MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA If BNSF Railway keeps charging Montanans more than it does shippers in other states, a lawmaker says the company should be hit with a big tax bill. Rep. Julie French, D-Scobey, said it is time to use the threat of taxes to force BNSF to lower its shipping rates. She introduced a tax measure Friday that she says would get the jobs done. “They literally have ranchers and farmers by the neck,” she said of BNSF. “There is no competition.” The idea is not new. It stalled in the 2005 Legislature amid pressure from BNSF officials who promised to sue the state if the tax were put in place. Supporters say the tax is specifically engineered to penalize the company in a way that would prevent them from increasing shipping rates to pay for the tax. If they raised rates, their taxes would also rise. “All we are asking for is fairness in trade,” French said. “This is the only avenue we have to hold Burlington Northern to a fair price.” In 2005, the bill easily cleared the House only to languish in the Senate without a vote. BNSF officials said at the time it would lead them into a costly lawsuit with the state. French expects another tough fight from the railway, but a BNSF spokesman did not indicate how the company would proceed. “BNSF will review this further,” spokesman Gus Melonas said. The proposed law would measure the rate charged Montana farmers against the rates BNSF charges in other states. The size of the tax increase would depend on the gap in shipping rates between states; the bigger the discrepancy, the higher the taxes, French said. BNSF hauls more than 90 percent of Montana grain to markets on the West Coast. Farmers have long complained they are overcharged. Gov. Brian Schweitzer is also seeking money from the Legislature to sue the federal Surface Transportation Board, saying the agency has failed to check BNSF’s monopoly power. French said farmers in Nebraska pay less than Montanans to ship grain to the same market in Oregon. “Our ultimate goal is to try to get them to lower the freight rates,” she said. “It’s a fairness issue.” The bill is House Bill 838.