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At Issue: Challenges ahead for taxpayers

Published (1/9/2009)
By Sonja Hegman
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Fairness. Transparency. Brutal. Challenging.

These are words members of the House Property and Local Sales Tax Division used numerous times in their first meeting Jan. 7 to describe the task of helping property taxpayers while solving the state’s projected $4.85 billion deficit.

The division’s members would like to provide tax relief this year, but right now, they don’t know how. Members discussed areas of concern including local government aid (LGA), building secure relationships with local governments and consolidating certain government services. But it always circled back to the budget crisis.

“We not only have the duty, but the obligation to resolve this budget deficit,” said Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth), the division chairman. “The challenge is going to be to think differently.”

Marquart emphasized that anything done in the property tax division has to be approved by the entire tax committee. “What’s going to be important to realize is that it’s the state of Minnesota’s budget deficit. We need to forge ideas and solutions to make a better government. This impacts every corner of the state.”

“This is going to be a very brutal year,” said Rep. Ann Lenczewski (DFL-Bloomington), House Taxes Committee chairwoman. She believes the majority of the state’s financial problem will be solved with cuts.

“We have a huge task. We need to be as fair as we can, which is all in the eye of the beholder. When people don’t receive things equally it’s so hard to take things away.” The public is going to have trouble understanding why things are playing out the way they are, she said. If LGA is cut, then questions come as to why someone else didn’t get a cut. “We need to decide how we define ‘need.’ Who needs it the most is going to be an incredible task. It’s going to be rough. It’s going to be very painful.”

Rep. Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin) said she doesn’t think the current task at hand is insurmountable, but some credits might have to be eliminated. “We worked really hard at property tax relief last year. It’s unfortunate that probably won’t be the direction we’re going this year. We need to have a public conversation with homeowners.”

Dittrich, along with several division members, brought up concerns about Green Acres, a program that equalizes taxes for many agricultural landowners. Changes to the program were implemented in a harried fashion last session and members said they would like to address those changes because of some confusion.

“I’m not going to vote on any legislation that is hot,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington). “Hot” meaning still hot from coming off the copy machine and then members are given only a half an hour briefing on an amendment, etc., which he said is what happened with the change in the Green Acres Program. “We need to at least understand everything in a bill before we vote on it.”

Rep. Bob Dettmer (R-Forest Lake), a second-term legislator, agreed.

He said he learned his lesson after telling his constituents that he didn’t read through the whole tax bill last session. “You need to read through an entire bill even if it’s 296 pages. The more we can do to help people understand what we’re doing will make a big difference.”

Rep. Morrie Lanning (R-Moorhead), the division’s Republican lead, said they need to look at how resources are being used now. “We need to establish priorities in the areas we’re spending. We need to be sensitive to the needs of the people. It’s not going to be easy. This whole budget is about equalization. Some communities have a very modest property tax base. That makes a huge difference.”

Rep. Joe Mullery (DFL-Mpls) said a lot of people are leaving his district because of property tax issues. “Something has to be shifted. The state keeps shifting more and more of the burden to local property taxpayers. Education is also thrown onto property tax system. I think we can take part in helping that.”

In the end, all seemed to agree that input from taxpayers was going to be an essential part of the process this year.

“We’re all in this together,” Marquart said.

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