GOP hoping property tax cut measure can fit in budget

Representative Scott Reichner (R-Big Fork)

Representative Scott Reichner (R-Big Fork)

Republican lawmakers in the House are running out of time to pass their two priority tax-cut bills through the legislature. HB230, sponsored by Rep. Scott Reichner (R-Big Fork) and  HB472, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Bennett both need to clear out of a very busy House Appropriations Committee by Monday to realistically make the transmittal deadline for spending bills next Thursday.

The Appropriations Committee has already passed their $9 billion dollar two-year budget plan. At this point, the budget is about one percent over what the Governor requested and leaves an ending fund balance about $175 million less than the current balance.

Is there room for this property tax bill included in that?” Asked Reicher about his HB230. “We’ll see.” Reichner’s bill cuts property taxes in half–across the board. It would remove about $100 million in income from the state budget over the next two years.

“It rewards the property taxpayer from across the state of Montana,” Reichner said, “Whether you’re residential, ag, coal, mining, commercial–you’re getting a…fair flat tax reduction.”

Representative Bill McChesney (D-Miles City)

Representative Bill McChesney (D-Miles City)

Representative Bill McChesney (D-Miles City) sits on the House Appropriations committee. He says he generally thinks cutting property taxes is “the right thing to do” but in the case of Reichner’s bill, “that will saddle the state of Montana with potential negative consequences into the future.” McChesney says the budget that was unanimously passed out of the House does not have enough extra money to make that tax reduction sustainable.

Reichner says it depends how much money the Legislature wants to leave in the bank for the next session–that ending fund balance. As of Friday, using the current House Budget, that ending fund balance is $291.4million.

“We’ve done anywhere from $50 million to $500 million in ending fund balance, just depending on what the forecast for the next two years are gonna be,” Reichner said. By law, that ending fund balance cannot drop below $41.8 million for this budget.

Rep. Bennett’s bill would drop the business equipment tax by increasing the exemption to $250 thousand (read about what that means here.) That bill would lower the budget by $22.5 million.

Governor Bullock’s top tax proposal, a one-time $400 tax rebate to homeowners, failed to reach the House floor. As for the other tax-cut bills, Bullock says he will wait until they reach his desk before he makes any decisions. “All of the tax bills, the questions I ask (are) ‘Long term, what’s it do to the budget?’ and also ‘Is the benefit going to mainstreet Montana, or elsewhere?'”

Bill would have top-two vote earners moving forward from Primary Election, regardless of party

Representative Scott Reichner (R-Big Fork)

Representative Scott Reichner (R-Big Fork)

Montana lawmakers are considering a bill which put in place major changes to the state’s primary election system.

Under Big Fork Republican Representative Scott Reichner’s bill, the two candidates who receive the most votes would move on to the general election, regardless of party.

Currently, voters either choose to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary and choose candidates within that party.

Reichner says the current primary system is not fair to voters who wish to support candidates of different parties in different races.

“The bill has a simple goal, open up our primary elections to Montanans of all political stripes, Democrats, Republicans and everything in between, no more forcing people to choose one party or another,” he said.

 Secretary of State Linda McCulloch (D-Montana) opposes the bill. She says it would limit fair elections through penalizing parties that have many primary candidates splitting up their base.

“Voters who identify with a party may not have a chance to advance their candidate to the general election if the party has significantly more candidates on the ballot than the opposing parties,” she said.

Representative Reichner’s bill would also declare a primary candidate automatically won the general election if he or she gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

The House State Administration Committee did not take action on the bill.

Lawmakers hear multiple bills to change campaign finance laws

Political Practices Program Supervisor Mary Baker answers a question from Rep. Greg Hertz (R-Polson) Tuesday

Political Practices Program Supervisor Mary Baker answers a question from Rep. Greg Hertz (R-Polson) Tuesday

State lawmakers are trying to address the concerns about so-called ‘dark money’ in politics–anonymous money which led to the pervasive and largely negative third-party ads that dominated the 2012 election.

These legislators are coming at the issue from very different angles.

Tuesday morning, the House State Administration Committee heard two bills which would raise the contribution limits for Montana candidates. Representative Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls) is offering HB265, which essentially doubles the amount that can be given to candidates for statewide or legislative races. Fitzpatrick says he was a victim of attack mailers sent by third party groups, which have new leeway under the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

“We can’t change Citizens United,” Fitzpatrick said. “What we can do is level the playing field between the candidates and the wealthy groups that are able to finance that.”

Representative Scott Reichner’s (R-Big Fork) bill, HB229, bumps up the contributions by more than Fitzpatrick’s bill for statewide candidates, from $500 to $2500 for gubernatorial candidates and from $250 to $1000 for other statewide candidates. Reichner’s bill created the most opposition through removing limits from political parties.

Reichner looked to the most recent gubernatorial race between Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Rick Hill. He says while each candidates campaign spent about $1 million,  $7 or $8 million was spent on race by outside groups. “You don’t really control the message,” he said. “The message is controlled by the third parties and this is frustrating for a campaign.”

He says he is open to amending his bill. He’s consulting with Governor Steve Bullock’s office, which does not support the bill as written.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Ellie Hill introduced her HJ6, which encourages implementation of I-166, an initiative passed by 75 percent of voters last fall. It directs statewide officials to pursue an amendment to the US Constitution stating corporations are not people and should not have the right to contribute to political campaigns. She says her resolution allows the Legislature to officially state the US Supreme Court erred in Citizens United.

“At certain times in our history, we have had an opportunity through our separation of powers to rise above the judicial branch, and that’s certainly what we’re preparing to do with a Constitutional Amendment,” she said.
Supporters of Hill’s resolution believe this is a better way to reign in third party spending, rather than raising limits for candidates to spend more.