Property tax proposal hailed and faulted; senators sing

Sen. Steve Erdman testifies on his property tax proposal (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 25, 2018 - 5:28pm

A proposal for deep cuts in property taxes was hailed as long overdue, and blasted as shortsighted, in a public hearing Thursday. And there was an outbreak of song on the floor of the Legislature.


The public hearing concerned Sen. Steve Erdman’s proposal to refund, via the income tax, half of what people pay in property taxes for schools. Erdman cited rising property taxes, saying no one was doing anything about it. “The Legislature only dances around the issue, and the governor lacks the political will to solve this problem,” Erdman said.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage disagreed, saying “Governor Ricketts has made property tax relief a top priority each year he has been governor.”  

But Doug Kagan of Omaha, head of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, says Erdman’s proposal would benefit both urban and rural property owners. “Elderly citizens could comfortably remain in their homes. Rural landowners would not have to sell off landed inheritances to pay the tax load,” Kagan said.

Craig Bolz, who farms outside Palmyra, said he needs the tax relief the bill promises. “All I want out of life is I want to pay my bills on time, and I want to give my grandfather’s farm to my daughters and granddaughters. And I mean that, and that’s all I want. And I’m not for sure this is possible,” Bolz said.

Robert Johnston, who farms near Clearwater, also supported the bill on behalf of a group called the Nebraska Agricultural Leaders Working Group. Johnston says that group includes representatives of the cattlemen, corn growers, pork producers, soybean association, farm bureau, and dairy association.

Business, school, and other groups opposed the proposal, which is estimated to cost the state treasury at least $600 million a year, and possibly more than $1 billion, when fully implemented. Supporters say if they don’t succeed in the Legislature, they will mount a petition drive to put it on the ballot. Jim Griesch, representing the Omaha and Lincoln Chambers of Commerce, says business groups will oppose both approaches. “The fact is that both this bill and the proposed petition provide for no direction where dollars will be found to cover the so-called relief. We as a state will face devastating cuts to essential services, and/or massive tax increases,” Griesch said.

Lanny Boswell also opposed the proposal on behalf of the Nebraska Association of School Boards.

Erdman said it would be up to senators in the future to decide how to deal with the effects of the proposal. “I don’t believe it’s my job to come here and explain to you or to share with people what I think the fix is, or how to solve this problem,” Erdman said. “My job is to describe to you that property tax is a problem, it’s out of line and we need to fix it. The job of repairing it, or fixing it, or making it work is going to be the job of the Legislature.”

Erdman also called it “peculiar” that the governor’s reelection campaign committee paid for a flyer opposing the proposal that was distributed to members of the Republican State Central Committee even before the bill had a public hearing. Jessica Flanagain of Ricketts’ campaign said it made sense to use campaign funds, which she estimated might have amounted to $50, to print up flyers to communicate with party officials, and that the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission had said it was permissible.

To see the full flyer printed up by the Ricketts campaign, click here.

The Revenue Committee took no immediate action on the bill.

And in debate on the floor of the Legislature Thursday, there was an outbreak of song, if not exactly harmony. Senators were debating a bill on tax payments by water projects. The proposal was targeted by Sen. Ernie Chambers, who says he’s getting back at its sponsor for blocking one of Chambers’ bills. Wednesday, Chambers referred to a Creedance Clearwater Revival song, saying there was a bad moon rising over the bill. Thursday, Sen. Lydia Brasch tried to lighten Chambers’ mood, with the Beatles “Here comes the sun.”

“Sen. Chambers, it’s been a long cold lonely winter,” Brasch began, continuing through several verses before concluding “it’s alright.”

That inspired Sen. Rob Clements to sing to Brasch, who’s in her last year before being forced out by term limits. “With my apologies to Stevie Wonder,” Clements began, before warbling several adapted verses of “You are the sunshine of my life.”

All this crooning prompted Chambers, who often breaks into song, to promise he’d give it up if he sounded like his colleagues. “But here’s where I give them credit: They put forth the effort. They meant well. And being at my advanced age, I’ve come to understand that it is more important sometimes to look at the motivation behind an act than the act itself,” Chambers said.

But Chambers did not relent in his opposition to the water projects’ tax bill, and the Legislature moved on to another subject. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan Hughes, said he is confident he has the votes to move it forward next week.

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