Uncommon Ground

Taxpayers Take Warning

The $200 million property tax increase would have been avoided if the Legislature simply adjusted three numbers

By Mike Jopek

Hydraulic fluid oozed slowly through the funnel into the tractor. I added more until the dipstick indicated enough. Next, we’d ducks-foot the soil for garlic planting. Farm work we’ve done over 30 years with saved seed.

In northern climates, garlic gets planted in the fall to overwinter. It’ll get harvested middle of summer as cloves grow into bulbs. The greens emerge early from the cold ground of spring.

We plant cloves some six inches deep into the soil, a Tester apart, the farm measure coined after the only farmer in the U.S. Senate. It’s the planting distance from the tips of the pinky finger to the thumb.

We typically make row in springtime but garlic planting is a fall activity. Raking and rock picking follows. It’ll take days. We’re slow. Then drip tape, and degradable mulch to keep the sun shielded from weed seeds.

Mulch warms soil sooner and keeps dirt moister later. Water and rainfall become more precious every year. Today’s summertime sun feels hotter and spring winds stronger.

Plenty seems new in the Flathead in recent years. Fresh ideas from newcomers traveled to Montana, even to the state Capitol where tradition seemed inevitable. Things changed as Montanans with fresh ideas took over lawmaking. They should’ve simply lowered taxes like before. Time has proven it worked well.

Homeowners are feeling the state’s tax pinch. The last Legislature refused to update the residential tax rate associated with home reappraisal, something lawmakers have done for the past 40 years when faced with Montana land rushes. It’s a tried, equalizing, and simple fix.

Suddenly Montana counties are reducing state mills to lower state property taxes. The mill reduction scheme accounts for less than one-third of the Legislature’s historic $200 million homeowner property tax increase.

$200 million is the state Department of Revenue’s number. Actually, the department predicts a $196,908,116 per year increase for homeowners from reappraisal. That’s like $1 billion over 5 years. A lot of garlic.

By law, counties don’t have access to tax rates. Mills are their only tool. They raise them, they lower them, by parameters set in law. Counties can’t do the Legislature’s job.

More than two-thirds of the massive $200 million increase still haunts homeowners statewide after the counties’ proposed state mill reduction, as the biggest tax shift in Montana history gets baked into the formula. Pay more now and in the future. Only lawmakers can fully stop the tax increase by reducing the tax rates of reappraisal.

Each time before, lawmakers updated tax rates to neutralize the effect of big home revaluing. This year, a first in Montana, they reappraised the value of existing homes by $60 billion for tax purposes and then kept tax rates high. A very expensive idea by the same lawmakers who demolished local control of many giant subdivisions.

Suddenly the state is suing local counties for reducing state property taxes. Homeowners’ $200 million property tax increase would have been avoided if the Legislature simply adjusted three numbers, an hour of their legislative time.

Homes, places locals live, became the major source of wealth, which Montana taxes to fund state services. All those other classes of property in Montana, like farmland, timberland and corporations saw large cuts, tax rate reductions from a Legislature catering to special interest while ignoring homeowners, tax equalization and the fairness afforded by the state Constitution.

Only our Legislature can fix it. If they won’t, some reasonable people need work together to get a better one. Homeowners need change.

The morning sky turned beet red, fall-like, familiar. It shone briefly in the kitchen window, then vanished. It looked as the weather was changing. By late afternoon the rains arrived. The garlic rows needed it, makes planting better in the days that follow.

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