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Patrick Springer, Published May 15 2012

Opponents hail pushback to ban on property taxes

FARGO – North Dakota voters’ seeming reluctance to eliminate their property taxes is explained one of two ways as the proposal on the June 12 primary approaches its test at the ballot box.

Proponents of Measure 2, which would amend the state constitution to eliminate property taxes, say they must do a better job of getting their message out to voters – particularly explaining what revenues would replace the key means of paying for local government.

But opponents of the proposal, a broad coalition of local governments, business and civic groups, say voters understand very well the implications of abruptly eliminating the primary funding source for school districts, counties, cities, townships and other units of local government.

Both sides were reacting Tuesday to a Forum Communications poll that found likely voters opposing Measure 2 by a margin of almost 3 to 1, with 74 percent opposing and 26 percent favoring the proposal.

“We knew going into this that we were going up against big money and powerful people and knew this would be challenging to push,” said Charlene Nelson, chairwoman of Empower the Taxpayer, the group proposing Measure 2.

Nelson, who lives in rural Casselton, said her phone had been “ringing off the hook,” with people, including new volunteers, pledging to work to pass Measure 2.

So far, more than 300 volunteers are signed up to work to eliminate property taxes, which Nelson said can be readily replaced by healthy state surpluses and other revenue sources – including income, sales and oil extraction taxes – that are rising sharply.

But a spokesman for the North Dakota Association of Counties, a member of the Keep it Local North Dakota coalition opposing Measure 2, said voters are well informed on the issue.

“It’s a pretty well educated electorate at this point,” said Jeff Eslinger, communications manager for the association of counties. Voters understand, he said, “When you pay the property tax, you’re funding your local services.”

Public school districts are especially reliant on local property taxes. They receive 45 percent of property tax revenues, according to state figures.

“I just have to give a lot of credit to the people of North Dakota realizing this is not the best approach to reducing property taxes,” Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, said of voters’ opposition to Measure 2.

Opposition to Measure 2 was found across voters of all ages, but older voters were more inclined than younger voters to reject it, according to the Forum Communications poll of 500 likely voters.

Seniors aren’t being forced out of their homes because of property taxes, as some Measure 2 proponents have claimed, said Josh Askvig, a spokesman for AARP in North Dakota, which has 83,000 members ages 50 and over.

“It sounds like people are getting the message that this isn’t going to be good for local control,” Askvig said, adding that local services would be affected, including police and fire protection as well as matching funds for meals on wheels programs.

Russ Langness, a Fargo homeowner and voter, said he wishes voters had more alternatives than Measure 2’s proposed elimination of property taxes.

“Why isn’t there a tax revision in this as part of the amendment,” he said. Rather than eliminating property taxes, he added, “It needs to be backed off a little bit.

“I’m not a yes or a no,” on Measure 2, Langness added. “I’m a maybe. There’s no in between on this.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522