Uncommon Ground

Long Live Artie

This year’s Legislature suddenly increased the residential share of local taxes while every other class of property decreases

By Mike Jopek

Nearly a decade and a half ago as a young state lawmaker, I told Gladys, Agnes and Rose that I’d help. We tried; lord knows we tried. The time was wrong.

I didn’t know then what Artie knew. But learned it over time. Good change is slow. It may take decades to bring positives alive. Standing up for real people, old-timers, retirees, and working folk was as important then as today. You know. Many long-term locals volunteer to make things better.

Back then the last land rush burst through the valley. Market valuations crashed as the Great Recession took hold, yet state property tax assessments increased. Tax appraisals look at past market values. Something to consider as the next bi-yearly reappraisal cycle approaches.

Ultimately after boxes of data, scores of words, that Legislature sent the governor a bill reducing residential tax rates, stopping the reappraisal’s tax valuation increase. Homeowners shouldn’t have to pay extra property taxes to Montana just because the state reassessed homes.

Reappraisal said homes were suddenly worth nearly $60 billion more statewide. This year’s Legislature didn’t reduce homeowner tax rates. They let the full increase of your home valuation be taxed at the same rate as before reappraisal.

That means that the state portion of homeowner property taxes increase 43% statewide come November tax bills. I know they keep saying that local government will stop extra property taxes from reappraisal.

Local government cannot mitigate the state portion of property taxes. That’s the job of the Legislature, always has been. Much like, it’s lawmakers’ job to assure industry and big commercial property taxes don’t shift onto local homeowners.

Similar to Montana’s deregulation debacle, this year’s Legislature suddenly increased the residential share of local taxes while every other class of property decreases.

Homeowners can expect the state portion of November’s property taxes to increase at the same percentage rate as their home increased in tax value during the state’s latest two-year reappraisal.

Local government is capped at 2.6%. Cities and counties are required by state law to not increase by more than half the rate of inflation over the past three years.

The 43% increase in state property taxes statewide means that residential property owners owe Montana, not local government, an extra $81 million annually when tax bills hit mailboxes, right before municipal and school bond elections.

Three numbers and three hours is all the Legislature needed to cancel the cyclical effects of property tax reappraisals on homeowners. No really, a simple fix. As I recall, the supermajority was super focused, preoccupied with other important matters of state.

It’s not like the supermajority didn’t know a bi-yearly reappraisal was coming. Sharply increased state property tax dollar projections were shown in both executive and legislative reports, before and during the Session. Adjusted tax rates to cancel reappraisal increases were offered to lawmakers last November.

Fourteen years ago, we tried capping homeowner property tax bills to a max 3% growth. Lots of lawmakers didn’t like it, probably still don’t.

Artie sat with me at Sen. Lee Metcalf’s roundtable and consoled by weaving untold tales from his early days as a congressional staffer. Artie knew that I let Gladys, Agnes and Rose down and there was nothing he could do about it.

Politicians are blaming local government for these upcoming property tax increases. That’s baloney. This is, and remains a legislative matter. Property taxes are the state’s second largest source of ongoing income and homeowners now pay the vast bulk of total collections.

Someone should cap the state’s portion of property taxes at the same half rate on inflation Montana mandates for local government. And what’s with six weeks to apply for potential rebates? Govs. Mark Racicot and Brian Schweitzer just mailed us checks.