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Opinion: Missoula legislators need to stand up for affordable housing

The 2021 Legislature has adjourned, but legislators face one last important vote. The Secretary of State has mailed out ballots to override Gov. Greg Gianforte’s veto of an important, bipartisan bill giving state tax credits to builders who construct affordable housing. Recognizing the critical importance of affordable housing, Missoula legislators were unanimous in their support for the bill with one notable exception – Rep. Brad Tschida.

Tax credits are a powerful policy tool, putting money in the pockets of those who support a policy by reducing individual and business tax bills. In passing the tax credit bill, the Legislature recognized the acute shortages of affordable housing in Montana’s fastest growing communities and sought to reward builders that addressed this critical need.

Few issues are more pressing in communities such as Bozeman and Missoula than building homes and rental units that lower- and middle-class Montanans can afford. As more affluent individuals move to our urban areas, older rental units are being snapped up and upgraded, and new housing starts and apartment projects are focused on higher-end buyers. In the meantime, Montana’s homeless population now includes many people who once rented low-cost apartments that simply don’t exist anymore or who were able to buy small, affordable homes that aren’t available in the numbers needed.

House Bill 397, sponsored by Republican Joshua Kassmier, clearly provided an important incentive for builders, but Gianforte wrongly vetoed the bill. In his veto message, Gianforte barely acknowledged Montana’s lack of affordable housing. Instead, he focused solely on the state’s costs of extending tax credits and suggested that federal tax credits could substitute for state leadership on an urgent issue. The Governor’s veto is indefensible given the importance of housing, our robust state budget and the bipartisan support for affordable housing tax credits in the Legislature.

Because of the large majority that passed the affordable housing credit bill, legislators have the option to override the Governor’s veto by a mail-in ballot that must be returned to the Secretary of State by June 18. For the override to be successful, two-thirds of the legislators must vote for it, so every vote is critical.

Every Democrat voted for HB 397 and can be counted on to support the veto override. Many Republicans also supported the bill, but it is uncertain how many will vote to override Gianforte’s veto. In Brad Tschida’s case however, the question is will he change his vote to support the Missoula community?

The 2021 Legislature didn’t do much for Montana’s cities and larger counties. In fact, Montana’s most important communities, based on economic growth and opportunity, were attacked on many fronts by the Republican majority. City and county health departments were stripped of authority. Bills for local option taxes were ridiculed and defeated. Land-use oversight was curtailed. Local governments were stripped of their authorities to regulate tobacco products or guns.

HB 397 was an importance exception. Republicans and Democrats came together to pass a bill that addressed an urgent need in Montana’s high-growth communities. In response to Gianforte’s veto, this coalition must stand strong. It would be great if Rep. Tschida would have a change of heart and vote for the Missoula community rather than against it.

Representative Tom France represents House District 94. State Senator Diane Sands represents Senate District 49.