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Published March 06 2013

Forum editorial: Reject two anti-local tax bills

When North Dakota’s Republican legislators preach that they want smaller, less intrusive government, don’t believe them. The contradiction in what they say and what they do is rife with hypocrisy.

Case in point: Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, is champion of legislation that aims to erode local control over local taxes and finances. Apparently he believes he and his allies are better qualified to assess the needs of hundreds of city governments, park boards and school districts. They are not.

Kasper’s ham-handed legislation and another local-interference tax bill have already been approved by a reliably thick-skulled House. Among other things, they would put a 3 percent limit on total dollar increases in property taxes a local government could collect from one year to the next. To collect more would require a 60 percent vote of people in the taxing entity. There are a couple of relatively meaningless exceptions and caveats, but on balance the bills would severely limit elected local officials from responding to legitimate needs in their cities, schools and parks.

Kasper and like-minded defenders of the legislation note the Legislature is sending back billions of dollars in tax relief to local communities. Good deal. But let’s get one thing clear: It’s not the Legislature’s money. Bismarck is not sending back anything that was not generated by taxpayers of all kinds, but property tax revenues are not part of that mix. The state does not levy or collect property taxes, nor should it.

The last few sessions have approved generous property tax relief measures that operate via a school property tax replacement formula that allows school districts to lower taxes without losing revenue. It’s worked well and has meant real reductions in property taxes. Its appeal has been tax relief without legislative strings yanking away at local control.

What seems to stick in the haughty craws of Kasper and other legislators is that some local governments have offset tax relief by raising property taxes, and therefore have violated the purpose of the state’s school property tax relief mechanism. Nonsense.

Local governments respond to local needs, whether it’s a fire station in a growth neighborhood, or a new school to accommodate population increases, or investments in streets, water systems and other infrastructure. Those are local matters that should not be stymied because a few lawmakers think they know better how to manage the finances of Williston or Wahpeton or Fargo. Local officials need the flexibility to respond with alacrity to changing conditions, such as the rapid developments in Oil Patch cities.

The bills violate a cherished “North Dakota way”: that the best government is the closest government. That means local. The Senate should dispatch the House bills to the dustbin. And if that does not happen, Gov. Jack Dalrymple would have good reason to sharpen his veto pen.


Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.