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Guarding against invasive mussel 'hitchhikers'

A Missoulian (July 4) headline reads “Hydropower out, boating fees in.” The article addressed who should pay to prevent zebra mussels, quagga mussels and other invading species from entering Montana waters. Yet again we see politicians working to target fees on those with the least lobbying power.

Hydropower companies are better organized and able to finance lobbyists than are boaters and fishers. Hence, politicians scramble to take the burden off power companies and place it elsewhere. But special fees on hydropower companies are also not the answer. The state’s “general fund” should be used. Here is why.

Taxes are generally based on either the principle of “benefits received” or the principle of “ability to pay.” Benefits from mussel-free water are widely spread. Fishers, boaters, tourism, those consuming hydroelectric power, those with irrigation systems mussels would clog, owners where property values would be affected, and those employed in a healthy economy — all benefit. Financing mussel prevention on the basis of “benefits received” would be highly complex and makes little sense.

Mussel prevention supports a healthy environment and strong economy. This means more jobs, greater incomes, and higher property values. The breadth of the economic benefits dictates that mussel prevention be financed by broad-based taxes reflecting “ability to pay.” Preventive action should be financed by taxes, such as those on income and property, contributing to the general fund, not by targeting fishers, boaters, hydroelectric consumers, purchasers of gasoline, or others less likely to notice a hidden fee increase.

Let’s keep taxes visible to taxpayers. We need to avoid the myriad of taxes (or special fees) so beloved to elected officials. Complex and hidden taxes and fees make it difficult for voters to see how they are being dinged. Elected officials go through verbal contortions to keep from raising those taxes most visible — taxes on income and property — even when there are sound reasons for doing so.

High-quality public water, like sound public education, benefits everyone. The financing mechanism should reflect this reality.

Roger S. Smith is a retired economist and public finance consultant living on the shores of Flathead Lake.

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