HELENA – The chief sponsor of the one property-tax mitigation bill still pending in the Montana Legislature says he will try to kill the measure if the Senate doesn’t amend it to strengthen programs that help disabled veterans, the elderly and the poor meet their tax obligations.
Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish, told the Senate Taxation Committee on Tuesday that absent the changes, he will advocate tabling the bill and “that’s a big statement because that throws us into chaos and that throws us into a special (legislative) session. Nobody wants that.”
Jopek said the state has the money to adequately support the programs he wants funded as a condition of his backing House Bill 658, co-sponsored by Billings Republican Jeff Essmann, chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee. Essmann said Jopek “brought us kind of an ultimatum and a hand grenade.”
HB658 is intended to protect homeowners from the financial sting of the latest statewide property reappraisal that the Montana Department of Revenue conducted. The reappraisal brought an increase averaging 55 percent in the value of residential property, a statewide average for the period from January 2002 through last June. Average increases vary widely by county and within counties and do not necessarily translate into higher property taxes, depending on what the Legislature eventually does.
HB658 follows a reappraisal-mitigation strategy used in 2003. That strategy includes, over a six-year span, reducing the residential property tax multiplier rate from 2.85 percent to 2.25 percent and increasing the percentage of a home’s value that is exempt.
Essmann expressed concern that HB658 is financially unbalanced even without the amendments Jopek wants.
Jopek said that as a priority, the Legislature ought to look after homeowners such as Agnes, Gladys, Edith and Edna, four women he says moved to Whitefish 40-50 years ago, bought homes, have seen their property values escalate rapidly and now struggle with property taxes.
“There’s $200 million to $400 million under the mattress,” Jopek said, referring to the state’s general-fund budget surplus. “Take the money out of the mattress and give it to them (homeowners).”
Essmann later questioned whether the money would be available.
“The money may not be under the mattress,” he said. “The (state’s projected) revenue estimate has been bleeding $30 million to $40 million a month since November. If that rate continues, we’ll chew that ending-fund balance in eight or 10 months. I think we’re pretending there’s money under the mattress.”
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