By Rep. Dan Bartel

In central Montana the American Prairie Reserve has amassed 420,000 acres of prime ranch land.  This is a fraction of their ultimate objective: to control 3.2 million acres.  The land they acquire will eventually be taken out of agricultural production and “re-wilded.”  The thriving ranching communities in and around APR’s 5,000 square mile target area will be wiped off the map.

If you’re a Montana taxpayer, you’re helping APR pay for their radical plan.

APR is a 501(c)3 charitable organization.  They are exempt from paying state and federal income taxes.  On top of that, their donors receive a charitable tax deduction for contributions made to APR.  For every dollar contributed to APR, the government treasury receives less than it otherwise would have.

This was the idea behind 501(c)3 charities.  Taxpayers indirectly fund charitable work by allowing tax deductions for philanthropists.

Over time, however, the scope of what qualifies as charitable work has drifted.  That leads to the question: should APR’s model of purchasing prime ag land and taking it out of production be considered a charitable purpose?  Is that an activity that should be subsidized by taxpayers?

The answer is obviously no.  APR’s plan places a burden on all Montanans.  Not only are we subsidizing their land purchases today, but in the future our tax base shrinks as they take millions of acres out of economic production.

The tax exemption APR enjoys also gives them a major advantage in the marketplace for land.  APR is able to pay premium prices as they compete directly against young farmers and ranchers trying to get their start.

It shouldn’t be this way.  There is nothing charitable about APR’s plan.  That’s why I am sponsoring legislation to prohibit organizations from purchasing large parcels of agricultural land through a nonprofit entity.

The policy my legislation implements is simple—we should not give tax breaks to allow organizations to amass property, especially when those groups intend to take that land out of production.

There is ample justification to place limitations on what charitable groups can do.  Nonprofit groups enjoy special privileges.  As privileged organizations, the IRS limits what type of activities qualify as charitable.

Federal laws also limit the Constitutional rights of nonprofits.  For example, 501(c)3’s are limited in the amount of lobbying activity they can conduct, and are not allowed to participate in political races.

To be clear, my legislation does not outright prohibit organizations like APR from buying agricultural land—it only says that they cannot use a nonprofit vehicle to do so.  APR and other nonprofits are free to organize for-profit entities through which to make their land purchases.  The only difference is they will be required to pay taxes like the rest of us.

In my area of the state there is a strong movement to Stop APR.  I wish I could say that we can legislate them out of existence, but that’s not the way the law works.  But at least we can level the playing field and stop APR from abusing the tax code by forcing all Montanans to subsidize their radical plan.

 

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Rep. Dan Bartel serves House District 29 in central Montana.  He lives in Lewistown.

 

10 thoughts on “Opinion: How We Stop APR from Abusing Montana’s Tax Code

  1. I have long felt that charitable trust have over reached, especially in the environmental world and have undo influence on the political world. I once introduced a resolution in MSGA to curb large scale charitable trust and was met with a lot of people that felt I was trying to stop them from donating to the local church or hospital, but when people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett put their fortunes in "charitable trusts" and then say we should be paying more taxes, especially estate taxes, we have a problem and it needs to be corrected

  2. This appears to limit competition in the marketplace – isn’t that illegal? Is this actually a free-market republican pushing this? It’s the choice of the landowner who to sell not – not the government.

  3. I agree that the APR has an unfair advantage when buying land using the 501(C) so that our young ranchers can’t compete when trying to buy property to farm and ranch! They have unfairly purchased large properties to get the BLM grazing that goes along with the property that was purchased. It just isn’t fair!!!! I support this legislation! Ron Garwood

  4. I’m calling BS on this one. You may be trying to target APR Dan Bartel, but the net will be cast too wide and you’ll end up hurting countless other charitable organizations. You may think you’re doing a good thing, but you’ll end up causing more damage to other property owners with this desperation move. Bad bill for Montana.

  5. There is already plenty of public lands for protection of wildlife and recreation; but APR is not interested in protecting resources for “the good of the public”. It’s purely an international group for land dominance. This bill protects against misuse of non-profit status for greedy individuals to profit.

  6. I have reservations. Why take a baseball bat to the property rights of others like the Elk Foundation, land trusts, or youth summer camps to single-out one landowner? What business does the government have telling me who I can and can’t sell my land too? Seems destined for the scrap pile, but who knows these days..

  7. As a fourth generation landowner, I’m very concerned the direction our state is going in regards to maintaining private property rights. Can’t sell our places to a nonprofit, more difficult to do land easements. Some of us envision leaving our places for purposes such as hunting, fishing, wildlife or land conservation; and not simply to the next ag producer who comes along. Some of them are not good stewards of what we’ve built up, or are simply interested in buying the place to lock out the public and bring in outfitters, or even worse, sub-divisions. This is a bad bill for most farmers and ranchers.

  8. Regarding APR buying land look at it this way. Less acres in production means less in the market which should lead to higher prices. At least that’s the theory. I don’t think there is any shortage of grain, pulses or cattle in the markets right now.

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