BILLINGS — In a Thursday letter to Governor Greg Gianforte (R), Democratic state senators requested a one-day special session, proposing a bill that could bring down estimated property taxes. Those estimates shocked many across the state.
Montana property tax estimates were sent out in late June, stunning residents.
"When I initially bought my home, I thought it was reasonable," said Kevin Whitehead, a Billings resident, on Friday. "But 40%, that number jumps out as extremely high. And that makes my spidey senses kind of tingle."
On Thursday, Democratic lawmakers sent the following letter to Gov. Gianforte with a special request.
“I think the governor can, at any time, call a special session, which is why this letter came to be," said Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings. "He can frame the call however he wants."
The letter called for a one-day, single-bill special session as a last-ditch effort to lower property taxes.
"The last time there was a special session, we know it was in 2017. And that was to address kind of a deeper and bigger problem," Kerr-Carpenter said. "This is not a normal way of doing business, I’d say. But again, you know, we’re living in extraordinary times."
Kerr-Carpenter said the Democrats prepared a bill to introduce if the governor agrees to the special session.
"They have a two-page bill ready to go that would create a revenue-neutral property tax system," Kerr-Carpenter said. "Basically, it would mean that our property taxes would, for this re-appraisal cycle, only go to cover our current expenses and we wouldn’t see this skyrocketing amount."
According to the letter, a revenue-neutral property tax rate was recommended by the Montana Department of Revenue (DOR) to legislators during the 68th Montana Legislative Session, but was not adopted. The letter also states that by failing to adopt the DOR's recommendation, the state's share of property taxes skyrocketed.
"Property taxes were a constant conversation throughout the legislature because everybody knows it’s a problem. It’s been a problem for years,” Kerr-Carpenter said.
But Republicans say they've already handled the issue another way.
"We’ve already taken care of that through property tax rebates. Which the Republicans, and only two Democrats, supported," said Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson. "The rebate’s that you’ll be getting this fall, that is directed only to Montana residents, will more than cover the state’s 15% share of the property tax increase. What the Democrats are proposing would benefit Montana non-resident taxpayers."
According to Hertz, the estimates sent out might not accurately reflect what your property taxes will be.
“What you have to keep in mind, appraisals are used to allocate taxes. The local governments and the schools then set their budgets that requires a certain tax level. Those taxes are then allocated based on your appraisal," Hertz said. "So appraisals don’t directly mean that your taxes are going up. In fact, your appraisal could go down, and your taxes could still go up, depending on what the schools and the local governments do with their budgets."
Hertz said he doesn't see the governor agreeing to this request.
"I think he’s clear that he’s not calling the special session," Hertz said. “We need to focus on what’s going on at your local government and your schools. 85% of your property taxes go to local governments and schools. So Montana taxpayers concerned about the property taxes need to start attending budget meetings in the next few months."
A response from Gov. Gianforte's office makes a special session seem unlikely.
"Knowing that Montanans' property taxes are too high, Governor Gianforte and Republican legislators came into the legislative session with a plan to rein in property taxes and provide hardworking Montanans with property tax rebates to ease the burden," Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for the governor's office, said in part in a written statement to MTN News on Friday. "The governor is committed to building on recent reforms and rebates to bring down property taxes which are far too high, and he urges county commissioners and other local leaders to exercise fiscal responsibility and limit the growth of Montanans' property taxes."
For now, the sides seem far apart on yet another issue.
“The Democrats, all during the session, opposed all of the proposed property tax relief and rebates that the Republicans offered," Hertz said. "And now they seem to want to become engaged. I think this is more about politics and less about getting things done."
"We need to be putting Montana property owners first and Montana renters first. There’s solutions that would go and fix this for everyone. Instead, we’re only looking at short-term solutions," Kerr-Carpenter said. "I’m not interested in that. I'm interested in the long-term."