Uncommon Ground

A Fix

SB94 would reduce the combined taxable value of eligible homes about $2 million for 2016

The Montana Legislature adjourned in late April. Lawmakers introduced nearly 1,200 bills and almost one-third have been signed into law. Nearly 400 House and half as many Senate bills died in the process. That’s normal.

The governor has so far vetoed fewer than 50 bills. That’s also normal.

As of last week, 70 bills that passed the Legislature were waiting for action, not yet sent to the governor for final consideration.

Having this many bills sitting presumably in the Speaker of the House’s desk drawer the month after the Legislature adjourns for the biennium is abnormal. Passed legislative bills should promptly be transmitted to the governor.

Among the holdups was Senate Bill 94 sponsored by Republican Sen. Keith Regier and Democrat Rep. Dave Fern, both representing the Whitefish area.

SB94 seeks to fix a wrong that plagued Montana for decades. The legislation creates an assistance program for homeowners experiencing extraordinary land appreciation due to property tax reappraisals. It caps land tax values for people who live in their homes to 150 percent of the improvements.

In order to qualify for tax assistance, blood family must have owned a less than 5-acre home site for 30 years.

The legislation matters big-time in recreational areas like the Flathead. Longtime residents face astronomically high property taxes because they’ve lived on the same great piece of Montana for a long time.

A decade ago in Helena, I sought homeowner property tax caps, only to find strong Republican objection. The decade prior, Republicans sought a fix and Democrats objected.

Today a Republican and Democrat teamed up to offer a practical solution that helps 1,300 homeowners in Montana better afford their property taxes. It’s a decent fix. It doesn’t go nearly far enough to cap property taxes for all Montanans living in their homes.

SB94 would reduce the combined taxable value of eligible homes about $2 million for 2016. The Regier and Fern solution cost the state money, or more appropriately reduces the amount of revenue flowing into coffers by less than $200,000 annually.

Locally the municipal and school tax shifts to the base and is multiple times that amount, distributed across the state.

When a speaker withholds a bill that passed the legislative body for an extended amount of time, it impedes chances for enactment. It’s procedural, like if a speaker didn’t put a mail ballots bill onto the agenda.

Legislative bills compete for the same revenues and there’s only so much money. As a tax cut, at least this one is cheap to the state.

Once the governor receives the bill, he enjoys 10 days to determine whether to sign the bill into law or veto the bipartisan legislation that underwent six revisions in just this most recent session.

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld wrote Gov. Steve Bullock a letter urging support for the bipartisan legislation.

Muhlfeld wrote in part, “For over 30 years, the Legislature has struggled to find options to protect Montana residents whose property values are being driven astronomically high by out-of-state buyers. Most resident have seen a 10-fold increase in property taxes since the 2002 reappraisal cycle and a 30-fold increase since 1980s.”

The speaker finally sent SB94 to the governor for consideration last week. Bullock may embrace a compromise that has taken decades to achieve by signing SB94 into law.

Many care about this issue, not because it affects their property. Rather it would meaningfully assist many old-timers living in our communities keep the property taxes on their land reasonably affordable for today and future generations.

SB94 helps the old-timers, those who came before us and prebuilt our towns and communities. Many need a small bit of policy respect to reasonably maintain ownership of the homes they’ve lived in throughout the generations.