Guest opinion: Senate must act quickly on conservation tax incentives

2014-08-29T16:56:00Z Guest opinion: Senate must act quickly on conservation tax incentivesBy BETHANY ERB and GLENN MARX The Billings Gazette
August 29, 2014 4:56 pm  • 

     During a period when the reputation of the U.S. Congress has been battered by the media and the public, the Senate has a remarkable opportunity to pass historic legislation that would directly assist agriculture producers, private land conservation, sportsmen, local economies and outdoor recreation.

The U.S. House of Representatives, thanks in part to Montana's Rep. Steve Daines, approved the Conservation Easement Incentive Act (HR 2807) as part of a charitable giving legislative package named the America Gives More Act. The vote was 277-130, a demonstration of strong bipartisan support.

            The Montana Association of Land Trusts and Land Trust Alliance are part of a coalition working toward similar success for the America Gives More Act in the Senate. The Senate will be in session after Labor Day and will adjourn for the 2014 elections in early October. That gives us a small window to advance the tax incentives – the top congressional priority for both our organizations – through the Senate and to the president’s desk for signature.

            The conservation tax incentives within the America Gives More Act were conceived in Montana by the Montana Land Alliance (a statewide land trust with an office in Billings) to create a tax structure that offered federal income tax incentives for traditional “land rich, cash poor” Montana farm and ranch families to maintain open land for agricultural productivity, wildlife habitat and potential recreational opportunity. These tax incentives, which also reduce the exposure of agricultural properties to federal estate taxes, have been in place since 2006 and from day one have received the full support of Montana’s congressional delegation. But the tax incentives have been reauthorized for two years at a time, which makes stable and predictable estate and agricultural operation planning extremely difficult. These valuable and beneficial tax incentives need to be permanent, and passage of the America Gives More Act will accomplish that goal.

            The benefits of this permanency are vast, which is why agriculture organizations, land trusts, conservation groups, and hunting and wildlife groups are in solid support of these tax incentives.

            As an example, the conservation tax incentives helped a Gallatin Valley family ranch operation pass the hay, grain and potato operation to the next generation. Daines said in a floor statement, “(This bill) gives landowners the assurances they need to make long-term estate tax decisions. It is a common sense, smart tax policy that makes a real difference in the lives of Montanans.”

            That’s absolutely right. Additional examples where these tax incentives have been critical to valuable private land conservation projects that abound throughout Montana.

            We’re pleased to report both Montana Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh are cosponsors of the conservation tax incentive legislation. The America Gives More Act also contains provisions that allow retirees to expand donations from IRAs without incurring a tax on the withdrawal and enhances the tax deduction for donations of food inventory.

            The conservation tax incentives are critically important to working family farms and ranches, and the health of the agriculture industry is vital to Montana’s economy, our wildlife and recreation, our way of life and our quality of life. But the legislative clock is ticking, the window of opportunity is narrow and Congress can get mired in petty politics when what America needs is the enactment of important policy. This is one of those times, and this is one of those important policies.

 

 

Bethany Erb, of Dillon, is the Western advocacy and outreach manager for the Land Trust Alliance. Glenn Marx, of Helena, is executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts.

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