Small government or big government?

In even number years, the North Dakota Legislature studies issues and developing possible legislation for their next legislative session. Often these studies are the result of hot-button issues that have not been resolved in the most recent session of the state’s lawmaking body.

In the 2013-14 interim the lawmakers will be studying property taxes, school funding, local governments and other related issues. Senator Dwight Cook who chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation committee is heading up the work on property tax issues. He is quoted as saying that North Dakota has the most government per capita of any state in the US. According to the numbers of the US Department of the Census, he is right.

The Census Bureau reports that North Dakota has 53 counties, 357 municipalities, 1320 townships and 771 special district governments including school districts, fire districts, soil conservation districts and ambulance services. That’s a total of 2699 local governments. That sounds like an overabundance of government officials for a state with 700,000 residents.

Is this really a problem?

Senator Cook and his committee will be looking at the property tax structure and the efficiency of local government. He is sure many of the local governmental bodies can be consolidated and therefore economies of scale will cut down on the amount of funding needing to be raised through property taxes.

There is no doubt that our system of funding local government needs some revision. Property taxes are complex and confusing. The laws which regulate how and when a local governmental entity can levy taxes is spread throughout the state’s century code. Many of the studies being undertaken by the legislature are directly and indirectly related to property taxes and the funds they raise.

How much efficiency will be gained by consolidated local governments? Of the 357 municipalities and 1320 townships, how many have employees which earn more than a couple of hundred dollars a year? If these boards are consolidated, will they still be able to operate with essentially volunteer citizens? Will the consolidated townships and county governments need to hire new employees and travel long distances to carry out their work? Will a board with a larger geographical base still be responsive to the needs of the local citizens? Should we have a statewide fire district? A regional school board? Are the funds levied by local governments being used inefficiently or are they being levied because the state legislature has been negligent is providing the resources needed to fund local services?

Until the last couple of years, the majority of K-12 education has been funded through mills levied by the local school district. In the past, the state legislature struggled to find enough money to pay for the constitutionally mandated funding of public education. They, in part, solved their problem by passing laws which expanded local school districts ability to raise funds locally through property taxes. The number of mills that could be leveled without a vote of the voters in the local district increased. To provide buildings and teachers for the children of their district, school boards used their authority and raised taxes. It seems dishonest for the state legislature to point fingers at local school boards, fire districts and counties for using the expanded taxing authority granted them by the state legislature when funds from the state were not forthcoming.

Senator Cook is quoted as saying, “Local people like local government.” He’s got that right. I think, however, he is wrong when he says we don’t like paying for it. That seems contrary to the 75 percent of voters who in 2012 turned down a repeal of all property taxes. What we don’t like is being stuck with the bill for services that should have been paid for with revenues from taxes the state legislature did not have the courage to levy in the past. We have a problem with state government that is now saving budget surpluses for rainy days and giving money away in tax rebates and tax cuts while disparaging local bodies for raising revenue in the only way legally available to them.

There are services for which a tax on my property is appropriate. I don’t have a problem funding part of the fire engine that might put out a fire in my house. Paying for maintenance on a school building which is part of the school district’s property seems fair. Paying the few dollars that fund the local soil conservation district doesn’t hurt much. Paying a special assessment to maintain a water shed seems to be a logical a part of owning property as does a mill levy to cover the basic maintenance of the road that runs past the end of my driveway.

Yes, property tax laws need revision. How we value property and tax that valuation has inequities. Yes, the education of our children should be funded by the state as a whole. Yes, there are ways every level of government can be more efficient. There may even be cases where consolidation of local governments would be a good thing. It is, however, the legislature which has enacted the rules by which property is valued and the rules by which local governments levy property taxes. If the system is a mess, the legislature has no one to blame but themselves.

North Dakota is not a big government state. We are a state with many small governmental bodies, run by volunteer citizens who have their feet on the ground and who personally pay the very property taxes they levy. It seems ironic to me that the same legislators who cry the loudest about big government are the ones who want to consolidate power in their own hands by eliminating small government. Who will they blame then, for raising your taxes?

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains