A proposal that supporters called a good first step, but opponents called a token gesture to relieve agricultural property taxes is advancing in the Nebraska Legislature. Lawmakers also dealt with subjects ranging from elections to fracking. And Speaker Galen Hadley criticized Sen. Ernie Chambers for his rhetoric.
The Revenue Committee held a public hearing on the latest proposal for property tax relief. Currently, the state spends $204 million a year from sales and income taxes to offset taxes that owners of agricultural, commercial and residential property would otherwise have to pay. The proposal would add another $30 million next year and direct all that increase to offset property taxes on agricultural land. Among those supporting the proposal was John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union. "This is the third year of substantial reductions in net farm income. Folks are struggling to cash flow. They don’t want to be turning up their nose at anything that looks like any real relief. They wish it was sooner. If there was a way to find a way to fund it in 2016 they would prefer that," Hansen said.
Dave McCracken of the Nebraska Cattlemen also supported the bill. "It’s a very important first step and we hope that we can continue to work with you in the coming years to improve it," he told committee members.
Jonathan Hladik of the Center for Rural Affairs said the proposal was not enough. "We’re concerned that this proposal provides just enough token relief to move from this body a sense of urgency that many landowners in Nebraska do not have the luxury of escaping," Hladik said.
Representing the Lincoln, Omaha, and state chambers of commerce, Bruce Bohrer also opposed the measure. "We do not believe that proposed adjustments in the funding of the property tax credit fund will result in meaningful, sustainable property tax reform. In this regard we can no longer continue to support the concept of providing additional funding from state sales and income revenue sources as a solution for achieving any long lasting property tax reduction program," Bohrer said.
In floor debate Thursday, Sen. John Kuehn asked that there be no more debate this year on a constitutional amendment he had proposed guaranteeing a right to farm. Kuehn said with time running short, he wasn’t sure he had enough votes to overcome a filibuster, but promised to renew his efforts next year. Meanwhile, Ag Committee Chairman Sen. Jerry Johnson said his committee will study the issue.
Sen. Ernie Chambers dropped his filibuster against another bill, to let the University of Nebraska release only the name of its priority finalist in searches for president and campus chancellor. That bill then passed. Also passed was a measure requiring at least yearly sampling of fracking fluids disposed of in commercial injection wells along with more public notice of such applications. And the threshold for filing complaints with the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission for wage discrimination was lowered, from companies with at least 15 employees down to two.
Lawmakers also debated an election bill that would allow people to take so-called "ballot-selfies" – photos of themselves with their completed election ballots. Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said it was a bad idea:
In: We’re going to allow a person to take a selfie and show their ballot that they have just voted. So now we have a position here where you could be in where someone has offered you $25 to vote a certain way, and now you’ll be able to provide proof," Friesen said.
Sen. John Murante, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, dismissed those concerns, noting that paying someone to vote would remain a crime. "Buying their vote is a felony. What we’re talking about here is a class IV misdemeanor. So if you believe this is the deterrent, then you have to believe that someone is willing to go to jail to commit voter fraud, but the deterrent is the maximum $100 fine contained in this law (prohibiting showing someone your ballot). It’s the hundred bucks that’s preventing them from committing voter fraud. C’mon!" Murante said.
Lawmakers then gave first round approval to the bill.
And Speaker Galen Hadley criticized Sen. Ernie Chambers for rhetoric he used. During debate Wednesday on a proposal to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identification, Chambers told his fellow senators "You can all discuss it in nice, measured tones. But I am not about to do that. And when I go downstairs I’m listening to you all. But the reason I do it down there, if I was up here I’d probably pick these books up and start mowing them around. If I was a white guy, I’d go get my semi-automatic weapon and come down here and mow everybody down," Chambers said.
Hadley didn’t say anything immediately, despite a call from Sen. Bill Kintner, whom Hadley had previously taken to task for comparing senators to monkeys. But Thursday, the speaker criticized Chambers. "Yesterday, words that matter were used on this floor. A statement was made ‘If I were a white man, I would have brought a semi-automatic weapon to mow everybody down.’ I find those words appalling used in any context. We live in a society where men, women, children of all ages, races, genders are being mowed down around the world. It has to stop," Hadley said, as senators applauded.
Chambers later questioned whether anyone had taken him literally, and promised to continue expressing himself as he sees fit.