District 43 candidates diverge on governor's tax proposal, and they don't necessarily follow party lines

The proposal would eliminate the individual income tax for some 388,000 North Dakota taxpayers whose adjusted gross income is $54,725 or less for single filers or $95,000 for married couples filing

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GRAND FORKS — Most of the candidates seeking election to represent Grand Forks' District 43 in the North Dakota Legislature aren’t in favor of a recent proposal by Gov. Doug Burgum that would eliminate the state income tax for many North Dakotans and instead incorporate a flat tax on higher wage earners.

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Burgum announced the proposal late last month , saying it would be “permanent, meaningful relief” and that it would enhance business competitiveness and attract workers.

The proposal would eliminate the individual income tax for some 388,000 North Dakota taxpayers whose adjusted gross income is $54,725 or less for single filers or $95,000 for married couples filing jointly, according to a release from the governor’s office. Those with higher income levels would pay a flat tax of 1.5% compared to the current income tax rates that range from 2.04% to 2.9%. According to the governor’s office, that “translates to a reduction ranging from 26% to 48% in their state income taxes.”

“Under this proposal, almost 60% of taxpayers won’t have to pay state income tax, and those who do will see their income tax liability reduced by roughly one-quarter to one-half, allowing North Dakotans to keep more of their hard-earned money to offset expenses and invest in their families and communities,” Burgum said at the time of the announcement.

In District 43, the candidates on the Nov. 8 ballot aren’t all convinced, and their opinions don’t necessarily follow party lines.


Those seeking one of the two House positions are Democrat Mary Adams, Republican Ethan Harsell, Democrat Zac Ista and Republican Eric J. Murphy. Adams and Ista are the incumbents.

The Senate race includes Democrat JoNell Bakke and Republican Jeff Barta. Bakke is the incumbent.

For a deeper look at the candidates, go to the Grand Forks Herald's website and search for the story headlined: A look at the candidates seeking election to the Legislature from Grand Forks' District 43 . Also, a Herald story published on Oct. 1 outlined the candidates' ideas about the state labor shortage.

Gov. Burgum is a Republican, as are state Tax Commissioner Brian Kroshus and lawmakers who attended a press conference last month announcing the governor’s income tax proposal.

In District 43, all three of the Democratic candidates — Adams, Ista and Bakke — perhaps predictably offered “no” as the answer when asked if they agree with the governor’s plan. But Murphy, a Republican, also doesn’t agree with the proposal, while Barta suggested a slow approach, saying “we need to research and weigh our options in order to determine the best option for our citizens.”

Only Harsell was quick to support the plan.

“Governor Burgum unveiled a historic plan to reduce individual income taxes, saving North Dakota taxpayers more than $250 million per year. This strategy has my full support because this will allow North Dakotans to build their own prosperity,” said Harsell, a student at UND and a teacher at United Day Nursery. “The flat tax would eliminate the income tax for more than half of all families, directly stimulating the economy and providing breathing room against inflation. I think the residents of District 43 could use the breathing room.”

Murphy, a UND faculty member and CEO of the sports drink company Krampade, said he is concerned about what will happen years from now if the flat-tax proposal is adopted.


“Although this proposal would eliminate income tax for about 60% of North Dakotans, what will we do when the oil revenue declines in 15-20 years, or a perfect storm occurs again with a reduction in oil revenue coupled with a reduction in commodity prices?” Murphy said. “Further, as a community, we all need to help with the tax burden one way or another. A progressive tax allows those who have more means to pay a bit more than their neighbor who might be struggling. A flat tax does not do this; rather, it makes everyone’s burden the same. I know my position is not politically expedient, but I have said on the record that I would be honest with constituents.”

He believes “flexibility is key” and suggests efforts be made to tweak property taxes.

“We can provide tax relief when possible and the last session we saw how that came to fruition. The $750 income tax credit was a good way to navigate these two extremes between higher taxes or a flat tax,” he said. “Further, buying down individuals’ property tax is a good idea when revenue from other tax streams permits this to occur. However, this gives the flexibility to remove such credits and buydowns when other revenue sources are reduced.”

Barta, a Republican seeking to unseat the incumbent Bakke for a spot in the state Senate, acknowledges that the prospect of dropping the state income tax will be appealing to many North Dakotans. He worries about the impact, however, and especially that it might not be as great as other tax-relief proposals.

“As it sits, income taxes are roughly 2% on the first $100,000 earned, which means, on average this policy will create savings of around $83/month for the median family in Grand Forks,” said Barta, a licensed athletic trainer and partner at Achieve Therapy. “Given that we have not fully studied the property tax relief, it is way too early to declare a winner between the two proposals and that is why we have the legislative process. We need to research and weigh our options in order to determine the best option for our citizens.”

In response to the question sent to lawmakers from the Herald, the District 43 Democratic candidates were unanimous in their lack of support for the governor’s proposal.

“A flat tax, while it sounds good in theory, may not work for all,” said Adams, a Realtor. “I am afraid the burden will once again fall on the middle class. The current state tax rate is based on what individuals pay in federal tax. As always, reaching a guideline that is fair to all taxpayers is the issue we in the Legislature must work to achieve.”

Bakke, whose background is in education, said roughly the same.


“A flat tax only benefits those at the top income levels,” she said. “The citizens of North Dakota have voted numerous times to leave state tax alone. There are other tax structures that could be looked at to generate more income. I would like to see a complete study of the North Dakota tax structure and adjustments made based on that study.”

Ista, an assistant state’s attorney for Grand Forks County, called the proposal “just another windfall to millionaires and the wealthiest North Dakotans.”

“The numbers don’t lie. If this proposal had been in place in 2019, families making up to $66,000 would have received an average tax cut of just $154. That’s less than $7 extra in their paychecks every two weeks. But the richest taxpayers (those making more than $433,000) would have seen an average tax cut of over $4,600. That’s a nearly 30 times greater benefit for the wealthiest North Dakotans,” Ista said. “For a millionaire, that tax cut jumps to over $12,000, a whopping 78 times greater benefit than the average working-class family would receive. In total, 25% of the entire cost of this proposal would go to the richest 2.5% of taxpayers. That’s not fair — and it’s not right. This proposal is also out of touch with everyday North Dakotans.”

Absentee voting began Sept. 29 and runs through Nov. 7. Voters who wish to have an absentee ballot mailed should call 701-780-8200.

Early voting will take place at the Alerus Center, entrance 6, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 1-4 and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 5.

Voting on Election Day will be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the following sites in Grand Forks:

  • Alerus Center Voting Center, 1200 42nd St. South, Entrance 8.
  • Holy Family Voting Center, 1018 18th Ave. South.
  • Home of Economy Voting Center, 1508 N Washington St.
  • ICON Arena/GF Park District Office Voting Center, 1060 47th Ave. South.
Related Topics: ELECTION 2022
Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

He is a member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. board of directors and, in the past, has served on boards for Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.

As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.

Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103, or via Twitter via @korriewenzel.
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