Uncommon Ground

Fix It Yourself

The past four legislative cycles the majority party simply refused to mitigate the cyclical effects of property tax reappraisals

By Mike Jopek

From now until elections we’re gonna hear more of it. That trust us, we’ll “fix it” phrase politicians utter during reelection cycles yet never do much to help homeowners with taxes during legislative sessions. 

Too often in the Montana Legislature, the majority party ignores the plight of homeowners living in their homes and raising families. The people who run the state in Helena keep proposing to fix property taxes yet never really do much anything to help the plight of locals.

The past four legislative cycles the majority party simply refused to mitigate the cyclical effects of property tax reappraisals, the biannual process where all residential homes and businesses are reassessed, levelling valuations to comparable market standards or as local taxpayers say, up.

The effect on people who live in their homes skyrocketed during Montana’s real estate boom. Go ahead Flathead, send that same cast of politicians back to Helena, surely, they’ll “fix it” next time. 

Back when I was privileged to be within the halls of power in Helena, many lawmakers simply didn’t believe, understand, or much care what the reappraisal math said, which subsequently caused ten thousand Montana homeowners to protest their outrageously high tax valuations. 

I saw firsthand the same politicians whose new laws shifted significantly higher property tax bills upon local homeowners and small business owners, keep promising that reelected they’d “fix it.” The majority never did and never tried.

Since then, politicians switched reappraisal to every other year so Flathead homes would appreciate quicker in tax valuation, more in line with market conditions, or as locals know, up.

Many homes are investments, rented to make good money for the owner. Other homes are occupied during the nice weeks as the homeowners pay income taxes in another state of primary residence. 

Montana home values grew faster than most anywhere in the nation. It’s little wonder that local homeowners feel taxed-out during a rally of real estate transactions that jettisoned valuations into the stratosphere. 

New to the scene is a constitutional amendment gathering signatures with promises that all homes be capped at 2019 tax appraised levels and can’t increase but a little over time, unless there’s a sale. 

According to the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning, the proposal would cut some $100 million from state school equalization funds over the next four years and allow Montana homeowners to keep a portion of that money in their pocket.

That $100 million to schools every four years won’t be felt as cuts in state education funding, rather shifts to other sources of funding like income taxes, something every Montanan, renter or homeowner, pays. 

Homeowners would be the clear winners from this property tax cap initiative. The big losers, unfortunately, the downtown commercial property owners. That tax shift would prove profound and sudden.

The governor’s budget office reports that local effects onto school districts statewide will be $150 million annually. Again, not cuts, rather shifts in local school funding away from homeowners and onto local business owners, foresters, and farmers.

This proposal won’t fix school funding, it’ll exasperate school equalization and make downtown business pay more. Yet if the proposal is successful and changes Montana’s Constitution, it will finally alert lawmakers to the plight of homeowners who live in their home. 

Most every local knows deep within their wallets that property taxes are too high for people living in their homes. In places like Columbia Falls and Whitefish a significant portion of tourism taxes are put back into property owner’s pockets as tax relief within the jurisdiction. 

The people who run Montana in Helena are busy, focused on other things. They have little time to help lower homeowner property taxes but plenty for more promises, promises, promises. Homeowners may just “fix it” themselves. We’ll see.

Mike (Uncommon Ground) Jopek and Dave (Parting Shots) Skinner often fall on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to political and outdoor issues. Their columns alternate each week in the Flathead Beacon.

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