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Democratic leaders visit Dickinson, voice concerns about property taxes

Tyler Axness (left), Sen. Joan Heckaman (center) and Rep. Corey Mock discussed the legislative session at the Dickinson Library Tuesday. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press

State Democratic Party leaders are worried that North Dakota property taxes will increase during the 2017-19 biennium because of legislative action taken this session.

Property taxpayers could see a 7 to 10 percent increase after the Legislature voted to try a two-year pilot program to fund county social service programs instead of continuing the state’s 12 percent property tax buydown, said House Minority Leader Corey Mock of Grand Forks.  

He said the buydown cost the state about $240 million during the last biennium, while funding the counties’ social services will cost about $160 million – meaning taxpayers may pay the difference in their property taxes.

Mock met with residents Tuesday night at the Dickinson Area Public Library to review the recent legislative session. Also attending were Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman of New Rockford and former state Sen. Tyler Axness of Fargo, who writes the ND xPlains blog.

Based on the average price of homes in Jamestown, West Fargo and Bismarck, and estimating an 8 percent increase, individual property owners may pay about $200 more per year in property taxes, Mock said.

“We’re getting hit hard because of all of the factors beyond our control, but we are suffering because of the circumstances that are within our control,” he said. “Much of this is a self-inflicted wound, and we need to have the conversation about fair and equitable tax policy that puts North Dakota in the driver’s seat.”

Heckaman said she is worried about what might happen if the two-year pilot program does not work and the state returns to the property tax buydown.

Mock also criticized North Dakota’s budget, noting that the state budgeted $4.3 billion for the next two years, but is only expected to bring in about $3.6 billion in ongoing revenue – dollars from income tax, oil revenue projections and sales tax among other taxes. The state will spend $825 million in one-time revenue sources to compensate for this funding gap over the 2017-19 biennium.

If the state does not see high prices of oil and agriculture commodities, the 2019 legislative session may be even more difficult, Mock said.

President’s budget

In the last several months, the state Democratic Party has seen an increase in interest, said Warren Larson, vice chair of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL.

“One thing that I’ve found, whether it’s in Abercrombie or Dickinson, is that we’re seeing more and more and more new people that we never saw before,” Warren said. “In our party office, about a month after the election, we started getting calls saying, ‘How can we get involved? What can we do?’ So people are coming out, people are getting more and more involved.”

The Democrats also opposed President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, saying that, if passed, it would hurt rural North Dakotans.

“As far as the budget goes, yeah, it’s a disaster for North Dakota,” Axness said. “You look at the ag cuts, you look at other rural services. I think the transportation for the Essential Air Services  -- so Jamestown, Devils Lake, Dickinson, Williston, all impacted.”

He said Trump’s budget would also cut Medicaid by $800 billion and transfer money for Medicaid expansion out of state control. Medicaid not only affects low-income people, but also rural hospitals and nursing homes, Axness said.

Because of the cuts this session, Axness said he does not think the state could handle taking over some Medicaid funding. If Trump’s budget is passed, North Dakota lawmakers would need to decide whether the Legislature will increase future Medicaid funding, he said.

Local Democrats

Democrats account for nine of 47 senators and 13 of 94 representatives. There are no Democratic state lawmakers west of Bismarck, with most coming from the Red River Valley.

The Democratic Party is looking for candidates for the 2018 election. Odd-numbered district seats will be up, including District 37 in Dickinson proper.

Linda Kittleson, chair of the District 36 Democrats, said Dickinson Democrats are meeting informally on a weekly basis to discuss local, state and federal issues and their effects on the Dickinson area.

“I have two officers in District 36 who showed up at our party reorganization because of what is happening politically,” she said. “… We’ve seen a lot of the young people, too, at the caucuses show up. We’re just seeing new people, people I didn’t know before that are becoming involved. I see a lot of positive things.”

Anyone interested in getting more involved with their local Democratic groups can contact the state party.

To reach Kittleson for more information about District 36 Democrats, call 701-863-6826 or call Keith Fernsler, chair of the District 37 Democrats, at 701-260-5807.

“There are two very active political parties, and right now we need to make sure that no voice in this state feels like it’s not being heard,” Mock said. “That’s the task that we have put on ourselves and feel proud about it. Obviously, that’s some heavy lifting on our shoulders being in the minority, but I feel like it’s the right thing to do, and it will create a much stronger government in the process.”

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