State pushes for disclosure

Montana Department of Revenue officials predict that when landowners receive newly calculated property tax bills next year, they likely won’t understand how the department tallied the amount owed. This presents something of a problem.

“We are putting the property taxpayer at a distinct disadvantage,” says DOR Deputy Director Alan Peura.

Montana is one of 11 states that legally mandates that residential and commercial sales prices remain confidential. Peura and DOR Director Mike Kadas last month asked the Montana Legislature Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee to change the policy. DOR says the absence of sales information leaves landowners no way of deciding for themselves whether the property value assessed by the department is fair, which makes it tough for landowners to make an educated decision about whether to appeal DOR calculations.

Peura says problems with non-disclosure go beyond an individual’s ability to understand and protest tax assessments.

“It makes it much harder, frankly, as a family or as a homeowner to make economic decisions, because you don’t know what’s going on in the market,” he says. “One could argue beyond the purview of taxation that it really puts our citizens at a distinct disadvantage on making the biggest economic decisions that they’re going to have in their lives.”

Nevertheless, the existing policy has its supporters. During last month’s interim committee meeting, Republican Sen. Art Wittich noted that similar efforts have failed to gain traction largely because organizations like the Montana Association of Realtors and the Montana Building Industry Association argued successfully for personal privacy. They say the Montana Constitution’s strong right to privacy should protect individuals from having personal financial information disclosed.

“If you present it this way,” Wittich told DOR officials, “there’s a good chance it will fail.”

In response to such concerns, Peura says the Montana Constitution has similarly strong right-to-know mandates. A property owner deserves to understand their taxes, and Peura believes the legal scale tips in the department’s favor.

The interim committee approved sending DOR’s pitch to legislative staff, who will put the proposal in bill form. Peura says he’s optimistic the department will persuade lawmakers to nix the disclosure ban during the 2015 legislative session.

“The idea is getting some legs,” he says.

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