Monday, January 26, 2015

The Biggest Loser

You’ve got to hand it to Gary Marbut. The man is either going big or going home.

Marbut, who appears to run the Montana Shooting Sports Association as his personal fiefdom, was in town last week promoting a bill to give tax breaks to folks who might someday manufacture ammunition makings right here in Montana. The bill, SB 122, is sponsored by Matt Rosendale, the Republican Senate majority leader and well known drone assassin.

Most people, when they want the legislature to give their pet projects a little juice, settle for something – a credit or deduction or a rate cut - that will reduce their taxes for a while. It’s usually temporary, the idea being that once whatever-it-is is up and running, special treatment will no longer be needed.

Now I am not crazy about this kind of tinkering with the tax system. It creates a slew of inequities and often serves special interests rather than the interests of the public at large. So in that sense, I guess we should be grateful to Marbut, because rather than messing around at the edges of the tax system, he's going big and proposing that his ammunition makers pay no taxes at all.

I am not making this up: Gary Marbut would like businesses that make ammunition components to pay no state taxes at all. Ever.  No state property taxes for schools. No business equipment taxes. No individual income taxes. No corporate income taxes. No taxes even on the income banks or others earn from making loans to ammunition component manufacturers. And even though these businesses will pay no taxes to the state, they will be eligible for economic development grants from the Department of Commerce.

Why on earth is all this largesse needed? Well, it turns out that none of this stuff – powder, primers, and so forth – is produced in Montana, and not much is produced in the rest of the country. A lot of it is imported, presumably because foreign manufacturers are more efficient and produce at lower cost. And would be Montana manufacturers apparently can only compete if they are given a free pass on their state taxes. So what we have here is protectionism, pure and simple.

Folks seeking this kind of special treatment always try to justify it as somehow being in the public interest. So Marbut would have you believe that our Second Amendment rights (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) will be hollowed out unless we can buy ammunition made right here at home. He presents no evidence at all that there’s a shortage of ammunition, or that foreign manufacturers or Barak Obama are plotting to cut us off cold  turkey, or that gun owners don’t have  enough ammunition lying around already to deal with the threats they endlessly worry about. In other words, he gives us no reason to think that ammunition is more deserving of protection than the thousands of other vital products - medicines, for example - that we import and use in Montana every day.

Marbut also wants us to coddle the ammunition industry because doing so will create jobs. In the questionable game of picking economic development winners and losers, he wants us to pick an industry that by his own admission is too costly and  too inefficient to compete without being propped up by the public. In other words, in Marbut’s topsy turvey world, the biggest loser should be the big winner.