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North Dakotans wage savvy campaign to preserve property taxes

In an era when taxes and government are considered dirty words, the ballot measure’s rejection is quite remarkable.

North Dakota property tax chart published by Keep It Local North Dakota

In an era when taxes and government are considered dirty words by many Americans, it’s quite remarkable that North Dakota voters on Tuesday soundly rejected a ballot measure to eliminate property taxes.

A group called Empower the Taxpayer wanted to amend North Dakota’s constitution to abolish property taxes, but 77 percent of voters rejected that effort.

North Dakota Republicans control the governor’s office, both houses of the Legislature and two of the three congressional seats in Washington. The people who’ve elected conservatives to represent them in Bismarck and Washington, D.C., didn’t want to gamble to see what would happen with a property-tax abolition.

If the measure had been adopted, the North Dakota Legislature’s authority would have increased and it would have been responsible for funding schools and local units of government with state income, sales and oil tax revenues.

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Many people who have difficulty paying rising property taxes on their homes and businesses could have viewed a constitutional amendment as a just reform.

But the opponents of the measure crafted a political strategy that created a huge majority that was motivated to defeat the measure.

North Dakotans chose to preserve the property tax as an essential and stable revenue source for funding the local services they use on a daily basis, namely schools, roads and law enforcement.

It’s challenging to communicate with the public on ballot measures because it’s critical to develop succinct and clear messages. In Minnesota, that communication hurdle is now evident as leaders of the pro- and anti-marriage amendment camps are rolling out their campaigns to woo November voters.

Strategic decisions

In North Dakota, several strategic decisions were made to give the property-tax measure opponents the edge with voters.

Keep It Local North Dakota1. They created a coalition name, Keep It Local North Dakota, that resonated with voters. In small towns and regional centers across North Dakota, people wanted local control to decide how much money is spent on their schools and city and county government. People also wanted to have ready access to attend school board and local government meetings to express their views on what programs should get priority funding. Voters wanted to share their opinions with school board and city council members when they see them in a grocery store or at a school athletic event. Moving these financial decisions to Bismarck would mean that government decision-makers would be less accessible on a regular basis.

2. Opponents successfully framed the issue. They defined the impact of Measure 2, the ballot measure to get rid of property taxes, as one that would produce “uncertainty” in North Dakota. This was a winning argument because people care deeply about their schools and they want their cities and counties to reliably and efficiently provide police, fire and snow removal services. People also want their local parks and recreation programs to be strong. If Measure 2 had passed, partisan legislators in Bismarck would suddenly be controlling the level of funding for local services across the entire state of North Dakota. Funding levels would be more unpredictable because the length of the oil boom is an unknown and sales and income tax revenues are more variable than property taxes.

In Minnesota, the marriage amendment raises issues of civil rights and preservation of traditional marriage. People on both sides of the issue will be trying to win hearts and minds of Minnesota voters by framing the question in ways that connect with people’s values and sense of fairness.

3. The Keep It Local North Dakota campaign used facts to buttress its case to voters. It emphasized that property taxes generated about $812 million a year, and state lawmakers who hold sessions every other year would be making decisions about how to replace that money at the state level. The opponents clearly conveyed that 45 percent of that property tax money was supporting local schools and 50 percent was funding city and county budgets. On a daily basis, people could see that money in action. It’s why some voters will favor special bond issues for school districts, because they view their children’s educations as critical to their futures and they have close contact with the schools.

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4. Keep It Local North Dakota built a broad coalition of organizations that allowed it to win in a landslide in Tuesday’s election. The big-tent collaboration included groups that are nonpartisan as well as those that align with Republican and Democratic politicians. The Chamber of Commerce, League of Cities, Public Employees Association, School Boards Association, Rural Electric Cooperatives, Corn Growers and Farmers Union all stood together to preserve property taxes and defeat Measure 2. Almost 100 groups joined the North Dakota coalition.

In Wisconsin, organizers who tried to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker failed in large part because they couldn’t muster a large enough coalition to support their cause. The Wisconsin dispute turned into a battle between activist public employees and angry taxpayers. A majority of voters didn’t rally around public employees because they were more concerned about getting government spending under control.

North Dakota is a small state where people take their politics seriously. North Dakotans are pragmatic. They weren’t tempted to get rid of property taxes, because they recognize they’ll have more control over the quality of their schools and local government if they keep funding decisions close to home.

Fedor can be reached at