Dorso Column: North Dakota Is Going Down A Bad Road On Property Taxes

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The legislative session is over. As usual the governor and the legislative leaders have press conferences and issue press releases that extol the effort that was put forth for the citizens of North Dakota. I know how that works as I did the same thing over a decade ago. The reality is that as you drive home after the session you begin to reflect on opportunities missed and things you wish would have come out different. The Republican majority leaders and the Governor know what they would have liked to have changed but they also know that the voters need to belief they did the best they could with the circumstances they had to deal with.

I’m sure some would like me to be an apologist for the Republicans but that is not the charge I accepted when SAB asked me to comment on the legislative session as it unfolded. Now that the session is in the books I think I can give you a fair appraisal of the actions of the legislature.

First let me say that a legislative session is not an easy way to make public policy. That was readily apparent in the differences in the way the House and Senate approached some very major issues. I will be accused of being biased in my views of the way each chamber dealt with the major issues. That is probably because I was a Majority Leader of the North Dakota House and I welcome any ND Senators comments on my views.

Those of you have read my column know I think the state is going down a very bad road on the property tax issue. Legislators are going to have to make some very tough decisions and oil revenue is only putting off the fateful day. Calling the money dumped into K-12 education property tax reform is one of the biggest misnomers I have ever heard.
Someday I hope legislators can be honest and call the money for education a per student allocation based on student enrollment. For years we have bowed to the property tax centric part of our population which is almost totally dishonest. Using “keeping property tax down” as an excuse to spend millions only puts off the day when the real issue comes to the fore.

The issue is what are we getting for the billions being spent on education in a state of less than a million people? If it comes down to the time when we have county school districts and rid ourselves of bloated bureaucracies that have little to do with good education I’ll be all right with it. My fear is that few will welcome the change especially the administrative levels in each school district.

What reasonable person thinks that West Fargo and Fargo couldn’t be one school district? For you rural legislators with multiple districts in a county, the day will come when you will have to face facts. That probably won’t happen until Lincoln and Bismarck or Fargo and West Fargo get their act together but then Katy bar the door. That will happen when the oil revenue can’t cover the direction on property tax that was set in place during this last decade. The legislature shouldn’t have done it. It is a “no win” for them because the inevitable will come to pass. I hope you folks that want to eliminate property tax are satisfied with the course you have set your policy makers on.

Rep. Rick Becker was so right when he said “why are we tripling down on a bad idea”. The House was forced by the Senate and a Governor who think this a good way to spend excess revenue. I hope those two factions have a long term strategy on how to deal with the issue in the future. The bane of politics has always been short-sighted leaders. In this case I don’t give the governor or the senate much credit. They have bowed to pressure of a vocal minority (witness the last vote) without consideration of the future of the state.

As far as money to political subdivisions, I am appalled. Unless you cap the mill levies of these rent seekers you are just feeding a very ill behaved beast. The legislature should have capped the mill levy and not given them a penny more than is in the formula we put in place a decade ago.

I guarantee whether it is in the western counties with their issues or in the east until the voters rise in rebellion their political leaders will spend until it hurts. All the hurt will fall on the property tax owners or they will try to pass levies in another form such as sales tax. I don’t know why legislators are afraid of a bunch of political subdivision officials with their hands out. They are a minority that can easily understand the term “no”.

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