Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Legislative Duty

Uncommon Ground

The Montana Supreme Court ruled that Legislative Referendum 123 was unconstitutional and could not be placed on the ballot. The Montana Legislature improperly delegated its constitutional authority to allocate taxpayer money for public services like education, fire protection or foster care, and enact tax cuts.

The Tea Partiers of the last Legislature put the question to voters on whether to pass the dubious income tax credit calculated by political guesses and ratified by tax triggers.

If Republicans really wanted to enact tax policy, they would have asked Gov. Brian Schweitzer to pass homeowner tax relief into law.

Back in 2007 Schweitzer enacted another homeowner tax credit based upon triggers. Ironically the GOP protested, as the Schweitzer administration calculated that the tax credit had triggered and processed the $140 for homeowners.

LR 123 took tax policy out of the hands of the Legislature. When surpluses were $5 million and 25 percent greater than political revenue projections, a refund ensued. Schweitzer routinely barbed the Legislature for making bad surplus projections. And judging by Montana’s performance of record surpluses, Schweitzer is right.

But how revenues are projected in Helena is a story of raw legislative politics.

A bipartisan cabal of legislators votes, prior to the session, on revenue predictions for the next few years.

Sometime in the Legislature, a partisan House taxation committee hears that prediction. The whole House may or may not vote on the projection. And only sometimes do senators even see the forecast.

The estimate can linger – as a bill – in the House taxation committee as a handful of legislators define the scope of state spending.

Finally, when the Legislature’s 90-day limit adjourns the bi-annual session, the last revenue prediction voted in, becomes law.

State revenue projections are highly political. Essentially a handful of legislative party faithful determine revenue outlooks. These projections define the size and scope of total state services like higher education, or how many tax cuts are affordable.

Low revenue projections were the rationale that the Tea Partiers of the last Legislature used to deny state employees’ raises, tax breaks for homeowners, investments in public education, or bonding for public construction projects.

But Montana workers had a more optimistic view of the economy. And the state has – yet another – $450 million budget surplus.

In the Legislature, LR 123 was sponsored by Bozeman Republican Sen. Joe Balyeat, the new state director for the political nonprofit group called Americans for Prosperity.

In a recent email to supporters, Montana Sen. Jon Tester wrote about how much cash the GOP political surrogates are spending in Montana. Tester mentioned another secret-money non-profit Crossroads GPS, whose political surrogate, Karl Rove, was recently spending time by Flathead Lake.

Tester wrote that “Crossroads GPS isn’t alone – the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the billionaire Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity have distorted my record – if you add all the special interests together, they’ve spent more than $4 million smearing me in Montana.”
The ideologues who run and fund these new kinds of secret-money political nonprofits surely want something for their multi-million-dollar investments. It is pretty unlikely that secret money has the interest of ordinary Montanans on the forefront of their legislative agenda.

Instead of investing in Montana, reforming property taxes or enhancing public services, the Tea Partiers of the 2011 Legislature attempted to delegate their constitutional authority to civil servants.

Hopefully the 2013 Legislature will act more moderately.

With Democrat Steve Bullock earmarking $100 million of state surpluses toward homeowners, the Legislature will need plenty of political will to make it right.

The ability to work well with others and a trust of people are needed legislative values. Maybe voters will send long-time community leaders to go to Helena.