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Montana lawmakers consider special session for tax rebates

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 7:52 PM, Aug 15, 2022

HELENA — Montana lawmakers will once again be asked if they want to hold a special legislative session this year, this time to consider using the state’s budget surplus for tax rebates.

“It’s becoming more apparent that this surplus will continue to grow – and in fact, many of us believe it will be over $2 billion when we get to the session,” said Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson. “We don’t need that much money going forward. If we don’t rebate this now in a special session – if we wait till the regular session – taxpayers could be waiting until next summer or next fall to get these moneys into their hands.”

Hertz is one of ten Republican lawmakers who signed an official letter, proposing a special session for Sept. 29. They also included House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, and Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith, R-Billings.

The Montana Secretary of State’s Office has sent out a ballot to each lawmaker. They have until Sept. 14 to vote on the special session proposal. If 76 of them – a majority of the 150 senators and representatives – approve, the special session will move forward.

In their request, the ten lawmakers said the budget surplus – projected to be well over $1 billion by the start of the regular legislative session in January – was a sign taxpayers had “overpaid” the state.

“[W]hen an overpayment of this magnitude occurs, it is logically expected by the people of Montana and fiscally responsible for state government to return the overpayment in an efficient manner and on a timely schedule,” the letter said.

The lawmakers made three proposals: property tax rebates of up to $1,000 for homeowners’ primary residences; income tax rebates of up to $1,250 for individuals and $2,500 for couples filing jointly; and a $100 million payment to reduce Montana’s bonded debt. Hertz said they are currently working on a draft bill.

Hertz said the plan is simple, and he doesn’t believe it needs to be held for more discussion during a regular session.

“We know Montana families are struggling with the high price of gas, groceries, a number of other things, so when we have this surplus, it’s just right to give them their money back so they can cover their bills,” he said.

On Friday, a spokesperson for Republican legislative leadership released a statement on the special session proposal from Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell.

“Legislative Republicans are excited to return excess tax money back to the taxpayers who paid it,” Blasdel said. “The timing of a legislative session to accomplish that and the exact mechanisms for returning the money are points of ongoing discussion among legislators. What taxpayers need to know at this point is that under Republican leadership, they can look forward to receiving their money back that the state doesn't need.”

The Democratic minority in the Legislature expressed opposition to a special session.

“The Legislature will convene in less than four months and we have put out a plan to use surplus dollars to provide immediate and ongoing property tax relief while also tackling the costs of housing and childcare,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, in a statement. “We face serious challenges to our economic future and Democrats have put forward solutions, while Republicans are busy with expensive election season stunts. We expect a bipartisan rejection of this special session idea.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office said the poll was a matter for individual legislators to decide, but that “the budget surplus belongs to the people of Montana, and the governor is committed to providing Montanans with permanent tax relief with a fiscally responsible budget.”

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, had previously called for a special session to provide an income tax rebate of up to $3,000. Hertz said his effort was separate from that one.

There was a poll earlier this year to call a special session to set up a committee on election security. Other states have called special sessions to pass new abortion restrictions after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Hertz told MTN he had spoken to other lawmakers concerned about election security and limiting abortion, and that he didn’t believe they would bring attempts to expand the scope of a special session to include those issues.

It would take a vote of 76 lawmakers to expand the session after it is called.