Uncommon Ground

The Kids are Alright

It’s unfair what state lawmakers are doing, hastily shifting such large amounts of property tax responsibility onto local homeowners

By Mike Jopek

“For the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people,” wrote Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which brought a lawsuit on behalf of Montana kids seeking to overturn rashly-enacted state laws.

Local Montana kids beat the state, made international news, using constitutional rights enacted years before they were born. It’s great news. Their win is about their future. The state says it’ll appeal. Onto the Supreme Court.

The kids, I’ll vote for them, Gladys repeatedly told me over her time as local schools asked for more tax money from the elderly homeowner to provide a quality education for the youth. Local schools are where she wanted her tax dollars to go.  

Education was the key to assuring that rural kids got a fair shake. Earning a better living through learning was central to the generation before. It still applies today.

Earlier in summer, the Whitefish School Board put a nearly $34 million bond request to district voters seeking to add classrooms, remodel the Independent High School, and enlarge the athletic facility. The bond goes before voters this fall and paid back over 20 years, less than $2 million a year.

Last spring local voters overwhelmingly approved a general fund levy request with 64% support. Whitefish likes our local schools. We’re proud of them. Teachers do a great job.

Whitefish school bond ballots are mailed to registered voters in the local district next month with elections in early October. That’s fortunately better for the kids given how tax bills arrive later with the pocketbook news that the state portion of property taxes went up bigtime.

Obscuring prospect for the kids is the Montana Legislature’s historic homeowner property tax increase, which the state revenue department indicated will target local homes. The state’s certified taxable valuations spell out how the revenue department thinks the Legislature’s historic $197 million per year homeowner property tax increase plays out in local areas.

Property owners within the north valley, the Whitefish and Columbia Falls high school districts, account for nearly half of all new taxable valuation within the county. The state levies an additional $8 million worth of property taxes onto north valley properties, a hefty increase largely resulting from the Legislature’s reappraisal shenanigans.

Likewise in Kalispell, the state portion of property taxes within the high school districts increase $7.5 million annually, up 44%. Thank the Legislature. Previously this year their general fund levy failed to garner adequate voter support.

Many fear it’s all by design, that lawmakers purposely created the homeowner trainwreck in order to enact a terrible statewide sales tax promising to “fix” Montana for good.

It’s unfair what state lawmakers are doing, hastily shifting such large amounts of property tax responsibility onto local homeowners and off large industry. It’s not what the state Constitution envisioned as equal, and it leaves the state open to more legal challenge.

“I spent more years as director of revenue than anyone else, and I’ll tell you that the system is rigged and broken,” said Dan Bucks last week speaking about homeowner property taxes at the City Club in Missoula. “And we need a constitutional case to bring back fairness and equity in taxation if the legislature won’t do it.”

The Montana Legislature could have done it, stopped the homeowner increase and tax shift by simply amending the three tax rates of reappraisal. Instead, they baked the rates into certified taxable valuations securing historic, harmful and unnecessary property tax increases for homeowners across the valley just when locals try to rebuild local schools, fund safety and fire levies.