This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday
A war of words over one part of Montanans’ property tax bills escalated lat week, with state government filing a lawsuit against Missoula County and the Montana Association of Counties accusing Montana School Boards Association Director Lance Melton of spreading “misinformation” regarding the dispute, which centers on a state-level property tax that collects money for schools.
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office said it hopes the lawsuit will give a judge a chance to clarify how a state law that caps local government collection growth applies the “95 mills” property tax, which produce some of the revenue the state uses to equalize funding between richer and poorer school districts. As rapidly rising property values swell that tax’s potential revenues, many county leaders have concluded the tax cap statute should prevent them from collecting the full 95 mills this year.
The governor, his legislative allies and education advocates — who built the current state education budget around collecting the full amount — consider that interpretation hogwash. They’ve argued in various forums that scaling back the 95 mills would both threaten school budgets in the near-term and set the state’s education funding system on a path toward long-term disarray.
The state’s lawsuit wants a judge to clarify how tax cap law applies to ‘95 mills’ property tax collected for school funding equalization.
The county association is adamant that the lower collection level it’s proposing won’t hurt school funding, noting the tax will still bring in more money than it has in years past. County officials also point to a state General Fund balance that they consider plenty ample to make schools whole. Legislative fiscal analysts said in July they expect the state to end its two-year budget cycle with a $539 million General Fund balance. If all of Montana’s counties collect the lower amount suggested by their association, it would reduce state revenues by about $80 million a year.
“No school will be impacted. No property taxpayer will make up the difference. When Mr. Melton states otherwise, he is wrong,” Montana Association of Counties Director Eric Bryson wrote in an email to county and school officials last week.
Melton, though, was equally adamant in an interview last week that the counties are fundamentally mistaken about the workings of the state’s complex education funding system. He also argued there’s a very real risk that a $160 million hit over the state’s two-year budget cycle could trigger a budget crisis.
“The wheels could come off next year if you have a recession — you could very well end up in a second-year special session where there are cuts,” Melton said.
Further complicating the picture is a new law, House Bill 587, that reworked how dollars from the 95 mills run through state government en route to schools when it took effect in July, keeping them entirely separate from the General Fund.
That bill’s sponsor, House Appropriations Committee Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad, has said the new system will provide homeowners about $33 million a year in property tax relief by letting school districts levy lower local taxes in future years. Jones has also shared analyses indicating the counties’ 95 mill reduction would be a boon for major industrial taxpayers — saving BNSF Railway, for example, $1 million a year.
This story was updated Oct. 24, 2023, to correct the date the relevant portion of HB 587 takes effect, as well as the estimated amount of property tax relief the measure will provide each year.
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