HELENA, Mont. — Democratic nominee Steve Bullock kicked off the general election campaign Monday by promising to dip into Montana's budget surplus and give homeowners a one-time, $400 property tax rebate if he is elected governor.
Republicans including Bullock's opponent in the Nov. 6 election, former Congressman Rick Hill, called the rebate a "one-time gimmick" that won't do anything to stimulate the economy.
The program would be similar to the $100 million rebate that Gov. Brian Schweitzer implemented in 2007. Like Schweitzer's program, Bullock's would require legislative approval.
Bullock, speaking at a news conference on Helena's Last Chance Gulch, framed the rebate program as a job-creating initiative, saying the cash would spur spending that would help businesses across the state grow.
"If you're an average Montana family and receive a $400 check, you're going to take the kids out to dinner, put a down payment on a snowmobile, maybe buy some fencing," Bullock said.
The state's economic picture is rosier than legislators planned for when they set the 2012-2013 budget last year. Estimates released at the end of April now predict there will be an extra $168 million in revenue above what was first estimated, with the total surplus expected to top $400 million by January.
Bullock said Montana's good fiscal management would allow the rebate program to go forward as part of a three-pronged economic plan of returning taxpayer money while keeping a budget surplus and spending on public education and infrastructure. He did not detail the other aspects.
Hill's campaign released a statement attributed to the former congressman that said the goal should be permanent property tax cuts paid for with surplus revenues from energy resource development.
"Montanans and our job creators need permanent property tax relief, not a one-time gimmick that won't do anything to stimulate the economy," Hill's statement said.
Montana Senate Tax Committee Chairman Bruce Tutvedt said he believes residents really want a predictable tax policy and not a check. The Kalispell Republican said he believes Republican leaders have identified $60 million in ongoing revenue that could be used to lower property taxes.
"If you want one-time gimmicks, yeah, there's room (in the budget) for one-time gimmicks," Tutvedt said. "But I don't think that's what people want."
The rebate would not include out-of-state residents who have vacation homes in Montana and state residents who own more than one home would only get one rebate check.
The cost of administering the program would be 1 percent of the total $100 million in rebates, or about $1 million, Bullock said.
In 2007, Schweitzer's office estimated that 254,000 homeowners were eligible for the $100 million program. Bullock spokesman Kevin O'Brien said the new proposal was based on those 2007 numbers, and that the $100 million rebate could go up to reflect the increasing population to make sure each homeowner receives $400.