Guest Column

Why A Special Session is A Bad Idea

Legislators must now decide if a special session is the right format for making decisions on the largest surplus in our state’s history

By Frank Garner

There are legislators working to call a special session 90 days before the next regular legislative session to address the billion plus dollars in surplus taxpayer funds. While the news of a surplus is welcomed, legislators must now decide if a special session is the right format for making decisions on the largest surplus in our state’s history.

The sheer volume and rarity of this surplus begs us to be thoughtful and deliberate. The short special session format has historically been the tool for responding to imminent emergencies that require immediate action. For example, a special session was called when the fire fund was empty during an active fire season. The current proposal is to address approximately $1.5 billion in approximately two days. 

As I consider my weighty decision on this session call, my first concern is if this proposal is driven by an imminent emergency or by those wanting to write checks to voters because their emergency is merely an imminent election. It is not lost on me that this session would occur right before absentee ballots are mailed. 

And then there are the details of the proposal. Many agree on refunding a large portion to taxpayers, but how much and to whom? How much to income taxpayers versus property taxpayers? Should we prioritize tax relief for seniors and veterans? Should we pay off some state debt to help future generations? Should we address the crisis at the State Mental Hospital or leave it for future generations?

And what of the concerns of a recession or even stagflation? Should we make this decision before we see updated revenue estimate and before we see the governor’s budget? Should we provide only two days of input time for Montanans given this is complex and not an emergency? Should we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars holding a session rather than wait 90 days for the regular session?

While I believe strongly that much of your surplus money should be returned to you through property and income tax relief, I also believe in helping future taxpayers by paying off long-term debt and working to solve our state’s mental health crisis. We must get this right and that requires more public input and more thoughtful deliberation than can be had in a special session. Thus, I believe this topic should be the first order of business in the upcoming regular legislative session.

These are among the reasons I don’t support the call for a special session.

Finally, as a termed-out legislator, while I’d love to take credit for your refund before my term ends, it is in all our best interest to wait a few more months for the thoughtful and transparent process offered by a regular session. Here the discussion will be driven more by those debating what is best for current and future Montanans and less by those trying to buy your vote just before an election.

Frank Garner is Republican state representative from Kalispell. 

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