Forgotten Homeowners

By Beacon Staff

The days following the 2009 Legislature, editorials noted the failure to reform homeowner property taxes.

The observations were spot-on, judging by the homeowner outcry. But anyone paying attention could see it coming. Property taxes are directly tied to the free market growth of a locality. And the Flathead’s market was hopping for much of the previous decade.

The bulk of 2009 Democrats voted against the hijacked House Bill 658, while nearly all of the Republicans voted for it. Fine. That was then and this is now. Fast forward, past all the campaign rhetoric about fixing the homeowner mess, and examine the 2011 legislative fixes with just days left in the session.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer built $36 million in homeowner property tax cuts into his 2011 executive budget. The plan would have cut middle class taxes by $150 biannually. The Senate tax committee tabled the bill.

Rep. Wayne Stahl, R-Saco, has proposed a $70 million homeowner property tax cut in House Bill 157. It passed the House and sits in Appropriations awaiting funding. In stark contrast to the executive budget, the GOP has yet to allocate homeowner tax relief into its budget.

The Senate has sent the House $24 million in business equipment tax cuts targeting big oil corporations. And the House sent the Senate $20 million in long-term workers’ compensation relief for business. But the Legislature appears less serious about homeowners.

Even as procedural deadlines pass, weird political sausage is stuffed in bills in the waning days of the Legislature. Policy moves fast, changes often and a fix can materialize. Homeowners who live in their home deserve their taxes capped or based on purchase price.

Homeowners cite House Bill 308 by Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, for tax predictability. Ingraham’s approach is embraced by high-growth areas. It bases taxes on the purchase price of a home plus 2 percent predictable inflation. The House Tax Committee tabled HB 308.

The House sent the Senate House Bill 616 by Rep. Lee Randall, R-Broadus. Cosponsored by Rep. Bill Beck-R Whitefish, the bill would further lessen agriculture taxes. We farmers welcome more tax cuts, on land or equipment. But most working farmers acknowledge that current agricultural taxes are a good deal, relative to the free market taxes on homes.

Agricultural tax caps saved the family farms in Montana. Today, homes are at risk. The Legislature should give local homeowners the same consideration it offers to timberlands and farmers.

Stahl also carries House Bill 595 to reappraise valuations every two years versus the current six-year cycle. It sits in Appropriations. The policy, cosponsored by House Tax Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Blasdel R-Somers, would not take effect until 2015. HB 595 eliminates EPTAP, the existing relief program which provides tax caps for middle class homeowners earning less than $75,000 annually.

There is fear that the Legislature will all but abandon homeowners by approving House Joint Resolution 24, by Rep. Joanne Blyton, R-Joliet. It would create an interim study of property taxes to reaffirm what we know: tax bills increase in relation to the pace of growth and realty speculation.

The lost legislative focus and widening friction between Senate President Jim Peterson and House Speaker Mike Milburn leave homeowners with little hope. During budget parleys with Democrats, Senate Tax Committee Chairman Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, retorted, “We need to show who is in charge. We’ve just got to exert ourselves.”

Taxpayers might brace for more rhetoric on why the GOP-run Legislature, with both tax committees chaired by lawmakers from Flathead, has not produced homeowner relief. Lawmakers must find courage during the waning Legislative days to lower property taxes for November bills.

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