When Tandem Doughnuts debuted its gluten-free, vegan fare at the Clark Fork Market in 2012, the company consisted solely of founders Beth Gherlein and David Tyson. In the five years since, Tandem entered the wholesale world, grew to five employees, and is, according to Gherlein, finally on the cusp of financial stability.
“I really feel like it’s this year that the business has reached this turning point,” she says. “We got picked up by a regional distributor that is selling our bread in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, and that’s been a big deal for us. We’re in the process of trying to get funding and find a space to have a retail shop.”
It’s the kind of small-business story Montana politicians love to tout. But they may not get a chance to following this week’s passage of the Republican tax bill. Gherlein says parts of the bill that purport to help small businesses won’t help Tandem at all. Other provisions, namely elimination of the individual insurance mandate established by the Affordable Care Act, could force Gherlein and her husband to shutter the bakery entirely.
“If the private insurance market goes crazy and health insurance becomes really expensive”—the Congressional Budget Office says average premiums would go up about 10 percent a decade without the individual mandate—“I just won’t have a way to afford it,” Gherlein says. “I have a daughter who is on CHIP, and CHIP expired in the fall and has yet to be re-upped … If we long-term can’t get affordable health care access, then it’s difficult for us to stay in business.”
Concerns about the tax bill have dominated headlines for weeks. More than 350 people rallied outside the Missoula County Courthouse Dec. 6 in opposition to the legislation, at an event organized by the group Missoula Rises. Based on national coverage and feedback from numerous tax specialists, the bill’s impacts on Montanans would be widespread, affecting individual taxpayers as much as small businesses.
For example, in early November the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy piece about the bill’s elimination of a tax deduction for personal losses to wildfire and other natural disasters. At the time, the provision was contained in the House version of the tax bill, and it prompted swift backlash on social media and from prominent Western Democrats. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris criticized their Republican colleagues for eliminating the deduction, releasing a joint statement highlighting the damage the 2017 wildfire season wreaked on their state: 43 lives lost and nearly 8,900 structures destroyed. The negotiated passed Tuesday night eliminates the deduction unless the disaster in question is federally declared.
Julie Sirrs, a Missoula attorney who specializes in tax law, encourages Montanans to focus on two other portions of the tax bill that could affect them significantly. The first is a $10,000 cap on itemized deductions for state and local income and sales tax. That cap, Sirrs says, will likely result in wider use of the standard deduction and, she anticipates, a flagging interest in donating to nonprofits. Her second area of concern is the bill’s elimination of the $4,000 personal exemption in favor of a $2,000-a-year child tax credit.
“Anyone who itemizes their taxes and anyone who has children would want to take a close look to try to figure out to what extent they might be harmed by this bill,” Sirrs says.
Amanda Dawsey characterizes the tax bill as “the height of picking winners and losers.” An associate professor of economics at the University of Montana, she takes issue not only with the provisions listed above, but with the bill’s broader implications. Individual income tax rates may shrink in the short-term, she says, but the bill’s modification to how inflation is indexed will lead to increases for those same taxpayers over time.
“It’s not improving equity. In fact, it’s making it worse.” Dawsey says, adding that short-term federal cuts are likely to result in decreased state revenue even as Montana grapples with a budget crisis.
With the bill yet to be signed at press time, the most tangible effect of the tax bill on Montana to date may be the debate its mere existence has stirred. At Tandem, Gherlein felt motivated to speak up not just for her business, but for all mom-and-pop outfits in the state.
“I feel frustrated, because I’ll hear in the news things that representatives say about small business, and it seems like they’re not talking about me,” Gherlein says. “They say ‘small business,’ but it doesn’t seem like it’s really about people who are making less than $50,000 a year and have less than 10 employees. I feel misrepresented.”
Rep. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines voted for the bill Tuesday. Sen. Jon Tester voted against it. On Dec. 19, Daines told Fox News, “It’s such a great bill. This is a tremendous Christmas present for the American people. It’s a great way to end the year.”