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By Linda Boyd Coates, Published April 08 2012

Bismarck will call the shots

By Linda Boyd Coates

‘In Bismarck We Trust.”

That would be our new reality if the proposed North Dakota constitutional amendment Measure 2 passes in June.

All of our local public entities would essentially hand the keys of the fiscal car over to the North Dakota state legislature and hope for the best. City and county governments, park districts, and school districts would completely lose their source of local funding and go begging to Bismarck for their operating budgets.

Mind you, the North Dakota Legislature is not the bad guy here, far from it. While I don’t necessarily agree with every decision they make, I am gratified by the legislature’s recent increased support for K-12 education, which replaced a good-sized chunk of local property taxes with state funding.

However, imagine the state Capitol being swarmed by more than 2,100 entities – every town, city, county, school board and more – descending upon Bismarck to lobby for adequate funding for their annual budgets. Oh wait, our legislature meets for only 80 days every two years, but every local political subdivision must develop annual budgets. Hmm.

And if this measure passes, where would the money come from? Proponents say it would magically appear through increased sales taxes and REDUCING state tax department staff (they claim that the staff currently employed to process property taxes could simply be let go). I wonder who they think is going to plow through more than 2,100 annual budgets submitted from throughout the state – elves, perhaps?

They also claim that the money derived from oil and other energy revenue could be used to replace the lost property tax revenue. Actually, what the state now has accumulated in reserve would be adequate to fund those 2,100 entities for just ONE YEAR. Then what?

Could the current property tax system be improved? Absolutely. For those on fixed incomes who face losing their homes because of increased property taxes, the legislature could provide relief through increasing the Homestead Tax Credit. The legislature could also go further in reducing local property taxes by increasing the state share of funding to local government and K-12 education.

Clearly, the Bakken oil boom is an incredible windfall for North Dakota, though not without its challenges. Could more of that revenue be spread throughout the state to local entities to reduce property taxes? Undoubtedly. But eliminating local property taxes altogether would be a disaster, throwing every community into chaos.

It all boils down to local control. As a former city commissioner and now a School Board member, I am well acquainted with local accountability and its consequences. If a community does not like the decisions you make, you are voted out. That’s how it works, and it works well.

Do you really want elected officials from, say, Minot or Mott making decisions about Fargo or West Fargo or Casselton schools? It’s a long trip to the grocery store to give them a piece of your mind while standing in the checkout lane.

Boyd Coates is executive director of the Fargo Moorhead Symphony, a member of the Fargo School Board, and a former Fargo city commissioner.