Uncommon Ground

Less is More

Property tax surges are directly related to the unwillingness of Montana lawmakers to mitigate the cyclical effects of property reappraisal during the western land grab

By Mike Jopek

The Flathead remains at the epicenter of changing communities in Montana as homeowner property taxes surged across growth areas. Statewide property taxes increased rapidly and Montana is flush with surplus taxpayer cash.

Homeowners who live in their homes are paying a lot. Increases are directly related to the inability and unwillingness of Montana lawmakers to mitigate the cyclical effects of property reappraisal during the western land grab. In recent years, values shot through the roof as the Legislature did nothing. 

Montana failed to moderate homeowner taxes during multiple legislative sessions and hasn’t returned surplus funds back to people since former Gov. Brian Schweitzer refunded $100 million back to locals who live in their homes.

Talking about state revenues from property the Legislative Fiscal Division analysts in Helena wrote, “The forecast for FY 2024 grows substantially, due to high reappraisal growth estimates from DOR for class 4 residential property at 43.8% and commercial property at 16.1%.” 

Those are extremely high two-year state average increases reported out of the Montana Department of Revenue. Growth areas like the Flathead typically see much higher increases than statewide averages during reappraisal cycles.

Most homeowners know they’re paying a whole bunch more in property taxes due to legislative inaction. A significant portion of ongoing funds statewide comes from people who live in their homes.

The fiscal analysts projected that statewide property tax collections will increase $200 million over the next biennium. It’s no wonder home values doubled in short order as the pandemic accentuated desirable places to live throughout the west.

Some years back, Montana switched from six-year to two-year home appraisals. Politicians did it for predictability. Homeowners, who pay the bulk of statewide property taxes, witnessed nothing but volatility and significant increases. 

Agricultural property taxes are based upon land production of crops like $6 wheat or $106-ton alfalfa hay and use 10-year Olympic averages to set valuation. The high and low are tossed, the remainder eight years averaged to set tax values. 

Montana enjoys a massive state budget surplus, widely credited to the work of Sen. Jon Tester in the U.S. Senate who directed vast amounts of one-time federal aid to our state during the pandemic. Montana conservatively hoarded much of that cash and is well positioned to direct relief to locals who live in our homes.

It’ll be months before homeowners know what type of relief is proposed and well into next year before any rebates are possible. One basic fact remains, the Montana Legislature can sure mess things up when it comes to property tax cuts. It will be a miracle if homeowners get meaningful and ongoing property tax relief. It’s no wonder less government is popular.

Montana could also cut tuition, a tax we charge students to attend state universities and local trade schools. The debt today’s kids pay for two- or four-year education is nuts. Montana is well positioned, should it want to, to do something about it. Trade schools and higher education are key to more jobs and a prosperous economy.

Lawmakers should remain focused on more jobs, less taxes and put state government to work for local people. Throughout Montana, locals feel frustrated with state government’s incessant need to seemingly control aspects of our freedom while doing a poor job helping with every day, kitchen-table concerns facing locals. 

In another month, lawmakers will be in Helena enjoying thick steaks and free whiskey. It will be a miracle if lawmakers don’t get distracted by shiny objects and remain focused on safety, schools, and seniors. Things that matter to locals. 

With the Legislature’s new supermajority powers, lawmakers are unfortunately more likely to ignore local people living in our hometowns and spend more time telling Montanans how to live and which values matter most.