Saturday, March 17, 2007

Here's hoping

Every presidential election I stake my bet on some darkhorse candidate, hoping that he (sorry, no women have made the cut yet) will emerge as the nation's great hope. Usually the candidate turns out to be a disappointment, or his campaign goes nowhere, but I keep trying because the major party choices always seem so uniformly dismal.

It's pretty much the same strategy I use on our almost annual visits to the horse races at MetraPark. I like to pick a horse somewhere in the 8-to-1 to 12-to-1 odds range, and I always bet $2 to win, never to place or show. It has worked pretty well at the races -- the last two times we have gone, I won enough on my first bet to cover the cost of the day -- but it has never worked out for president. Horse races are more honest, and horses are generally of higher character.

But I keep betting. This year my money is on Bill Richardson, the Democratic governor from New Mexico. I don't know enough about him yet to say that I would even vote for him, but I like what I've seen and heard: He has cut taxes, he sounds reasonable (and willing to fight) on immigration, he presumably understands Western concerns, and he mostly makes sense on the war.

Two things this week increased my hope that he will turn out to be a good bet. One was his support for medical marijuana legislation. Putting human suffering and freedom above the White House's holy war: what a concept. The other was a speech I saw on C-SPAN that Richardson gave to some college students. It wasn't what he said that impressed me -- it was fairly standard political boilerplate -- nor the way he presented himeself -- slightly rumpled, a bit less articulate than I have seen him in TV interviews, and given to a lot of arm waving.

What I liked was what he did when a student asked him a question he couldn't answer. With C-SPAN's mikes, I couldn't make out exactly what the question was, but it had something to do with some action by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Richardson said he hadn't heard anything about it. He asked an aide if he knew anything about it. He said something like, "You'd think we'd know since that's our neighboring state." He then turned back to the student and asked, "What do you think about it?"

On rare occasions, I've heard candidates admit to not knowing something. On even rarer ones, I've seen candidates promise to have somebody on the staff look into a question. But I have never seen a candidate turn back to the questioner and ask for advice. Richardson didn't treat the questioner like a student to be patronized, a voter to be wooed or, worse yet, a meaningless obstacle blocking the view of the national C-SPAN audience. He treated the student like a citizen who might be able to advise the governor on something he should know.

That's a quality I wouldn't mind seeing in the White House.


Pete Hansen said...

Well folks. You're always asking for "The People's" opinion and "value their input."

If you read the comments attached to the editorial in favor of a sales tax written by Jeff Essman, you'll get an earful!

If that's a good indication of how well his pro sales tax article and bill will be received, even if it passes and we get to vote for or against a sales tax, I'd suggest he withdraw his bill and move on to something that might have a chance. His sales tax proposal won't!

Pete Hansen
Billings, MT

Published on Saturday, March 17, 2007

Guest Opinion: Montana voters can decide on tax reform
Montana State Senator

Would you be willing to vote for a 4 percent sales tax that exempted groceries, medicines and medical care, housing - including rent and utilities, and used clothing - if you knew you could save nearly $500 every year in property taxes on a house valued at $150,000? Would you vote for it if you knew that you could also vote to amend the constitution to guarantee the savings by forever prohibiting statewide property taxes on your home, farm or forest lands?

Those are the questions that Senate Bills 529, 554 and 555 would put to the voters of Montana.

Skeptics will inevitably ask, why, if we have a billion-dollar surplus, are you proposing a new tax? The answer is simple. I propose it because it will result in a net tax cut for Montana residents. I also propose it because our state is aging rapidly.

Shift away from property tax
A recent compilation of studies by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services shows that in a few short years Montana's population demographic will be the fourth oldest in the nation. Ever-increasing property taxes burden our elderly who largely live on fixed incomes. The property tax is no longer a stable source of statewide funding for a declining school population in an aging state.

Replacing statewide school property tax levies and reducing local school levies by increasing the state's share of education expenses is the most effective way to permanently reduce property taxes and bring tax relief to every corner of the state. Additional property tax relief will come through the revenue sharing provisions which send one-eighth of the sales tax collections back to every city and county that doesn't already have a local-option sales tax.

Income tax rebates will return all sales taxes paid by Montana households earning less than the median income, thereby making the tax a progressive tax. So, if you earn the median income in Montana and own a $150,000 house in the average taxing jurisdiction, you will get the $353 you paid in sales taxes back, plus save nearly $500 in property taxes, every year. And that doesn't include the savings on your city and county taxes.

Senate Bill 554 structures the property tax breaks so that they flow to the owners of ag and forest lands, homes, and small-business commercial property and it exempts the first $150,000 in business equipment from property tax, thereby helping your neighboring small business, farmer, or rancher. No big tax breaks are granted to the large industrial taxpayers, because they will not be paying the sales tax on the core items required by their operations.

Sales tax revenue
A 4 percent statewide sales tax would raise about $550 million a year, unfortunately not enough to completely eliminate either the property tax or the income tax, both of which are projected to generate in the neighborhood of a billion dollars a year in 2010. But a sales tax can raise enough to shave nearly $500 off the average Montana tax bill each year, if you own a house valued at $150,000. And you can guarantee the savings by passing the constitutional amendment.

If you'd like to get more information, including the exact savings in your school district, visit my Web site,, and click on the Tax Reform Proposal link.

If you are in that 50-years-plus demographic coveted by the people at AARP, contact their representatives at 866-295-7278 and ask them to study and support the bill. If you are a member of the AFL-CIO or MEA-MFT, call them at 888-338-6466 or 800-398-0826 and ask them to do the same. And if you are a taxpayer who is tired of your property tax burden and would like to get a chance to vote on this proposal, contact your legislator at 406-444-4800 and give him or her your opinion. The money you save will be your own.

Republican Jeff Essmann represents Senate District 28 in Billings. Hearings on SB554 and SB555 are set for 9 a.m. Thursday in the Senate Taxation Committee in the Capitol. SB554, introduced this week, is a 97-page proposal to reform the state tax system and submit a 4 percent sales tax to voters. Senate Bill 555 would refund the 101 mills in statewide property taxes paid by resident Montana taxpayers who own ag and forest lands, residential and commercial property in payments in May and October 2008, so that voters could see the size of a portion of the property tax cut before they vote on the sales tax. SB529 proposes asking voters to amend the Montana Constitution so that no statewide tax or fee could be levied on certain classes of property if a statewide sales tax were enacted. SB529 was approved by the Senate 29-21 and has been referred to the House Taxation Committee.

Comment Display Options
The comments below are from readers of and in no way represent the views of The Billings Gazette or Lee Enterprises.
Pete Hansen wrote on March 17, 2007 2:17 AM
Well Jeff: Seems like we've been thru this before and the sales tax has been voted down a number of times by most of the voters you and other Legislators claim to represent. Are you or the other Legislators listening to what the people are saying? And, even if you get it passed in the legislature, they'll vote it down again too! Seems like when you folks get elected, you pat we voters on the back for our intelligence in voting you into office, but then think we're too stupid to understand the issues that will effect us. No? well, let's see, we've voted for term limits, against cyanide leach mining and game farms and, against abolishing the death penalty, but, here we go again. Yet, in every legislative session, previously controlled by the Republicans I might add, the elected choose to try and overthrow we "Grassroots'" votes and, even try to make the initiative process more difficult for us to place things we care or are concerned about, on the ballot!I will tell you that the electorate is in a suley mood and the mess of this leislative session isn't gaing our elected leaders any respect or confidence! We're tired of the partisanship that seems to disregard the good of the people in order to press forward with the good of the parties. Frankly, we don't trust you and the carrot you place under our noses, property task relief, nor do we believe that any sales tax, if passed and voted for just to gain that carrot, won't be increased and any property tax relief be eventually blown away like dust in the wind. Frankly, it's about like giving big taxbreaks to Exxon/Mobil who continue to report record profits yet, continue to stick it to us at the pump despite the fact that oil prices have dropped. That makes about as much sense as asking for more taxes when you have a billion dollars in surplus! We, the working, the retired and the needy don't get a pay raise or an income boost whenever we want it. Why should state government, when it has that big a surplus? I don't envy you in that heady atmosphere of the halls of government because, it seems you've lost touch with the ordinary hard working folks out here in the rest of the state! The time is long past to allow you "big leagers" to ignor we "grassroots who, have discovered, once again, that one thing we "grassroots" can expect, is plenty of fertilizer in an election year!

Senator Kissed the Blarney Stone wrote on March 17, 2007 5:56 AM
Let's see, I save $500.00 a year on property tax, pay a 4% tax on the $22000.00 I spend every year on taxable items, that's $880.00 in sales tax, net loss $380.00; no thanks senator Jeff I-flunked-middle-school-math Essmann. Who in Montana spends only $8825.00 (his $353.00 tax figure used to obscure the real facts)on taxable items every year; remember this includes things like cars, oil changes, tires, parts, appliances, hot water heaters, etc; everything a homeowner needs. And how do you propose to give me a $500.00 property tax break, tax me $353.00, or less, and raise revenue. Its not the property tax that is becoming unstable with an aging population, its the income tax; which scares the big money folks Jeff represents. And just who is supposed to keep every single sales reciept for every taxable purchase I make in order to get my tax refund? But the corporations will get income tax relief because the burden is shifted to the sales tax. The story negleted mention Jeff was a republican until I got to the small print, but I knew it right away. The only reason he wants a constitutional amendment is to make the sales tax harder to repeal during the frequent times the republicans are out of power in Montana. What we need is a constitutional amendment prohibiting a sales tax, limiting all taxes, including property tax on their personal residence, to a maximum amount based on income, for the elderly, and a flat rate progressive income tax to fund the government to protect us from this garbage forever. If you see a shortfall senator, lets invest the obvious surplus we have now to cover our fiscal needs in the future. Put that in your Replican pipe and smoke it why don't you.

Bob wrote on March 17, 2007 6:40 AM
I voted against this more times than I care to remember. Leave it alone.

pjc wrote on March 17, 2007 6:48 AM
I would not vote for a sales tax. The percentage never ends. Look at every state that has a sales tax it always increases after a few years.

Take a Look wrote on March 17, 2007 7:21 AM
Everybody needs to look at this carefully. It just might be a good deal providing the income and property taxes could be gradually eliminated as this is phased in. Go to the website and study it.

Jim wrote on March 17, 2007 7:39 AM
Why replace a property tax with the sales tax? Why not replace the income tax? Property tax reductions obviously benefit the property owners, the more property the more savings. I am sure PPL Montana will appreciate a reduction in property tax. In the meantime the average family's taxes go up. Seems to me this is just another Republican attack on the middle class.

Annie wrote on March 17, 2007 8:28 AM
New taxes can be made to sound like the answer, but.... Review the taxes enacted in the last 100 years. Wow!! This sales tax might be enticing now but it will go on and on... We do not need any more taxes. We need to live within our means.

to pjc & others wrote on March 17, 2007 8:41 AM
The MT constitution already caps any statewide sales tax to 4%. It couldn't be raised unless the voters changed the constitution.

SMACK DOWN! wrote on March 17, 2007 8:45 AM
Wow, jeffy. Had your beehind handed to you already by the above posters. And of course they're RIGHT! Is THIS one of the RepubliCONS new ideas??? Well, it's kinda like all the OTHER Repubbie ideas. DOA! Look, you are the morons that told us that the reason you lost your arses was that your platform wasn't "conservative" enough. Maybe, but it damn sure is STUPID enough! How many times must we do this dance? How many times must you be told no?! Just how many morons are there IN this party? I agree with Pete from above almost entirely, except for one little part. He mentions the part about "partisan bickering". But really, how in the world CAN the Dems comrpomise with wackos? How CAN they negotiate with goofballs? Are we ALL supposed to embrace the Constsitupid party now, who with one member is calling the shots? I think not. The Dems are fighting for Montana! The Rethugs are fighting for the wealthy, outta state corporate interests. And I'll tell you a little secret. I'm as conservative as anyone! But I'm NOT nuts, as is jork, clange, sincrud, etc. These guys arent' conservative. They're just idiots.

Common sense wrote on March 17, 2007 9:06 AM
Good for you Pet Hanson. You told it like it is. Once they get a tax put on they never lower it but keep raising it at their whims. If there is a surplus why keep taxing the people for more? Greed is what is destroying this nation. Wake up!

billings native wrote on March 17, 2007 9:53 AM
Essmann--If BS were music, you would be the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

M wrote on March 17, 2007 11:03 AM
NOPE! Is that plain enough for you? Get rid of the state income tax too then we will talk.

You bet Jeff wrote on March 17, 2007 11:48 AM
Ssssso, the “Snake” wants a sales tax for property tax relief AGAIN. Last time I checked he owned over 85 properties in Yellowstone County alone. Now, lets see 85 X $558 = hmmm... . If a $150 ,000 house gets a $588 break will Jeff’s $1,000,000 home on the golf course get a $3720 cut? Could it be that someone is trying to get his fellow tax payers to foot his bill? Might there be a little personal greed involved here? Maybe he should foot the cost of putting this on the ballot. That way the rest of us don’t have to pay when a sales tax gets trounced AGAIN. Why doesn’t the state cut some of the pork. For some reason every time the Feds throw out a carrot, Montana feels the need to supply the matching funds.

Enough already!! wrote on March 17, 2007 2:40 PM
Oh sure, the sales tax will start at 4%. What's going to happen when the state needs more money? Hike up the sales tax. Before you know it, it will be at 8%. We are a family of 6 and will get hit hard with sales tax. Enough already!

Dave Bovee wrote on March 17, 2007 4:14 PM
The averageg resident will never get heard anywhere; our system has completely degenerated into special interest favoritism that caters only to lobbyists and others wealthy enough to buy time with decision makers. The "reform" this guy is talking about will enrich the wealthy, business owners, and out-of-staters that stiff our tax collection system. I'm sure plenty of waana be's, this guys support base, will listen to him and think that one day they can cash in, too.

Porky Pig wrote on March 17, 2007 5:01 PM
You bet there Jeff,and Pigs Fly Too!!

vegas viv wrote on March 17, 2007 6:40 PM
still livin large in the best city 89101 and the best city in 59101 vote no on the proposed sales tax!!! 150 dimes is a joke on real property hello land is escalating across america even in 59101 wake up big sky country the real answer is nay nay nay

Hey, Jeff, aren't you wrote on March 17, 2007 8:50 PM
from the party that told us how great dereg was going to be? And we are really living high off that one. How about this? First, see if you can figure out how to get the budget mess straightened out. Keep this in mind: The House Republicans are hoping that the Senate can repair the damage they did to the budget so that Jore would vote with them. Then maybe we can think about the sales tax. Oh, yeah, two important points: the property tax has to go away for good and the sales tax has to be capped. Otherwise, you guys will keep jacking them around and we won't see any significant tax breaks. Plus, is a sales tax deductible from the federal income tax?

DMerriman said...

However different horses and politicians may be otherwise, both of them dispense the same byproduct...

Dave Rye said...

"Smackdown" had to have been Larry. He has a style all his own, sort of like a pb&j sandwich without the bread.

Ralph Swanson said...

Let's listen carefully to Jeff Essmann. He has a degree in industrial engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a law degree from the University of Montana. He's a successful business owner and a property developer. Montana has been good to him. He knows the dynamics of money; he keeps a low media profile; and the local Republicans can't seem to get enough of him. He seems to be one of those social prime movers that likes to stay buried in the quiet lunches and small group meetings where key unofficial policy decisions are made that are later announced as fait accompoli. What he and his friends now want is deemed so important that Jeff himself has stepped forward to champion it. I suggest we study their suggested restructuring of the taxing system, SB 554. This bill is a global approach to redesigning the state tax system that one would expect from an engineering/legal mentality. My guess is few will take the time to truly grasp all of the implications. As proof of how important this proposal is notice that the media is giving it only nominal neutral coverage, much as they did electrical deregulation. Again, we should watch and listen very carefully. Reading SB 554 is a start. It was probably put together by a team of very knowing people. I would guess that we should reject it out of hand but take advanatage of the research and and expertese embedded within it.