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Gas taxes 

Turn off any Interstate exit to get gas in Montana, and you'll probably end up at a "casino." The gas station is attached to a room full of slot machines where you can also get a few drinks to go (since state law requires a liquor license to permit gambling), and the whole thing sprawls over dozens of acres. Sound like an odd combination? It should.

The leader in gas casinos is a Montana corporation called Town Pump, which always manages to have lower gas prices than the non-gambling-associated competition, though they claim the gambling doesn't subsidize the gas prices. Others are coming to realize the formula, and soon numerous such complexes will blot most towns in the state.

You have to admire Town Pump for coming up with a system to subsidize gas prices with casino profits. (And again, they deny it, because selling gas below cost is illegal in Montana.) Gasoline is one of the most price-sensitive products in the country, and because of the cheap prices people flock to Town Pumps. While there, some of them probably drop some money in the slots, thus subsidizing the very cheap gas that brought them there.

What this amounts to is a tax. It's a tax on gambling, used to subsidize driving. It's an unusual tax in that it's collected by a private entity. And it's unusual in that it involves a huge ugly building that combines activities that should not be associated with each other (drinking, driving, and gambling). But it involves a community collecting money from some of its members (gamblers) to support activities that most of its members deem essential (driving). That's a tax.

Gambling is on the rise in Montana, and with it a host of public health and safety issues. In my opinion, if we really want to tax gambling, we should use those revenues to support addiction treatment centers, police, and other services its expansion requires. Meanwhile, if we're really desperate for cheap gas, we could always buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle.

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