North Dakota Votes Against Abolishing Property Tax

PHOTO: Wallace and Evelyn Feltman walk to the ballot box after filling out their ballots at the Alerus Center, Grand Forks, North Dakota, June 12, 2012.Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Wallace and Evelyn Feltman walk to the ballot box after filling out their ballots at the Alerus Center, Grand Forks, North Dakota, June 12, 2012.

North Dakotans took their angst against property taxes to the polls on Tuesday, an issue gaining traction in other parts of the U.S.

Voters ultimately rejected the ballot measure to eliminate the state's property taxes, with a reported 76.5 percent rejecting the proposal and 23.5 percent favoring. However, a measure to change the University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" logo and nickname did pass.

Polls closed at 8 p.m. central time on Tuesday.

Click here to view a slideshow: Battle Over 'Fighting Sioux' Name: Is it 'Abusive'?

Measure 2 proposed to eliminate North Dakota's property taxes, which amount to $812 million annually, retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year. If the measure had passed, the state would have been the first to eliminate local property taxes, the mainstay of cities and towns.

"People shouldn't have their homes held hostage," said Charlene Nelson, 52, chairwoman of the organized effort behind Measure 2, Empower the Taxpayer. "The state has more than enough revenue to pay for K through 12 education as well as government services without kicking people out of their homes."

The issue of increasing property taxes is contentious in many parts of the country as local governments tried to raise additional revenue during the downturn.

Nelson said the state has "more than enough" money with its $5 billion state surplus without the additional revenue from property taxes. Nelson said there are better ways to fund local governments.

"It all comes out of taxpayers' pockets – right or left. The question is should our homes be at risk, and we say they shouldn't."

The measure stated that property taxes must be replaced with revenue from state sales taxes, individual and corporate income taxes, oil and gas production, tobacco taxes, lottery revenue and other sources.

Groups like the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce opposed the measure, calling it "draconian" and "ill-advised."

Previous constitutional measures, some that passed as early as 1920, left the state with only about a $730 million surplus as of June 30 last year, lower than what property taxes fund in one year, according to North Dakota's Chamber of Commerce.

Andy Peterson, president of the North Dakota's Chamber of Commerce, expected the measure to fail three to one, in part because of residents' cautiousness toward spending.

"It's a very conservative state and we like it that way," said Andy Peterson, president of the North Dakota's Chamber of Commerce. "It's just the culture here."

Even the state's oil boom hasn't affected the state's tight-fisted culture, Peterson said.

Thirty percent of all the state's oil revenue is allocated into a legacy fund for a "rainy day" that the state has yet to define. Until then, the state can only spend the interest earned in the fund with a supermajority in the legislature -- and that's only until 2017.

"It's a volatile industry. We've been through booms and busts before," he said.

Supporters of Measure 2 argued that after the legacy fund, about $1 billion in oil revenue would still be available each year.

But Jon Godfread, the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce's vice president of governmental affairs, said the measure would have taken away control from local governments -- whose main source of revenue is property taxes.

"We think local government is the best government because it's closest to the people," Peterson said.

If property tax revenue dries up, the state's 2,100 units of local government would have to come to the state legislature "begging for money." That would be challenging as the state has a biennial legislature that meets 80 days every two years.

Nelson said if the measure passed, there would be no need to raise taxes elsewhere.

"If taxes are raised it will be a political decision and not an economic one. It will be to appease special interest groups that want unlimited access to family budgets," she said.

Nelson said she will continue working on the issue.

"If it doesn't pass," she said, "we've just begun."