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Nelson: Property tax reform isn’t really reform

Charlene Nelson

By Charlene Nelson / Guest columnist

Does anyone really expect Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s Property Tax Task Force to give us meaningful tax reform?

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In January 2013, the governor said property tax not a problem for the state to fix. Then he pushed for (and got) an $850 million property tax buy-down, which was money sent to the school districts, ostensibly to reduce the school’s share of the property tax bill.

But surprise, surprise! Just as with his 2011 and 2009 buy-downs, this only exacerbated the problem. Why? Because the governor, like everyone else performing the property tax relief dance, is refusing to acknowledge, much less address, the core problems of our broken property tax system.

Recently, the North Dakota Farm Bureau has tried their hand at “fixing” this tax. Unfortunately their proposed reforms, like all others before them are only more deck-chair arranging on the Titanic.

Why? Because they do not address any of the reasons property tax is such a problem for everyone.

There are three fundamental problems with property tax that must be addressed. Unless and until policy leaders address these problems, everything else will be as helpful as lipstick on a pig. It might look pretty for a while, but it won’t take long before we recognize you still have a pig.

The first problem is property tax is so convoluted and arbitrary that few people — including most of our elected representatives — don’t understand it. And because it is so capricious, it is easily manipulated. As a result, in most cities and towns, between 40 percent and 55 percent of the properties aren’t even taxed. Renaissance zones, economic development zones, TIF zones and special exemptions — all established by the state — exempt new home owners, farmers, many businesses and other select groups from paying the tax. The unfair and capricious application of this tax must stop.

Second, property tax is going up faster than people’s income. Every year property taxes take huge jumps so that today most people are paying double what they did just 10 years ago. That’s eight to 10 times the rate of inflation.

Who in this state has seen their income double in the last 10 years? Some of the increase in property tax is due to mill increases, but most of the time it is because of increases in property valuations mandated by the State Board of Equalization.

These aren’t merely pesky taxes that are sometimes difficult to pay. These are taxes that deprive us of our homes. And that is the third and, most egregious, problem with property tax.

Last summer, Grand Forks County sent out 151 letters notifying property owners that their properties were slated to be sold to pay for delinquent taxes. In Cass County, 194 letters went out. Statewide, thousands of home and business owners were threatened with loss of their property because they were unable to pay this out-of-control tax.

The most vital thing to a family’s well-being and to a stable, healthy community is being secure in its homes. Property tax denies us that security while government thrives and grows. It’s time that families, not government, come first.

Elected officials have not only ignored these problems, they’ve exacerbated them — creating more state control over how cities and counties can spend property tax revenues, setting more controls over property valuations, creating more exemptions for special interests and thwarting citizens’ attempts to control local spending by diverting millions of tax dollars to phony and failed buy-downs.

In this past legislative session, lawmakers introduced dozens of bills to “fix” property tax. But not one single bill passed that would have addressed these three core problems. Go to our website, for an analysis of the 2013 legislation and to see firsthand how your legislators voted.

The governor has punctuated his contempt for families struggling with high property tax by appointing to his task force the very people who have opposed every attempt at meaningful reform.

Reform simply isn’t on their agenda, only increased control of the family budget and local spending. In other words, the status quo.

Nelson is the chairman of Fool Me Once, formerly Empower The Taxpayer. Email her at