Legislators Should Tie Transparency Measures To Local Government Funding


Over the last several bienniums one of the primary opponents to transparency efforts for taxation and spending in the state is local governments.

During the 2009 legislative session Rep. Blair Thoreson, a Republican from Fargo, passed legislation creating a searchable database of state spending (you can see it here). That was a big success, and to follow up on it Rep. Thoreson introduced legislation in 2011 and 2013 to add local spending to the database.

It was a good idea. Property taxes have been one of the most debated issues in the state for the better part of a decade, and issues with local taxes start with local spending. Whatever your position on local spending/tax issues it helps for the public to have a tool available to inform themselves (not to mention that it takes pressure for information requests off of local officials who can direct people to an online database).

Unfortunately, Thoreson’s bill was defeated in 2011 and 2013 (last session lawmakers did include money in the OMB budget to collect some data on local spending which you can see here).

So who was fighting against this common sense move toward transparency for local spending? Why, the local governments of course through organizations like the North Dakota Association of Counties and the League of Cities.

I don’t know if Rep. Thoreson will be introducing legislation for putting local spending online again in 2015, but Rep. Ben Hanson (D-Fargo) has a transparency bill for property tax information. It is HB1069 and it had a hearing before the Finance and Taxation Committee this morning.  If passed it would require that all counties “maintain a website containing an area dedicated to providing the public access to property tax information and notices.”

Guess who is opposing it? Why, the North Dakota Association of Counties among other local government interests.

The North Dakota Association of Counties is opposing the bipartisan bill, which would require all of the state’s counties to make property tax information available online, citing the potential cost to local taxpayers. …

Hushka said counties support the concept of making the information available online for citizens, “but the cost is the big hang-up.” She said McLean County recently spent $6,000 making its information web-accessible, and that doesn’t include ongoing maintenance costs. …

“It’s just another state requirement that counties would have to fund using local taxpayer dollars, especially when there’s such a focus on holding the line on our local property taxes,” she said.

I’m not generally in favor of increasing government spending, but one area I don’t mind increasing spending is transparency. Whatever your opinion about property taxes, it’s clear that it’s something people care deeply about. It is the topic of endless political debate in the state.

Why would we oppose making more information about property taxes available to the public in an easily accessed medium?

The cost issue is a red herring. This is just another example of local governments fighting common sense transparency measures. Which is why it is perhaps time for lawmakers to begin tying these measures to funding for local governments. The state has dramatically increased appropriations to the local governments (see below). There’s no reason why some of that money couldn’t be made conditional on the local governments buying into transparency efforts.

Maybe if it puts their gravy train at risk, local governments will drop their opposition to a better informed public.