Use of bed tax dollars requires further investigation

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Summer is upon us and traffic is indicating what most already know — it’s going to be another great tourism season in northwest Montana. Recent headlines show that many cities are trying to mitigate the crush and diversify their venues so that it doesn’t happen all at once.

The recent audit of the Department of Commerce shows that bed tax collections have continued to climb in the state. What it doesn’t show, however, is that about half of the collections are from Montanans.

The audit revealed several “director grants” that have been distributed to entities in Montana without legislative oversight. When asked about the transparency used by the department to give out these grants we learned that there was no competition nor information given to stakeholders to apply for the money. Whoever was in good standing with the director and people in the office got the grants. Is this what we expect for using bed tax money collected by hardworking inn keepers?

Rep. Randy Brodehl, former chair of Audit, asked if the $500,000 given to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was an end run around the appropriations process. We found it was being used for state parks to become more “bike friendly.” Huh? Can’t they pick a site just like you and me?

This $500,000 transfer was twice as much as my bill request for a trade office in Calgary to benefit all sectors of the state, yet there was not a hue nor cry from anyone?

Land trusts received $42,500 while Uptown Butte got another $30,000. Adventure Cycling received $50,000 and festivals/ institutes/events got $51,500. Why wasn’t the entire $684,000 under scrutiny from elected officials or vetted through one of the interim committees? Most disturbing, other than the lack of transparency, was the lack of competitive bidding in the process.

There were also times when the agreements didn’t include any specific requirements ... i.e. “Here’s the money, go spend it as you want, we promise not to check.” Several expenditures weren’t even documented. Oh, my. Guess it pays to know the right people in the Department of Commerce when they are giving away bed tax money.

Growing bed tax collections show that these should be reaching a more diverse audience than people “who know people” at this state agency. Unelected government workers need some oversight from the elected officials in the legislature.

I hope that the 2019 session will rein in some of this department gifting and direct the bed taxes to a broader audience. The Legislative Audit Committee is continuing to use the magnifier on how these bed tax dollars are used by prioritizing a future performance audit. We will all be interested in the findings now that this can of worms has been exposed to the sunlight.

Everyone should benefit from the growing bed tax collections paid by all of us as we enjoy the amenities of Montana. It’s time for transparency so everyone is on equal footing when applying for “free” money.

Dee Brown, of Hungry Horse, represents Senate District 2 in the Montana Legislature.

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