Highlights from State of the State.
| January 29, 2023 12:00 AM
Gov. Greg Gianforte rarely strayed from so-called kitchen-table issues in delivering his second State of the State address last week to a joint session of the Montana Senate and House of Representatives.
The Republican hit on the state’s economic successes early and often, and used the primetime speech to leverage his plans for Montana’s budget surplus and related rebates and tax cuts.
For the average Montanan, there was much to applaud in Gianforte’s talking points as he clearly side-stepped divisive culture war issues. The governor devoted just three sentences to his anti-abortion position and offered no mention of anti-LGBTQ legislation or hot-button wildlife topics — remaining laser focused on the politically safe turf of economy, jobs, education and taxes.
Following are a few speech highlights that deserve a thumbs up:
Debt payment plan
Gianforte is advocating to use the state’s surplus to pay down general obligation debt— “debt free in ’23” is his catchy tag line — which he claims would save the state $40 million over the next two years. While massive rebate checks would be wildly popular, getting Montana’s balance sheet in order is a fiscally responsible use of the state’s $2.5 billion surplus.
The governor is proposing a $1,200 child tax credit for children under 6 for parents earning less than $50,000 annually. Given the soaring costs of child care in Montana, this credit would provide critical financial relief to young families while simultaneously helping these parents re-enter the workforce as they can better afford child care. A fiscal note attached to the legislation anticipates 27,700 children would qualify for the credit — a significant number.
He also touted Kalispell Rep. Courtaney Sprunger’s important legislation that would increase the amount of a state tax credit for adoptive families — a measure that has drawn widespread praise. Families opening their homes to adopted children deserve this meaningful financial assistance.
On the heels of one of the largest tax cuts in state history, Gianforte is pushing for even more in the 2023 session, eying more than $1 billion in tax relief. He said he wants to do this through immediate rebates and long-term tax reform targeting income and property taxes.
According to budget priorities revealed last fall, Gianforte wants to trim the top income tax rate from 6.5% to 5.9% for people making more than $19,800. He notes Montana’s income tax rate is among the highest in the West — albeit without mentioning the state has no sales tax to generate revenue otherwise. Still, slicing back the income tax rate for most of Montana’s earners is an attractive proposition to help subdue the effects of inflation.
He’s also eying tax relief for businesses through the business equipment tax. His plan would raise the tax exemption threshold from $300,000 to $1 million — a nice carrot for economic investments and job creation in the Treasure State.
One of the tools that emerged from the housing task force Gianforte created last year is the Home Ownership Means Economic Security program. The plan allocates $200 million to help fund water and sewer infrastructure for new housing developments, “and ultimately expand housing capacity throughout our state.” While certainly no magic elixir, the HOMES program is one way to make a dent in Montana’s housing supply shortage that is affecting home and rent prices.
The governor touted a “generational investment” in the state hospital in Warm Springs, which was appallingly stripped of its accreditation from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid following reports of deficiencies and noncompliance. Montana’s behavioral health care facilities can no longer be overlooked, he said.
“I ask you to pass this critical investment for the good of our families, our communities, and the most vulnerable among us. Get this critical investment to my desk,” Gianforte urged.
Let’s hope our legislators follow through.
Gianforte is again prioritizing active forest management to help stymie wildfires, promote forest health and create jobs in the wood product sector. His budget allocates $10 million per year to continue and increase forest management programs — a welcome proposition for the often smoke-choked communities of western Montana.