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Legislators in Helena are trying to centralize government

by Chris Hindoien
| April 9, 2023 12:00 AM

Why the persistent attack on local governments this session?

It starts at the top with Gov. Greg Gianforte and his Housing Task Force Report providing the smoke and mirrors to put the lack of affordable housing in Montana on extravagant local taxes in our communities.

So, the knee-jerk reaction from those legislators wanting to stay in the good graces of the governor is simple. Take the ability to levy additional taxes away from the communities, such as open space bonds, public safety levies, infrastructure improvement projects, and make the counties and municipalities subservient to the almighty Legislature, where 78 misguided elected officials can decide if our town(s) are “worthy” of allowing new spending to meet the needs of our communities.

Our current Montana legal framework allows for the local government(s), to levy additional taxes or fees over and above the limitations placed on us by I-105 back in 1986. These levies, if established are done so by vote of the local constituents. This means that both the opponents and the proponents of these levies had equal time and access to sway the voting public to weigh in for or against the increase set forth in the levy.

So, to the senators and representative currently trying to stop the local voice, understand that we, the constituents have willingly increased our taxes by the legal Montana process. This is a result of our democratic system in action. Yes, some communities are more likely to pass levies than others, but nonetheless a one-size-fits all answer does not solve the problem, but rather will create a ripple effect of emanating out from the reactionary move of the legislature.

Affordable housing in Montana isn’t due to exorbitant local taxes, it is due to issues nobody wants to admit too, as they don’t make political hay. The tax system in Montana is outdated. It comes from a time when extractive industries of coal, timber, and gas production were in full swing within our state. These industries have withered up to nothing but a few stalwart companies.

Thus, the Montana Legislature, as a microcosm of Washington D.C., has continued to shift tax burden around rather than address it head on.

If extractive industries in Montana are the baseline for a strong tax base, then we need to look no further than the most extractive industry in Montana today, tourism.

Prnewswire.com provides the following information on tourism in our state.

• Montana welcomed an estimated 12.5 million nonresident visitors in 2021.

• Nonresident visitors spent an estimated $5.22 billion in 2021.

• That nonresident visitor spending supported $4.42 billion of economic activity in 2021.

• Travel, tourism, and hospitality supported 68,630 jobs and contributed $2.038 billion in employee compensation.

Those numbers held steady for the 2022 year as well.

The skyrocketing price of homes in Montana isn’t the fault of 127 municipalities and their voters, it falls to the feet of the 78 legislators in Helena trying to centralize government. We know best what we want and need in our communities.

Your job is to take care of the next layer of government above the local level. Find the courage to do your job and deal with the statewide issues needed to lower housing costs. Firstly, fix the property tax system in Montana. Secondly, fund Montana schools adequately at the state level and eliminate the need for most local levies.

Ultimately, our housing crisis is a combination of many things, but to blame the “locals” is a disingenuous narrative being played out in Helena. Get involved at your local level and see for yourself how well your municipality and county are run.

Chris Hindoien is the mayor of Choteau. With a 2020 population of 1,730, it is the 42nd largest city in Montana. Choteau is currently growing at a rate of 0.58% annually.