Marijuana sales tax could swamp revenue dept. with cash

The Montana Department of Revenue (artist’s conception)

This spring, after Montana re-legalized medical marijuana, the legislature imposed a 4% sales tax. It is likely that much of the revenue from this tax will come in as cash. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, banks that operate across state lines are reluctant to do business with dispensaries. Many providers can’t accept credit cards, much less set up business accounts to wire money to Helena. The question of how they will transport quarterly cash payments to the Department of Revenue has exciting security ramifications. Perhaps more exciting is the question of what Revenue will do with that cash once it comes in.

Speaking to the Billings Gazette, Deputy Director Gene Walborn predicted business as usual. He said his agency would “maybe [get] some cash counters and that kind of thing.” Revenue anticipates bringing in about $750,000. That figure is based on an estimate of 11,877 medical marijuana cardholders across the state—the average number in 2016, under the old law, when providers were limited to three customers apiece and forbidden from turning a profit.

Since I-182 lifted those restrictions, the number of cardholders has risen to 15,564. That’s a 31% increase in six months, during a period when dispensaries were just beginning to open up again. After the state’s first attempt at medical marijuana legalization, before the patient and profit limits went into effect, the number of cardholders peaked at 30,000. It seems like the Department of Revenue could get a lot more cash than it expects. Its plan to do nothing might have more to do with what’s easiest than with what conditions suggest.

In this way, Revenue is continuing a tradition. From the legalization that triggered a statewide boom in the last decade to the restrictions that abruptly shut it down in 2011, Helena has consistently done what it would about medical marijuana and considered the consequences later. You can read all about our state government’s steadfast refusal to plan ahead in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

While you’re there, check out this piece about the final legal bill for acquiring Mountain Water. When it first embarked on this project in 2014, the City of Missoula estimated that the legal cost of purchasing the city’s water system through eminent domain would come to $400,000. The city took ownership last Thursday, and its final legal bill was $7.4 million. That’s 19 times the original estimate. But that kind of thing happens when you’re doing business. It’s like when you buy a car for 15 grand but, after taxes and fees, the final price comes to $285,000.

In other news, my mother is in town, so this is the last Combat! blog you’re going to see until Wednesday. That’s a long time, right? I sure hope nothing happens in the news between now and then.

Friday links! Triumph of the mediocrats edition

Greg Gianforte and a lectern no one knew better than to paint with gloss

I interviewed Greg Gianforte in 2015, and he did not attempt any takedowns. He seemed friendly, if a little nervous. I saw no flash of the belligerence that would characterize his interactions with reporters over the next year and a half. While I disagreed with pretty much all of his political positions, he struck me as a decent person who genuinely wanted to help. Wednesday night, he made it impossible for me to keep thinking of him that way. In response to a question about the Congressional Budget Office score of the Republican health care plan, Gianforte attacked Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, throwing him to the ground and punching him in the face. The next day, voters selected him to represent Montana in the US House. He spent election day completely incommunicado, refusing to address reporters directly or through his campaign spokesman. He didn’t come out of hiding until the results were in. I congratulate the soon-to-be Representative Gianforte on his victory. I welcome him to the office he won by outing himself as a self-pitying bully with neither adult judgment nor fixed principles, and I look forward to writing about him for the next two years. Today is Friday, and the people committed to winning at all costs have notched another victory. Won’t you survey the field with me?

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Montana’s special election is not a bellwether

Ground-and-pound specialist Greg Gianforte

Montana votes today in the special election to fill our only seat in the House of Representatives, and Greg Gianforte has given us a lot to think about. Last night, the Republican candidate attacked a reporter for the Guardian, throwing him to the ground and punching him in response to a question about the Republican health care plan. The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department has charged Gianforte with assault. Lee newspapers have rescinded their endorsement. Chris Cillizza has pronounced today’s vote a lose-lose situation for Republicans, whereas Chuck Todd calls it a lose-lose for Democrats. The takes are flying fast, and the first salvo has necessarily consisted of first ideas.

Speaking of first ideas, the logical way to put a national news peg on a story about Montana’s special election is to call it a referendum on Trump. I can think of more than one reason to resist that interpretation, though. When Gianforte ran for governor in November, he underperformed Trump by ten points, losing a state that the Republican at the top of his ticket won easily. Since then, he has restyled himself as a full-throated supporter of the Trump agenda. But even if Gianforte is now running on the president’s message, today’s election won’t necessarily tell us what Montanans think of it, because the Democratic candidate is deeply flawed.

Like Gianforte, Rob Quist has never held elected office. He is best known as the former singer in a country-rock group called the Mission Mountain Wood Band. His party selected him in the hope that his name recognition would give him an advantage in the short election, but they seem not to have run a credit check. Weeks into the campaign, it was revealed that the IRS had filed liens against the Quists for unpaid property taxes in 2011, and that they stiffed a Kalispell excavation contractor in 2001. His campaign, staffed by old hands in the state party, has done a poor job managing the news cycle and allowed opposition researches to pound a steady beat of such embarrassing revelations, including last week’s speculation that the Quists have avoided paying taxes on rental income.

Thus far, the Quist candidacy has been a referendum on Montana Democrats’ willingness to take what their party offers them. Given his dismal performance and Gianforte’s proven ability to contradict national trends, I don’t think you can call today’s vote a referendum on President Trump. Oh yeah—there’s also this thing where one of the candidates assaulted a reporter twelve hours before the polls opened.

I don’t know how much impact that will have. As Cillizza points out, around 70% of the expected total ballots have already been cast by mail. The remaining 30 percent is more than enough to swing the outcome—but who knows how many people who vote today, in person, are getting the news within 18 hours of publication? Given the exceeding strangeness of last night and the many uncontrolled variables in the campaign up to this point, I don’t think what happens today will tell us anything for certain about the national mood. It’s a nice peg, but let us be careful not to hang too much on it.

Guardian reporter posts audio of Gianforte “body slam” in Montana

Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte

Early Wednesday night, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs reported on Twitter that he had been “body slammed” by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, who broke his glasses. It was one of those stories that asked more questions than it answered. Since then, Jacobs posted an audio recording of the incident, which sounds as though Gianforte erupted after being asked about the Republican health care plan but might also sound like a microphone being dropped into a sack. It’s unclear what happened or how it might effect tomorrow’s special election in Montana, but at press time it appears that Gianforte did get angry at a reporter, again. Jacobs account, partially confirmed by Buzzfeed reporter Alexis Levinson, holds that there was a local news crew in the room at the time, so it should be easy to corroborate. One hopes that there is video of Gianforte executing a grappling takedown on a reporter or footage that exonerates him from same. But one must never expect too much.

Quist is a deadbeat. Gianforte is rich. You love the rich guy, right?

From an ad by friends of in-touch tech multimillionaire Greg Gianforte

Montana’s special election is one week away, and the Rob Quist campaign is starting to look like a series of unforced errors. Let us begin with his nomination. Quist was handpicked by the Democratic Party, not by the usual primary system. Somehow, no one in that august political body thought to run a credit check. Pretty much the first story that came out was about the liens filed against their candidate for unpaid property taxes in 2011 and the bill for which he stiffed a contractor in 2001. I can see such problems haunting a popular favorite, but the Democrats chose Quist for his electability. Surely there was some other Democrat in the state who lacked not just political experience but also a debt trail.

Fortunately, the Quist campaign is staffed by experienced operatives from the state party. These old hands know the voters of Montana well enough to find sure ways to distinguish Quist from his opponent—for example, by running the exact same campaign ads. That’s how you win as a Democrat: by acting like a Republican. This principle explains why Quist downplayed his support for single-payer health care and emphasized his support for guns. It also explains why Hillary Clinton is president now. It does not explain why campaign manager Les Braswell accidentally tweeted  as The Montana Cowgirl from the Quist campaign account, but we can’t explain everything. He probably got hacked.

Anyway, the Democratic Party is incompetent, even in the last best place. Facing an opponent who just lost a statewide election for governor in which he underperformed the top of his ticket by 20 points, they appear to be headed for defeat. Now is the time to reflect on deep questions. My deepest: In the present economic climate, how is being rich not the biggest obstacle a candidate can face?

American inequality is the worst it’s been in 100 years. Montana has the second-lowest per capita income of any state in the Union, and a politically inexperienced billionaire is on the verge of impeachment in Washington. Yet Quist has said nothing meaningful about inequality. Republicans, convinced we love millionaires as much as they do, are using his personal debts as a cudgel. Call me a pinko, but I wonder if voters might identify more with the guy whose $20,000 debt is wrecking his life than the guy who sold his company to Oracle for $1.5 billion. You can read all about this strange discrepancy in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. It’s a particularly exciting issue, containing not just my inchoate palaver but also the story of a growing schism in the Montana Libertarian Party and your girl Michael Siebert’s feature-length essay on why the left should embrace gun ownership. Check ’em out. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!