compensation. Creative thinking needs to happen for us to stay on the same page.

We don't allow unlimited numbers of float trips on the Smith River, we don't allow motorized traffic in wilderness areas, and there are any number of other limitations that keep public traffic within limits on certain public lands -- why couldn't there be such limitations at certain bridge access points? And why does there have to be gates for boat access at every bridge? Fishermen can climb the fence and wade to their heart's content. We understand the need to pander for votes, but short-circuiting the legislative process by this amendatory veto is another example of disregard for rural Montana's opinions and needs -- constitutional or not.

Going back to the "promote cell phone service in Eastern Montana bill," rather than vetoing it, the governor could have sent it back with an amendment that said something to the effect of "whether this bill is a clarification or a changing of previous law, the intent of the legislature is to continue the current working definitions of how mobile services are to be taxed." There are enough lawyers in the Democratic part that someone could probably be found to write it properly in a way that wouldn't leave the door open for lawsuits by fixed-line telecommunications companies.

Of course, that would put the brakes on what could be the start of a spate of reclassifications that will result in higher rates while having plausible deniability about whether taxes were raised. And we wouldn't want to do anything to prevent us from squeezing more money out of taxpayers during our current budget shortfall, would we?

It is perhaps not the end of the world if eastern Montana never gets decent cell phone service -- most of us prefer to be doing something besides chatting on the phone while driving through God's country. And the rest of us are patient enough that we can just keep redialing every few minutes when we do need to have a conversation.

As Rep. McNutt said in the Herald interview:

"The sad fact is we don't have enough rural votes to change the veto," McNutt said. "I have to pick up some urban votes."

Haves and have-nots -- as GeeGuy pointed out over at Electric City recently, "the world does not revolve around Missoula, or Bozeman, or Kalispell," but those towns have already had their mobile phone services developed by companies using those lower tax rates. And now when the rest of Montana might start to get some better service, let's "close the loophole." We've got ours.

One of the comments to that post stated that the burgeoning populations of Montana's favored cities are "the ones with the "enlightened" viewpoint about Havre, Miles City, Butte and Great Falls..." Obviously "Big-Sky Husker" has met some of the same folks we have. It's amazing how much Democrats in Montana's cities know these days about what is good for rural Montana, and how often those opinions differ from those of legislators actually democratically elected by rural Montanans.

McNutt shouldn't have much trouble putting together his veto over-ride if he can get the idea across to the Democratic legislators of Great Falls and Butte that while their constituents are handy for providing Democratic legislative majorities, they are beginning to have more in common with the Republicans of Miles City and Malta than they do with the smart set in Montana's hotspots.

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