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Education, taxes, safety dominate 2007 session

BISMARCK No one called the property tax relief bill that finally passed late on the last night of the North Dakota Legislature "Plan 9 From Outer Space," after a famously bad movie.

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BISMARCK No one called the property tax relief bill that finally passed late on the last night of the North Dakota Legislature "Plan 9 From Outer Space," after a famously bad movie.

No, this was more like Plan 11. Or 12. Or 13.

In addition to the dozen or so rewrites of the bill that will become law, Senate Bill 2032, there were nearly as many rewrites of another property tax relief measure, House Bill 1051, which the Senate killed off a month before the session concluded.

And beyond those, individual legislators brought in more than 10 other bills with their own ideas for easing property taxes for all or some North Dakotans.

Some concentrated on putting brakes on property assessment increases or political subdivisions' ability to hike taxes. Some targeted only homeowners making less than $45,000. Others sought to exclude relief for commercial property owners, or limit the benefit to nonresidents.

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In the end, only one legislator out of 141 voted against SB2032's ultimate version. Now, it remains to be seen how it will play out among property owners.

Here is what it does: All property owners residential, commercial, agricultural will be able to deduct 10 percent of their property tax bills from their state income taxes, for a maximum of $500 for singles or married people filing separately, or $1,000 for married filing jointly.

Property owners whose state income tax obligation is lower than the allowable property tax relief will get a voucher they can apply to their property taxes.

The bill also increases the generosity of the state homestead tax credit program, in which state funds pay all or some of the property taxes of elderly and disabled low-income homeowners. Under current law, only those who make $8,500 or less get 100 percent assistance. The new law raises that to $10,000. And whereas the current law allows homeowners earning as much as $14,500 to get 20 percent of their property taxes paid in the homestead tax credit program; the new law raises that to $17,500.

Renters whose circumstances would qualify them for a homestead tax credit if they owned property also can get assistance of as much as $240.

The new tax law also decreases the state income tax "marriage penalty" by as much as $300 per couple.

Other major actions in the just-completed 60th Legislative Assembly: Taxes

-- The state's excise and sales taxes on heating fuels whether natural gas, propane, fuel oil or coal will be phased out by 2009.

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-- A statewide 1 percent lodging tax instituted four years ago for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration to raise money for tourism promotion expires June 30.

-- Cities no longer will be able to devote sales tax collections to school districts.

-- Organizers of flea markets and craft fairs will have to submit a list of sellers from the events to the state Tax Department so the department can determine if any failed to collect and remit state sales tax.

-- State voters will be asked next year to have the Permanent Oil Tax Trust Fund live up to its name. If the measure passes, the state will be able to spend only $100 million every two years out of the oil taxes collected and the rest will be put off limits in the fund.

Education

The Legislature's crowning achievement is Senate Bill 2200, in which the state becomes the first in the country to settle a lawsuit over inequitable public school funding.

Of the more than 30 states sued over the past few decades, none have escaped court-ordered formulas, legislators said. Until now.

Legislators based the new formula on one drawn up by the governor's Commission on Education Improvement, agreeing to spend $90.7 million more in 2007-09 on state aid to public schools than during the 2005-07 biennium. Most of it goes to the school districts that could make a case in court that the amount of taxable property in their districts is so much less than the average district that the difference amounted to an unconstitutional inequity in funding ability.

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Other education bills:

-- The Legislature also boosted money for kindergarten, and will now pay for full-day kindergarten in the districts that want to add it.

-- The state will provide $700,000 in support to tribal colleges that educate nontribal students.

-- Beginning with the 2008-09 school year, high school graduates will need four units of English language arts, two of mathematics, two science, three of social studies, which may include one-half unit of North Dakota studies and a half-unit of multicultural studies, one unit of physical education, which may include up to one-half unit of health; and one unit of a foreign or native American language, fine arts, or career and technical education.

Safety

-- Students who report plots of violent acts in schools will receive immunity even if they had been involved in the plotting.

-- New regulations will keep registered sex offenders off school property, with few exceptions.

-- New mandatory minimum sentences for violent sexual assaults is 20 years with possible lifetime supervision following release.

-- Sex offenders who fail to register or report address changes will be guilty of a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

-- A moderate-risk sex offender will have to stay registered for 25 years.

-- Felons convicted of a crime involving violence may not own or possess a weapon for 10 years after their parole.

-- Victims of sexual assault no longer will be billed for the cost of their "rape kit" medical exams.

-- Crime victims will benefit from a new automated victim information and notification system telling them about hearings, releases from custody or transfers of the offenders.

-- Virtually every agency and board in state government will be able to request background checks on employees or prospective employees through the attorney general's office. The number of background checks conducted in the state will more than double, possibly triple. It will include petitioners for a name change, teachers reentering the profession, school employees with unsupervised contact with students, university security employees, corrections officers for jails and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees. It permits checks for nurses, pharmacists, realtors and social workers if their licensing boards require it.

-- "Alcohol without liquid" devices that allow the inhalation of alcohol for a drink-free "high" are now outlawed.

-- North Dakotans will have clearer law that allows them to use deadly force to protect themselves and their homes.

Consumer

protection

-- Tanning parlors and piercing and tattooing salons now will be under new regulations that restrict or ban their use by minors and permit state licensing and inspection.

-- Identity theft victims and those who fear becoming identity theft victims will be able to freeze their credit information to stop scam artists from using their information to open accounts in their names.

-- The Senate rejected a cell phone customers' bill of rights and the House killed a bill that would have penalized employers who give their workers false W-2 statements that lead to the worker suffering penalties and interest for underpayment of taxes.

Cole works for Forum Communcations Co., which owns the Herald.

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