The biggest change in local and state government in recent memory has been the shift of funding from the local to the state level for elementary and secondary education. For decades, the never-reached goal was
70 percent state funding of K-12. Now it looks like the Legislature will be able to fund 80 percent or more of local school costs.
It’s a shift that removes the growing pressure on property taxes. It’s a change the improves educational equity from one end of North Dakota to the other. It allows all of North Dakota to benefit from oil development and other positive economic changes.
The Legislature will be working through the mechanisms for accomplishing this change in the coming weeks. Lawmakers will be making this state support of elementary and secondary education permanent and sustainable — at least that’s the plan. The funding formula, included in House Bill 1319, will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Commission on Thursday.
Step-by-step, state funding of education has increased beginning in 2009. That year, the Legislature spent $310 million buying down property taxes for education. In 2011, the buydown was $341.8 million for the biennium. In the 2013 session, legislation is on track to spend $595 million on K-12.
The baseline payments per student were $3,910 for 2011-12. The baseline will move to $8,810 in 2013-14 and $9,092 in 2014-15.
These are significant dollar changes — decreases — that property taxpayers ought to feel. However, there’s always the risk of other local governments — cities, counties, park districts — adding property taxes and diminishing what property owners should expect in terms of relief. Lawmakers are well aware of this potential and may restrict other property tax increases.
School districts, communities, the Legislature and state government also will have to work through issues of local control. Historically significant, the local property tax was tied to strong local control.
As funding shifts to the state, these interested parties are going to have to be more thoughtful about how to maintain local control. We see how the Legislature acts when it funds higher education but can’t call the shots.
Right now, the state is the most efficient tax collector. Having it pick up the lion’s share of education funding will help out everyone up and down the chain, from cities and parks to schools and counties.
The North Dakota Legislature needs to close this school deal.