Feb. 28 was the transmittal deadline in the Montana Legislature, when any bill not related to spending or revenue had to make it through its first chamber vote or die. The deadline marked the official end of the fun season in Montana politics, when a lot of ideas notable for their audacity—including the "Sheriffs First" bill, which would have required federal agents to get permission from local sheriffs before enforcing U.S. law inside the state—foundered on the shoals of what a 90-day legislative session might actually do.
Gov. Steve Bullock's $400 property tax rebate for homeowners seems to be among the wreckage. Although the bill is not subject to the transmittal deadline, House Republicans voted down Minority Leader Chuck Hunter's so-called blast motion to move it from committee to floor debate. For all practical purposes, the governor's campaign promise is dead.
But the Montana GOP never closes a door without opening a window. The day after it killed Hunter's bill to enact Bullock's rebate, the House passed HB 230 along party lines. HB 230 would cut Montana's property tax levy in half, reducing general fund revenues by $52 million next year and a couple million more each year after that.
House Republicans say HB 230 will fairly benefit all the state's property owners, large and small. Democrats say it will be a windfall for large corporations that saves the average homeowner only $44 per year. Both statements live in that political sweet spot between misleading and true, and both offer a distinction without much difference, as Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, inadvertently demonstrated.
"I think you can see here, folks, that this is the great divide between the parties," Reichner told the Great Falls Tribune. "Do we believe it is the government's money that we need to keep here, or do we believe it is the taxpayers' money that we need to give back to them?"
It was kind of a confusing remark, given the context. Which proposal would give the taxpayers' money back, again? Was it the property tax rebate that Democrats supported, or was it the property tax cut that Republicans supported? And how, exactly, did the death of one and birth of the other show us the great divide between the parties? It seems to me that the collapse of the Bullock plan and the rise of HB 230 is a testament to the parties' irritating similarity.
House Republicans blocked the $400 rebate because its passage would have been a win for a Democratic governor. By sitting on it in committee, they kept Bullock from making good on his campaign promise—a move that, according to conventional wisdom, constitutes a win for the Montana GOP.
The conventional wisdom is dumb. If you accept the idea that the rebate was a crucial promise in the Bullock campaign, you also have to accept that a majority of voters liked it. He did win the election, after all. A party interested in winning votes might hesitate to strike down a proposal that a lot of voters like, but the Montana GOP could not resist its instinctive urge to thwart the other team.
One day later, House Democrats voted against a bill that comes remarkably close to duplicating one of their top legislative priorities. There are legitimate objections to HB 230 as an alternative to the $400 rebate, not the least of which are its long-term cost and top-heavy distribution. In a Republican legislature, however, it may be as close to Bullock's refund as Democrats are going to get. More importantly, the rebate issue constitutes a rare opportunity for consensus in a bitterly divided House.
Yet the parties have agreed to disagree. In their insistence on beating the hell out of each other, Democrats and Republicans have advanced competing versions of the same idea and voted against them along party lines.
As a man whose assets remain tied up in old Mojo Nixon CDs, I do not much care whether the legislature cuts property taxes or refunds them. I suppose I would rather see homeowners get $400 all at once than landowners get maybe millions over the next decade, but we cannot have all things that please us. In the great divide between giving taxpayers' money back now and not taking it from them later, I would mostly like to see someone start work on a bridge.
Chances are 2013 will not be the year when we see one of Montana's political parties finally vanquished. There's a reason they call it state politics and not state compromise, but as of this writing our elected representatives have only 45 days left in which to govern. They should take their opportunities for ideological overlap where they can get them. Lawmaking season will be over soon, and then everybody can get back to settling this Republican/Democrat thing once and for all.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.