Lobbyists Paid By Your Tax Dollars Lie to Montana Lawmakers to Continue Stealing Your Tax Dollars

When Montana Senator Greg Hertz introduced Senate Bill 523 into the legislature earlier this year, he never imagined it would catalyze the gathering of more people than any other piece of legislation introduced during the entire 2023 session. His bill sought to rein in the addictive potential of the municipal tool known as Tax Increment Financing and allow TIF to finally receive some much needed public scrutiny. It also brought its primary beneficiaries into the light, many of whom revealed exactly how low they’re willing to sink in defense of their “free money” fountain.

After passing through the Senate Committee, SB 523 entered into the House Taxation Committee for review, where it was met by an army of lobbyists. Former City Councilman and longtime TIF critic Jesse Ramos commented on the irony of voters facing off against opponents whose salaries they’re helping to pay for:

“Unfortunately, constituents have to work,” he said. “When you’re taking on these big giants, the League of Montana Cities and Towns, a lot of these folks are paid with taxpayer dollars to fight against the interest of the taxpayers. It’s frustrating.”

Montana taxpayers were up against a crowd of suit-and-tie representatives from the Big Sky Resort, the Montana Building Industry Association, the Montana Economic Developers Association, the American Council of Engineering Companies of Montana, the Montana Contractors Association, the Great Falls Development Alliance, the Montana Banking Association, Montana Architects, the Montana Travel Association, the Hospitality and Development Association of Montana, Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Infrastructure Coalition, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, Montana Association of Realtors and the Missoula Economic Partnership. Every one of these lobbyists arrived in the state Capitol to help protect their favorite public investment subsidy from succumbing to additional regulation.

Without unregulated TIF dollars, developers would be on the hook to pay for the demolition costs associated with redeveloping existing property, which is the normal course of events and always has been. It’s always nice to receive a subsidy but the screaming high demand for real estate in Montana guarantees that said developments would have happened anyway and therefore did not require an extra incentive from the taxpayers. Nevertheless, one of the classic arguments made by TIF addicts is that these developments would not have happened “but for the TIF”, hence all the corporate hysteria hurled in Helena.

Charles Robison of the Montana Chamber of Commerce alleged that, “TIF builds infrastructure that won’t get built otherwise.” WGM engineer Brent Campbell echoed with, “My developer clients will not invest in that kind of risk, where some neighborhood folks dislike a project. Frankly TIF is the great equalizer.” Brent Campbell also earned the award for Most Distracting Facial Expressions Made During a Legislative Hearing.

There were many runners up for Most Offensive Show of Entitlement for Taxpayer Money, including the unelected Mayor of Missoula Jordan Hess’ breathless claims about so-called “affordable housing” or WGM’s executive officer Jeff Smith’s contention that “TIF is too important to the health of Montana’s economy and in solving our affordable housing crisis.” The public are meant to believe that our communities would fall apart without public subsidies for developers, which is exactly what Julie Foster of Ravalli County claimed when she said, “If this bill goes forward it is the knock-out blow for our community.”

But the award for Most Emphatic Distortions may go to May Nan Ellingson from Missoula, who alleged:

Every tax increment district, every tax increment project, every tax increment bond that has ever been issued in this state has been approved by a duly elected City Council or a board of county commissioners. … Tax increment bonds are truly revenue bonds. If the tax increment revenue is not adequate, the tax payers are not on the hook. It’s a risk that the purchasers of tax increment bonds make. Tax increment bond proceeds cannot be used to fund private buildings.”

According to constitutional attorney J. Kevin Hunt, these revenue bonds are really “junk bonds” secured only by unrealistic predictions of guaranteed prosperity. General Obligation Bonds are more secure, but must be approved by a vote of the people. Many cities issue “junk” revenue bonds explicitly to eschew that responsibility, especially when it comes to projects they know the public won’t support.

Dan Brooks of the Billings Chamber of Commerce seemed to corroborate this fact when he mentioned that, “While some cities may not require council approval, ours does, and those elected officials get to answer to their constituents.”

As for whether TIF bonds can be used to fund private buildings, that seems to be exactly what MRA proposed in 2019 when they pushed forward a $16.5 million TIF bond aimed at helping entertainment magnate Nick Checota build a community center that only he could enjoy exclusive access to, and for a lease duration of 75 years to be paid for by his property taxes. Stockman Bank likewise spent millions of dollars of public money to build private bank towers throughout the Missoula valley.

Next, the award for Most Obvious Contradiction goes to Craig Rickert and his misguided declaration that,

People outside my TIF district are not paying taxes into the TIF district. There seems to be a lot of miscommunication about that. People outside my TED district are not paying taxes into the TED district.”

Actually, people outside your TIF district are, in fact, paying taxes into the TIF district. And that isn’t a typo – Craig conflated TIF and TED so many times the chair had to ask him which one he meant. If you own property in an Urban Renewal District (URD), part of your property taxes go into a special fund used for other projects in that area. And this a isn’t “miscommunication”. It’s the reason why neighboring taxpayers grow increasingly irate about the things that their dollars are funding in districts that redirect captured tax revenue. In 2021 Craig Rickert’s developments became the target of lawsuits from citizens who called his deal with the Department of Transportation “unconstitutional”:

The lawsuit, filed in district court in Broadwater County, takes aim at MDT’s decision to work with Montana Rest Area JV Partners to build a rest area in Three Forks near U.S. Highway 287 and Wheatland Road. In exchange for the new rest area building, MDT would hand over the 19th Avenue rest area in Bozeman to developer Craig Rickert.

Next up, the award for Biggest Facepalm goes to Sara Hudson of Snowy Mountain Development, who claimed that anyone who criticizes the use of TIF must have a “fundamentally flawed” understanding of it, which in this case included Fortune 500 CFO Bob Moore and other veteran finance professionals. Officials reliant on TIF dollars predictably employ this old-hat response whenever the voters begin to get wise about where their taxes are going. Regardless of how many facts and figures are presented, critics are unanimously and contemptuously told that they “just don’t understand” how TIF works.

Finally, the award for Most Offensive Show of Entitlement for Taxpayer Money goes to developer Matt Sullivan who foolishly alleged that his ideological opponents were wasting everyone’s time and merely for the purposes of personal grandstanding:

Programs like TIF should always be improved but please be careful, objective and data-driven to make this decision. Do not be swayed by exaggeration and misinformation! Today no proponent has presented actual studies proving this bill will lower taxes! They’ve just presented their opportunities for themselves to speak!

First of all, neither Mr. Sullivan nor any of his peers ever satisfactorily rebutted any of the specific criticisms or concerns presented. They can’t debate the merits of a bank buying it’s own TIF bonds because they don’t seem to understand what that sentence even means. And they certainly can’t tell us it’s ethical for local businesses to be forced to subsidize outside competition.

Secondly, it’s technically true that tax burdens wouldn’t necessarily drop immediately, but they could stop skyrocketing as steeply for those affected by the so-called “special assessment” taxes of URDs.

Does anyone really think Missoula’s constant tax levy proposals are a normal consequence of fiscally responsible policy decisions? Every approved levy constitutes a tax increase. Missoula County Public Schools have repeatedly asked the voters for special general fund levies because their budgets got hollowed out by TIF. The same thing happened in California where it was discovered that TIF districts had stripped over $40 billion from public education, contributing to then Governor Brown’s decision to shutter over 400 URDs.

In 2017 only 4% of Missoula’s tax base was captured by TIF increment.

By 2020 it had ballooned to 14%.

And when the City of Missoula took in $36 million in property taxes during fiscal 2020, the MRA acquired $35 million of that.

Other cities are following suit and the percentages tend to grow larger. It’s a common pattern that seems to repeat ad infinitum. When municipal officials become addicted to this one-size-fits-all approach to development there is nothing but the state legislature to stop them from stretching the limits ever further.

But while Sullivan got downright irate about the very notion that his precious subsidy might need to be regulated, he also explicitly admitted that TIF does, in fact, represent a form of corporate welfare:

We’ve never received TIF funding or any other form of corporate welfare for our past projects, but due to high construction costs currently, we are asking for TIF funding for the project in front of you today. TIF provides developers with an incentive to improve our communities and increases the housing supply.”

I thought the love of the community was the incentive to improve it, but apparently some people need TIF money to feel that way about where they live. And increased construction costs duly noted, putting the burden on your neighbors isn’t the answer. We don’t need to build so-called “affordable housing”. Our priority should be to make existing housing affordable for people who already live here.

The main problem with funding so-called “affordable housing” developments with TIF dollars is simply that nothing in state code allows for TIF dollars to be spent that way. Tax Increment dollars were only intended to fund the elimination of physical blight, not to subsidize housing projects.

Yes, there’s high demand for housing out here but locals are well aware that the problem isn’t a shortage of places to live. The problem is that locals can no longer afford to live in the communities they grew up in. Building more buildings isn’t going to help because that doesn’t address the core problem that these policies are displacing the locals.

Matt Sullivan alleged that the loss of TIF subsidies would ultimately result in fewer apartments for Missoula, but existing Missoulians need breaks, not additional buildings funded with public money. The Missoulians who already live in Missoula but haven’t been displaced yet grow daily annoyed by the attempts all around to take their housing away, and that includes every mechanism that negatively impacts their property tax bills.

Developers are receiving TIF subsidies to build stack-and-pack apartments under the banner of so-called “affordable housing” and in doing so exacerbate the very reason housing has become so unaffordable for locals: the burgeoning effect that TIF overuse has on property taxes.

Harping on the “affordable housing” buzzword with extra gusto was former City Councilwoman and executive director for Habitat For Humanity of Missoula, Heather Harp:

And while on council I heard from constituents about the lack of affordable housing every week, and I have to say that remains very true today in my current job. This bill unravels the work of last session to include workforce housing – which was genius by the way – which is exactly what we build at habitat. … This bill affects every developer’s lending costs. To make home ownership affordable we rely on a variety of funding sources and grants from local and federal governments are an essential part of our lending strategy. … And for 30 years our affiliate financed 2 homes a year with bake sales and raffles. But with skyrocketing home sales and a statewide housing shortage of 30,000 homes, we opted to innovate to find financing alternatives to supply the demand. That solution requires large scale investment. The problem needs cash flow now. Government grants that can direct tax increment dollars to workforce housing are a much needed tool. This bill and others focused on reducing TIF’s strengths or leverage capabilities will effectively water down those local government funding sources to be meaningless. And without those local government dollars then we will not have the necessary local match to be awarded federal grants.”

Heather Harp fails to mention the voluminous TIF opposition she witnessed during her time on council including several of the longest council meetings in Missoula’s entire history. Nor does she seem to remember the woman who lost her Habitat home to rising property taxes in Missoula. On 27 August 2018 Councilwoman Harp was present at the Missoula City Council’s marathon budget meeting where one woman provided testimony that she could no longer afford the property taxes on her Habitat home. TIFs had significantly affected her property tax assessments.

When the national branch of Habitat For Humanity found out there were lobbying efforts in Montana this year to finance their housing program with public subsidies, they hit the ceiling. Habitat For Humanity homes are explicitly not supposed to be built with funding models that involve taxpayer dollars, and Heather knows it. It’s likely she knew it during her time on City Council too.

Heather’s development director, Nevin Graves, took the microphone next on behalf of Habitat to say:

Every part of our state is facing a housing affordability crisis. And just as my previous opponent said, we build workforce housing. We have an incredible tool in Tax Increment Financing to build workforce housing. And usually when people steal tools from my tool chest I call the cops. In this case I have to come to you. … But if anyone feels like they’ve got an adequate understanding of how this works in every community in Montana, then by all means, take your action tomorrow.”

After speaking, Nevin Graves publicly accosted Jesse Ramos in a heated outburst that had to be broken up by Capitol security, earning himself the prize for Most Unprofessional Behavior At A Legislative Event.

Jesse Ramos was standing in the committee room when Nevin marched up to him and shouted, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? This is irresponsible!”

Jesse replied, “Don’t you think it’s irresponsible that we’re subsidizing this level of corporate welfare?”

Nevin again shouted over Jesse, “You just don’t understand the time value of money. You’re supposed to be a financial advisor.”

Nevin continued cursing his adversary out until he was told to leave by capitol security.

“Sure enough!” Nevin declared as he turned and walked out the door.

As we’ve repeatedly observed for years, there just doesn’t seem to be any limit to the behavior of people desperate to defend their parasitic choke hold on public money. Not all municipalities are corrupt but someone has to clean up the ones that are. SB 523 was a gallant effort to that end.

Jesse Ramos and Greg Hertz really hit a nerve in Helena this spring. So much so that big business had to flood the legislature with a toxic cloud of “smugnorance” emitted by a shrieking chorus of angry lobbyists. It doesn’t seem particularly surprising that organizations that have grown accustomed to TIF subsidies would rather not restructure their revenue model. Big business tends to be against major changes, unless those changes make them money. Developers will happily destroy historic housing that locals can afford with patronizing insults to injury like, “Change is hard.” But look how offended they become when the shoe is on the other foot. Hence the corrupt seldom see themselves as liable for the problems their corruption creates, as though no drop of water could ever be responsible for the flood.