Status Check – Flathead Beacon

November 2, 2022

Montana Economy

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Housing inflation in the Flathead began to drop precipitously. The pandemic buying spree of the past few years has inflated the price of starter homes in places like Columbia Falls and Whitefish so far beyond local wages that workers have lost the opportunity to buy a slice of Flathead while rents have become outrageously expensive.

With federal interest rates skyrocketing 3 percentage points six-month and winter on the way, the inventory of homes for sale is expected to rise. Prices may once again move closer to affordability for some residents previously shut out of the market, while higher mortgage rates drive others away.

The state is discussing how best to increase the supply of starter homes in Montana’s urban centers. On their table are controversial proposals to impose increased housing density at the city level, planning that is usually left to local scrutiny.

Not surprisingly, the state legislature aims for local control. They did so last year, blocking the Whitefish Affordable Housing Ordinances which took years to grow locally in partnership with downtown businesses and the local Chamber of Commerce.

The state’s preemption over local control targeted municipalities, school boards, universities, and health workers throughout Montana. The Legislature has demonstrated its contempt by targeting women’s health care, disease vaccines, hospitals, worker housing, local transportation funding and school boards.

The 2021 legislature has spent far more time debating how to discriminate against transgender children than mitigating the rapid increase in property taxes for homeowners due to pandemic-era land grabs that devoured Montana.

Montana, in recent legislative sessions, has neglected to reduce the rapidly rising effects of semi-annual property reassessments that have inflated tax bills in growth areas. The inflation that homeowners and downtown businesses are seeing on property tax bills is directly related to the continued inaction of distracted politicians in Helena.

Most of the problems facing our cities and our families could be alleviated with good political will. Yet because voters routinely prefer the most ardent far-right politicians to represent grassroots needs in Helena, we are more likely to lose local control of subdivisions, see more bottlenecks in the valley and reject the ever-increasing property taxes of the state’s shifting priorities.

The solution is to vote for more moderate residents in the state capitol. Helena’s single-party control hasn’t worked well for our hometowns. High-density housing and transportation planning is better coordinated with local input. Not all subdivisions are suitable and Columbia Falls is not Missoula.

Great places like Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish have invested decades of community time and taxpayer dollars to build livable places.

If the electorate sends politicians to Helena to undermine local control, future public hearings for high-density housing developments in single-family residential neighborhoods will be short or non-existent.

Holding politicians accountable starts at the polls. Unless moderate voters choose politicians for the Legislative Assembly who can partner with local towns, the outcome of the four-month New Year’s session will be huge losses for local control. Politicians should deliver solutions in partnership with local cities, not more unfunded state government mandates.

Anyone who walks, bikes or drives in the valley can attest that federal transportation funding and local planning are essential elements for growth. Our economy and our jobs remain intertwined in our local towns. Our municipalities remain key economic partners in Montana’s growth and success.

In all my years working in Helena with fellow legislators from across our great state, the solutions that have worked and moved all Montanans forward have always been found in the middle of politics, a place where affiliation with a party had little to do with our prosperity.

Some prefer to shout about issues that matter little to Montana, but real solutions to the daily challenges facing families and society make more sense when our state and our nation work hand-in-hand with local government.