Property tax, staffing among concerns for tax commissioner candidates
With less than three weeks until the election, property tax improvements are the highest priority for all three candidates in the state tax commissioner race.
Republican incumbent Ryan Rauschenberger, who was appointed tax commissioner by Gov. Jack Dalrymple in November 2013, said his office has already made strides in working with state lawmakers to offer property tax relief. Among the 36 different types of taxes his office collects, Rauschenberger said property tax garners more questions and comments than any other.
"The vast majority of comments I receive are in the area of property tax," he said. "(If elected) I'll be working closely with the Legislature on property tax legislation, not just in the area of property tax relief, but property tax reform. I'm on the property tax reform task force that is chaired by the governor where we are looking at eliminating a number of local mill levies which is how local property taxes are levied."
Democratic challenger Jason Astrup, a tax attorney from West Fargo, said the state Legislature has not done enough to reduce property taxes.
"The biggest issue right now is the rising cost of living for people; people are concerned about that and property taxes fit right into that," Astrup said. "The Legislature, for the last few sessions, has only passed temporary patches on property tax relief that's set to expire after two years. I'd work with the Legislature to get permanent property tax relief enacted."
Libertarian challenger Anthony Mangnall, a Fargo TV producer, said Libertarians have a keen eye for government waste which would reduce all taxes, and "in fact a Libertarian tax commissioner is almost a contradiction in terms."
"If I were able to step into that situation I could immediately identify a lot of different processes and systems that are most likely outdated or probably have a technology solution that government is often slow to pick up on," he said.
Rauschenberger said the number of tax filings his office had to process was up by 20,000 over the previous year. The tax department has implemented new computer-assisted programs to help the office streamline compliance efforts, correct errors and resist the need to add more staff. Both Astrup and Rauschenberger said they would probably need to add staff if elected, while Mangnall said he would do so begrudgingly.
"The problem with all this oil, this Leviathan oil wealth that we're getting, could also lead to a larger-than-necessary government, and that would be something that myself, as tax commissioner, would always be on the lookout for," Mangnall said.
Rauschenberger, a five-year veteran of the state tax department, said during his tenure as tax commissioner and deputy commissioner, he's seen the department shrink from 155 full-time employees to 135 by implementing technological efficiencies and through retirements and attrition.
"We haven't necessarily had to fill all our positions," he said. "So we have been able, through technology and efficiencies, to decrease the amount of FTEs required to administer tax laws."
Astrup said the tax commissioner's office needs to be a stronger adviser to the Legislature and the governor on tax policies. With thousands of open jobs in the state, Astrup said the state's tax laws need to be inviting for out-of-state workers and businesses.
"I'm proposing tax policies that are friendly to the working families, retirees and small business across the state," he said. "Those are the people that built up our economy to what it is today and the people that are going to continue to build it for tomorrow."
The tax commissioner race made headlines in early September when Rauschenberger's 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe was rolled in Mandan by Jesse Larson, 22, of Mandan. Larson was charged with DUI and reckless driving. Rauschenberger said he met Larson in alcohol treatment. A police report revealed Rauchenberger had rear-ended another vehicle with the Tahoe 6 1/2 hours earlier; however the responding officer did not test for drugs or alcohol at the scene as neither appeared to be contributing factors in the accident.
Rauschenberger took an unpaid leave of absence from the tax commissioner's office to seek additional treatment for alcohol abuse a few days after the accident and returned to his post last week.