HELENA — Wal-Mart pays its workers such low wages that they qualify for
state welfare benefits subsidized by Montana taxpayers, people told a Senate committee
As an incentive for those ‘‘big box stores'' to pay a living wage
to their workers, Sen. Ken Toole's Senate Bill 272 would impose a gross proceeds
tax on the companies. They would be exempt from the tax if they paid their employees
an entry level wage of at least $22,000 a year, counting both pay and benefits
and if less than half of their workers were part-time.
‘‘State taxpayers are subsidizing Wal-Mart's payroll,'' said Kim
Abbott, lobbyist for Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, a low-income
advocacy group. ‘‘It's ridiculous.'' A number of business people
opposed the tax as a selective sales tax and one that would harm Montana's business
Toole, a Helena Democrat, would charge a gross receipts tax of 1 percent of
a store's annual gross receipts of $20 million to $30 million, 1.5 percent on
gross receipts from $30 million to $40 million and 2 percent on gross receipts
exceeding $40 million. The bill is projected to raise about $16 million a year
for the state.
Toole said he hopes no business in Montana winds up paying the tax. They can
escape it by paying their employees the wage levels spelled out in the bill,
He told the committee that Wal-Mart had a net income of $7.1 billion last year
and paid its chief executive officer $12.4 million a year. The average Wal-Mart
worker, he said, is paid $13,694 annually for 32 hours of work weekly and has
to wait two years to be eligible for insurance.
‘‘These are very profitable businesses,'' Toole said. ‘‘They
make a lot of money. They can afford to pay their employees a living wage.''
Gene Fenderson of the Montana Progressive Labor Caucus agreed, saying ‘‘The
Wal-Marts, Targets, Home Depots are not paying their fair share of taxes for
the amount of wealth they extract from our states and the services they demand.''
Kate Mrgudic, a Helena woman who worked for 25 years in the social services
field, said she shops at big box stores.
‘‘In our state today, we have essential services competing for
limited resources,'' she said. ‘‘Child care for low-income working
families is pitted against energy assistance for seniors, housing assistance
competes for funding with community mental health services.This is intolerable.
I do not believe we are a state without the resources to assist our most vulnerable
citizens. There are resources in our state. But some are not tapped.'' Tom Bilodeau
of MEA-MFT, the teachers and state employees union, called the bill ‘‘a
modest step forward'' to broaden Montana's tax base and provide the third leg
to the tax stool now supported by income and property taxes.
Although Wal-Mart dominated the discussion, no one from the company testified.
Brad Griffin of the Montana Retail Association, which counts Wal-Mart as a member,
criticized the bill. Although Toole said these companies have gross profit margins
ranging from 11 to 35 percent, Griffin said the net profit margin, after paying
employees and other expenses, runs from 1 to 6 percent.
‘‘It doesn't make sense for a retail store to operate at a low
margin for 364 days a year, only to see a state confiscate this in taxes,''
Griffin said. Just because a company is big is no sign it is profitable, he
A Costco regional vice president, John McKay, said the bill unfairly taxes
those businesses with high sales volumes.
‘‘In truth, we think this is a disguised sales tax,'' he said.
0x2260x128'We would have to pass this onto members through higher prices.‘‘
Costco, he said, pays its average full-time workers $43,700 annually, plus $18,000
in benefits. Its part-time workers average $21,700 in pay, with 92 percent of
them receiving the same $18,000 in annual benefits as its full-time workers,
Several people, including Mike Wall, president of Power Townsend of Helena,
said if the Legislature passes such a tax, it should include businesses of all
No other state has such a law, Toole said, but he added that he has received
a number of inquiries from interested people in other states.
The Taxation Committee took no immediate action on the bill.