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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published April 13 2012

Lawsuit on North Dakota property tax measure to be appealed

BISMARCK – Supporters of abolishing North Dakota’s property taxes said Friday they hoped the state Supreme Court would quickly review a judge’s dismissal of their lawsuit.

Empower the Taxpayer, an organization pushing for the property tax repeal, had asked South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick to order public officials to stop spending taxpayer money in the fight against a proposed constitutional amendment. Property taxes are a principal source of income for local governments.

Instead, Romanick dismissed the lawsuit late Thursday, saying that any illegal spending was a matter for local prosecutors to handle, not private citizens.

The group’s attorney, Lynn Boughey, of Bismarck, said he would ask the Supreme Court to resolve the appeal before the June 12 primary election.

The election will decide the fate of the amendment, which will be listed on the ballot as Measure 2. It would ban state and local governments from levying property taxes and order the Legislature to provide replacement revenue for local governments.

“We have 28,000 people who have asked that this be placed on the ballot,” Boughey said, referring to the number of signatures on the initiative petition.

“That means these people feel this is an important issue that should not only be voted on but be discussed in a very public and fair manner,” Boughey said.

The lawsuit had asked Romanick to order public officials to stop spending taxpayer funds in campaigning against the measure and to halt what Empower the Taxpayer claimed were false statements about the measure’s potential impact.

Both actions, if proved, would be crimes under North Dakota law. Attorneys for the public officials argued in court filings that taxpayer money wasn’t being spent to fight the measure and that property tax opponents were trying to suppress criticism of it.

In his five-page dismissal order Thursday, Romanick said prosecutors, not private citizens, should handle allegations that state law was being violated.

The judge wrote that the lawsuit “could more easily be described as Empower’s manifesto, advocating their political position, rather than a legal complaint setting out a succinct request for relief from this court.”

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said he believed Romanick’s decision was correct.

“This is a law that imposes criminal penalties,” Stenehjem said. “In North Dakota, criminal penalties are enforced by elected state’s attorneys.”