Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) The Montana Freedom Caucus on Monday asked the Secretary of State to poll legislators in an attempt to force a special session of the Legislature – in part to address the statewide increase in property taxes that lawmakers failed to address this past spring.

But the ongoing spat about who is responsible for the steep rise in property taxes is only part of the request from the group of Montana’s right-wing Republicans.

In addition to trying to “clarify the law” surrounding how the Department of Revenue calculates the number of mills the state is entitled to collect in property taxes and an effort to cut the state’s assessed mills from 95 to 85, the group of Republicans said it would also like to propose a Taxpayer Bill of Rights and to return all surplus tax revenue for 2023 – about $230 million, they said – back to taxpayers, the group said in a statement Monday.

The group requested that a special session, if a majority of lawmakers approve it in a poll sent to them by Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, start at 10 a.m. on Jan. 15.

Last week, the Montana Supreme Court unanimously decided that counties must levy 95 mills to fund schools as calculated by the Department of Revenue. All but seven of the counties in the state had voted to levy only 77.9 mills in an effort to relieve taxpayers of the burden shifted to them as property taxpayers this year.

The Montana Association of Counties had sued the Department of Revenue, arguing it calculated the statewide mills incorrectly and that counties had the authority to levy statewide school-equalization mills. The state had also sued Missoula County when it initially approved the reduced number of mills.

The Gianforte administration and some Republicans have placed the blame for the property tax increases on local governments, but many have fired back, including Republican local officials.

After the Supreme Court’s decision was handed down last week, Choteau’s Republican Mayor Chris Hindoien sent a letter to homeowners there saying the statements from the governor and some Republican lawmakers was “simply not true.”

“Governor Gianforte put the increased state’s portion of the homeowner taxes into his budget, and that was subsequently approved for appropriations by the Legislature to be spent,” Hindoien wrote. “And, since the Legislature did not lower the tax rate, nearly $200 million a year in additional homeowner property taxes (according to the DOR) were permanently added on the backs of Montana homeowner taxpayers.”

Beaverhead County Commissioner Mike McGinley, who has been heavily involved in the local opposition to the property tax increase, sent Gov. Greg Gianforte a letter last Friday criticizing the governor’s statements following the Supreme Court’s ruling in which he said he was committed to “holding the line on local spending that drives property tax increases.”

“[Forty-nine] of the 56 counties across Montana fought hard to control property tax increases this year only to be challenged by you and your Dept. of Revenue to levy an additional $78,774,449 on a statewide level,” McGinley wrote. “So much for driving property tax increases.”

Most local officials have decried the tax burden shift to homeowners and the millions in additional dollars the General Fund stands to collect after the legislature’s failure to lower the tax rate during the 2023 session, as the DOR had suggested last November.

Under Montana law, a group of 10 or more legislators can request the Secretary of State send out a poll to lawmakers asking whether to call a special session. There are 21 lawmakers who signed Monday’s letter.

A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office said the office acknowledged receipt of the request on Monday and will prepare the poll to be sent out to lawmakers by Friday.

Legislators will have no more than 30 days afterward to return the ballot, and if a majority of them agree to a special session, the Secretary of State would set a time and date for the start of the session.

Democratic House and Senate Minority Leaders Kim Abbott, of Helena, and Pat Flowers, of Belgrade, said in a statement they would not support the call for a special session – the second from the Freedom Caucus since September. Democrats called for a special session to address property tax increases in July.

“Republican legislators are desperately trying to duck accountability for failing to reduce Montanans’ property taxes while giving breaks to the wealthy and big corporations,” Abbott and Flowers said. “Democratic legislators proposed targeted, permanent property tax relief that keeps local schools and firefighters whole – which Republicans rejected.”

The Governor’s Office and a spokesperson for Senate Republicans did not respond to a request for comment on the Freedom Caucus’ request Monday, but the governor has not previously acquiesced to special session requests, citing the $1,350 available in rebates for homeowners over the next two years.

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