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etc: Capitol Notebook Edition


With oil companies posting record profits and consumers getting hosed at the pumps, Sen. Jim Elliott thinks it’s time for state government to quit subsidizing Exxon and other fat-cat petroleum interests.

According to state figures, the oil and gas industry receives more than $70 million a year in subsidies granted by Republican benefactors in the 1999 Legislature.

Elliott, a Trout Creek Democrat and chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee, wants to halt these tax breaks and siphon the income into cash-starved public works projects.

But the proposal had tough sledding last week, when more than 30 business lobbyists and their sympathizers carpet-bombed his Senate Bill 522 at its first hearing. Two days later the measure disappeared from the table.

Elliott, however, has even bigger fish to fry. The veteran lawmaker is causing more heartburn among the ruling class with another bill designed to root out corporate tax cheats.

Business lobbyists came unglued when Elliott, who holds a degree in behavioral psychology, introduced SB 513 last month. Too much, too fast, they said, arguing they hadn’t had time to fully study the proposal that state officials say could recover more than $18 million over the next two years.

Funny how the tables turn, though. When Montana Power Co. executives strong-armed lawmakers for a massive utility deregulation bill late in the 1997 session, all criticism of haste was condescendingly squelched by the governing GOP.

SB 513, backed by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, has thus far survived the lobbyist gauntlet, but another Elliott proposal to put a bead on the tax-protest policies of Pennsylvania Power and Light-Montana, the state’s ruthless and now-unregulated dominant utility, was smothered by the Senate on Saturday.

Undaunted, the impish and rebellious Elliott is pushing forward on other fronts, and his bill targeting corporations that avoid paying even minimal taxes in the state survived a narrow Senate vote earlier this week.

Elliott says about 50 of the nation’s largest companies with operations in Montana each contribute less than $500 a year in state income taxes. But the names of these scofflaws and details about their ventures are kept confidential by the Montana Department of Revenue, which argues a privacy right. In an unusual move, Elliott sued the agency last year to pry loose the data.

Apparently heeding an internal call to stir the pot further, Elliott is also the sponsor of a hugely popular Montana Senate resolution urging Congress to reform the USA PATRIOT Act so it tramples less on civil liberties.

True to form, Elliott often wears a white cowboy hat. Which is yet another reason why having him ripped out of the Capitol by term limits is an awful shame.

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