House Appropriations Passes Budget But Leaves Devastating Cuts

Following two lengthy days of hearings, the House Appropriations Committee made amendments to HB 2 on Thursday and Friday and passed it out of committee. The full House of Representatives will begin debate on HB 2 later this week. While the Committee passed several amendments to partially restore some funds, the budget still includes devastating cuts to programs critical to Montana’s students, seniors, and our most vulnerable communities.

To recap, legislative leaders began the budgetary process in January, by adopting cuts in the governor’s proposed budget and then taking additional deep cuts to nearly every state agency. Subcommittees worked through January and February and added back some funds. However, most of those additions simply reflect present law adjustments, or the amount of funds needed to continue existing services into the next biennium, and did not restore the deep cuts to the underlying programs.

Areas facing the deepest cuts include senior and long-term care, which provides Medicaid services to seniors and Montanans with disabilities, and higher education, with major cuts to Montana’s colleges and universities.

Here is an update on what happened in House Appropriations last week:

  • The deep cuts to Senior & Long-Term Care (SLTC) largely remain. While the Committee passed an amendment to add back some (but not all) federal funds, it did not add general fund dollars. This action is meaningless. In other words, if the legislature fails to appropriate state general fund dollars, Montana will not receive the federal matching funds. Therefore, SLTC continues to face a budget hole of $53 million in total funds below the present law budget. The Committee considered amendments to: fully restore legislative cuts to SLTC; pare back the current 8% vacancy savings; provide an increase to direct care worker wages; and restore funds for respite services for family caregivers. All of these amendments failed. The committee did add back about $200,000 in funds for independent living contracts within the Disability & Employment Transition Division.
  • Deep cuts to higher education remain, even with the additional $11.6 million in higher education funding, but this represents only 1/3 of the cuts below a present law budget. Of this $11.6 million, about $9 million will go to the MUS units (MSU, UM, and satellite colleges and universities). With this restoration, community colleges received of $1.7 million, and Tribal colleges received $81,000. Amendments to add back additional funds for the university units, funds for the Montana Seed Lab, and funding for the Governor’s Best and Brightest Scholarship fund, all failed to pass. Prior to full Committee action last week, the higher education budget sat about $30 million below present law budget. This includes the $23 million in cuts taken in early action, as well as a $7.8 million present law adjustment that the Subcommittee did not take. Again, simply looking at a comparison of present law budget with legislative action so far, the Committee action last week restored about one-third of the total $30 million in cuts below the present law.
  • The Committee restored funding to support child care providers and improvements to quality care. The STARS to Quality program is a voluntary program for child care providers to improve quality of early childhood education and care. Previously, the subcommittee added back the one-time-only funds for STARS to Quality, but made the funding contingent upon the passage of a bill to legalize and tax blackjack. The full Appropriations Committee stripped that contingency language, providing $2.4 million in OTO funds for STARS to Quality.
  • The Committee failed to pass an amendment to restore funds for workplace safety programs. Subcommittee action included cuts to the Employment Relations Division, cutting about $1 million within the workplace safety division. Legislators noted that Montana has ranked as one of the worst states for the number of workplace accidents. This cut will result in greater pressure on the Department of Labor and will likely increase accidents in the workplace. An amendment to restore the funds failed to pass.
  • Efforts to restore funding for Department of Military Affairs failed, including funding to support regional response teams. The early cuts in the session included across-the-board reductions to Department of Military Affairs and cuts to the 6 regional hazardous materials teams with Disaster & Emergency Services, which provides training and assistance to local response teams handling hazardous material. The cut in state funding results in additional loss of federal funds. An amendment to restore these funds failed.
  • The Committee restored funds for the Governor’s airplane.

The full House of Representatives will hear HB 2 later this week, presenting another opportunity to restore these deep cuts, and ensure that our seniors and Montanans with disabilities can continue to receive the services they and their families in need.

Budget Troubles Loom Large Second Half of Legislative Session

This week the Legislative Fiscal Division released a 694-page HB 2 Narrative summarizing final Joint Appropriation Subcommittee action, comparing the current legislative budget to the executive proposed budget and to the last biennial budget. The Narrative includes a 12-page summary as well as more in-depth analyses of each agency. The summary section is a helpful overview of changes the legislature has made so far compared to the executive budget. However, this year the overview could easily lead a reader to believe that legislative subcommittee action left the state budget and the programs, services, and infrastructure it funds in much better shape than it actually is.

Here are the main highlights from the LFD Narrative:

  • The legislature cut general fund appropriations by $43.8 million from the executive’s budget and $19 million from the 2017 biennium budget.
  • The legislature’s appropriations of state special revenue cut $46.7 million from the executive’s budget and $44.8 million from the 2017 biennium budget.

While the legislature appears to have provided a far greater amount of federal funds in HB 2, this requires some additional clarification:

  • The Governor proposed to appropriate $359 million in federal funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through a statutory appropriation, rather than HB 2. After discounting this fund shift, the increased federal dollars from the executive budget is only about $207 million.
  • Of this $207 million in federal funds, $193 million is federal funds for highway dollars tied to matching state dollars. In order to restore federal highway dollars, the legislature has made state funding cuts to the Montana Department of Transportation. (See below for more info.)
  • Finally, over $50 million in federal Medicaid funds were added to the DPHHS budget for Health Resources Division in late subcommittee action as a result of updated caseload estimates, a routine process that occurs throughout the budget creation process. This adjustment does not restore the almost $90 million in cuts made to DPHHS alone.

Some additional commentary on subcommittee action

An important comparison to consider is how the legislature has funded programs compared to the present law budget, or the level of funding necessary to maintain current government services. As LFD notes, “present law gives the legislature a baseline budget presentation and illustrates a beginning point of the legislative budget decisions that require legislation.”

In early action by the legislature, subcommittees cut hundreds of millions of dollars in total funds to agencies. While subcommittees have added back some funds, nearly all of these additions reflect present law adjustments needed to continue existing services. So it is helpful to look at the present law budget as a baseline and then factor in the cuts or additions made beyond these adjustments. An initial take shows that the legislature has cut more than $100 million from the core programs and services that help make our communities and families safe, healthy, and economically secure.

Below are some initial thoughts on how things are faring for programs essential to our communities. These aren’t just numbers and dollar signs. They represent devastating cuts to services for seniors and people with disabilities and probable double-digit tuition increases for students and their families.

The slight budgetary increase to DPHHS reflected in the LFD Narrative is a result of standard inflationary adjustments and additional federal funds for caseload adjustments. Essential programs for seniors and individuals with disabilities continue to face deep and devastating cuts. While the present law adjustments for DPHHS reflect an increase of total funds of about $97 million, the Department is also taking a cut of $89 million in total funds in “new proposals.” These cuts represent $2.2 million cut to Disability and Employment Training Division that provides services to people with disabilities, including counseling, career training, transportation, adaptive equipment, and independent living services.

Senior and Long-Term Care, which administers Medicaid services for seniors and persons with disabilities, including Meals on Wheels, transportation services, in-home assisted living services, and nursing homes, continues to see the deepest cuts in DPHHS. In addition to negative present law adjustments, the legislature has cut $53 million in total funds for programs, potentially impacting provider rates, worker wages, and services for seniors living in their own homes and those in nursing homes. Montana’s population continues to age, and projections show that by 2025, nearly one-fourth of the state’s population will be over the age of 65. We should be very concerned about how these cuts will harm seniors and their families today, but also concerned about how these cuts set the stage for declining services in communities over time.

The legislature has funded Montana’s colleges and universities at $33 million below the past biennium, risking double-digit tuition increases for students and families in the next biennium. As discussed in our past report, early actions by the legislature reduced higher education investment by approximately $23 million. On top of this, the legislature did not provide the standard present law adjustment to the university system, representing an additional $7.8 million in cuts to a fully funded budget.

The Legislature’s effort to restore federal highway funds relies heavily upon deep cuts to the Department of Transportation, which could impact the health and safety of all drivers and future federal funds. Some legislators and the broad Montana Infrastructure Coalition have called for an increase to the state gas tax in order to avoid losing $193 million in federal matching funds used for construction and maintenance of roads, highways, and bridges. Instead, the budget subcommittee that oversees the Department of Transportation (MDT), dramatically cut state funding for MDT and used those savings to shore up the state highway account used to match federal funds. This plan would eliminate 75 vacant positions and cut overtime pay. MDT has raised concerns that this level of cuts could impact safety, which could result in failing to meet federal standards and a corresponding further loss of federal funds.

 

The Legislature will come back from its break next week and will have 45 more days to ensure we continue to invest in the services our families rely upon. Seniors, people with disabilities, students, and families who want a better life for their children shouldn’t be asked to shoulder the entire burden of our state revenue downturn. Montana can get to a balance budget while funding essential services, by ensuring we have adequate revenue and that everyone is paying their fair share.

Oil and Gas Tax Holiday: It is time to end this free ride

The 2017 Montana Legislature has been marked with concern over massive budgetary cuts and the major shortfall in revenue. While not all cuts can be avoided, the legislature should take a balanced approach to ensure the state can continue to invest in our families and communities. This includes ensuring we have adequate revenue in the state by putting in place common sense measures to ensuring wealthy corporations are paying their fair share.

Earlier this session, the House Taxation Committee heard House Bill 215, an act revising the rate of tax for certain oil and natural gas production. Reducing or even eliminating this tax break, called the oil and gas tax holiday, is one step toward balancing the budget and making sure corporations are paying their fair share. Unfortunately, the House Taxation Committee tabled HB 215 earlier this week.

The oil and gas tax holiday is a policy that allows newly drilled wells to be taxed at a substantially lower tax rate during the beginning of production. Wells, however, produce significantly higher amounts of oil and gas at the start of usage, which means these oil companies receive this tax break during the most profitable period of extraction. While some argued these tax holidays attract developers and increase revenue, the data clearly shows such tax holidays only suppress potential state revenue and does little to increase developer interest.

Montana, despite its lower tax policies, is not outperforming neighbors with higher tax policies. Wyoming, New Mexico, and North Dakota all have higher taxation rates for oil companies. All three states have consistently out produced Montana in terms of barrelage. Oil and gas companies do not seek to drill based upon the tax policy of that area. They drill where there are natural resources available.

Montana has lost millions of dollars in revenue due to this tax policy. From 2008 to 2014, the tax holiday cost the state and counties $265 million in revenue. This money could have been used to pay for public services, such as schools and roads. In oil-producing counties, especially those near the Bakken region, they have been forced to deal with increased demand on their infrastructure, but no increased revenue to update such necessary services.

HB 215 proposes to increase in Montana’s production tax would to 4.5 percent, which is still lower than the national standard of 9.26 percent. But even this small step is crucial in insuring our legislature can make strategic investments in Montana communities.

The increased revenue could be used to assist in failing infrastructure, public services, and our schools and universities. Oil and industry should not get a free ride in this state. We all need to pay our fair share especially when so many Montanans are struggling with significant budget cuts.

Early Legislative Action Threatens Hundreds of Millions of Federal Funding

This week, MBPC released a new report providing an overview of early actions so far on the state budget, and the damaging cuts that have already been proposed. In the first couple weeks of the session, Legislators took early steps to make significant cuts to the state budget, representing more than $449 million in total funds. A good portion of these cuts will be in federal matching funds in critical programs for the state.

Montana’s budget and economy rely heavily on federal funding that assists us in our collective efforts to pave our roads, build and maintain our bridges, prepare our national guard, train our workforce, and help keep vulnerable Montanans safe and healthy in their homes and communities. The bulk of the federal dollars that get appropriated through the state budget fund infrastructure, programs, and services in the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). These funds are usually under the condition that the state meets certain program requirements and matches the federal funding with a state share. Overall, the state budget is supported by over $4 billion of federal funding, roughly 42% of the entire state budget.

As we’ve written previously, this year state legislators and the governor are facing a short-term but significant drop in state general fund revenue. To deal with this decline, the governor’s proposed budget included a combination of difficult cuts to state services and targeted revenue increases that bring more fairness to our tax system and ensure adequate levels of revenue. Unfortunately, some legislative leaders have indicated a dangerous unwillingness to accept this balanced approach and have instead started the budget process by imposing additional deep, unnecessary, and harmful cuts.

Relying entirely on cuts, preliminary actions by the legislative joint subcommittees have slashed over $190 million in state spending ($114 million general fund; $77 million state special revenue) on everything from services for seniors and people with disabilities to our tribal, two-year, and four-year colleges and universities (likely resulting in doubled-digit tuition increases).

What do these state cuts have to do with federal funding flowing into the state and our communities?

Well, in key portions of the budget, like DPHHS and DOT, a lack of state funding means even more dramatic cuts in federal funding – much deeper than many people realize. So in making their unnecessarily severe cuts to state spending of over $190 million, legislators and Montana will lose out on an additional $254 million in matching federal funds. In total, this hit to the state budget is nearly half a billion dollars.

We know that this is more than just dollars to the state. If not restored, these unnecessary cuts will impact people and communities in every corner of Montana.

For example, DPHHS partners with community providers to run a Medicaid program called Community First Choice, for seniors and people with disabilities who need assistance with daily living in order to stay in their homes and avoid institutional settings like nursing homes. Through Community First Choice, Montanans can get help with activities such as eating, bathing, taking medicine, and getting to medical appointments. When Montana provides these services to the seniors and people with disabilities who need them, the state only has to pay 29% of the cost. The federal government pays for the other 71%. It’s a good deal for seniors who get to stay in their homes and a good deal for taxpayers as people avoid costlier institutional care.

The division responsible for running Community First Choice and other programs and services for seniors and people with disabilities is facing over $17 million in state funding cuts that would be accompanied by almost $34 million in lost federal funds for a total loss of $51 million dollars. These cuts are irresponsible to seniors, the state budget, our communities, and our economy.

This is just one of many examples of essential state services being cut so severely in an attempt to balance the budget. You can read a summary of total cuts adopted by the Legislative Committee in starting motions here.

We know that some cuts will be inevitable. However, as the legislature continues to evaluate the budget, they must look at ways to responsibly raise revenue and minimize unnecessary losses of federal funding.

 

An Early Look at the 2019 Biennial Budget: Montana Needs a Balanced Approach to the State’s Revenue Challenges.

Montanans care deeply about the well being of their families and communities. They want a hopeful and prosperous future for their children and neighbors, safe communities, and a strong state economy that supports quality jobs and thriving businesses. As Montanans, we have come together at many pivotal moments in our state’s history to collectively build toward these goals. Together, we have considered not only what we can afford to accomplish today, but also the investments we must make
to protect our future.

During Montana’s 2017 legislative session, elected officials should be focused on wisely increasing and using the state’s resources to help build opportunities and a path to prosperity for all Montanans through the budget creation process. A recent, but short-term, decline in state revenue, caused primarily by declines in corporate income and oil and natural gas taxes and slower than anticipated growth in individual income taxes, has created significant challenges for the state’s elected officials.

The proposed executive budget creates a responsible blueprint for addressing these challenges through a balanced approach that includes a combination of difficult cuts and targeted revenue enhancers that bring more tax fairness to our system and ensure adequate levels of revenue. Unfortunately, key legislative leaders have indicated a dangerous unwillingness to accept this balanced approach and have instead started the budget process by imposing additional deep, unnecessary, and harmful cuts.

To shed light on the depth of these cuts and the programs and people they will impact, MBPC wrote a report – An Early Look at the 2019 Biennial Budget: Montana Needs a Balanced Approach to the State’s Revenue Challenges.

Supporting information can be found in two supporting documents.

Appendix A – Summary of Total Cuts Adopted in Legislative Committee Starting Motions

Appendix B – Partial List of Executive’s Proposed Revenue Enhancers

 

Vacancy Savings: More Harmful Than You Think

For the past few months, Montanans have been hearing about the current shortfall in revenue in this past year than the legislature previously projected. This reality will make this biennium’s budget debate tougher than the past few sessions. While targeted cuts are likely in the face of this leaner revenue projection, it is also important to remember that the investments we make – from quality schools, improved roads, and public safety – help create thriving communities where we can all live and work.

As the budget moves forward, we will walk through some of the terms and what legislators are considering during the debates.

One budget cutting measure often used is “vacancy savings.” Vacancy savings is the difference between what it would cost to fully fund all of an agency’s approved positions and what is actually spent for personal services because positions were vacant for part of the year.

The Legislature can mandate a certain amount of vacancy savings by appropriating less than the amount needed to fully fund all of an agency’s positions. When vacancy savings are higher than naturally occur because of turnovers, agencies must leave positions open for longer than normal or decide not to rehire.

Since 2003, most agency budgets have included a four percent vacancy savings rate. This rate has fluctuated in past sessions. In this session, the Governor’s proposed budget reflects a four percent vacancy savings for most agencies. However, the joint Appropriations and Finance & Claims Committees are considering even further cuts from the Governor’s proposed budget, including an additional two percent vacancy savings.

While some will argue vacancy savings as a harmless cost cutting measure, the reality is that vacancy savings results in the loss of state jobs and potential of services to be cut or reduced in communities. State agencies that we all rely upon must continue to do more with fewer resources and fewer staff. The effects of these cuts are seen across the state, in both small and large communities.

However, there is something the legislature can do about our current financial position – we can bring in more revenue. There are a variety of ways we can make our tax system fairer and raise much needed revenue for our public schools, higher education, health care, infrastructure, and public safety. We can close loopholes and stop the unfair tax breaks that benefit the super wealthy and out-of-state corporations. We can make sure that we are all pulling our weight and have enough revenue to invest in our communities.

Early Budget Plan Bodes Poorly for Montana

The significant but short-term reduction in revenue levels over the past two years is going to be a challenge for the 2017 Legislative session in Montana. It will require tough choices balancing budget cuts and new revenue.

Unfortunately, the legislature’s plan to start the new budget with almost $50 million in additional cuts beyond those in the Governor’s balanced budget proposal will make matters worse by hurting the economy and families.

If the legislature continues with their plan, they will begin the session by automatically implementing hundreds of cuts hidden in procedural decisions without a transparent discussion of their impacts. We don’t know where these cuts are coming from or whom they will impact. Montana has seen time and time again that cuts this dramatic hurt vulnerable children, students, local communities, and seniors.

What is happening?

The Joint Committees charged with debating the budget (the Senate Finance and Claims Committee and House Appropriations Committee) are discussing moving the starting point for budget decisions to make additional reductions to all state agencies below the Governor’s budget.

This is unnecessary.

The Governor’s budget, which already includes over $73 million in cuts to the state budget is a transparent starting point. It has pages and pages of detail that have been available to the public for weeks, and it was widely publicized. Second, the Governor’s budget is structurally balanced and restores the ending fund balance (effectively Montana’s rainy day fund) to $300 million by the end of the biennium. It is a good starting place for the Legislature to make modifications.

Last, cuts are not the only way to balance the budget. The Governor created his budget that does not rely on only budget cuts, but also addresses the current lack in revenues, by closing tax loopholes used by special interests and ensuring everyone is paying their fair share. The Governor found several new sources for revenue that make sure we are all pulling our weight and can bring in additional revenue available to fund state priorities.

It is not fair to ask college students to pay more for school while the super wealthy get massive tax breaks. It is not fair to cut funding to local schools already struggling to find quality teachers for the classroom when out-of-state corporations take advantage of tax loopholes.

While some cuts are inevitable, this Legislative plan ignores an opportunity to build toward a better economic future. We need a balanced approach to our economic challenges –one that includes new revenue to meet today’s needs and starts planning for our future.

Governor Proposes Tax Fairness in his Budget

Every two years, the Governor of Montana releases their budget proposing investments to support our communities, including education, workforce development, and infrastructure. The budget becomes the marker for what the legislature will consider in the upcoming session. Yesterday, Governor Bullock released his proposed budget for the 2019 biennium (fiscal years 2018 and 2019). Over the course of the next week, we will highlight some of the key components of the budget and walk through some of the logistics on what happens now.

Today, we start with high-level overview of the budget and some of the tax fairness measures that will be up for discussion in the session.

But first, we need to set the stage for what the Governor was facing as he put together this biennium budget. Over the past year, the state has experienced lower revenue levels than previously projected. While the state initially estimated that we would begin the 2017 session with a strong ending fund balance of over $300 million, that amount now stands at around $120 million for the start of the session.

What has happened to cause such a shift? One of the primary reasons is lower oil and gas tax collections as a result of lower production and price. Montana has also seen a slight dip in individual income tax and corporate income tax collections. Both Legislative Fiscal Division and the Governor’s budget office have forecasted that this drop of revenue is short-term – both agencies anticipate revenue growth rate to begin to pick up again in FY2018 and FY2019. (It is worth noting that while revenue in Montana has been strong over the past 5 years, we have lost nearly a billion dollars in the past decade due to tax cuts aimed at wealthy households.)

To address the revenue drop – at least, in part – the Governor’s budget proposes a series targeted tax fairness measures that will also improve our current levels of revenue. Now, to be clear, the Governor’s budget also proposes across-the-board cuts to nearly every state agency. But by addressing the inadequate levels of revenue in the state, he’s been able to lessen the cuts and provide strategic investments in infrastructure, schools, quality child care and early childhood development, economic development in Indian Country, and an increase (albeit modest) in wages for state employees. We will dig into some of these sections on the expenditure side in future blogs. Today, we want to give everyone some background on the tax fairness measures the Governor is proposing.

Earlier this year, we released a report that provided an overview of levels of lost revenue in Montana as a result of tax cuts in 2003 that primarily went to the wealthiest households. Before 2003, Montana had ten income tax brackets with a top marginal rate of 11%. The 2003 legislation eliminated (or collapsed) nearly half of those tax brackets and lowered the top rate to 6.9%. Today, an individual working full-time at minimum wage (about $16,700 a year) now has the same top tax rate as someone making $1 million. The 2003 law also created a tax break for income coming from investments (as opposed to wages). Today, an individual who earns a living through wages is actually taxed at a higher rate than someone making the same amount of money but through investments, like selling stock. Montana is one of only nine states that provide this tax advantage to investors, and it cost the state nearly $30 million in 2013.

chart-2

Overall, these tax cuts have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, with 55% of the benefit going to the wealthiest 1% of households. This effort also made Montana’s overall tax system more regressive. Lower-wage families pay a higher portion of their earnings in state and local taxes (6.1 – 6.3% of income) than highest-income households (4.7% of income).

mbpcsl

The Governor’s budget restores a higher top tax bracket, but it will only apply to those with annual incomes over $500,000 (less than 1% of households). This top tax bracket would be set at 7.9%. The Governor has also proposed scaling back the tax advantages to wealthy investors – by capping the beneficial tax treatment on the first $1 million in annual capital gains income. The budget also proposes to bring about parity on the state deduction for federal taxes paid. Montana is one of only six states that allow taxpayers to take a state deduction for federal taxes paid. This expenditure benefits those who itemize their deductions (primarily higher-income households), and costs the state over $65 million in 2013. The deduction is capped ($5,000 for individual; $10,000 for couple), but that cap doesn’t apply to estates and trusts. This disparity in tax fairness costs the state roughly a million dollars a year. The budget would apply the deduction cap equally.

The Governor has also proposed providing some additional support for Montana’s working families. In Montana, our income tax system makes it even harder for many low-income, working families to provide for their basic needs. Montana begins taxing a two-parent family with two children at a lower annual income than nearly all other states in the country. We begin taxing such a family when their income reaches $13,480 per year (about 55 percent of the federal poverty level). And as mentioned above, when factoring in all state and local taxes, this family is likely paying a higher portion of their wages in taxes than the top 1% of households. To address this inequity and give working families a leg up, Congress created the federal earned income tax credit. Nearly half of states have followed suit by creating a similar state credit. The earned income credit is tied to work – a taxpayer must be working in order receive the credit, and the amount phases down as a family earned more. In 2015, this proposal passed with bipartisan votes in House Taxation Committee and second reading on the House. Nearly 80,000 working families in Montana would benefit from a state earned income credit.

The budget also includes proposal to make corporation income tax fairer and increases to some consumption taxes. Stay tuned for more information on those in blog posts later this month!

New report shows some wealthy taxpayers can turn a profit off school privatization tax credits

A new report released today takes a look at states’ tax expenditures that benefit private K-12 schools, revealing that some wealthy taxpayers can actually turn a profit from these tax credits. You’ll recall that the Montana legislature passed one of these measures last session, which went into law in 2015. The bill (SB 410) allows a taxpayer to take a tax credit for a donation to an organization that provides scholarships to private school students. MBPC released a report raising concerns about this – and several other proposals – that divert state taxpayer dollars from investments in our quality public schools to private schools.

But the report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) does more than just raise concerns about taxpayer dollars benefiting private institutions – it reveals that some high-income taxpayers are actually able to turn a profit as a result of this credit. This means that for some wealthy taxpayers, they can actually get a total tax cut that exceeds the size of the original donation.

How is this possible?

ITEP goes into a lot of detail on how this scheme works. In summary, the Montana tax credit is structured to reimburse a taxpayer for 100 percent of the cost of the donation (in Montana, capped at $150, or $300 for a married couple). In other words, for a household with tax liability, a donation up to the cap essentially costs nothing to the donor and is fully-funded by Montana taxpayers. To add to that, IRS also allows taxpayers to take a federal charitable deduction for their private school donation.

While most taxpayers would have a corresponding reduction in their federal deduction for state income taxes paid (and it would then be a wash), taxpayers who are subject to the federal Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) are under different rules and can use the charitable deduction to lower tax liability and “double-dip” on the tax benefit of the donation. Depending on their marginal tax rate, these households could receive up to $105 in profit on the donation. In Montana, nearly 10,000 taxpayers are subject to the federal AMT, and about 80 percent of those have incomes more than $200,000 a year.

This tax scheme doesn’t benefit students or our education system, but instead benefits high-income households that can take advantage of a sophisticated tax planning technique.

Montana is not alone. Ten other states have similar “profit-making schemes” structured as private school tax credits. In fact, the levels of profit possible in some states are staggering. As ITEP notes, the cap on Montana’s credit limits the amount that one can profit – but profit, nonetheless.

Montana taxpayers and the state legislature should take note of how this credit can be manipulated by a small percentage of wealthy households and consider repeal (or at the very least, refrain from expanding this terrible policy).

Educators link tax cuts measures and lack of investment in education

A few weeks ago, the Montana Budget and Policy Center released its new report – The Montana We Could Be. The report details how the income tax cuts passed in 2003, which largely benefited wealthiest households – has resulted in millions in lost revenue. This revenue could have gone to targeted investments into our communities. One area of focus is the ongoing needs in infrastructure – maintaining roads and bridges, water systems, and quality schools. As shown in the chart, the needs far exceed current levels of funding. Last session, the legislaturefunded-unfunded failed to pass a bipartisan infrastructure package, which would have provided $150 million for new infrastructure projects.

As another school year is about to start, several long-time teachers – residing in three Montana communities – highlighted the need for investments in education, including school facilities. Teachers across Montana do an incredible job each day ensuring that our children are given the opportunity to succeed in this state. But too often, educators are faced with teaching our next generations in facilities that fail to provide the 21st Century learning environment that our children need to succeed in today’s world. Even worse – basic maintenance issues continue to stack up – leaking roofs, impaired heating systems, and electrical problems. More than two-thirds of Montana’s schools were constructed before 1970, and a report from 2008 shows overall deferred maintenance needs exceeds $900 million.

We can and should do better. As our report and yesterday’s op-ed highlights, Montana is faced with a tight budget, in part, due to tax cuts put in place over a decade ago. These tax cuts – billed as a way to grow the economy – resulted in deep tax cuts for the wealthiest households, while the vast majority of Montana families saw little or no benefit. Over the past decade, these tax cuts have cost the state nearly $1 billion in lost revenue – revenue that could have been invested in our children and our communities.

Meanwhile, local cities and towns – and local property taxpayers – are left holding the bag to ensure our neighborhoods and schools can thrive. While state K-12 funding has increased over the past two decades, property tax revenue used to pay for education has increased at a much greater rate.

Over the years, Montana families and our communities have stepped up to ensure our children can succeed. We know our entire state moves forward when we have a quality educational system. However, we also must ensure everyone is paying their fair share and carrying their weight. It is time to reform our tax system to ensure the wealthy are paying their fair share, so that we can invest in a brighter future for Montana.