Chamber Of Commerce Chapters In North Dakota Have Received Over $450,000 In Taxpayer Dollars

There’s a debate brewing in North Dakota over a ballot measure to be voted on in June (where it will be listed as Measure 2) that would abolish property taxes in the state. Some of the opponents to that measure are the state and local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce, which describe themselves as the “Voice of business in North Dakota.”

It struck me as odd that the Chamber, which usually loves property tax abatements when they’re included in economic development deals handed out by the government, would be opposed to what would be a permanent property tax abatement for every single business in the state. We can argue about the merits of abolishing property taxes and whether or not that would be good policy, but setting that debate aside for a moment its interesting to take a look at just who is in the membership rolls of the Chamber of Commerce in North Dakota.

The folks at Empower the Taxpayer, who are supporting Measure 2, brought to my attention that there are a lot of government agencies who are paying membership dues to the Chamber of Commerce. Since the issue was brought up with the statewide Chamber their online membership directory has apparently been taken offline (it’s not accessible as of the time of this writing, anyway), but looking at the membership rolls of local Chamber chapters shows numerous government entities listed as members.

For instance, why is the North Dakota Department of Commerce paying membership dues to a myriad of Chamber chapters? That state agency has been a member since 2001, according to the Fargo-Moorhead Chamber of Commerce website.

How about North Dakota State University? NDSU’s president’s office is a member. NDSU’s Research and Technology Park is a member. NDSU’s Graduate School and Distance Education branches are members.

If you scroll down the list of members of just the Fargo-Moorhead Chamber of Commerce you see schools, fire departments, economic development agencies and even entire city/county governments are members of the Chamber of Commerce.

You really have to wonder just how many tax dollars are being funneled into the pockets of what is, at its heart, a political advocacy group. So I did a search for state expenditures to the state and local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce on the State of North Dakota’s spending disclosure database and what I found was hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments.

Below is a spreadsheet of numbers, for the 2007 – 2009 biennium through the 2011 – 2013 biennium to date, which are by no means conclusive as these figures only include state spending not county or municipal tax dollars. What they show is $450,515.07 in payments of state tax dollars to both the state Chamber of Commerce and the various local chapters.

Again, this is just state tax dollars. If you look at the membership rolls of the various Chamber of Commerce chapters you’ll see cities and counties and fire departments, etc., etc. listed as paid members. I have no idea how to quantify what amount of money is paid by those entities without beginning a lengthy and expensive process of open records requests.

I spoke with North Dakota Chamber of Commerce President Andy Peterson about this earlier today. He told me that the state and local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce operate as autonomous chapters that “share values.” He said that, as far as his chapter is concerned, public sector members enjoy all the same privileges that private sector members do including a “seat at the table” on policy discussions within the organization, as well as a vote on issue surveys sent out by the Chamber. He also said that all dues paid by state agencies go into the Chamber’s general revenues, and that while there is no revenue sharing between the chapters they do pay to be members in one another’s organizations. For instance, the local chapters pay to be members of the statewide chapter, and the state chapter pays to be a member of the national US Chamber of Commerce.

The problem here is obvious. The Chamber of Commerce is an extremely active advocacy group taking positions on all manner of issues from local tax issues to national elections, and they’re getting hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars. That’s not any more appropriate than various agencies in state and local government being a member of, say, the National Rifle Association. And I say that as a conservative who, generally, agrees with the positions of the Chamber of Commerce.

What’s more, these membership dues may very well be illegal. Section 16.1-10-02 of the North Dakota Century Code states, “No person may use any property belonging to or leased by, or any service which is provided to or carried on by, either directly or by contract, the state or any agency, department, bureau, board, commission, or political subdivision thereof, for any political purpose.”

Given that the Chamber of Commerce is an expressly political organization, how can these memberships be legal?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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  • borborygmi

    I applaud  you on your research.  The Chamber is Conservative Lobby Group.        Why is Dickinson getting twice as much as GrandForks?

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      Dickinson is only getting twice as much as GF so far in 2011 – 2013.  I’m assuming that’s probably because a lot of the GF payments haven’t been made yet.  Obviously the 2011 – 2013 numbers are partial since we’re just in the first part of the biennium.

  • WOOF

    Good points Port.

  • I H8 GOPers

    I don’t see a problem with this, abolishing property tax is a bad idea.

    However, you do point out a BIG problem. “looking at the membership rolls of local Chamber chapters shows numerous government entities listed as members.” Government should not be allowed to be members of the Chambers. The government shouldn’t skew Chamber voting/polling, and the government shouldn’t be lobbying lobbyists.

    When the chambers sends out polls, each business has a few email accounts that get the surveys. The government entities also get the polls, but they each have hundreds of email accounts that get the surveys.

    • sdlawrence

      You wrote: “…abolishing the property tax is a bad idea,” without saying why it is a bad idea. I was going to ask why you thought that, until, that is, I went to quote your name: “I H8 GOPers”

      lol, I suddenly found I didn’t need to ask why any more. I’m not “GOPer”, but it is very clear to me why someone who openly “H8’s” them would also be openly opposed to Measure 2. Not as a matter of specifics, although I am quite certain they exist, but on general ideological principle only.

      There is a common myth going around that GOP automatically equates to Pro-Property Rights Limited Government Fiscal Conservative. Members of the GOP can be just us much in favor of large government and private wealth siphoning through deficit spending, fractional reserve lending, and property encumbering taxes, regardless of one’s ability to pay, as some of the most left-progressive liberals in the US.  Why wouldn’t they, when so many of them slop parasitically from the same collectivized “debt-money” trough?

  • http://Sayanythingblog.com The Whistler

    The Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce at one time seemed dominated by the local government entities. 

    • I H8 GOPers

      Still is.

  • C. Y.

    Abolishing the property tax folks have a huge public relations problem.  I’ve been asking around and they all say nobody has explained how the property tax removal will be replaced and if it is, how will local governments have any control.  They seem to get the same old response, “the state controls it now” with no explanation.  The measure also suffers from a bad case of lack of definitions. 

    • C. Y.

      And I’ve heard all the explanations so you don’t have to convince me, it’s a lot of other people out there that need to be convinced.  For a group that doesn’t like central control in the name of big government, this measure takes all the control away from local, ie. township governments.

      • Jimmypop

        “For a group that doesn’t like central control in the name of big government, this measure takes all the control away from local, ie. township governments.” 
        yup. we will have to send our elected officials…..now lobbyists…. to bismarck to beg for our money back. and who will they beg too? LOTS AND LOTS AND LOTS of new government employees, thats who! so, not only do we centralize it, but it has to grow to monitor all the requests from everyone from local dog catcher to the new beggars (some might call them a school board) at your local school district as well! such a great, grand idea.

         this is a different kind of centralized government. its newer and more shiny. 

        • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

          For what it’s worth, this post isn’t really about Measure 2 so much as the taxpayer funded advocacy that is going on which is wrong no matter whats is being advocated.

      • seniorann

         Here’s a quote from the measure. This is the actual language in the measure, not a summary. the link will take you to the full measure. It was written in 2009 by the Legislative Council. They did not pass it then, rather came up with the famous tax coupons that you could redeem on your tax payment. Today it is more than it was then.

        “The legislative assembly shall direct as much oil and gas
        production and extraction tax, tobacco tax, lottery revenue, and financial
        institutions tax as necessary to fund the share of elementary and secondary education
        not funded through state revenue sources before 2012. The state cannot
        condition the expenditure of this portion of elementary and secondary education
        funding in any manner and school boards have sole discretion in how to allocate
        the expenditure of this portion of the elementary and secondary funding
        provided.” http://empowerthetaxpayer.org/main/materials

        It also states this
        regarding local government funding:

        “The allocation of the amount determined by the legislative
        assembly must be provided to the governing bodies of counties, cities,
        townships, and other political subdivisions. How counties, cities, townships,
        and other political subdivisions choose to allocate the expenditures of this
        revenue is at the sole direction of the governing bodies of counties, cities,
        townships, and other political subdivisions.” http://empowerthetaxpayer.org/main/materials

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      Why don’t you contact the people at empower the taxpayer and have them explain it to you directly.

      Because you clearly haven’t done it yet.

  • Jimmypop

    ive never seen the purpose of a chamber….other than to feed on itself.

  • whowon

    Good job, this is insane, will be passing on to many.

  • John_Wayne_American

    I also bothers me when city employees are on boards and committees on these chambers, using taxpayer dollars to pay the salary for an employee on a committee or board of a chamber. I really wreaks of improper use of public dollars.

     Back to the Measure # 2, I agree much needs to be determined before I’d vote for it. It seems the proponents of the measure are counting on an unedjukated populous, and greedy landowners to push the vote over the top.Why anyone would vote for such an ill-conceived measure, even as noble as this one, is beyond me. 

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      I also bothers me when city employees are on boards and committees on these chambers, using taxpayer dollars to pay the salary for an employee on a committee or board of a chamber. I really wreaks of improper use of public dollars.

      Governor Jack Dalrymple is a board member of the US Chamber of Commerce according to their website.

      • I H8 GOPers

        The US Chamber is nothing like local Chambers. The US Chamber is an arm of the Republican Party. Jack belongs there, he can help hove the US Chamber to the left.

    • Dr.

      John – go to empowerthetaxpayer.com and read the measure. It’s spelled out perfectly. There are areas of Q & A as well. There is a book that is an easy read and explains it in greater detail. The last thing empowerthetaxpayer.com wants (heck, it’s in the name of the organization) is an UNEDUCATED voter – they want them empowered. Those that have taken the time to review the information – get it. I’ve read other posts here that claim it’s going to be just lobbying if this passes – that’s just an excuse. This gives actual local control to the local entities. More control than they have ever had. Many county commissioners have made the point that currently – there is NO local control. Local control is a Myth. This gives measure gives new meaning to local control – your city council, school board now have the checkbook – this gives actual meaning to “holding them accountable” at the local level. Is the measure perfect? Probably not – however, all constitutional functions of government are fully funded FIRST. All of them. Everywhere. Again – check out the site if you haven’t already.

  • cylde

    The chamber is not a conservative lobbying group though i wish it were. Remember they signed off on obamacare, and they are open borders advocates for the low cost labor. These are no part of conservatism. I am not even sure they do much for the small business man.

  • [email protected]

    90% of  State Legislators  are little  more  than  errands boys  for  the  Chambers of Commerce. State agencies join so the Chamber will help protect  their  approps

  • Marty

    How could we go about finding out who has abatements from property tax? For example, do we know if Goldmark gets discounts or even outright abatement? How much in abatements for new businesses who come into North Dakota to compete with old North Dakota businesses that have paid property tax for years without fail? etc.

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