Voters heading to polls in Fargo Tuesday
BISMARCK, ND -- North Dakotans used their regularly scheduled primary election Tuesday to weigh in on two controversial issues: property taxes and the University of North Dakota's team name.
In early election returns, it appeared the referendum to abolish property taxes failed by a wide margin, effectively leaving that form of taxation on the books.
The same voting results showed that North Dakotans were leaning towards allowing the university to drop "The Fighting Sioux" and switch to a less controversial mascot name.
Abolishing the Property Tax
The political group Empower the Taxpayers, succeeded in putting the issue on the ballot by collecting signatures from registered voters, as is allowed by North Dakota's election laws.
Charlene Nelson, who leads the organization, argued that North Dakota municipalities and school districts could survive the loss of $812 million in property tax revenue each year because the state is running a $5 billion budget surplus.
Much of that surplus is due to the state's red hot oil drilling boom, and Nelson reasoned the state should use that extra cash to provide to some tax relief to businesses and homeowners.
"The state has a $5 billion surplus," Nelson said during a debate on KLVY-TV in Fargo. "And I'm going to guess that most of the listeners, your viewers, don't even have $5,000 sitting in their savings account right now."
School employees, unions and other labor groups joined opponents to the idea, in arguing that total state funding of 2,100 local municipalities would result in loss of local control.
"Do we want our decisions to be made in Bismarck every two years, on how we should fix our roads, build schools, or what level of law enforcement we should have in my home town of Tioga?" Bob Harms, of Keep it Local ND, asserted in the same televised debate.
Property taxes are considered, by most, as the most reliable and stable form of taxation, although a constant source of frustrations by families facing tight household budgets.
"Most tax experts around the country believe it remains an essential cornerstone of local government finance," Mark Haveman of the non-partisan Minnesota Taxpayers Association told KARE.
"It works really well, despite how much dislike it creates." Haveman said property taxes have traditionally been viewed as the most sturdy leg in the "three-legged stool" of taxation, along with sales and income taxes.
"Given that revenue sources can be volatile, you don't want to rely on one particular revenue stream, because it that takes a nose dive you can find yourself in trouble," he explained.
He said it's tempting for individual votes to buy into the idea that they can eliminate their property tax by just filling in an oval on a ballot.
"Property tax provides the stability leg, because income and sales taxes, as we've seen as a result of the recession, can decline dramatically."
He said the best way to control your property tax bill is to take part in the local public hearings that make up the budget-setting process in cities, counties and school districts.
"All property taxes are set locally, based on how much local revenue your local leaders decide they need to back fill other sources of money they can't control."
Fighting Sioux Nickname
The other ballot issue is one they've been debating on the campus of the University of North Dakota, and throughout the region, for many years. The school's Native American imagery and Fighting Sioux nickname violates NCAA policy, because it is offensive to many tribal members.
For some, it's an issue of an American Indian culture being used out of context, and for some the word "Sioux" is problematic because it was a label European settlers and other tribes created.
The North Dakota Legislature originally passed a bill that barred the university from changing its team name before the year 2015. But last year, the legislature repealed that section of law, effectively enabling U.N.D. to drop the Fighting Sioux and adopt a different team name.
A citizen petition drive forced the issue to the ballot. A "yes" vote would result in upholding the legislature's most recent move, allowing the school to pick a new name. A "no" vote would essentially "repeal the repeal," or leave the 2015 ban in place.
The university's men's hockey coach, Dave Hakstol, originally supported keeping the Sioux name, which dates back to the 1930's. But in February he urged voters to back the repeal, and give the State Board of Higher Education permission to choose a new mascot.
The NCAA won't let the school host any playoffs until the Sioux label is dropped. Haksol also said he worried the university would be dropped from the Big Sky Conference if the issue wasn't put to rest.
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