Montana Viewpoint
Homeowner’s property taxes need to be addressed, now

January 8, 2007

We legislators do not deal with reality—we deal with the public’s perception of things. Sometimes they’re the same, sometimes they’re different, but regardless, the public’s view of things is what has to be addressed.

It’s sort of like dealing with rumors; if the perception differs from fact there are two courses of action we can take: We can either correct the public’s [mis]-perception, or treat it as if it were reality. The latter makes for really bad law, but it’s by far the easier of the two, so we get a lot of laws that don’t get at the problem at all.

But sometimes, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, as time passes the reality comes to match the perception. The case in point is homeowners’ property taxes. For years there has been the perception that those taxes were too high, even though they were actually rather reasonable. Now, as a result of a decade of what I believe was misguided legislation, homeowners’ property taxes are, in fact, too high for many homeowners’ comfort.

So what can we do about it? Let me philosophize a little bit. People band together as a group to do things they cannot accomplish alone as individuals. Maybe it started out as a way to provide a defense against the outside world, but over the centuries the people have come to want their government to provide increasing services such as a system of public highways, universal education, provide health care, and protect the frail and fragile of society.

Even though there is a school of thought that believes we can do without a lot of those government services—ironically, an almost Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest—there is still a basic level of services the public insists on and if it is not provided legislators hear about it.

For several years we have been hovering at a level of services below which legislators cannot go without serious repercussions, like getting de-elected. It was not from lack of trying that Montana government did not shrink under conservative Republican rule. It just was not politically possible.

So, point one; the people do not want government services cut further, and have the political power to enforce it.

Point two; it has to be paid for. The public is not dumb. They know that, and as long as the costs are spread in a reasonably fair manner throughout the population, they are willing to pay for it.

Point three; no matter who pays for it, it costs the same. That means when one sector of taxpayers get a tax break, someone else gets a tax increase. Right now, homeowners feel like they are bearing the brunt of the cost, and they are.

We got to that point by cutting taxes on business, so if we cut taxes on homeowners, we have to increase taxes somewhere else. I can tell you from painful experience that it is easier to cut taxes than to raise them, and we are not going to be raising taxes on big business anytime soon. True, there are many tax loopholes that business and the wealthy take advantage of, and closing them could raise some revenue, but not that much in the overall scheme of things.

If the Legislature does not address this issue, the public will, and they will do it through the initiative process. Curiously enough, with the initiative process, the people who are trying to fix the problem are the same folks who elected the legislators that caused the problem.

I mean no offense to the public, but citizen initiatives can make really bad law because issues are not considered in context. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and often well-intentioned initiatives only make things worse.

Of course, legislators can make bad law, too. Some of us certainly try hard enough, but we are at least held in check by the common sense and experience of the professional legislative staffers we hire to write those laws for us.

The initiative process is the last resort of the public to effect a change that legislatures can’t or won’t address. If we legislators do not meaningfully address the issue of high homeowners’ property taxes, we are going to get what we deserve—a draconian fix by initiative. That could make it harder to find enough money to provide that basic level of services that Montanans demand, and we will hear about it if we lower it.

Legislators might deserve that, but the public doesn’t. Time and public tolerance have run out, and it is now imperative that this legislature work together to fix the problem we have caused, and fix it now.

It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620