Property taxes, prisons among top issues facing 2020 Nebraska Legislature

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 6, 2020 - 10:49am

Issues simmering for years may reach a boiling point after the Nebraska Legislature reconvenes Wednesday. Here’s a foretaste of some main dishes lawmakers will stew over in the months to come.


Ask a Nebraska state senator about the biggest issues lawmakers will  deal with this year, and you’re likely to hear something like this from Omaha Sen. Wendy DeBoer. “Property taxes, school finance, business incentives -- those we know are still hanging over our head from last year. And then, obviously, this is the year that the overcrowding emergency is going to be declared in Corrections.”

The issues she DeBoer lists are among those getting top billing from her colleagues as well.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer (Senators' photos courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Sen. Lou Anne Linehan

On property taxes and school finance, debate may center on a proposal to lower property taxes by decreasing property values used to calculate taxes for schools, and making up the difference from higher-than-expected state tax collections.

That’s a proposal being pushed by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who chairs the Revenue Committee.

“I’m trying to get us headed in a direction where we’re not one of the highest-tax states in the nation,” Linehan said.

“We are taxing Nebraskans way too much, whether that is income taxes are high, our property taxes are high, retired people are not going to live here millennials are not going to live here when they can live other places and pay less in taxes,” she added.

Last spring, senators who thought their colleagues hadn’t done enough to cut property taxes helped block new business tax incentives. Sen. Mark Kolterman worries that with existing tax incentives known as the “Nebraska Advantage” expiring, the state won’t have the tools to compete for new businesses.

“Nebraskan Advantage sunsets December 31 of 2020. And if we do nothing, we won't have anything. We won't have a bill. We won't have an incentive program,” Kolterman said. “We would be the only state in the nation that doesn't have some sort of an incentive program,” he added.

Sen. Curt Friesen

Sen. Mark Kolterman

But Sen. Curt Friesen, who’s unsuccessfully supported raising other taxes to lower property taxes, remains skeptical of business tax incentives.

“For five years, I've tried to solve the property tax issue and I've tried to raise revenue to do it with, but I was blocked at every turn. So if I'm not allowed to raise revenue, that means I have to base my property tax relief on revenue growth,” Friesen said. “And if we're going to keep giving away our revenue to economic development or economic incentives, I won't have any growth to work with, either. “

Another issue DeBoer mentioned – Corrections – is also pressing. The latest published report says state prisons hold about 55 percent more inmates than they were designed to, according to the latest published reports. By July 1, if that’s not down to 40 percent – something officials say is unlikely – state law calls for declaring an emergency and having the Parole Board start reexamining inmates for release.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, says he thinks the state needs to add 300 beds at the Omaha Community Correctional Center, a work-release facility. Lathrop says five years ago, that was projected to cost $50 million.

“Everything's going up and the cost of constructing presence base seems to be going up faster than the price of food. So that number is going to be something higher than that, Latrop said.

Sen. Steve Lathrop

Sen. John McCollister

Lathrop also wants to take a look  at what he says is the state’s overreliance on solitary confinement, or “restrictive housing.”

“Inmates in restrictive housing, spend 23 hours a day inside, and they're out one hour a day, five days a week. That, we know from the mental health professionals, is hard on people's mental health. If you have a mental health problem, it's going to get worse. And if you don't have a mental health problem before you do a long term restrictive housing, people oftentimes develop mental health issues,” he said.

Senators are also expected to discuss Medicaid expansion. Voters approved it in 2018; Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration plans to start it in October, but with two different levels or “tiers” of coverage: a “basic” tier, which doesn’t include dental or vision coverage, and a “premium” tier, that requires people be working, in school, or caring for a relative to get vision and dental coverage.

Sen. John McCollister wants to get rid of that requirement.

“I think studies have shown that the state doesn't really save any money and actually hurts the healthcare consequences if people go off of one tier to the other,” McCollister said.

Senators will also wrestle with other hot-button issues. One is whether to repeal last year’s law requiring abortion providers notify women they may be able to continue their pregnancy even after taking the first pill for an abortion. Another is a so-called “red flag” law allowing authorities to temporarily take guns away from people judged dangerous to themselves or others.

Sen. Jim Scheer

And, there will be a proposal to change many senators are in the Legislature. Right now, there are 49. That number hasn’t changed in about 50 years, while the state’s population has increased by nearly half.

Speaker Jim Scheer says it can be hard for people in both urban and rural districts to meet with their senators, the way districts are drawn now.

“In metropolitan areas, they may be compact, but you're going to have each senator be responsible for over probably 40 --41 -- 42,000 constituents. And in the more rural areas, that number would probably in some areas produce very, very, very large districts. And I think it is not very beneficial to those folks that live in those areas because they wouldn't have very good access to discuss things with their legislators,” Scheer said.

Scheer wants to increase the number of senators, up to 55. If the Legislature approves the idea, it will be on the ballot in November. The Legislature itself meets for a maximum of sixty business days, starting Wednesday. The session is tentatively scheduled to end April 23.


Editor’s note: You can find live coverage of the Nebraska Legislature during the session on NET World or at netnebraska.org. And you can hear Fred Knapp’s legislative updates, evenings during All Things Considered at 5:45  Central, and during Morning Edition at 5:45 and 7:45. You can also find them on our website, netnebraska.org/news; and on Facebook and Twitter @netnews Nebraska.

 

 

 

 

 

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