Viewpoint: They had one job, and the Montana Legislature failed
It’s July 13: Do you know where your legislature is?
Of course, they’re not in session. But while they were meeting for what seemed like a recklessly long time earlier this year, they waged a multifronted cultural war on the LGBTQ+ community, literally gutted environmental law, denied climate change, toyed with abolishing reservations, banned drag performers, banned books, booted Montana’s first openly transgender lawmaker, passed more than a half dozen anti-abortion laws, attempted to legalize a network of private schools funded through public tax dollars, risked our entire federal funding stream by passing an unscientific definition of sex, demanded a license just to enjoy public lands, and attempted several times to initiate a “jungle primary” to target incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester to tilt the election toward the Republican Party.
Conspicuously absent from that list was meaningful property tax reform.
What makes that fact so painful is that the lawmakers knew from their own experts that sometime – say, right around now – most of us would receive our property tax assessments, and we’re still trying to catch our breath.
Republican leaders will tell you that a property tax rebate or an income tax refund, both of which were funded from leftover federal money, will likely cover most of the increase, but even assuming that is true (which is only speculation), it is a red herring argument.
The second line of defense proffered by lawmakers hoping to assuage an angry electorate is that the assessed property values doesn’t necessarily translate into an equally sharp hike in what you’ll wind up paying. In short, assessed property values aren’t a tax bill. But to hear lawmakers try to hide behind that logic is insulting to most residents, because if your taxable value goes up, so, too, will your taxes.
Listen to confidence oozing from Montana’s Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls:
You know, probably.
The real point is regardless of where you stand on any cultural issue, the Montana Legislature’s priorities were simply and completely wrong. While the long list of solutions they found for problems that don’t exist was impressive for its breadth, they neglected the one thing that would absolutely and profoundly affect all Montanans, property taxes – a topic that isn’t sexy until it comes time to write the check, at which point the failure of the 2023 legislature becomes crystal clear.
Montanans’ property tax assessment wasn’t a surprise. The legislature was warned that the semi-regular process of reassessment would trigger a significant increase in value, driven largely by Montana’s red-hot real estate market, which has seen property values ascend meteorically while most household income has been battered by inflation and aggressive energy cost increases.
The lawmakers’ own experts warned and urged that a modest adjustment to the tax rates would have the effect of softening the increase. Instead, the Republicans, which controlled everything, remained silent, unmoved, and instead formed a Freedom Caucus to focus on election integrity, a problem that has never been substantiated in Montana.
The debate over property taxes will likely take a predictable route with the well understood analogy of a three-legged stool, which represents the type of taxes that most states collect: property, income and sales. Montana’s stool is two legged, which puts extreme pressure to capture enough revenue to fund state government from sources other than sales taxes.
Those debates won’t be rehashed here, and even if they were, they would be meaningless and probably not fruitful because the people who could and should do something about it had 90-days’ worth of opportunity to do so, and instead, the Republican supermajority campaigned against school librarians. They waged a hellwar on the LGBTQ+ community. They spent their time barring a rabbi from praying.
It’s a weird time to be a Montana Republican – not so long ago, Republicans reminded us that the only issue they cared about was taxes; now it seems to be about the only issue they won’t meaningfully address.
No matter where you stand on any of these cultural issues, take it from someone who spent countless hours watching your lawmakers in action: The majority and their rebate program was the legislative equivalent of a doctor trying to fit a bandage on gaping wound. They had the power, they had the knowledge, they had the opportunity and they chose to do something different.
And not just you – but we all, together, every resident who lives under a roof – will pay the price.
This column initially appeared in the Daily Montanan.