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Lawyer: Property tax lawsuit throttles free speech

BISMARCK (AP) -- A lawsuit that challenges public officials' opposition to a proposal to abolish North Dakota property taxes ignores their right to speak on issues and is intended to silence dissident voices, an attorney claimed Tuesday.

"Political debate and discussion is the very essence of free speech, and that's what's at stake here," said Randall Bakke, an attorney for county officials who are being sued because of allegedly false statements they've made about the consequences of dumping local property taxes.

Advocates of the property tax measure "are trying to stifle any free discussion of the issues and present their side only," Bakke said.

Bakke and Lynn Boughey, an attorney who represents supporters of abolishing property taxes, spoke Tuesday at a hearing on whether the lawsuit should proceed. South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick, who is handling the case, said he hoped to rule soon.

Boughey said his clients only wanted to avoid having their own tax money being used to fight them.

The struggle is over Measure 2, a citizen initiative on the June 12 primary ballot that would change the North Dakota Constitution.

It would eliminate local property taxes and order the Legislature to replace the money with revenues from statewide levies, including taxes on income, sales, coal and oil.

North Dakota's Tax Department said the Legislature would have to earmark at least $812 million annually to local governments if the measure is approved.

Critics of the proposal say it may force North Dakotans to pay more in income and sales taxes. North Dakota state government's general fund budget is about $4 billion over two years.

Empower the Taxpayer, a group that gathered more than 28,000 petition signatures to put the amendment on the ballot, is suing Tax Commissioner Cory Fong, along with a group of legislators, county officials and nonprofit groups that represent government agencies.

Measure 2 proponents claim that public officials are illegally using taxpayer money to campaign against the initiative and are asking Romanick to order them to stop.

The lawsuit's defendants want the judge to throw out the lawsuit.