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Bicycle Tax 'Joke' Bombs At Montana Legislature

A legislative proposal by Senate President Scott Sales to slap a $25 tax on out-of-state bicyclists visiting Montana turns out to be a big joke, but it's going over like a lead balloon.
A legislative proposal by Senate President Scott Sales to slap a $25 tax on out-of-state bicyclists visiting Montana turns out to be a big joke, but it's going over like a lead ballon.

A legislative proposal to slap a $25 tax on out-of-state bicyclists visiting Montana received a lot of negative buzz over the past week. Turns out it was also a big joke. And it’s going over like a lead balloon with cycling advocates like Ginny Sullivan.“Yeah, I’m … I’m perplexed," Sullivan says. "I honestly don’t know how they allowed it to get out of the Senate without pulling that amendment out.”

Sullivan, Director of Travel Initiatives with the Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association, is talking about Senate Bill 363. It’s a measure to fund Montana’s fight against aquatic invasive species.

It was heavily amended on its way out of the state senate late last month. One of those amendments, made by Senate President Scott Sales, would require every out-of-state cyclist to purchase a $25 license.

It raised a lot of hackles within the bicycling community in and out of Montana. The story spread across the state and then was picked up by national publications such as Outside Magazine and Bicycling magazine’s online presence.

During its first hearing Wednesday afternoon before the House Natural Resources Committee, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Chas Vincent made this admission:

“Just for a little background on that, you know, maybe it was a little bit of an April Fools.”

Here’s what Vincent’s talking about. Several weeks ago, Sen. Sales made national news when he made these remarks about cyclists during testimony about a different cycling-related bill:

“They’re some of the rudest people I’ve ever – I hate to say it, but I’m just going to be bold – they’re some of the most self-centered, rude people navigating on the highways, or on the county roads that I’ve seen. They won’t move over, you can honk at them but they think they own the highway.”

That generated some major blow-back.

“Yeah, it made Bicycling magazine and was put out on a lot of our cycling blogs," says Adventure Cycling’s Ginny Sullivan. "Cyclists are passionate people.”

Senator Vincent described the messages sent to Senate President Sales as:

“Some of the most ugly and nasty messages I’ve ever heard left on anybody – legislators – cell phone. He’s got them if you want to listen to them. It’s remarkable, actually."

And that, according to Vincent, was the basis for Sales's amendment that’s again being described by some as "anti-cyclist."

“A lot of us had heard [those messages], so when he stood up to propose an amendment to charge a $25 fee for everybody who doesn’t have a state bike and wants to ride in Montana, as you can imagine it was kind of a comedic relief moment, but the amendment went on," says Vincent. "And then he voted for it. So, it was kind of a fun day.”

Democratic Gov. Steve  Bullock said Thursday he doesn’t get the joke.

“I don’t think it’s comic relief and I’m not sure what Senator Sales has against bicyclers," Bullock says.

Bullock points out hundreds of thousands of out-of-state cyclists contribute millions of dollars every year to Montana’s economy.

“There is a real threat to our outdoor economy from aquatic invasive species and we need to address it, but we shouldn’t compound that threat by attacks on out-of-state bicyclers," says Bullock.

Senator Scott Sales doesn’t back down from his earlier comments that some cyclists are self-centered and rude. Sales says his $25 license amendment was a direct response to his most hostile critics.

“In jest to some degree, and just to poke them in the eye from some of those folks I’ve heard from out of state, I slapped that amendment on there," says Sales. "I had no idea whether it would pass. I didn’t even lobby for it.”

Adventure Cycling's Ginny Sullivan says rude comments and behavior to lawmakers is never ok. But she adds that Senator Sale’s amendment feels to her like an abuse of power.

“I could see someone being upset and offering it as an amendment and then pulling it – just to make a statement about how this has gone too far," Sullivan says. "But to allow it to get out of your senate and into the next part of our government without removing it – if it really was a joke – that’s too bad."

Lawmakers in the house are expected to reviewthe billand vote on it either Friday or early next week.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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