Hat tip to Drudge Report.
God bless the good people of North Dakota. Apparently at least 30,000 of them decided that they were tired of living at the mercy of local tax authorities and decided to do something about it.
The New York Times gives a brief summary of a proposal to repeal all property tax assessments in the State of North Dakota:
BISMARCK, N.D. — Since Californians shrank their property taxes more than three decades ago by passing Proposition 13, people around the nation have echoed their dismay over such levies, putting forth plans to even them, simplify them, cap them, slash them. In an election here on Tuesday, residents of North Dakota will consider a measure that reaches far beyond any of that — one that abolishes the property tax entirely.
“I would like to be able to know that my home, no matter what happens to my income or my life, is not going to be taken away from me because I can’t pay a tax,” said Susan Beehler, one in a group of North Dakotans who have pressed for an amendment to the state’s Constitution to end the property tax. They argue that the tax is unpredictable, inconsistent, counter to the concept of property ownership and needless in a state that, thanks in part to wildly successful oil drilling, finds itself in the rare circumstance of carrying budget reserves.
“When,” Ms. Beehler asked, “did we come to believe that government should get rich and we should get poor?”
An unusual coalition of forces, including the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the state’s largest public employees’ unions, vehemently oppose the idea, arguing that such a ban would upend this quiet capital. Some big unanswered questions, the opponents say, include precisely how lawmakers would make up some $812 million in annual property tax revenue; what effect the change would have on hundreds of other state laws and regulations that allude to the more than century-old property tax; and what decisions would be left for North Dakota’s cities, counties and other governing boards if, say, they wanted to build a new school, hire more police, open a new park.
“This is a plan without a plan,” said Andy Peterson, president and chairman of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, who acknowledged that property taxes have climbed in some parts of the state and that North Dakota’s political leaders need to tackle the issue. “But this solution is a little like giving a barber a razor-sharp butcher knife — and by the way, this barber is blind — and asking him or her to give you a haircut. You’ll get the job done, but you might be missing an ear or an eye.”
What I love most about this ballot measure is the way it brings into question every assumption of local governance for the last 100 years. You can almost hear the local politicians sputtering and choking as they consider the changes that would be needed if they suddenly did not have this $800 million to keep themselves employed. Public employee unions, too, obviously see that the elimination of the property tax means an empty trough. Although total elimination of the property tax may not be the exact solution, it forces everyone in North Dakota at least to re-think basic assumptions about public services and reconsider whether there might be alternatives. This is the kind of thinking that America desperately needs today, and not just in North Dakota.
For example, one of the main arguments that supporters of the tax put forward is that police, schools, local government and fire and rescue will no longer exist without this tax money. But that is simply not true and amounts to a scare tactic, a sure sign of a weak argument. Elimination of property taxes simply means that government must find an alternative source of funding or that the provision of these traditional, taxpayer-funded services will have to change. Might there be other ways of providing an education? Public schools, afterall, are a 20th century creation. Who is to say that there may not be a better way to educate children without the public school harness? The same could be said for police, fire fighting and other local government services. The failure here is one of imagination. The supporters of the property tax simply cannot imagine a different way of doing things (and have no incentive to do so).
The fight over local property taxes also reveals in a stark way the limits of our actual freedoms. Anyone who owns real property prefers not to think about the fact that we will never, truly own anything. Even if we should manage to pay off the mortgage covering the purchase price of our home, the county government will always be there, year after year, demanding ever greater sums for the “privilege” of living on their land.
The usual, counter-argument here is that property owners benefit from all of the services provided to them by the county (fire, police, ambulance, schools, etc…), so it is only right to demand a contribution to the costs. Setting aside the question of whether a tax assessment on the value of my property is even a rational or fair way to determine my “contribution,” however, there are fundamental problems with this kind of thinking. What about those who make little or no use of county services? They have no children in school, they provide for their own protection under their Second Amendment rights and they are more than willing to re-build with neighbors’ assistance in the event of a fire. Anyone with any actual experience with local government officials knows that they do not improve the quality of our lives. Just the opposite. Furthermore, the coerced taxation of property owners entrenches an entire system of “public employees” who have absolutely no interest in any changes that would save taxpayers money, improve quality or find alternative means to provide services. Simply compare the mindset of a business that must constantly respond to customers’ needs and compete with others to retain business or fail entirely with that of government.
Every indicator around us points to the fact that we cannot continue to follow the same, outdated model of taxation and governance. Whether the North Dakota ballot initiative is the answer or merely the first, halting step, we had best be about re-inventing the American way of life.