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Property tax measure supporters seek injunction

BISMARCK -- Supporters of a measure to eliminate property taxes in the state are seeking an injunction against several state and local officials who they believe are intentionally engaging in lies and fear mongering over the measure.

Their opponents say Measure 2 supporters realize they are losing their argument in the court of public opinion and are now resorting to threats and baseless claims.

Empower the Taxpayer had a news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday to announce they filed a complaint in district court in Bismarck against elected officials and publicly-funded organizations. They believe these officials and organizations are violating North Dakota's Corrupt Practices Act.

The law prohibits elected officials and public organizations "from advocating 'for or against or otherwise reflect a position on the adoption or rejection of the ballot question,'" court documents state.

The complaint is filed against Tax Commissioner Cory Fong, state legislators Dwight Cook, Dave Oehlke, Chuck Damschen and Lonny Winrich, and Cass County Commissioner Scott Wagner, to name a few.

Organizations listed in the complaint include the North Dakota Association of Counties, the North Dakota League of Cities and the North Dakota School Boards Association.

"These entities and those benefiting from a corrupt property tax system are doing everything they can do to stop a full, fair, robust and responsible debate on whether North Dakota should be the first state in the nation to totally eliminate property taxes," said Bob Hale of Minot who spoke on behalf of Empower the Taxpayer.

Lynn Boughey, attorney for Empower the Taxpayer, said it's difficult for his clients "to get a fair shot when public money is being used to go against this measure that they're proposing."

Elected officials, government entities and organizations funded with taxpayer money are "actively and intentionally engaging in lies, misrepresentations, deception, mischaracterization and fear mongering," Hale said.

On its website, the North Dakota Association of Counties discusses the Corrupt Practices Act.

"If you are not using public resources, your First Amendment rights apply and you are free to express your opinion as you see fit," the website says.

Boughey does not think the First Amendment is a defense in this case.

"I believe they are not protected to promote and disseminate false information," he said.

Cook, R-Mandan, said he was speaking to a Mandan organization about his opposition to Measure 2 while Empower the Taxpayer had its news conference. He said he asked the Legislative Council if he could talk about the issue before he initially began speaking out about it and was told he could.

After hearing about the injunction, he said he called Legislative Council again Wednesday and was told again what he was doing is "perfectly legal."

"I'm a citizen," Cook said. "I represent people, but I don't think I gave up my First Amendment rights."

He said Empower the Taxpayer is "trying to be the judge of what's true and what's not true about the consequences" of the measure.

"I don't know what makes them the ultimate authority, but I disagree with a lot of the things they say," Cook said.

Rep. Lonny Winrich, D-Grand Forks, who hadn't been told about the injunction, said he hasn't used public resources to express his opinion on the measure.

Wagner said he would talk to Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick about the injunction.

"I fully feel that I'm within my constitutional rights, the First Amendment right to freedom of speech," Wagner said. "I don't lose that because I've entered public office."

Deputy Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger responded to a request for comment from Fong. He said they have not had a chance to read the complaint and need time to analyze the allegations.

Aaron Birst, legal counsel of the North Dakota Association of Counties, said the organization would make its statement on the complaint when it provides a legal response.

Dustin Gawrylow of the North Dakota Taxpayers Association said the organization is neutral on the measure but "understand the motivations of those seeking remedy with regards to publicly funded entities in violation of the law."

Teri Finneman is a

multimedia reporter for Forum

Communications Co.