Gazette opinion: Make real estate prices public

2014-07-22T00:00:00Z 2014-07-22T16:23:04Z Gazette opinion: Make real estate prices public The Billings Gazette
July 22, 2014 12:00 am

Legislators, the state's Revenue Department is poised to give you a gift. 

Here's your chance.

You see, it's campaign season and that means we are hearing a lot of talk from state legislative candidates about evil of taxes and the growing bureaucratic threat in Helena, and in divisions like the state Revenue Department.

Well, here's a big opportunity for our state lawmakers to do something more than just talk about it.

Revenue Department Director Mike Kadas told a legislative committee last week the department would recommend that real estate purchase prices become public record.

Disclosing the prices mean that residents can be fully informed about their neighborhood market and challenge the tax assessments, if necessary. It means that when property owners want to challenge their property tax assessments are too high (no one ever gripes they're paying too little), residents can actually fight back with accurate, real-time information.

This seems like a logical, straightforward approach. 

However, a similar proposal in the state Legislature has died previously. 

Yet this is chance for the lawmakers to actually put their strongly held beliefs into action. If legislators are indeed so worried about government intrusion into the lives of Montanans; of, if they're worried about the crippling burden property taxes place on real estate owners, then this should be the first step at counteracting that imposition. 

Make the real estate sales prices public. That will be an easy way for citizens to challenge the Department of Revenue, if there is a legitimate case to be made about assessment and valuation.

Kadas said there are dangers of the current system, which only allows property owners to see three or four comparable real estate sales prices, and then, only under the oath of confidentiality. It creates an unfair monopoly on real estate and market information. This information puts the average property taxpayer in a state-imposed position of weakness. It is an example of the government working against the very people it is supposed to be serving.

Lawmakers worry that opening up information to the public will cause folks to gawk at prices.

Oh, heaven forfend!

Residents might actually engage with public records. They might take notice of what's happening in the community.

Shouldn't this be exactly what lawmakers want? More participation? Better informed citizens?

It's true some people might look around to see what others are paying for property, or what their neighbors' house sold for. The net effect would be nothing more than better informed citizens. 

And even if a few folks hopped on a website to peruse real estate prices, what's the harm? Where's the danger? There is absolutely nothing that could be done. It's not a lot different than looking up property ownership records -- so you know who owns a parcel? Big deal.

As an organization which uses and accesses public records, we can also say it's a pretty lonely world. These worry-wart scenarios proposed by lawmakers are the concoctions of fantasy, not a reality. Few average residents access public records, and not many take the time to do their own research. 

The truth of the matter is that most of the people who will use real estate sales records will be the ones motivated to challenge the Department of Revenue anyway. Not many are sitting around with free time and nothing better to do than look around government records. 

And, it should be noted that 39 other states disclose the sales prices, and, in those places, this is not an issue.

Now, the only hurdle is the lawmakers. 

And now is also a key time for this proposal to make its way back to the spotlight.

As candidates make extravagant campaign promises about what they will accomplish or make impassioned speeches about government, be sure to ask them where they stand on opening government records, making a key agency like the Department of Revenue more transparent and making the taxation process more fair.

Tell them to put their talk into action. 

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