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Published December 03 2013

Forum editorial: Time to tackle real tax reform

North Dakota residents have seen significant property tax relief over the past six years, a sum totaling $2.4 billion. But many taxpayers have grumbled that the savings aren’t always reflected on their property tax statements. Real property reform, in other words, has yet to be achieved. That might change now that Gov. Jack Dalrymple has appointed a 14-member task force with a mandate to make the process more transparent and to recommend lasting improvements.

That’s welcome news, and it’s disappointing that the reaction from Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader, was a less-than-enthusiastic shrug. “It’s duplicative,” Carlson said, sounding miffed. “I’m not sure why he’s doing it, but, you know, he has that prerogative.” Carlson seems to view everything through the lens of safeguarding legislative power, with scant thought to good governance.

In fact, the governor has good reason for assembling a task force of experts as well as taxpayer representatives. Members include those who are responsible for administering local property taxes, including Mike Montplaisir, the Cass County auditor. Others will represent the point of view of cities, counties, parks, business and agriculture. The idea, as Dalrymple outlined Tuesday in briefing The Forum Editorial Board, is to assemble a group capable of forging a broad consensus.

The North Dakota Legislature also will have representation at the table: Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee, and Rep. Wes Belter, R-Fargo, chairman of the House Finance and Taxation Committee. That’s appropriate, since lawmakers would have to approve any recommendations, and it’s valuable to tap legislative expertise.

Legislators in Bismarck have repeatedly expressed frustration that, despite significant state payments to defray property taxes, local property taxes in many instances continue to rise. That can happen through a rise in property values, even when the taxation rate, the mill levy, does not go up. Education, always the biggest share of local property taxes, has gotten a significant boost from the state, which now pays for about 80 percent of the cost. That’s a huge relief valve to reduce the property tax burden.

In short, real property tax reform has been an elusive goal. It’s also enormously complicated, and simplifying the arcane process would be a real accomplishment. Having tackled education finance and a revamping of the higher education funding formula, it’s appropriate for state leaders to focus their attention now on property taxes. “We are really going to handle the mechanics and get deep into the weeds,” Dalrymple said of the task force, which he will head. “We have the expertise on our group to really talk about the practicalities.”

That’s encouraging to hear. Carlson and his fellow legislators should welcome the input, and do what they can to help ensure its success.

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