MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA House Republicans barely advanced their flagship property tax relief plan Monday, and only with some last-minute lobbying by GOP leaders. The roughly $200 million proposal would replace some local school property taxes with state money. It was touted as a way to bring permanent property tax relief to homeowners. That argument didn’t sit well with one avowed conservative, who promised to oppose the measure. Republican Rep. Roger Koopman of Bozeman said the bill simply shuffles tax money around, rather than reducing any spending. “Is it really true tax relief, when we are not reducing spending?” he said. But after a personal plea from House leaders, Koopman changed his mind, and the bill advanced on a 51-49 vote. Koopman said leaders told him the bill is needed to give the House bargaining leverage with the Democrat-controlled Senate. “I basically held my nose” and voted for it, he said. House Majority Leader Michael Lange, R-Billings, said the measure will take a big school funding load off homeowners. An average $150,000 home in an average school district, he said, would see a $218 drop in yearly property taxes. “This is not chump change,” said Lange, who sponsored the bill. “This is real money.” Money for schools would instead come from the state’s “general fund,” which largely comes from income taxes. Democrats argued the cut in property taxes would mostly benefit corporations and wealthy residents. Rep. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, said PPL Montana would get a $1.5 million reduction in property taxes under the bill, while Burlington Northern Santa Fe could see a $1.6 million drop. Others said it was unclear how the tax cut would fit into the overall state budget since the GOP just unveiled its spending plans last week and have yet to face committee scrutiny. “I think the more challenging question is trying to figure out where this bill fits in the overall budget,” said House Minority Leader John Parker, D-Great Falls. “We just frankly don’t have the context to know where we are going to find the $213 million.” Democrats favor Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed $400 per-homeowner property tax rebate. Lange said his bill, which now goes to the Democrat-controlled Senate, will give both sides an opportunity to negotiate on the final tax relief package. The House also endorsed, 79-20, a refundable $120 income tax credit for renters who likely won’t see a benefit from the property tax relief. The credit would only go to renters with a gross income of less than $45,000 a year. Another tax proposal also from Lange did not receive majority support. The bill called for annual tax credits of $200 per person and credits for small businesses that provide health insurance. That measure, being voted on again after it was initially killed Saturday, stalled on a 50-50 vote. Lange’s bills are House bills 675, 345, and 270.