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Patrick Springer, Published June 12 2012

Property tax ban crushed at polls

FARGO – North Dakota’s property tax revolt fizzled at the polls in primary election returns Tuesday night.

As of 10:45 p.m., Measure 2, which sought to eliminate property taxes, is badly trailing, with 77 percent rejecting the proposal and 23 percent favoring. Those results are with 324 of the state’s 426 precincts reporting.

The prospect that oil-rich North Dakota could be the first state in the nation to cast off property taxes attracted national attention, but a cool response from voters.

“I think North Dakotans understand that government isn’t free,” said Andy Peterson, president of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and a spokesman for the Keep it Local coalition, which opposed Measure 2.

Voters weren’t persuaded that the state’s coffers were flush enough with oil money or other revenues to discard the property tax, he said, a central claim of the Measure 2 backers, Empower the Taxpayer.

“The citizens didn’t buy that argument,” Peterson said. They didn’t want to sacrifice local government and they didn’t want to sacrifice their schools.”

Charlene Nelson, a homemaker from rural Casselton and chairwoman of Empower the Taxpayer, said the opposition’s superior campaign war chest swung the debate.

“We were outspent 30 to 1,” she said. “It was just a matter of us not having what it took to get that message out.”

The groups that coalesced against Measure 2 formed the largest public policy coalition in North Dakota’s 122-year history, Peterson said. They included associations representing schools, cities, counties, as well as many business and trade groups.

“I really want to say congratulations to the people of North Dakota,” Peterson said. “They want good government. They want efficient government.”

Measure 2 would amend the North Dakota Constitution to eliminate the property tax and leave it to the Legislature to replace the revenues – a formula for chaos and centralized decision-making, opponents argued.

Even opponents of Measure 2, including former Gov. Ed Schafer and former Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl, said the property tax has problems and is in need of an overhaul.

Legislators have provided property tax relief, and increased state support for public schools, in recent years.

Although oil and gas revenues are gushing, many officials said it would be a mistake for governments to rely too heavily on such a volatile revenue source, which fluctuates with oil booms and busts.

Nelson and Peterson agreed on one result of the Measure 2 campaign. Next year, when the Legislature reconvenes, political leaders will once again consider property tax reform.

“I think the message has been sent,” Peterson said. “I think that message has been heard around the state.”

Nelson said: “We will certainly want to see what the Legislature does in the next session. What they have been talking about is not reform, but more Band-Aid.”

In incomplete, unofficial statewide returns, Measure 2 garnered 28,226 yes votes and 95,410 no votes by 10:45 p.m. Tuesday.