Over the last few weeks, newspapers, including this one, have been publishing competing letters and guest columns on what the state should do with its staggering budget surplus, measured between $1 billion and $2 billion.
A combination of population gains, increasing wages, exploding property values, and relatively sound fiscal management has left Montana flush with so much cash that state lawmakers have suggested calling a special session to figure out what to with it all.
In late July, Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, co-authored an opinion piece in the Missoulian that argued lawmakers should reconvene in Helena to craft a proposal to send up to $3,000 back to Montana taxpayers.
It read, in part: “Isn’t the return of your money to your bank account for your chosen use a better practice than having the State squander it expanding government programs, which permanently raises your taxes?”
But not every Republican in the GOP-dominated Legislature agreed with his plan, and others questioned why the party would call a special session so close to a general election.
Kalispell’s Frank Garner, who is term-limited and unable to run for reelection, wondered whether his fellow party members’ special session “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.” Instead, he suggested the surplus should be the first order of business at the upcoming regular legislative session in January.
Other local Republican lawmakers would rather not wait that long. Columbia Falls Rep. Braxton Mitchell wrote a letter asking his fellow legislators to support a special session to “refund nearly $2 billion in over collected taxes.”
Four additional lawmakers, including two from this area – Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, and Matt Regier, R-Kalispell – outlined their own plan in a guest column to call a special session in September “to give $900 million in rebates to taxpayers and pay off $100 million of the State’s existing debt.”
Meanwhile, in another recent op-ed, longtime Conrad Republican Rep. Llew Jones threw cold water on calling a special session or sending out one-time “rebates” to taxpayers, which he called “inflationary,” and instead proposed a “temporary property tax reduction.”
For their part, Democrats have also written to the state’s news outlets with their own plan to use the surplus to address “the high cost of finding a home, rising property taxes, the lack of affordable childcare, and the scarcity of mental health services.” Since they are in the minority, however, they are unlikely to have much of a say on how the surplus is spent.
Right now, even with Republicans holding all the power at the capitol, it’s still unclear if the majority of lawmakers would vote to convene a special session this close to a general election. Gov. Greg Gianforte could also make the call, but he hasn’t, so far, indicated he would do so.
Regardless of the politics involved, whether in September or January, our elected officials will face the daunting decision of how to divvy up a massive surplus like nothing the state has ever seen before.
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