Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Tax Freedom

Montana’s state and local tax burden rank well below the national average

The conservative Tax Foundation is a Washington, D.C. based think tank with a long history of publishing research studies and comparing state tax policy. The foundation receives funding from big corporations and far-right political groups.

Tax Freedom Day is the foundation’s point of the year when Americans have earned enough money to pay for taxes. The date is crudely calculated by taking taxes paid in the current year, divided by the nation’s income for the year.

This year, that day nationally was April 17. The latest the date has fallen was May 1, 2000.

The foundation rates Montana’s business tax climate as very favorable, ranking it No. 8 out of the 50 states. The foundation rates Montana’s state and local tax burden well below the national average.

On state and local property taxes per capita, Montana ranks in the middle of the pack at 23 out of 50. On individual income taxes, Montana rates lower than average at No. 17.

Montana still has no statewide sales tax. And plenty of us like it that way.

Montana is one of a handful of states that reasonably weathered the economic meltdown spurred by gamblers on Wall Street. Montana has a growing $400 million budget surplus, thanks to the frugal financial management of Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Personal income increased over 5 percent from last year, which will boost Montana’s budget forecast. But since these forecasts are politically amended by legislators, they are often wrong. Schweitzer simply refers to the more than $341 million of cold hard cash in the bank.

During his tenure as governor, Schweitzer made a practice of cutting taxes. From lowering taxes on energy production, to multiple tax cuts on business equipment, to new property tax credits, to a historic $100 million property tax rebate distributed equally to homeowners.

But instead of finding a permanent property tax fix for homeowners living in high-growth regions, Republicans controlling the 2011 Montana Legislature had another idea. The GOP put onto the primary ballot a referendum that would result in an automatic tax credit when budget revenue reaches 25 percent more than what was politically projected by legislators.

On Legislative Referendum 123, former Republican Montana secretary of state and state Senate president Bob Brown recently wrote that he had participated in five unplanned special sessions of the Legislature.

In a recent column Brown said, “Let’s not adopt government by a politically contrived autopilot. Decisions of public policy should be made thoughtfully, and only by those we elect to make them.”

Tea Party Republicans rode into office wanting to cut taxes, but soon lost their way. They became more attracted to social issues like cutting funding to Planned Parenthood than fixing homeowner property tax policy.

Issues like spear hunting, reviewing birth certificates, private militias, guns in public schools, higher taxes for renewable energy, nuclear power plants in the Flathead, mandated marriage counseling, climate change as tourism promotion, and nullification of all things federal took center stage in Montana. Embarrassingly, Montana made national news repeatedly.

Enough culture war already.

Citizens need for the next Legislature to exhibit more reason and less firebrand rhetoric. Voters deserve elected representatives who are willing to compromise for the betterment of local communities.

Montanans will not have Schweitzer and his red-hot branding iron in the next Legislature when a veto is needed to stop policy that will make Montana look “bat-crap crazy.”

Given the slim odds of Democrats controlling the 2013 Montana Legislature, independents may opt for another Democratic governor like Schweitzer to backstop the kooky policy bills coming from Helena.

Tax Freedom Day has come and gone for the year. Gratefully the libraries, public schools and local fire departments remain fully open to serve the people of our great state.