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Going head to head on taxes: Property tax emerges as key issue as tax commissioner hopefuls kick off campaigns

FNS Photo by Michael Vosburg Jason Astrup announces his candidacy for the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party endorsement for tax commissioner with his wife, Jamie, on Wednesday in Fargo. At right, 1 / 2
FNS Photo by David Samson North Dakota Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger announces his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for North Dakota tax commissioner on Wednesday at the Fargo Holiday Inn. 2 / 2

BISMARCK — Property taxes are handled at the local level, but they quickly emerged Wednesday as a major issue in the statewide race for North Dakota tax commissioner.

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Recently appointed Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger, a Republican, and Fargo attorney Jason Astrup of the Democratic-NPL Party both announced Wednesday in Bismarck and Fargo that they will seek their party’s endorsement at state conventions this spring.

Anthony Mangnall, a television producer for Rush Street Productions of Fargo, also is running as a Libertarian Party candidate.

Astrup, 34, said in Bismarck that Republicans control every statewide office and hold a supermajority in the Legislature, yet Gov. Jack Dalrymple found it necessary to create a task force in December to study property tax reform.

“There’s a big problem when it comes to property taxes in North Dakota, and it starts with one-party control,” he said.

Rauschenberger, calling property taxes “one of the most sensitive issues we’re dealing with today,” said he considers the task force a “local government finance project” examining which of the state’s 186 mill levies should be eliminated, consolidated or replaced.

“It is a way to look at, is property tax the way to fund all of these certain government operations?” he said.

Rauschenberger said Republicans have done well in administering state government, noting adjusted gross incomes are on the rise, with the average increasing from $60,947 in 2011 to $74,221 in 2012.

“I think we’re doing so well that why would you want to change policy at this point in time?” he said.

Astrup said it’s easy for politicians to take credit when the state’s economy is growing thanks to oil and gas development and a strong farm economy that have created record budget surpluses.

“But the tax commissioner’s office must be more than just a collection and reporting agency,” said, adding that the office was a driving force in state government under past Democratic tax commissioners Heidi Heitkamp, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan.

A Jamestown native, Astrup attended the University of North Dakota School of Law and opened his own law practice in 2010 in Fargo specializing in tax law, business law and estate planning. He said he believes the state must better fund K-12 education and funnel more money to local governments to provide for their communities.

“There’s a ton of money out there. There’s no excuse why we can’t be enacting permanent property tax relief,” he said.

Rauschenberger, 31, served as deputy tax commissioner from July 2009 until Gov. Jack Dalrymple appointed him to serve the final year of the four-term of former Tax Commissioner Cory Fong, who resigned effective Dec. 31 for a job in the private sector.

The Kenmare native and UND alumnus said his goals for the next five years include building on the $2.4 billion in income and property tax relief provided the state residents since 2009 and making taxpayers aware of the state-funded relief.

“It is significant,” he said.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau is finalizing draft language for an initiated measure to reform property taxes, and the nonprofit coalition Empower the Taxpayer also is planning an initiated measure to abolish property taxes after voters rejected the group’s first attempt in 2012.

North Dakota’s tax commissioner is paid an annual salary of $105,050, which will increase to $108,202 in July.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.