Wednesday, September 28, 2022

State candidates offer ideas on surplus, housing and taxes

Daily Inter Lake | September 22, 2022 12:00 AM

Solutions for how to handle Montana’s budget surplus and fix the state’s housing and child care challenges were among the topics local legislative candidates addressed Tuesday at a forum hosted by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

Candidates for Flathead Valley’s Senate District 4 race agreed that the state’s estimated $1.4 billion budget surplus should go back to taxpayers, but diverted as to what extent.

Republican John Fuller, a retired teacher who currently represents House District 8, argued that the bulk should go back to taxpayers, and not toward new government programs.

“Republicans are not averse to spending money to improve the opportunities of working families in all of Montana,” he said. “But what Republicans are opposed to is the redistribution of wealth.”

Meanwhile, his challenger, Democrat Kyle Waterman, called the surplus a chance to reinvest in the state “and make sure that growth is paying for growth in Montana.”

Waterman, a former Kalispell City Council member, said he is wary of so-called unfunded mandates after seeing a local drug addiction program left without state resources.

He called mental health care another unfunded mandate, and said the state should look at ways to support the state hospital in Warm Springs.

“If we do not pay for that, we will pay for the consequences later,” Waterman said.

Fuller said his efforts would be focused on property tax relief, veterans, schools and “protecting our children’s safety and their opportunities.”

Bolstering child care options is best left to the private sector and nonprofits, he added. He would not support pre-K funding.

“Back in the day there was no shortage of child care since every child had a mother and most of them were responsible for primary child care,” Fuller said. “But modern economic reality dictates that stay-at-home parents are no longer a practical solution.”

“We the people need to take care of we the people here in Flathead County,” he added.

Waterman, who is a member of the Kalispell Chamber’s child care task force, said he’d explore which regulations stand in the way of opening more child care centers.

On housing, Fuller contends that the state government would only muck up solutions, which should come from county governments and non-governmental organizations instead.

“If you expect the state of Montana to solve this problem from the top down, what will happen is there will be massive wealth transfer, incredible inefficiency and enormous externalities.”

KALISPELL’S HOUSE District 7 candidates, Republican Courtenay Sprunger and Democrat Angela Kennedy, would both look to pay down debt with the budget surplus.

Sprunger, however, said the majority should go back to taxpayers while also looking to support “crisis areas” like the state prison and state hospital.

Kennedy said after paying down Montana’s high risk debt, she would look at the state’s base needs. Among those, she named affordable housing, child care, pre-K, property tax reduction, and addiction and mental health assistance.

Kennedy called property tax relief for seniors a critical issue, and said the state should look for other avenues of revenue, such as a resort tax and taxing vacation properties at a higher rate.

Sprunger said in her door-to-door campaigning, property tax relief was the top issue.

“Our tax system and state budget is actually built on a two-legged stool,” she said, referring to property and income taxes.

She said the state needs to get creative in cutting property taxes without sacrificing funding for education and public safety.

She agreed with Kennedy that second homeowners and vacation rentals owned by out-of-state residents should be taxed at a higher rate.

Sprunger said the housing challenges come down to supply and demand, and that the state government should “get out of the way.” The permitting process could also be streamlined, she said.

HOUSE DISTRICT 3 candidate Andrea Getts offered a unique idea for the state surplus. The Democrat from Columbia Falls said Montana could mimic North Dakota and create a state bank and reinvest the profits into state programs.

She was in favor of creating low-interest loan programs for small business and first-time homeowners. On property taxes, Getts said some type of circuit breaker cap would be helpful.

Getts is challenging Republican incumbent Braxton Mitchell, who did not attend the forum.

Republican candidate for Whtiefish’s House District 5, Lyn Bennet said she would like to see the surplus returned to taxpayers. She would also favor a freeze on property taxes.

On affordable housing, Bennet said price caps and subsidies won’t work.

“Housing could become more affordable by fast-tracking the permitting process, lowering impact fees, allowing AUDs and relaxing the excessive local zoning and regulations,” she said.

Bennet is challenging incumbent Democrat Rep. Dave Fern, who was in Helena and not able to attend the forum.

Libertarian for House District 8, Sid Daoud was the lone candidate to argue against returning the surplus to taxpayers through direct reimbursement, which he said would be too costly. Instead, he said any funds left over after paying down debt should be moved toward a reduction in property taxes.

Daoud, a Kalispell City Council member, said it’s vital the state wean itself off property taxes and look for alternative revenue streams such as local option sales taxes.

Daoud called housing his top issue, and blamed the cost of construction and lack of workers for permitted projects going unbuilt.

“I know where there’s a whole bunch of construction workers if we look a little bit to our south,” he said.

Daoud said the long-term fix to housing “is to allow the free market to correct itself.”

Daoud’s challenger, Republican Terry Falk, did not attend the forum.

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