The largest business organization in Montana’s largest city is giving low marks to Republicans running for state Legislature and county commission.
The Billings Chamber of Commerce issued its scorecard for midterm candidates this week. Among the questions it asked candidates to weigh in on were:
- A local option sales tax.
- Hotel bed taxes.
- Support for Montana State University Billings.
The Chamber’s intention, CEO John Brewer said, wasn’t to pick one political party over another, but rather to identify candidates who support the Chamber’s community plans. The organization has 1,300 members.
“We’re going to move Billings forward, and it’s going to take both sides of the aisle to do that,” Brewer said.
Republicans didn’t see it that way. Candidates passed on the Chamber questions, instead penning a group letter that suggested the Chamber had lost its way.
“Some legislators in this group have been around this process for nearly 20 years and remember when the Chamber policies were more about free markets, lower taxes and keeping government from interfering in how Chamber members run their businesses,” the letter said. It was signed by 14 of the 18 Republican legislative candidates from Billings, plus the three GOP candidates for Yellowstone County Commission.
“The gist of the letter is that we think the Chamber is getting to where they’re asking for more and more taxes all the time from the people,” said Sen. Cary Smith, of west Billings. “The most common things we hear from our constituents is, ‘Please don’t tax us anymore.’ I guarantee I’ll get calls when tax notices go out.”
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There are 14 Democrats who made the Chamber's list of "generally supportive" candidates. Four Democrats were listed as neutral or leaning non-supportive. Three didn't make the cut, and three didn't respond.
The lone Republican ranked generally supportive was Quentin Eggart.
Local-option sales taxes have been on the Billings Chamber’s priority list for years, as a way of raising money to improve the city infrastructure that supports out-of-town visitors to Montana’s largest retail trade center and the events to which Billings plays host.
Hotel bed taxes have been a sticking point for several years, as well; the money collected on lodging of all kinds is split with the state for tourism promotion. The Chamber would like Billings to keep a larger percentage of bed taxes collected by businesses.
Brewer said the Chamber wants to see more of the taxes generated in Billings stay in Billings. It’s not about asking for more state revenue, but rather developing the community without more state taxes committed.
The city government in collaboration with the Chamber is making big plans for the revitalizing several blocks of downtown Billings and the hospital district. A key funding source for these plans will be allowing property owners in the targeted area to, for several years, commit a portion of their taxes toward financing the development of their neighborhood, rather than contributing that money to general costs of Billings city government.
The project goal is to leverage investment in the district from businesses outside Billings and make the downtown area more economically viable.
Project proponents have held workshops in recent weeks geared toward selling One Big Sky’s development districts — one for wellness, the other hospitality — to residents and elected officials. The anchor for the hospitality district is expected to be a convention center. The wellness district will take advantage of the proximity of St. Vincent Healthcare and Billings Clinic as it seeks to attract, for example, medical equipment and technology companies.