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Holmquist, Fern fine choices for tax reform group

by Daily Inter Lake
| January 21, 2024 12:00 AM

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s newly selected property tax task force has been handed a tall order.

It’s this bipartisan group’s job to recommend a plan to fix a tax system that is confusing, unfairly penalizes longtime homeowners and unnecessarily carries the burden as public schools’ top funding mechanism.

Thankfully, the governor has selected two qualified individuals from the Flathead Valley to help lead the charge toward meaningful reform: Republican Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist and Democrat Rep. Dave Fern of Whitefish. 

Holmquist offers an important perspective as a retired small-business owner and three-term commissioner from the state’s fastest growing county. Fern, meanwhile, brings a consummate understanding of tax policy and public education funding to the table as a longtime school board trustee and four-term state House member.

These two voices representing Northwest Montana constituents will join a task force with a diverse membership of stakeholders, including other state legislators, county commissioners and city councilors, along with finance and tax experts, Realtors and public education representatives.

But where should they begin in unpacking this mess?

Let’s start with transparency. 

This whole debacle started last summer after heart-stopping reappraisal notices were delivered across the state, setting off widespread panic among homeowners who were rightfully afraid that they may not be able to afford to stay in their home.

Brendan Beatty, the director of the Montana Department of Revenue, confirmed as much in a damage-control op-ed published in the Inter Lake on July 30.

“These value increases and estimated 2023 general taxes described on the notice … have created a great deal of confusion, fear and some frustration among Montana’s residents,” Beatty admitted.

The op-ed continued by assuring taxpayers that the notices likely wouldn’t reflect the actual change to their tax bills come November because they were based on the prior year’s millage rate. Which begs the question: if the Department of Revenue knew the appraisal notices weren’t a true reflection of the actual tax bills, why were they distributed without a clear explanation of the circumstances? 

That can’t happen again. 

This task force must reassess how future appraisals are conducted so that easily understandable and accurate information is put in front of taxpayers from the onset. This should be included alongside Gianforte’s order for the task force to make property tax bills more transparent and easier to understand.

Another top task the governor posed for the group is to determine how to slow the rate of property tax growth, and how to ensure lower-income and fixed-income homeowners aren’t put at risk of losing their homes due to wild property tax spikes like the post-Covid era delivered.

This is the whole enchilada for residents in high-growth areas with soaring home values like Flathead and Gallatin counties, where longtime locals are stuck paying huge tax bills just because they live in a newly desirable part of the country.

There are a number of tools on the table worth debating, including an assessment cap like 17 other states have enacted, or even a general sales tax that would unload some of the tax burden onto the millions of tourists who trample across Montana every year.

Finally, the task force can’t move forward on any meaningful reform without bringing education into the fold. Property taxes are the primary source of funding for school districts. How can Montana adequately support public education opportunities while simultaneously providing tax relief?

It’s a tough nut to crack, but we’re confident that with robust, bipartisan debate, a diversity of solutions are within reach for the 2025 Legislature’s consideration.

Be sure to share your property tax concerns and ideas with Holmquist, Fern and the other task force members now. Their first report is due to the governor this summer.

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