A former state senator and chair of the state Public Service Commission wanted to set the record straight on a couple of items during a legislative video conference in Havre Wednesday.
Democrat Greg Jergeson of Chinook, first elected to the state Senate in 1974, told freshman Sen. Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, that he “read with interest your column” in the Jan. 6 edition of The Havre Daily News, “and I had some concerns about a couple of instances of what I think were probably a bit of inaccuracy in what you reported.”
In the column, Hutton wrote that people need to be reminded that, while Gov. Brian Schweitzer is pushing in his proposed budget for a business equipment tax reduction, that Schweitzer, elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2008, was part of the team that introduced the tax in the first place and that it was supposed to have a sunset clause at that time.
“That’s not the case,” Jergeson said. “The business equipment tax, frankly, has been part of the oldest portion of the Montana property tax for a long, long time.”
He said the tax originally was part of the state personal property tax, and it was first named the business equipment tax in 1989, under Gov. Stan Stephens's administration, when the first reductions to the tax were made.
He added that the only issue not covered in all changes made to the business equipment tax over the years was the backfill local governments and school districts needed to make for revenue loss when their tax base declined by reductions in the tax.
“I wanted to point out that somebody had not given you the correct origins of that particular tax, putting (aside) all debates about whether or not a proposal to get rid of it or reduce it is good public policy or not,” Jergeson said.
He also questioned Hutton’s statement that the Treasure State Endowment Program was set up to pay for federally mandated programs.
In his column, Hutton wrote that shifting money from that program, along with shifting oil and gas revenues from school districts in the counties where the revenue is generated to the general fund, shortchanges local governments.
Schweitzer has proposed shifting the $18.5 million Treasure State Endowment Program budget to the state general fund for the next two years.
Jergeson said that, while he agrees with Hutton’s opposition to eliminating the fund, it was not created to pay for federal mandates.
TSEP was “instituted in the early ’90s as a response to Governor Stephens’ proposals to raid the corpus of the Coal Tax Trust fund and spend the trust fund balances on ongoing government programs and provide tax relief,” Jergeson said. “The effort with the Treasure State Endowment was to put the Coal Tax Trust Fund to work for Montanans building needed infrastructure.
“I would agree with your position (in) opposition to eliminating the Treasure State Endowment Program, but I think we need to be clear about where the origin of both of these particular matters is as the debate goes forward on both of those,” he added.