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?