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Port: Don't let local governments pass the property tax buck

As expected, some elected leaders in local government are hiking property taxes and passing the blame on to the Legislature.

Lawmakers do deserve some blame. They chose to use a portion of budget surpluses driven by the oil and crop price boom of years past to buy down local property taxes.

A politically deft maneuver in the short term — it let the politicians of both parties crow about all the "property tax relief" they were doling out — but it was poor long-term policy. The only way it works is if boom-time tax revenues last forever.

Spoiler alert: Boom time tax revenues don't actually last forever.

Lawmakers hid the problem of rising property taxes in the state's rising river of revenues, but when that river dried up the problem remained. Now lawmakers have stopped the property tax buy downs, and some local governments are responding to it by raising their property tax levies.

Bungling by lawmakers should not translate into a blank check for local tax hikes.

For one thing, lawmakers didn't just stop the property tax buy downs. They also took over local social service spending that was funded by property taxes, transferring it from local budgets to the state budget.

The social service take over isn't as large a dollar amount as the property tax buy downs were, but it's still a spending obligation that's out of local budgets for the time being.

For another, why shouldn't local governments tighten their belts in the same way state lawmakers did?

"I believe that the political [subdivisions] need to trim their budgets too," Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told me in an April interview on my radio show.

He's right. Leaders like Wardner and Gov. Doug Burgum vowed to address the state's post-oil boom budget short falls without raising taxes. They accomplished that goal.

That sort of approach is what taxpayers expect from their statewide leaders. Why can't we expect the same of local leaders?

Some of the dynamic at play is partisan politics. Democrats and their media allies see property taxes as a way to beat up on the Republican majority in the Legislature, so they're willing to gloss over the responsibility local leaders have for property tax hikes.

Some of it is opportunism from the locals. Passing the buck on property taxes to state-level leaders is a tried-and- true tactic for local politicians and their pressure groups.

The fact that lawmakers were engaged in the futile and ill-advised effort to buy down local property taxes with state-level surplus dollars is, in the first place, a direct product of how effective local leaders and their lobbyists have been at avoiding responsibility for property taxes.

We don't want to go down that road again. Whatever mistakes lawmakers made in the past, going forward when you're looking to hold someone accountable for your property tax bill, your search should begin and end with your local elected leaders.