When it comes to taxing and spending policy, there is no area causing North Dakotans more consternation than property taxes. Last year a group of conservative citizens put on the ballot a measure to abolish property taxes, but it was soundly defeated after a vicious attack campaign lead by the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce which derided those conservatives as “extremists.”
The measure was defeated, and the legislature expanded the state’s appropriations toward buying down local property taxes (you’ll hear the state’s leaders describe this spending as $875 million in “property tax relief”). But it seems to be deja vu all over again, if this Yankees fan may be permitted a Yogi-ism, as voters watch the events of the last several bienniums unfold again.
Since 2007, the state legislature has attempted to buy down property taxes and every biennium property taxes rise anyway despite local governments receiving hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a vicious cycle of rising property values, thanks to the state’s roaring economy and a bubble in farm land values caused by ethanol subsidies, and a willingness of local leaders to have their cake and eat it to. Rather than offsetting rising property values with cuts in mill levies, using the state’s generous appropriations to make up the difference, local leaders keep sticking their hands deeper into the pockets of property owners.
At a recent meeting of the Ward County Commission, which govern’s the state’s fourth most populated county, at least one citizen expressed such frustration with rising property valuations that he warned another measure to abolish property taxes was in the works. And judging by the political zeitgeist in North Dakota – letters to the editor, social media postings, etc., etc. – there seems to be a growing interest in abolishing property taxes.
Something the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce seems to sense. Arguing ludicrously that legislators “fought during the last session to provide for and maintain local control” (in truth the legislature effectively took over local school funding) Jon Godread, the Chamber’s VP for government affairs, begs local leaders to cut property tax mills in a letter to the Grand Forks Herald:
Local leaders should be held accountable for local taxes, and property tax is a local tax. In the past, when a community experienced a valuation increase of 20 percent and a tax increase of 10 percent, some local leaders considered this a tax cut. In reality, it was and is a 10 percent increase in property taxes, and the explanation given by local leaders did nothing to help property owners.
It’s time for local leaders to take responsibility for their budgets. Some leaders — not all — look at a valuation increase as a revenue increase, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
We have fought side-by-side with these local leaders, chanting the mantra of “Local Control” and “Keep it Local.” Now is the time for the same local leaders, who demanded this local control, to show some control and respond to increased valuations by lowering the mills and doing their part to reduce the property tax burden across our state.
The truth is becoming clearer for North Dakota voters. When they voted down the measure to abolish property taxes, voters did indeed “keep it local” as the well-funded marketing campaign from the Chamber and other special interest groups suggested. But they also kept control of the property tax problem with the very people who are causing that problem.
I often wish we could push rewind on this issue, and go back to squash then-Governor John Hoeven’s idea to solve the property tax problem with state spending. But that’s so much water under the bridge now. Our choices now are to either continue letting local government leaders take advantage of state leaders and the taxpayers, or we can finish the job Governor Hoeven started and have the state take over the funding of local property taxes and rid the state’s citizens of the burden of property taxes.