State candidates offer ideas on surplus, housing and taxes

Solutions to manage Montana’s budget surplus and solve the state’s housing and child care problems were among the topics local legislative candidates discussed Tuesday at a forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. from Kalispell.

Candidates in the Flathead Valley Senate District 5 race agreed that the state’s estimated $1.4 billion budget surplus should go back to taxpayers, but diverted to what extent.

Republican John Fuller, a retired teacher who currently represents the House 8 district, argued that the bulk should go to taxpayers, not new government programs.

“Republicans are not opposed to spending money to improve opportunities for working families throughout Montana,” he said. “But what Republicans oppose is the redistribution of wealth.”

Meanwhile, his challenger, Democrat Kyle Waterman, called the surplus a chance to reinvest in the state “and make sure growth pays for Montana’s growth.”

Waterman, a former Kalispell City Councilman, said he was suspicious of so-called unfunded mandates after seeing a local drug addiction program left without state resources.

He called mental health care another unfunded mandate and said the state should look for ways to support Warm Springs State Hospital.

“If we don’t pay for it, we’ll pay the consequences later,” Waterman said.

Fuller said his efforts would focus on property tax relief, veterans, schools, and “protecting our children’s safety and opportunities.”

Strengthening childcare options is best left to the private sector and nonprofits, he added. He would not support pre-K funding.

“At the time, there was no shortage of child care because every child had a mother and most of them were responsible for primary child care,” Fuller said. “But modern economic reality dictates that stay-at-home parents are no longer a practical solution.”

“We the people need to take care of ourselves, the people here in Flathead County,” he added.

Waterman, who is a member of the Kalispell Chamber’s child care task force, said he would explore regulations that stand in the way of opening more day cares.

When it comes to housing, Fuller argues that the state government would only spoil solutions, which should instead come from county governments and nongovernmental organizations.

“If you expect the state of Montana to solve this problem from the top down, what will happen is that there will be a massive transfer of wealth, incredible inefficiency, and huge externalities.”

KALISPELL’S HOUSE District 7 candidates Republican Courtenay Sprunger and Democrat Angela Kennedy would both seek to pay down debt with the budget surplus.

Sprunger, however, said the majority should go to taxpayers while seeking to support “crisis areas” like the state prison and state hospital.

Kennedy said that after paying off Montana’s high-risk debt, she would review the basic needs of the state. Among these, she named affordable housing, child care, pre-kindergarten, lower property taxes, and help with addiction and mental health.

Kennedy called property tax relief for seniors a critical issue and said the state should seek other sources of revenue, such as a resort tax and taxing vacation properties at a rate higher.

Sprunger said in his door-to-door campaign that property tax relief was the main issue.

“Our tax system and the state budget are actually built on a two-legged stool,” she said, referring to property taxes and income taxes.

She said the state must be creative in reducing property taxes without sacrificing funding for education and public safety.

She agreed with Kennedy that owners of second homes and vacation rentals owned by out-of-state residents should be taxed at a higher rate.

Sprunger said the housing challenges come down to supply and demand, and the state government should “get out of the way.” The authorization process could also be streamlined, she said.

HOUSE DISTRICT 3 candidate Andrea Getts came up with a unique idea for the state surplus. The Columbia Falls Democrat said Montana could emulate North Dakota and create a state bank and reinvest profits into state programs.

She was in favor of creating low-interest loan programs for small businesses and new homeowners. As for property taxes, Getts said some type of circuit breaker cap would help.

Getts is challenging incumbent Republican Braxton Mitchell, who did not attend the forum.

Whitefish’s House District 5 Republican candidate Lyn Bennet said she would like to see the surplus returned to taxpayers. She would also be in favor of a property tax freeze.

On affordable housing, Bennet said price caps and subsidies won’t work.

“Housing could become more affordable by speeding up the permitting process, reducing impact fees, allowing AUDs and relaxing excessive zoning and local regulations,” she said.

Bennet challenges incumbent Democratic Representative Dave Fern, who was in Helena and was unable to attend the forum.

Libertarian for House District 8, Sid Daoud was the only candidate to oppose returning the surplus to taxpayers through a direct refund, which he said would be too costly. Instead, he said any funds left over from paying off the debt should be earmarked for a reduction in property taxes.

Daoud, a member of Kalispell City Council, said it was vital the state weaned itself off property taxes and sought alternative revenue sources such as local option sales taxes.

Daoud called housing his main problem and blamed the cost of construction and the lack of workers for authorized projects not built.

“I know where there’s a whole bunch of construction workers if we look a little bit to our south,” he said.

Daoud said the long-term solution to housing “is to allow the free market to correct itself.”

Daoud’s challenger, Republican Terry Falk, did not attend the forum.

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