The gulf between Republicans and Democrats seems wider than it’s ever been. Montanans have historically been immune to some of the hyper-partisanship seen on the national stage, but the 2021 legislative session increasingly saw votes come down to party lines and partisan rhetoric intensify.
While it’s much simpler to operate in a world of red versus blue political vitriol, what big problems facing Montana could be solved if policymakers instead focused on their common ground?
From my perspective, here are three important issues that present opportunities for greater bipartisanship:
1. Affordable housing
With Montana amid a property “gold rush,” low housing inventory combined with extreme demand has led to a crisis of affordability.
This year we saw several proposals from Republicans and Democrats to eliminate burdensome regulations to boost the supply of housing in Montana’s growing cities.
If conservative Republicans from Billings and Democratic socialists from Missoula can show support for reducing the regulatory barriers to building new homes, this approach deserves further bipartisan collaboration.
Zoning and building codes impose complex rules and restrictions on everything from lot sizes, building heights, parking areas and more. Research shows clearly that these types of regulations have substantial effects on the price of homes. There is ample opportunity to find new ways to partner to streamline rulebooks and eliminate needless regulations that hold up housing development.
2. Property taxes
We heard a lot this session from both sides of the aisle about the need for property tax relief. Property taxes are straining the wallets of many longtime residents and contributing to higher rents, making the crisis of affordability seen in growing areas like Bozeman and Missoula even worse.
Ultimately, the responsibility for property tax relief falls on local governments to embrace budget discipline. The growth of property taxes is a direct proxy for how much the government is spending. In many cities and counties around the state, government spending has far outpaced reasonable measures of economic growth.
The state government is only responsible for a small percentage of property taxation, and what the state takes in is eventually returned to local governments and schools. With local officials in the driver’s seat for spending our property tax dollars, state legislators do not have many tools for containing the growth of property taxes.
To deliver property tax relief, common ground needs to be built at the local level around the virtues of fiscal conservatism. While spending cuts can be hotly debated, most can agree that controlling the growth of spending is prudent policy. Limiting local government growth to no more than the growth of the economy, as measured by population plus inflation, is a common-sense fiscal benchmark that people of both parties ought to be able to get behind.
3. Health care access
Lawmakers unanimously came together to expand telehealth access by eliminating unnecessary regulations that had been waived during the COVID pandemic. Another bill that received wide support expanded access to affordable prescription drugs by allowing providers to dispense prescribed medicine directly to their patients.
Could this unity continue when addressing other regulations that hold back health care access? Lawmakers may be able to find more areas of agreement around reducing barriers for medical professionals to get licensed and keep practicing in Montana. They could also look at ways to eliminate red tape and expand the ability of current practitioners to use the fullest extent of their training to care for patients.
It’s easy to forget that we likely share a lot more in common with our fellow Montanans than we have different. Areas of consensus are low-hanging fruit for us to begin mending the partisan divide and make Montana an even better place to live.
Kendall Cotton is the president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a Helena think tank dedicated to breaking down government barriers so that all Montanans can thrive.