Montana Headlines was about to return to its roots by criticizing the Billings Gazette for an unfair slant. In the on-line edition as it originally appeared, this article was advertised on the home page with the rather unpleasant picture of Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-WY) and the subtitle of "Howl now or forever hold your peace."
The impression was that these were Rep. Cubin's words, when they were actually the Gazette writer's words. Given that Rep. Cubin already is laboring to counter an image of using impolitic language from time to time, it seemed like unfair piling on. Apparently, someone else thought the same thing, since that caption soon disappeared -- even though the unpleasant picture remains.
And now, there is the task of agreeing with a Gazette editorial from this morning. It opens with a thought that has to have been niggling in the backs of many Republican heads here in Montana:
Montanans who just finished filing income tax returns wonder about their Legislature's obsession with "property tax relief."
Well-stated. Not having access to the inner circles of Republican strategy in the state, we would imagine that having just reformed the income tax bracket system to remove the negative perception (although not the reality) of being a high income tax state, Republicans would not feel they could return to income taxes this soon.
Yet it seems that the Gazette editorial is hinting that income tax cuts (along with a healthy rainy day fund) are exactly what should be pursued, rather than property tax cuts. If so, then we doubly agree with the Gazette editorial writer.
We certainly support just about any tax cuts, and since property tax cuts are the chosen focus of this legislative session, we do support them. We think that they should be real and across-the-board (with possible exceptions for large out-of-state corporations, luxury vacation homes, etc.)
It is hard, however, to look at the overall tax breakdown illustrated in the Gazette editorial and wonder why, in the face of a surplus, Republicans and Democrats alike aren't working toward further income tax cuts rather than property tax cuts. This is especially true since income taxes are the most volatile taxes in the arsenal of a revenue department. Property taxes, by contrast, are a consistent source of income year in and year out.
A reason to favor property tax cuts is that Democrats are perhaps more open to them than they would be to income tax cuts, given the greater demagogic payoff of income tax issues for Democrats. But these cuts or credits are boiling down to something that doesn't represent a meaningful tax-relief policy: one-time $400 checks being mailed out to every Montana home-dweller in a re-election cycle, and no permanent tax relief at all for 20% of Montanans.
Furthermore, we are facing the amazing fact that the legislature is at this point in divvying up a $1 billion surplus -- and there has still been no rainy-day fund money being set aside. This is particularly amazing in a state almost completely dependent on the highly volatile cycles of income tax revenue. One would think that the first thing GOP and Democrat leaders would have sat down and agreed upon would have been the amount to set aside for future revenue shortfalls.
Montana Headlines would speculate that Republicans might have been better off doubling or tripling the governor's proposed rainy day fund, and axing all property tax relief (including the governor's) once it became clear that Democrats were not going to allow real, permanent, across-the-board cuts in property tax rates.
Yet, given a choice between a last-ditch stand on the hill of getting some sort of property tax relief and letting the legislature just fritter the entire surplus away on spending (which is what they seem to be bent on doing) -- setting expectations for further massive spending in the future -- yes, Montana Headlines is going to continue to stand with the Republican leadership for tax cuts of almost any kind.
So, property tax cuts it is. Let's roll.