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Who’s a millionaire?

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HELENA — In Montana’s high-profile U.S. Senate race, Democrats have been labeling Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg a “millionaire congressman” — and they don’t mean it as a compliment.

“(Rehberg) has consistently sided with his fellow millionaires at the expense of Montana families,” says Montana Democratic Party spokesman Chris Saeger, in a typical comment.

Yet, if the yardstick for measuring one’s wealth is property and investments, then U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the Democratic incumbent being challenged by Rehberg, is worth more than $1 million as well, based on the likely market value of his north-central Montana farm.

Still, an examination of property and financial-disclosure records shows that Rehberg’s family land holdings are considerably more valuable, primarily because he and his wife, Jan, began an 800-acre residential development on a portion of their ranch properties north of Billings.

The development, known as Rehberg Ranch Estates, is worth anywhere from $1.5 million to $6 million, according to Rehberg — and, if housing markets improve, could be worth a lot more. Rehberg’s other land holdings and investments are worth an additional $1.8 million to $6.7 million, he reported last year.

Conversations with Billings’ real estate brokers, others familiar with agricultural land and local markets, and the Rehbergs indicate that the Rehberg properties — including their home, ranchland, Rehberg Ranch Estates, some family cropland inherited by Jan Rehberg, and a rental property — are worth $7 million at a minimum.

If the housing market improved greatly, that amount could double or triple, real estate brokers say.

As for the “millionaire” label thrown at Rehberg by Democrats, a Rehberg campaign spokesman says it’s petty name-calling.

“They know they can’t win on the issues, so their strategy is to level personal attacks against Denny,” spokesman Chris Bond says of Rehberg’s Democratic critics. “We plan to focus on the issues that really matter to Montanans, and that means creating jobs and getting the economy moving again.”

ON FINANCIAL-disclosure forms, Tester says his farm properties are worth $750,000 to $1.5 million. An examination of property-tax records and talks with ag-group officials indicate the market value of his farm and ranch home is at the high end of that range.

Tester and his supporters say it would be wrong to call him a “millionaire,” because he has no intention of selling his 1,700-acre dry-land farm west of Big Sandy, and plans to pass it on to his children.

“Montanans know the difference between a farmer who still works his family land and a subdivision developer who consistently earns a spot as one of the wealthiest members of Congress,” Tester says.

Tester and his family operate his farm, and he often spends time working at the Big Sandy operation during Senate breaks. The Rehbergs say they don’t have livestock on their 2,500 acres of ranch land northwest of Billings right now, and that it’s used for summer grazing.

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A year ago, Rehberg was ranked as the 13th wealthiest member of the U.S. House, out of 435 members, based on his 2009 financial-disclosure report that listed his land and investment holdings as ranging from $6.6 million to $56 million. The disclosure forms list only a range, and don’t require members of Congress to list exact amounts.

Last year, Rehberg lowered that range to $2.15 million to $12 million, based on a reappraisal of his properties. That change dropped him to the 61st wealthiest member of the House.

The decline in value makes sense, given the bust in housing all across Montana from the 2008-09 recession. Real estate brokers in Billings say suburban, undeveloped property offered for residential development is rarely selling right now.

REHBERG RANCH Estates properties sold briskly when the development began almost 10 years ago, but have fallen off with the recession and the slump in the housing market. It has 15 unsold lots with asking prices from $30,000 to $60,000 each, and a dozen other subdivided lots still classified as “grazing” property, without infrastructure.

The wild card in the development’s value is about 670 undeveloped acres that were annexed into the city but have yet to be subdivided. The Rehbergs’ original plan called for developing this land in phases, as residential property, but they say it’s a “very long-term project.”

In better days, similar property was going for $30,000 an acre or more, real estate salespeople say. Now, it may be worth half that much, they say — if you could get someone to buy it. The Rehbergs estimate it’s worth between $4 million and $5 million in the current market.

Officials with agricultural groups say grazing land is worth $400 to $500 an acre in most parts of Montana.

Tester’s farm, in the family since the early 1900s, is non-irrigated cropland. He and his wife, Sharla, grow wheat, barley, lentils and peas.

Lola Raska, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association in Great Falls, says cropland is going for as much as $1,000 an acre near Great Falls, but more like $700 an acre in the Golden Triangle area, which includes the Tester farm.

At $700 an acre, Tester’s spread is worth about $1.2 million.

TESTER DECLINED to say what he thinks his property is worth, beyond his statements on his financial disclosure form. His net worth on his 2010 form, filed last spring, ranks him as the 67th wealthiest out of 100 U.S. senators.

A third candidate in the race – Dennis Teske, a Republican unknown who came out of nowhere to challenge Rehberg in the June 5 primary – also is a farmer, owning some 1,800 acres near Terry, much of it irrigated cropland.

Teske couldn’t be reached for comment, but property-tax records indicate his spread likely is worth more than $1 million, too, on today’s market.

Regardless of who’s a millionaire, Democrats seem intent on pressing the issue regarding Rehberg, saying he “sides with his fellow millionaires,” such as his stance against any tax increases for the very wealthy to help reduce the federal deficit.

Bond, the Rehberg campaign spokesman, says Democrats are “grasping at straws,” and that “Montanans will have an easy time deciding who’s more out of touch – a fifth-generation rancher and businessman who still sleeps on his couch in his Washington office … or Senator Tester, who has supported President Obama’s agenda 95 percent of the time.”

— State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison may be reached via email at mike.dennison@lee.net

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