Uncommon Ground

Extreme Danger

The politicians in charge are simply ignoring the heated reality on the ground

By Mike Jopek

The osprey landed in the water and grabbed the fish. It quickly lifted off, talons securing the prey, and flew to a perch. More birds hunted the shoreline. In the water floated burnt bark that had fallen from the hot sky. I grabbed some swimming to shore.

The smoke was thick, no mountains visible on the other side of Flathead Lake. A sailboat was somewhere far off on the water, its white sail seeking wind so harmful during wildfires. Some teens rode the wake close to the slow-moving speed boat near the shoreline.

I set the beach towel over the picnic table. Ash fell onto the dark terry cloth from the reported 17 forest fires that spung up overnight in the valley from earlier thunderstorms. The very same storms which that dumped rain on the valley as people rejoiced with momentary relief.

August suddenly looks long, hot, and dry. Maybe it’ll rain hard, no lightning. The politicians in charge are simply ignoring the heated reality on the ground. They won’t even talk about the heat, rather pretending the whole planet is using poor forest management techniques.

Rubbish. It’s been hot as hell outside. Ask anyone who works outdoors. Ignoring the heat and lack of moisture won’t make it better. Maybe the kids will win their lawsuit against Montana. They’d set a precedent for their future. Not that it’ll put out the fires. Snow and rain would help, but it’s August.

State legislators like kicking the can down the road. Ignoring property tax reappraisals, like the supermajority Legislature did, proved detrimental to homes. By not mitigating cyclical reappraisal the supermajority legislature pumped $800 million dollars’ worth of new taxable value onto the tax rolls, sharply shifting who pays the local taxes across the towns and cities of Montana.

Such a shift in local responsibility hasn’t barreled through Montana since the state Legislature thought it a good idea to deregulate big industry, seeking cheaper utility rates and doling 50% tax rate reductions onto telecommunications and electrical generation.

Deregulation of the late 1990s forced homeowners in Montana to pay a 4 percent larger share of local and statewide property taxes. It was a big amount and homeowners paid a lot extra.

Before deregulation, homeowners were responsible for about one-third of taxable value statewide. Today it’s 58%, according to the Department of Revenue. With total estimated property taxes in Montana at $2.25 billion, this latest 7% shift in the share of taxable valuation is a big deal. It’s a lot of money. Again, all out of homeowners’ pockets.

And like deregulation, telecommunications and electrical generation did well when the supermajority Legislature refused to mitigate reappraisal for homeowners and small businesses.

The Department of Revenue estimates that statewide telecommunications and electrical generation pays $8 million a year less in property taxes, pipelines get a $21 million cut, and airlines enjoy a $6 million cut. Montana homes are estimated to permanently pay an additional $197 million every year. That’s some shifty legislative tax policy.

That permanent homeowner property tax burden is likely to sour the prospects for many local fire, safety, and school levies come fall elections. That’s what followed deregulation when schools in Columbia Falls couldn’t pass local levies after the industry within its local tax base gained big legislative cuts. Homeowner’s share of property taxes spiked. Today’s property tax spike is much harsher. The climate hotter. Pray for rain.

The early apples held a blush of red. Smoke from the lower valley blew onto the farm, hiding the mountains, hazing the sun. It’s hard on everyone. It shouldn’t be the new normal. Instead of ignoring the big issues facing Montana, leaders must forge simple and long-lasting solutions that allow people to live in their homes and simply breath the local air.