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The Big Lie Of Montana’s Taxes

Property taxes — none of that money comes to the state.” — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, Nov. 9.

It’s hard to say what is more insulting: Gov. Greg Gianforte’s grasp of government or trying to play Montanans off as chumps.

I mean, after all, who are you going to believe: Your governor or your own eyes, especially when peering at your property tax bill?

But the governor has been making the rounds on the angry airwaves of Montana talk radio, buoyed by friendly partisans, while avoiding journalists with more finely tuned questions and an even better grasp of the facts.

Gianforte has tried to push the point that state government officials are equally shocked as residents by the meteoric rise in property taxes; meanwhile, the administration continues to pad the state’s coffers to the tune of nearly $200 million.

Gianforte claims that not a nickel of property taxes goes to the state, instead those funds support law enforcement, teachers and buying “mountains,” as he suggested. I guess my definition of “state” is different than his. And trying to pass off, ahem, state troopers or the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation land or per-pupil funding as “non-state” expenses doesn’t just strain credulity, it insults it.

In Montana, the state, under an agreement that is now several decades old, collects all taxes and redistributes the money for its obligations, which includes paying teachers and maintaining schools — something that’s required by the Montana Constitution. While employees may work for a local school district or a county health department, the money comes from the state because state government tasks counties and cities to manage those services at the state government’s insistence. That money comes from the state to support state work and the strings attached are tied by the state.

Not only does the state collect property taxes, it’s Gianforte’s administration that insists that every single Montana county levy the most allowed by law, despite nearly every single Montana county trying unsuccessfully to lower the amount.

It was Gianforte’s own administration that took the issue to the state Supreme Court, asking for a ruling that would force those counties to collect the maximum on behalf of the state, despite commissioners from both the Republican and Democratic parties fighting to keep them lower.

It’s important to note that the state’s high court was the one which declared the state had the right to set residential property taxes, and it is the counties which are powerless to do anything other than to collect what the state sets as a tax rate.

Kind of sounds like a state problem to me, governor.

While Gianforte continues his tour badmouthing all local officials by painting them as some out-of-control, money-grubbing politicians, remember that most municipal and county mill levies are already hemmed into spending no more than a certain percentage of inflation, unless otherwise approved by voters. That means Montana counties and cities will continue to always see a diminishing amount of funding because they can’t keep pace with inflation.

That’s not to say that all city and county budgets are perfect, but Gianforte’s message is not even a political disagreement, it’s one of simple fact. If the counties were really in charge of the money, they could have — and would have — lowered the mill levies.

I can’t say that I am completely stumped by Gianforte’s actions because the reality of what happened during the 2023 Legislature remains that the supermajority Republicans, who used to be trusted to do nothing else if not hold the lines on taxes, got swept away by implementing a bunch of regressive and legally dubious bills that included attacking the LGBTQ+ community. They also warmed up popular legal re-runs by passing bills about voting and abortion, which bore a close resemblance to previously doomed laws. Many of these laws are likely destined to be struck down by courts, which will see much of it as copy-andpaste legislation, tweaked only slightly and unremarkably to give the GOP enough cover to sucker voters into believing that something important had indeed changed.

Blaming this on local entities, like city council members or county commissioners, is the political equivalent of farting in an elevator and pointing at someone else. It’s embarrassing, and it’s a lie.

Unfazed, Gianforte often employs a secondary excuse to help assuage angry residents, saying that homeowners were eligible for a property tax rebate. Again, that’s only part of the truth. Those residents were eligible if they could figure out their property’s geocode and navigate a clunky website – an extra unnecessary hoop the administration likely placed on residents that would discourage some, especially older, less tech savvy residents, from applying.

And if you rent? Well, you won’t see nickel of relief, even if your landlord has no other choice than to raise rent.

Meanwhile, another insult is added to Montanans’ injuries as many corporations and businesses will see a decrease in taxes because the growing share of property taxes are lessening the burden on businesses. In other words, the largest property tax customers, think utilities and refineries, may actually see a tax break. In a letter last week, the counties pleaded with the governor: “The state will receive an additional $20 million in revenue this year over last year if you exercise discretion and levy what the current calculations allow. No school funding will be impacted, taxpayers in all classes will save, and you won’t be intentionally taking advantage of increased appraised values by levying more than your current authority. Using banked mills, according to the Montana Supreme Court, is allowable not required.”

While Gianforte tours the state, speaking only to carefully curated enclaves of supporters, the rest of us will pay the Greg Tax: An account that won’t help schools, won’t build roads, and won’t do anything but sit in the state coffers, likely to be redistributed at a later time, after the fury, to friends and supporters of Gianforte who likely had no problem paying more in taxes anyway.

Be insulted: Your taxes aren’t fixing schools, mending roads or even helping homelessness. You’re fattening the state’s bank account, while yours dwindles.

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