Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Take the Money

Uncommon Ground

When former President George W. Bush used tax rebates to stimulate the national economy, taxpayers received checks to spend at places like the downtown hardware store.

One Bush rebate was $168 billion and termed economic stimulus to jumpstart a lagging 2008 economy. Nearly 130 million households took advantage of tax rebates that ranged from $300 to $600 for qualifying individuals.

“This money is going to help Americans offset the high prices we’re seeing at the gas pump, at the grocery store, and will also give our economy a boost to help us pull out of this economic slowdown,” said Bush in early 2008 before the national economic depression fully took hold that fall.

In 1975, former President Gerald Ford sent taxpayers a rebate check of $100 to $200. Bush used selective rebates previously in 2001.

The presidential tax rebates increased national debt.

In 2007, Gov. Brian Schweitzer used the state surplus to refund $100 million to homeowners. More than 250,000 homeowners (living in their homes) received $400 checks.

That populist approach was followed by another $140 per homeowner income tax credit. Combined, Schweitzer rebated local homeowners $540 for property tax relief.

Back then, current congressional candidate Steve Daines started a website that advocated for a larger rebate. Daines became lieutenant governor candidate on the Roy Brown ticket – running against Schweitzer. The Republican ticket garnered less than one-third of the votes cast that November.

Schweitzer’s tax rebate was part of his Square Deal plank. In the Montana Legislative Session that ensued, Schweitzer enacted the Square Deal by investing in tax rebates, eliminating the water tax, capping college tuition, helping military families and securing access to public lands and state parks.

Schweitzer’s use of state surpluses for tax refunds and keeping other budget expenditures low proved to be a shrewd move.

Schweitzer – with his frugal attitude – did something only a handful of American governors could: he kept people working and Montana out of debt during a national recession.

Most Montanans will agree that $400 is a big chunk of their homeowner property tax bills. In places like the Flathead, that saw high valuation growth in the 2000s, the rebate is proportionally far less.

Bullock has committed $100 million to homeowners. The next Legislature will decide if Bullock’s $400 per homeowners occurs. Lawmakers may again simply cut taxes for oil, gas, and coal developers.

Lawmakers could abate the next phase-ins of homeowner property tax valuations that are due in the following Novembers. Montana can increase state funding to backfill the homeowner portion to public education.

The Legislature could reappraise home valuations to today’s lower levels.
The Legislature can include rent equivalent tax rebates. The Legislature could cap taxes for people living in their homes. Lawmakers could correlate property taxes to fixed incomes.

The next property reappraisal will undoubtedly capture lower home valuations for regions like the Flathead. But expect new conflict from higher valuations from oil-boom regions of Montana.

Last year Schweitzer allocated another $36 million of homeowner tax cuts into his executive budget. He was ignored by lawmakers focused elsewhere on socially devisive bills.

Schweitzer is set to leave Montana with nearly a $500 million surplus. Bullock indicated that he is willing to invest $100 million of taxpayer dollars helping homeowners.

Bullock may prove to be as penny-wise and budget conscious as Schweitzer. And Bullock properly put local homeowners at the front of next session’s tax break line.

Other gubernatorial candidates may offer competing homeowner tax pledges – for a dollar-to-dollar comparison. But waiting for the Legislature to reform homeowner property tax policy has proven a fool’s errand.

Homeowners may simply opt to take the money. But that is a voter decision for this fall.