Guest Column

State to Receive $65 Million Windfall

We encourage the Gianforte administration to show fiscal restraint and set the state mill levy collections in accordance with state law

By Bob Story

During the past legislative session, the Montana Taxpayers Association was excited to support the Gianforte administration’s ideas that improved Montana’s tax systems and provided tax relief. We look forward to continuing that working relationship. However, unless the administration decides soon on the level of the State’s property tax collections, when tax bills go out this coming November the State of Montana could receive a windfall collection of $65 million in ongoing property tax revenue. This windfall is in addition to the $22 million increase in property tax revenues the State will receive that result from statutorily allowed inflation adjustments and property tax collections from new property. The State will collect almost $90 million more property tax revenue this fiscal year than it did last fiscal year, a 26% increase.

In 1999, the Legislature passed a law limiting how much property tax collections can grow without a vote. The law limits cities, counties, and the State property tax collection growth to half the rate of inflation over the three previous years plus revenue from newly taxable property. Schools have an even more restrictive limit on their tax revenue.

The law that limits property tax collections requires the Montana Department of Revenue to calculate how many mills the State may collect to comply with the half the rate of inflation growth rate. This year, due to the massive increase in value of residential and commercial properties, the Department calculated that the State should assess 81 mills. At 81 mills State property tax collections still grow by about $8 million. Combined with over $14 million in taxes from new property, the state would have over $22 million in new property tax revenue. If the administration decides to impose  an additional 14 mills and assess 95 mills, the state will receive an additional $65 million. About two-thirds of this money will come from the property owners that saw the huge increase in value from reappraisal – homeowners, landlords, and small businesses.

According to figures published by the Legislative Fiscal Division, in the last fiscal year the State collected $321 million in property taxes. Using the calculated half the rate of inflation, which is 2.4%, the State should collect about $329 million from last year’s tax base. Adding about $14 million in taxes from new properties, the State should receive $343 million if they levy 81 mills. If the State levies 95 mills the revenues grow to around $408 millions, a 26% increase.

The State is relying on its interpretation of the law to use mills it has banked to increase its assessment from 81 mills to 95 mills. That interpretation is being challenged by several counties. They have asked the Attorney General to look at the law and issue an opinion as to whether the State has banked mills since it has always assessed the maximum 95 mills current law allows.

Imposing the lower mill levy will not affect any state or local  programs. School  funding and local  school  levies  are not dependent on the amount of money the State collects in property taxes. Those implying so are muddying the waters.

The benefits the State receives from assessing its taxpayers an additional $65 million is to pad the State’s ending fund balance and to establish a higher tax base to apply the inflation adjustment to in coming years.

We encourage the Gianforte administration to show fiscal restraint and set the state mill levy collections at the 81 mills calculated in accordance with state law.

Bob Story is the executive director of the Montana Taxpayer Association.