Kottel v. State

Decision Date05 December 2002
Docket NumberNo. 01-833.,01-833.
Citation312 Mont. 387,2002 MT 278,60 P.3d 403
PartiesDeborah KOTTEL and Albert Tuss, Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. STATE of Montana, Cascade County Treasurer, and Cascade County Commissioners, Defendants and Respondents.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Lawrence A. Anderson, Howard F. Strause, Great Falls, Montana, for Appellants.

Mike McGrath, Montana Attorney General, Chris D. Tweeten, Civil Bureau Chief, Helena, Montana; Brant Light, Cascade County Attorney, Dirk M. Sandefur, Deputy Cascade County Attorney, Great Falls, Montana, for Respondents.

Justice JAMES C. NELSON delivered the Opinion of the Court.


¶ 1 Appellants Deborah Kottel and Albert Tuss (hereinafter Taxpayers) appeal an order of the Eighth Judicial District Court, Cascade County, granting summary judgment to the Respondents State of Montana, Cascade County Treasurer, and Cascade County Commissioners (hereinafter State) on the issue of the constitutionality of § 20-25-439(1), MCA. We affirm.

¶ 2 We address the following issues on appeal:

¶ 3 1. Did the District Court err in holding that, for purposes of this case, equal protection analysis and the requirements of Article VIII, Sections. 1 and 3, are the same?

¶ 4 2. Did the District Court err in holding that § 20-25-439(1), MCA, does not violate the guarantees of equal protection in Article II, Section 4 of the Montana Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1 of the United States Constitution?


¶ 5 Under § 20-25-301, MCA, Montana has one state-wide university system which is supervised by the Board of Regents. This university system includes vocational technical schools (vo-techs), officially called colleges of technology, located in Cascade, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Silver Bow, and Yellowstone counties. Under § 20-25-439(1), MCA, (the vo-tech levy), both real and personal property in these five counties is subject to a mandatory tax of 1.5 mills that provides partial funding for the vo-techs. The amounts generated by the vo-tech levy are deposited into the general fund to be distributed to the vo-techs for educational purposes on the basis of budgets approved by the Board of Regents. The Board of Regents is not required to allocate to a particular vo-tech an amount of funding equal to that generated by the vo-tech levy in the corresponding county. The funds generated by the vo-tech levy provide less than five percent of the total annual funding for vo-techs. In addition to the vo-tech levy and university appropriations approved by the Legislature under § 17-7-138, MCA, and § 20-25-422, MCA, there is also a state-wide 6-mill levy authorized under § 20-25-423, MCA, that provides partial funding for the entire university system.

¶ 6 The Taxpayers in this case reside in Cascade County, own property subject to the vo-tech levy, and paid the tax under protest pursuant to § 15-1-402, MCA. The Taxpayers then instituted this declaratory judgment action, asserting that the vo-tech levy is unconstitutional because it is only required and levied in the five counties where the vo-techs are located even though the vo-techs are part of the state-wide university system. The State answered and asserted that the vo-tech levy is not unconstitutional because it is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.

¶ 7 Agreeing that the issue is purely a question of law, the parties stipulated to certain underlying facts and made cross motions for summary judgment. The District Court agreed with the State and held that the vo-tech levy does not violate Montana's Constitution or the United States Constitution. The Taxpayers then appealed to this Court. Further facts, including a discussion of the relevant history of the vo-tech system, are included below.


¶ 8 We review a grant of summary judgment de novo. Stockman Bank v. Potts, 2002 MT 178, ¶ 3, 311 Mont. 12,

¶ 3, 52 P.3d 920, ¶ 3. We review a district court's conclusions of law to determine whether those conclusions are correct. Albright v. State (1997), 281 Mont. 196, 205, 933 P.2d 815, 821. In this case, the grant of summary judgment is based entirely on conclusions of law interpreting provisions of the Montana Constitution and the federal Constitution. Therefore, we review the District Court's order here to determine whether it is correct. Further, we will affirm the District Court's ruling if it reached the correct result for the wrong reason. Eschenbacher v. Anderson, 2001 MT 206, ¶ 40, 306 Mont. 321, ¶ 40, 34 P.3d 87, ¶ 40.

¶ 9 Constitutional provisions are interpreted by use of the same rules as those used to interpret statutes. Great Falls Tribune Co. v. Great Falls Pub. Schs. (1992), 255 Mont. 125, 128-29, 841 P.2d 502, 504. First, we look to precedent that has already interpreted the provision at issue. If none addresses the issue, we look to the plain meaning of the provision and to legislative intent. Department of Revenue v. Puget Sound Power & Light Co. (1978), 179 Mont. 255, 263, 587 P.2d 1282, 1287. In this case, the relevant legislative intent is the intent of the Constitutional Convention. When interpreting the plain meaning or determining legislative intent, we consider canons of construction and maxims of law. For example, one such rule is that a statute is presumed constitutional. Roosevelt v. Montana Dep't of Revenue, 1999 MT 30, ¶ 26, 293 Mont. 240, ¶ 26, 975 P.2d 295, ¶ 26; McGowan v. Maryland (1961), 366 U.S. 420, 425-26, 81 S.Ct. 1101, 1105, 6 L.Ed.2d 393, 399. Therefore, the burden in this case is on the Taxpayers to prove that § 20-25-439(1), MCA, is unconstitutional. Roosevelt, ¶ 26.


A. The History of the Vo-Tech System and § 20-25-439, MCA.

¶ 10 The current vo-tech levy mandated by § 20-25-439, MCA, reads:

Vocational-technical education—mill levy required.
(1) Subject to XX-XX-XXX, the boards of county commissioners of Cascade, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Silver Bow, and Yellowstone Counties shall in each calendar year levy a tax of 1½ mills on the dollar value of all taxable property, real and personal, located within the respective county.
(2) The funds from the mill levy must be deposited in the general fund and must be distributed for vocational-technical education on the basis of budgets approved by the board of regents.1

As support for each of their arguments, the Taxpayers call this Court's attention to the funding and management history of the vo-tech system that culminated in the current vo-tech levy embodied in § 20-25-439, MCA. In order to properly address the Taxpayers' arguments, we first recount that history here.

¶ 11 Montana's vo-tech system originated in 1917 when the Legislature authorized the then State Board of Education to cooperate with local school districts and county school boards in the establishment and maintenance of vo-techs in the public schools of the state. Sec. 2, Ch. 102, L.1917. The State Board of Education was authorized to adopt rules regarding course offerings, teacher certification and other matters, while the local counties were left to manage the vo-techs. Sec. 3, Ch. 102, L.1917. Initially, funding for vo-techs came from federal sources. Sec. 4, Ch. 102, L.1917.

¶ 12 In 1969, the Legislature designated the present day vo-techs and gave local counties with vo-techs discretionary authority to levy a 1 mill property tax to support the vo-tech in their community. Secs. 4 & 9, Ch. 250, L.1969. After gradually increasing the taxing authority to 1.5 mills over the years, the Legislature made the vo-tech levy mandatory in 1986. Sec. 1, Ch. 27, Sp. L. June 1986.

¶ 13 In 1987, the Legislature transferred control of the vo-techs to the Board of Regents. Sec. 1, Ch. 658, L.1987. Local administrative control was removed from the counties and placed with the Board of Regents. Secs. 1 & 15, Ch. 658, L.1987. Vo-tech employees became employees of the Board of Regents. Sec. 5, Ch. 658, L.1987. Further, the amounts generated by the vo-tech levy were placed under control of the Board of Regents rather than the local districts. Sec. 18, Ch. 658, L.1987. In 1995, the Legislature merged the vo-techs into the state university system, removed all statutory references to "vocational technical centers" as separate entities, and instead designated vo-techs as units of either Montana State University or the University of Montana. Secs. 7, 11, 15, Ch. 308, L.1995. This allowed the Board of Regents to rename the vo-techs as "colleges of technology." At the same time, the vo-tech levy was also recodified from § 20-7-324(1)(b), MCA (1993) to § 20-25-439, MCA. Sec. 34, Ch. 308, L.1995.

¶ 14 The Taxpayers assert this history demonstrates a long tradition of local control, funded in part by the local, discretionary tax embodied in § 20-7-324(1)(b), MCA (1985), the earlier version of § 20-25-439, MCA. The Taxpayers further note the system of local control was converted to a state-run system at almost the same time as the vo-tech levy was converted to a mandatory state tax. The Taxpayers assert that the removal of local control should have been accompanied by a removal of the five-county vo-tech levy or possibly expansion of the vo-tech levy to all counties with university system operations or to all 56 counties. At any rate, the Taxpayers assert that retention of the mandatory vo-tech levy in only five counties results in a statute that violates the tax provisions of Article VIII, Sections 1 and 3 and the equal protection provisions of the Montana and federal Constitutions because the property owners in these five counties carry a disproportionate share of the burden to support the state-wide university system.

¶ 15 The State responds that while the vo-tech schools are now part of the university system, the schools benefit their local communities more than the state in comparison to the larger university system units. The State points out...

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