Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Taxed Homeowners

Uncommon Ground

For the 2011 Montana Legislature, Gov. Brian Schweitzer built $36 million in homeowner property tax cuts into his executive budget. It was promptly removed by a solidly GOP-controlled Legislature.

Rep. Wayne Stahl, R-Saco, proposed $70 million in homeowner property tax refunds. His bill was tabled.

Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, proposed taxing homes on the purchase price plus 2 percent inflation. Her bill was tabled in the House Taxation Committee, chaired by Rep. Mark Blasdell, R-Lakeside.

Following the previous session, Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, initially praised the tax reappraisal bill – House Bill 658. Tutvedt, the current chairman of Senate Taxation Committee, wrote in a letter that “HB 658 helps the truly needy and taxes the rest of the property owners in Montana in a fair, flat manner within the mandates of the Montana Constitution.”

During her primary campaign, Rep. Dee Brown, R-Columbia Falls, placed an ad in a local newspaper that stated, “I voted against the reappraisal bill in 2009 … after the bill was changed in the Senate.”

After the 2009 session Schweitzer said, “These people on the Senate Taxation Committee – they didn’t listen to anybody last time. Why would we expect that they would come back and do anything different?”

Last session, Rep. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, sought annual reappraisals of agricultural, commercial, home and forest properties. Annualized appraisals would use lower valuations from down markets. Barrett’s approach was tabled by the GOP.

In the hearings Barrett said, “And what do we do, we mess around with the exemption rates, with the homestead exemption, with the tax rates, with the comstead exemption. We inaugurate phase-in and so forth. We create a system that is really really hard to understand.

It’s hard for taxpayers to understand. I don’t know if this committee would want to take a quiz on it themselves today.”

Joe Roberts opposed Barrett’s bill on behalf of the Montana Association of Realtors. Roberts, who described the 2009 reappraisal as “a pretty darn good bill,” chose this testimony carefully.

Roberts attested: “Some of the complications have crept in by trying to be more fair, things like phase-in and exemptions. We think it’s premature to pass this particular legislation.” Roberts advocated for an interim study.

Nancy Schlepp, representing the Montana Taxpayers’ Association stated, “We are working on a couple study bills that are coming forward. We do think this needs to be addressed and hope it would be addressed in the interim.”

No interim study materialized. Property tax study bills by Rep. Joanne Blyton, R-Joliet, and another by Rep. Gordon Hendrick, R-Superior, were tabled by the GOP.

Homeowners may wonder why a GOP-run Legislature, with both tax committees chaired by lawmakers from Flathead, did not produce tax relief.

Lawmakers could acknowledge that for people living in their homes, tax caps work.

The Tea Partiers of the 2011 Legislature lost their focus. Lawmakers steeped into bitter chaos, but produced no homeowner tax solutions. During budget debates, Tutvedt retorted, “We need to show who is in charge. We’ve just got to exert ourselves.”

Homeowners deserve leaders who remember whom they work for. Homeowners are cynically habituated to firebrand tax rhetoric only to receive little actual policy help from lawmakers.

But what type of personas voters send to Helena matters. More political moderation and less fanaticism may yet produce results that work for our communities.

Agricultural tax caps saved the family farm, just as forestland tax caps preserved timberlands. The Legislature should give local homeowners the same consideration.

At a bare minimum, the next Legislature could abate the final round of property tax phase-ins for homeowners living in their homes. That is a little amount that Montana can afford to backfill from its big surpluses to keep our great schools whole.