Tom Steward

Tom Steward is the bureau chief of Watchdog.org's Minnesota Bureau, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is an investigative reporter focused on waste, fraud and abuse in government and has previously worked for WCCO-TV (CBS) and KSTP-TV (ABC) in the Twin Cities. Follow Tom on Facebook and Twitter.

Apparent Late-Night Error in Tax Bill Could Cost You

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: September 5, 2013 - 3:32 PM
It's not usually Must-See TV, but it might be a good idea to catch the live stream of your city council and county board meetings over the next ten days. 
 
An apparent error recently discovered in a last-minute amendment to the 273 page tax bill has brought confusion to dozens of cities and counties at the worst possible moment — budget time. Local governments face a Sept. 16 state reporting deadline that determines maximum property tax rates and truth-in-taxation notifications for Minnesotans.
 
spread sheet from the Minnesota Department of Revenue specifying the baseline amount for some 300 cities and counties to use in calculating property taxes triggered the head-scratching. The allowable amount available to levy appeared to be much higher than, in many cases, what was anticipated — the exact opposite of what the Legislature apparently intended. 
 
A provision of the mysterious amendment on pages 53 and 54 contained an error that evidently eluded lawmakers and dozens of taxpayer-paid lobbyists representing cities and counties throughout Minnesota. The apparent mistake allowed millions of dollars in debt to be added to the total, which is used by many local governments to calculate the 3 percent maximum property tax increase for 2014 operating budgets. So far, only a lobbyist — and no legislators — has volunteered to take the rap (Gary Carlson).
“Our Legislature’s sloppy last-minute work is now causing confusion and last-minute crunches for cities like Moorhead,” said Brenda Elmer, a City Council member in Moorhead.  “We’re just finding this out this week and we don’t have a council meeting until Sept. 9, when we’re supposed to set our maximum levy. Their being unprepared has caused a situation for us.”
 
It’s a classic case of late night backroom maneuvering on the omnibus tax bill at the State Capitol during the last weekend of the session, according to an influential lobbyist.
 
“I still don’t know where it came from, whether it was the governor, the House or the Senate, nobody ever told me precisely but it came up very late in the process and up to that point there was really no discussion of it,” said Gary Carlson, lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities. “Whenever you throw out language like that quickly toward the end of the session, people try read it and figure out what it means, but there’s not always the luxury of time to figure it all out.
 
In the end, local governments appear to be taking the approach of constituents who find a way to get things done in spite of the Legislature.
“For many cities and many counties they’re probably being very logical in how they’re reading or understanding the law,” said Carlson. “City officials and county commissioners are probably saying they couldn’t have possibly meant to double count those debt limits.”
Still, you might consider logging into your local government’s live video feed just to make sure.  

  

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