Local government fed up with state leaders

September 22, 2023 4:39 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

It’s truly bizarre to see local governments revolting against and threatening to sue the state when Republicans hold every statewide office but one in Montana, a super-majority in the Legislature, and Greg Gianforte in the governor’s office.

Why? Because local governments have had it with “government overreach” by the Legislature that limits local governments on tax levies, but not what the state can charge.

Of course “government overreach” has long been used as a rallying cry by Republicans, particularly when there’s any effort to regulate what all of us have in common — the clean air and clean water we need to survive, and the forests and river ecosystems that government is supposed to be protecting under its public trust obligations.

The local governments are kicking off their revolt against the state over taxes due to the absolutely outrageous property re-appraisals and the coming statewide shock — and potential taxpayer revolt — when homeowners get their new tax bills.

In a recent article, longtime Beaverhead County Commissioner Mike McGinley put it very succinctly: “Property taxpayers all are having a heart attack because their property taxes are going up so fast.”

According to McGinley and his fellow county commissioners across the state: “It’s just how much money we’re going to put in the state’s pocket when they’re sitting on a $2 billion surplus, and it comes on the backs of the Montana taxpayers.”

The county commissioners and the Montana Association of Counties are claiming the state’s tax policy is “illegal” and in August sent a request for a formal opinion to Attorney General Austin Knudsen. But so far, Knudsen has only acknowledged his office received the letter, which is no surprise given his incredibly incompetent track record as Attorney General. Now, his inaction may force the counties to take the issue to court.
As McGinley put it, the support from local elected leaders to take on the Governor’s Office is coming regardless of whether a county is rural or urban, Republican or Democrat: “There’s no two different counties than Missoula County and Beaverhead County, and we’re on the same line.”
In short, the counties say local governments are limited in how many mills they can assess property owners. But the state, they say, is not and point to what they call “Gov. Gianforte’s private mansion in Helena” where the property taxes he pays to the local government are going down due to the local mill levy caps but the taxes going to the state are going up. The local governments say the state absolutely can and should reduce its mill levy, just as it’s asking local governments to do.

And so Montanans are left hanging again, as Knudsen’s office refuses to reply to either the press or the counties. In the meantime, the response coming from the governor’s office claims the law on whether or not it can reduce its mill levies is “muddy.”  Not so says McGinley: “This isn’t muddy. This is crystal clear to crazy county commissioners like me.”

Make no mistake, the revolt on taxes from local governments is just the first of what will be many battles to come thanks to the authoritarian overreach of Gov. Gianforte and the current Legislature.
These “we know better than you do” policymakers have gutted local governments’ ability to plan for their own future and that of their residents. Under the guise of “affordable housing” local zoning has been axed, effectively telling Montanans it doesn’t matter what you want your city or county to look like, how it grows, where it grows, or how you deal with it. And that, fellow Montanans, is the exact definition of “government overreach.”

George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana’s longest-running columnist.

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