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Jacobs: ND chokes local governments because it can’t fleece DC

Politics in North Dakota operate on a simple equation: North Dakotans want as much as we can get from Washington while giving as little as we can get away with to state and local governments.

Today, the corollary of this equation is in force: If you can’t work one side of the equation, work the other.

That’s what’s happening today in North Dakota politics. We’re trying to figure out how to give even less to Bismarck and even less than that to local governments.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple has appointed a task force to figure out how to do just that. He’s named 14 people to study the property tax system, which goes almost exclusively to local governments. George Sinner — state senator, son of a former governor and a Democrat whose political ambitions are becoming apparent — had a critical statement about it on Dec. 4.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau Federation has prepared its own plan for property tax cuts and may bring it to the ballot. This would be the second property tax measure in three elections. The first failed after a coordinated campaign convinced North Dakotans it went too far. But that didn’t stop us from thinking we ought to cut the tax.

The property tax is a nuisance, for sure, and it has many more serious flaws. For one thing, it’s hard to understand, because the tax is levied in mills, a term that’s not in ordinary use.

And even that’s not the worst thing. The property tax is inherently unfair because it falls most heavily on people with fixed incomes who also happen to own property. Still worse, it is a considerable expense and probably discourages economic development, especially in communities where businesses are marginal in any case.

Of course, the evidence that it discourages growth is clear enough from the eagerness with which taxing entities delay collecting the tax on companies that promise to provide new jobs.

But perhaps worst of all, the property tax is hard to pay. It comes due just once a year and all at once. This means the bill is often large and always obvious.

Hence, the unpopularity of the property tax.

Given all this, it’s remarkable that the tax has survived as long as it has. There’s really been only one major reform in the state’s history, when a tax on personal property, including household goods, farm equipment and even livestock — including chickens — was repealed more than half a century ago.

There’s something more at work here than unhappiness with the property tax.

It’s ambitious politicians.

For generations, the path to political success in North Dakota was to milk the public cow — the big one, the federal treasury. As a consequence, the state got water development, electricity, interstate highways and Air Force bases — and it kept its members of Congress in office for decades.

In recent times, Democrats were more effective at this than Republicans, but it was a bipartisan effort. Republican Milton Young, who served in the U.S. Senate for 35 years, brought the state its Air Force bases, and he championed coal-fired electrical plants. He championed less successful projects, as well, including a giant irrigation project known as Garrison Diversion.

But Young’s premier accomplishment was a farm policy that supported crop prices. For this, he became known as “Mr. Wheat,” the title of a recent biography by Rick Collin and Andrea Winkjer Collin.

Young’s legacy was an expectation of federal largesse. His successor in the Senate, Republican Mark Andrews, lost his seat because Democrats successfully portrayed him as not as adept at pork barreling as Young had been, even though Andrews had proven to be no slouch at the task.

In today’s political climate, there’s little percentage in crusading for federal spending in the state. That doesn’t stop North Dakota politicians from doing it, of course. The delegation is united behind the state’s Air Force bases, for example, and all three of them — Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer — have stumped for farm legislation.

But that’s not where the main action in North Dakota politics is these days. These days, we’re working the other side of the equation, trying to choke local governments rather than fleece Washington.

Jacobs is publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service.