Gianfortes’ property tax rebate is a perfect example of what’s wrong with Montana’s leaders

October 12, 2023 4:02 am

Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks on the Montana Capitol steps on March 13, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office)

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte is not among the more than 43,000 eligible property owners who qualified for a state property tax rebate but did not receive one.

According to a public documents, Gianforte and his wife, Montana First Lady Susan Gianforte, filed for the rebate and received the maximum $675. No real surprises there. You’d kind of expect some tech-savvy folks like the Gianfortes to maneuver through the application process unimpeded.

Yet the property tax rebate, limited to a primary or principal residence, is limited to just one rebate per property owner, and the Gianfortes had several options, including a nice house in Helena. Still, the Gianfortes filed the rebate documents, which include an attestation – or statement – that said they filled out the forms accurately.

And taking the Gianfortes at their word: Their primary residence is in Bozeman.

While this bit of information doesn’t seem particularly earth-shattering, it certainly doesn’t help the perception that Gianforte is an absentee governor.

No one is disputing Gianforte’s properties, or that he is entitled to property tax rebate (in full disclosure, I received mine in the same amount, although I bet we both spent our money differently).

Claiming his principal residence in Bozeman, though, doesn’t just reinforce the notion that Gianforte doesn’t like Helena, especially when he could have just as easily claimed a Helena property he owns. But, state law (the Montana Constitution) requires him to be a resident of Helena.

You may recall that former Republican Secretary of State Corey Stapleton was caught up in a similar kerfuffle a few years back when he was using a state vehicle to commute part-time to Billings, a distance of approximately 240 miles each way. The issue wasn’t just that he was using state resources to commute home to the Magic City, it was that he was obligated to live in Helena.

That makes sense: The constitutional officers of Montana need to be where their staff is, and where the seat of state government is located. It’s simply a matter of good governance and doing the job. And, it’s not like anyone – Gianforte or Stapleton – didn’t know the requirements of the job because they’ve been enshrined in state law for quite awhile, including to ensure that residents get their money’s worth from whoever occupies the office.

Either way you look at it, this poses some uncomfortable questions for the Gianfortes. If they were being truthful, which I have no reason to doubt, then they regard Bozeman as their home. Yet, assuming that, they’re also skating close to running afoul of state law.

Some may argue that today, in the age of Zoom, physical presence is less of a hurdle, but not having a governor in Helena makes me feel like we’re kind of getting taken by a rich man, who doesn’t need the salary and may regard the position as a highlight on a list of accomplishments.

The other option, of course, is that the Gianfortes were claiming an exemption on property that is not their primary residence, which, of course, violates the law, too.

I am open to the possibility of other options, but it’s really hard to tell – especially since I reached out to the governor’s office, waited more than 24 hours, and have heard absolutely nothing. For a man who made nearly a billion dollars in tech, it’s hard to convince me he doesn’t know how to use email or phone (conveniently, they’re often found on the same device).

Montanans are rightfully upset about a meteoric rise in property taxes, which has been exacerbated by a supermajority of Republicans who bet that we’d dutifully jump through a bunch of online hoops in order to claw back a few dollars — and be content with that.

Yet, this entire situation seems illustrative of a much larger problem, which has little to do with property values in the state, or demand for Montana housing, both of which are serious issues.

The Republicans had the chance to correct the slow heart-attack most Montanans have experienced watching as their values and taxes rose. Lawmakers were warned that this would happen, and yet didn’t make the easy fix. Instead, they proposed a rebate system that seemed to flummox older property owners. For a man who made millions in online technology and customer service, you have to wonder how Gianforte signed off on a plan that seemed so cumbersome.

Unless that was by design.

It’s odd that when it came time for rebates and stimulus checks, the government could find me and my bank account. The same is true every time the government needs money from me, whether through taxes or bills for service. It’s mind-boggling that the rebates weren’t automatic, and instead this process has made the word “geocode” a Montana household word.

And you have to think that was by design.

Finally, for a party that talks about lowering taxes, letting you have more of your own money, running government like a business, and cutting “red tape,” everything about this property tax debacle seems downright anti-Republican.

So what does where Gianforte lives and this property tax fiasco have in common?

Both are designed to project an image without really offering any help for Montana citizens.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.