Property tax relief for lower income people tabled

Senate committee votes 7-4 on party lines

By: - February 12, 2021 6:03 pm

The Montana Capitol in Helena, Montana. The building was built in 1899, and an addition completed in 1911. Eric Seidle For the Daily Montanan.

Republicans in the Senate Taxation Committee tabled Friday a bill designed to give lower income homeowners, renters or people in high-cost areas some property tax relief.

Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said Senate Bill 10 came out of the interim revenue committee, and as amended, it had reached a monetary level Gov. Greg Gianforte could support. She described the bill as meaningful tax reform for people who need help the most.

Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

“When you knock on doors and talk to constituents, they do talk a lot about property taxes and the rising costs that could affect whether or not they could stay in their homes,” Cohenour said at the meeting, noting later some 50,000 people would have benefited.

Housing prices are seeing dramatic increases in Montana. The trend has been evident for years in urban areas such as Missoula and Bozeman, and it is becoming apparent in rural areas as well.

“We see property taxes going through the roof, and people that are on fixed incomes, and they have no control over that,” said Cohenour, minority leader.

In a bid to grow business and increase pay in Montana, Gianforte, a businessman and Republican, has proposed a series of conservative tax reforms to a GOP majority legislature. A Senate panel heard Thursday a series of those tax cut proposals, including one that would help people in the top income bracket.

“The one we heard yesterday definitely helps the richer Montanans,” Cohenour said. “It puts money in the upper echelons of our economy for people who don’t need it and have done well through the pandemic.”

In late November, the Montana Budget and Policy Center noted people still were struggling economically from the coronavirus pandemic. The center counted one in 10 renters not caught up on rent and one in four Montanans “having difficulty keeping up with typical household expenses.”

At the meeting Friday, Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, proposed to table the bill, and the committee voted 7-4 on party lines to do so. Hertz said the bill was sound policy, and he agreed that property taxes are an issue in the state.

Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

At the same time, Hertz said he didn’t believe property taxes were the fault of state tax policy. Rather, he said in many cases, voters themselves support levies in their own communities, and local governments push up people’s property tax bills too.

He said he didn’t want to debate the bills heard one day earlier, but he had a different perspective on them: “It’s more of a bigger package of growing our economy.”

The most recent fiscal analysis of SB10 notes it would have cost state revenues some $30.1 million in its first year, roughly the same as Senate Bill 159, which would benefit the top income bracket.

In a statement provided by the Senate Democrats after the meeting, Cohenour contrasted the bills. The statement also noted renters would have received an average tax cut of $466, and homeowners would have received an average credit of $979.

“I’m incredibly disappointed that Republicans voted down a bill to cut property taxes for up to 50,000 Montanans and ensure folks don’t get priced out of their homes,” Cohenour said. “Instead, Republicans spent the week glorifying tax bills that lure rich out-of-staters to Montana and provide tax handouts to millionaires.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.