City to lobby for infrastructure, taxation at 2017 legislative session

Infrastructure needs in downtown Missoula and elsewhere around the city have prompted city leaders to place funding and taxation at the top of their legislative priorities going into the 2017 session. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

In a meeting with the region’s legislative delegation, the city of Missoula this week set forth its legislative priorities for the upcoming session, many of them rooted in taxation and infrastructure – and fending off bills intended to scold Missoula for its progressive social stance on transgender equality, background checks and refugees.

The 2017 Legislature convenes in one month, and the city is backing several priorities formulated by the Montana League of Cities and Towns, as well as the Montana Infrastructure Coalition.

“We at this stage of the game are largely – as we always are as the session approaches – in a defensive mode,” Mayor John Engen said. “We’re monitoring all the legislation that may affect local government’s ability to deliver the services we’re charged to deliver.”

The League of Cities and Towns has created several resolutions guiding its goals for the upcoming session. Approved at the league’s October meeting, the measures range from retirement pensions for public employees to general principles guiding municipal taxes.

“We want to continue to encourage an equitable property taxation system and maintain the entitlement share,” Engen said. “We want to look at a diverse municipal finance structure that lets us supplement or create alternatives to additional property tax revenue.”

Engen has long voiced frustration with the state’s cap on mill levies, saying it has created a structural imbalance that hinders the city’s ability to fund new infrastructure projects and other municipal needs.

The city will lobby the Legislature to remove the current mill levy cap.

“Having a cap on our ability to levy taxes based on a half-rate of inflation simply doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground,” Engen said. “We’d support efforts that allow local governments to pay attention to constituents at the local level in regard to taxation.”

Engen said the city also supports the Local Government Infrastructure Grant Program. While infrastructure needs aren’t exclusive to Missoula, he said, funding provided to the state’s growing metro areas isn’t keeping pace with the needs.

“We remain interested in any opportunities in funding that allow us to make infrastructure investments,” Engen said. “The fact is, the areas where there’s significant population growth, we continue to fall further and further behind. These grants are opportunities to provide additional funds to get stuff built, and it’s a big deal.”

The city also has aligned with the League of Cities and Towns in a request for a local option tax. While it remains a “hot-button issue,” Engen views it as a tool that could fund infrastructure projects while providing property tax relief.

“It’s something we’ve talked with the Legislature about session after session now,” he said. “We want to create an evidence-based, compelling case for this.”

Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, said that while the issue will come up in the next session, the cities behind the request aren’t yet aligned on their vision for a local option tax.

Barrett said he’s spoken to city leaders in Billings and Bozeman, as well as Missoula, and believes more work needs to be done to get the municipalities on the same page regarding a local option tax.

“I don’t think the cities have a coherent plan for the type of local options they want,” Barrett said. “I think it’s important for cities to get on the same page in that regard. They’re going to be economically and politically complicated from a policy point of view.”

As the city of Missoula embarks on a new long-range transportation plan, city leaders have also broached the idea of an increase in fuel taxes. The effort hasn’t seen any progress on that local front, though it’s likely to come up in the Legislature.

The Montana Infrastructure Coalition is pushing for a fuel tax increase, and the city of Missoula is backing the proposal. Engen and others see it as a way to capture visitor spending and invest it back into local infrastructure.

The city will also support a bonding bill, which has failed in each of the last two legislative sessions.

“This is another attempt to ensure infrastructure needs are met throughout the communities,” Engen said. “Looking at the Coal Tax Trust Fund as a tool to help us get there is piece of the puzzle. We’re also looking at public-private partnerships and a bonding bill to help us get across the finish line.”

While members of the city’s legislative delegation each have their own priorities, ranging from mental health to education, they all agreed that funding during the next session will be tight.

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, also cautioned the city against several proposals she believes are intended to scold Missoula for its progressive stance on several social fronts, including transgender equality, refugees and background checks on guns sales and purchases.

“One (bill) that affects all of you is the issue of the power of local government to make decisions the state doesn’t like,” said Sands. “We’ll see this again. We’ll have another bathroom bill. It’s essentially slapping the Missoula City Council for the policies you’ve taken. But we’ll continue to fight that.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com