Greg Gianforte Montana Politics The Media

The Little Matter of Greg Gianforte’s Failure To Pay Taxes on Land Worth a Half Million Dollars

Written by Don Pogreba
Shares


A week or so before Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter and won an election, I reported on his failure to pay adequate taxes on a parcel of land near Bozeman. The parcel, as I noted then, was a 5.01 acre lot that was somehow characterized as a piece of non-qualifying agricultural land, which meant that even though the neighboring land was valued at $121,488 an acre, Mr. Gianforte’s lot was valued at $223 total, or just over $50 an acre.

That valuation difference meant thousands of dollars in tax revenue lost to the state of Montana and Gallatin County. As I pointed out later that week, the taxable value on Gianforte’s land was about $50/year, while a parcel 3/5 the size of Gianforte’s right across the street had a taxable value of about $4,300.

Gianforte’s land was given the lower valuation because the law in Montana is designed to protect ag producers. But for a period of five years, the parcel was neither large enough nor produced anything of agricultural value, meaning that Mr. Gianforte was paying an artificially low valuation.

I learned today just how low that valuation was. A review of the Montana Cadastral system shows that the real value of the land in the 2017 tax year is $566,785, a difference of roughly $566,000.

ggland.PNG

Nothing changed on the land. There are no structures nor businesses that have increased its value; it’s simply being assessed properly.

Shortly after my story broke, there was one story in Montana media about the valuation of Gianforte’s land, from MTN News. In that piece, which focused largely on questions about Rob Quist’s finances, the Department of Revenue offered a peculiar explanation, saying that the valuation was correct because they had failed to send Mr. Gianforte a postcard reminding him to tell the truth about his land:

The agency said it should have sent Gianforte a postcard in 2014, when the property was divided from other nearby land, to ask for updated proof that the land is still being used for agricultural purposes.

Revenue officials said the lack of a request was an oversight, and that they sent the postcard this week.

That’s peculiar on a number of points. First, there’s no indication that the land was ever used for agricultural purposes. Second, it’s a fascinating argument to suggest that a property owner is absolved of responsibility for properly characterizing land if a post card isn’t sent to remind them to tell the truth. I’ve got a call into the Department of Revenue to learn if this is standard practice, something I suspect a lot of developers on the edge of Bozeman would take advantage of if they could.

It also suggests a rather implausible story about Mr. Gianforte, a property owner and developer who owns other lots in Gallatin County. We’re to believe that this self-proclaimed businessman and expert in finance, a man who kept arguing his attention for detail would make him an excellent governor, never thought it strange over a period of years that a prime piece of real estate was being valued at less than a tenth of a percentage of its real value and never thought to check that valuation with the state.

And of course, it’s impossible to ignore Gianforte’s tax payments in the context of the larger coverage of the race, especially from the Lee Newspapers, which featured stories about Mr. Gianforte’s opponent (Rob Quist)’s finances at every opportunity. One especially egregious story, by the Gazette’s Tom Lutey cited a former Republican legislator, who, without evidence, asserted that a barn owned by Mr. Quist must be worth more than Quist claimed because of some potential rental activity at the site.

That story was so poorly written and vetted that the Gazette was forced to run an op-ed piece written by a real estate attorney that opened “it didn’t take me long to realize the reporter, Tom Lutey, doesn’t understand property rights and taxation law; in fact, even the headline was incorrect.”

The reporting never quantified the amount of potential tax revenue lost and it certainly didn’t prove that Mr. Quist was evading taxes.

And yet, neither Mr. Lutey nor the rest of the Lee political reporters ever covered the Gianforte tax situation on his land, even though sources make it clear they were provided the information and given the half million dollar difference in valuation it was clearly a more significant story than whether or not Rob Quist rented out his barn, a story, incidentally, that he credibly refuted.

And that’s an astonishing level of malfeasance, one that I believe affected the race at some level. While voters in the state’s largest newspaper markets were treated to an endless parade of shoddy opposition stories about Rob Quist, they never learned from those same papers that Greg Gianforte had terminated an employee with M.S. or that he was paying far less than his share of taxes. It’s hard to understand how the stories about one candidate’s past were legitimate and those about the other were not.

In the end, I’m glad that Mr. Gianforte will finally have to pay his fair share of property taxes this year, even if he has, for years, failed to pay his due. Heading into another campaign cycle that is likely to be covered by an even smaller number of political reporters, I’m hopeful that this past special election will serve as a wakeup call about the issues that matter and the way those are covered.

I’m just not terribly optimistic that it will get any better or that readers, like the State of Montana in this case, will get their money’s worth.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

25 Comments

  • We just got ag tax status for a five acre lot in Lakeside. You have to file quite a bit of paper work and prove the value of what was grown. There should be a paper trail if he ever did file. If not record, then he didn’t.

    • I’ve purchased and sold ag defined property. The tax status rarely changes between those transactions.

      My take on this is GG purchased this land with it’s ag designation already in place.

        • Let me approach this a different way. A successful businessman and competent money manager would never approach the county or any other governmental entity and say maybe you’re not taxing me enough.

          Only idiots would make that call.

          The ultimate irony in all this is the fact that the government f’ed up. Whether it’s in the definition or forgetting to sent out a notice. And yet you want them to control every aspect of our lives.

  • Well Big Swede, wouldn’t that be dishonest? Surely you’re not saying successful businessmen and money managers would stay silent when they knew they were underpaying under the law?

    • It’s the county assessor’s job to keep tax status up to date. Not the owner’s.

      Was it’s GG’s job to go to the courthouse and look up his neighbor tax records?

      • No, you’re totally right, of course. There’s just no way a person could possibly know that $50 isn’t enough for five acres of non-ag land in the fastest growing county in the state. How could a person be expected to guess that?

  • Or wait. Yes. Thats exactly what you are saying. I’m not for big government, but when the private sector is dishonest and tries to avoid the laws, as you advocate, you can’t expect the government not to react.

  • As John Kelly, the new Chief Of Staff so correctly said. If you don’t like the law, change it. In the meantime,
    we are all required to obey it.

  • Ok Big Swede. You’re right. He is only required to pay his property taxes. I am still waiting to hear from Don. If I do, I suspect it will be a nasty response.

  • I’m in agreement with the comments that obtaining ag status takes paperwork and proof. Even if the land was taxed as ag when Gianforte bought it, there’s this form, a Realty Transfer Certificate, which is filed with the Dept of Revenue and tells the Dept how much the property sold for and other details. I’ve never ever heard of any post card from the Dept. Property is reappraised on cycles, now on 2 year cycles. My question is whether, if the Dept wanted to, it could make Gianforte prove past ag use and if he cannot do so, impose back taxes?? While I am an attorney, I have not researched all the Administrative Rules, etc. and hope Don knows the answer off the top of his head.

  • What Big Swede is saying is what I remember an attorney (from the Big Fork area, I believe) stating it is DORs responsibility to come and access. Quist was getting shredded on not paying the taxable value of the barn by the Billings Gazette and this attorney who had experience in the area said: “Wait a minute, . . . “

    • And that’s my broad point.

      1. In the middle of a Congressional race, the Billings Gazette gave front page news to a story intimating that Rob Quist had not paid the appropriate taxes on his land, which had changed.

      2. Using a partisan source who admitted he was guessing, the Gazette’s reporter made a big deal about what was a 1% difference in valuation.

      3. Knowing that Mr. Gianforte had also benefited from a similar situation, one worth FAR more, the Gazette ignored the story. No mention at all.

      4. There is no justification for that. At all.

    • And I should point out that there is one big difference here. Given that Gianforte transferred ownership of parts of that parcel, he would have had to fill out an RTC form spelling out the land’s taxable status. That would not have been the case for Mr. Quist.

  • Five acres right on the cutting edge of subdivisions in the Bozeman area; he can divide that plot into 10 or 12 residential plats and sell it for millions

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: