Property tax notification, court fee, juvenile lawyer bills advance

Sen. Ben Hansen speaks Wednesday (NET screenshot)
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April 7, 2021 - 5:19pm

Property owners would get a postcard warning them of potential tax increases, court fees would be increased to help pay for judges retirement, and juveniles would be assigned lawyers in some cases, under proposals advancing in the Legislature.

The proposal dealing with property taxes is sponsored by Sen. Ben Hansen. It says whenever a city, county, school district or community college wants to collect more property taxes than the year before, they have to call a special public hearing. Before that hearing, they’d have to send every affected taxpayer a postcard notifying them of the hearing and giving them an estimate of how the increase would affect their tax bill.

Hansen said his bill is important to improve communication between local governments and taxpayers.

“A simple thing such as a postcard and a meeting with elected officials can go a long way with the public. Some of you who have been involved in local government such as myself notice that hardly anyone shows up to your annual budget hearing. Does that mean we stop trying to inform the public or encouraging them to attend and learn about the process? I believe this bill bridges that divide we tend to have, and a lack of participation by the public in how we tax our citizens,” Hansen said.

Sen. Megan Hunt objected to the proposal, and to the idea that publicizing potential tax increases could prevent them. Hunt pointed to an estimate by the Nebraska Association of County Officials that sending out the postcards could cost $560,000.

“It just doesn’t follow logic to say increasing the things that the county’s going have to pay for – for example, these postcards – is going to result in a property tax decrease. Because if the counties are right, and this type of thing costs over $560,000, who’s going to pay for that? We say we’re not going to pay for that. And so we know that that’s going to trickle down to the taxpayers and they’re going to have to end up bearing that burden,” Hunt said.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the Revenue Committee, supported the bill, saying it would force more disclosure from local elected officials.

“They do not want to tell people they’re raising taxes, guys. That’s the deal here. They don’t want to say it out loud,” Linehan said.

Lawmakers voted 36-1 first round approval of the bill, with Hunt casting the only “no” vote.

And, lawmakers advanced an increase in fees people have to pay when they go to court, in order to fund the judges retirement system. The proposal would increase fees by $6 over the next four years.

Sen. John Cavanaugh objected to the increase and said in the seven years he worked in the Douglas County public defender’s office, he had only twice succeeded in getting fees waived for indigent defendants.

“I can tell you, those people are going to pay those fees. And if they can’t pay it, what they will do is they will sit it out in jail, which means we are incarcerating people based off their inability to pay, which is another fundamental problem in our criminal justice system,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Mark Kolterman, chair of the Retirement Systems Committee and sponsor of the bill, responded to Cavanaugh.

“I understand his concern. I don’t like court fee increases any more than anybody else. I think it’s not a good way to fund our retirement plan system. But it’s all we’ve got and it’s been set up that way since 1955,” Kolterman said.

Kolterman said he’s suggested changes in the past, but the judges have been unwilling to go along.

Sen. Justin Wayne said raising fees during a pandemic, when the state budget has room for $211 million in additional spending, makes no sense. He offered an amendment he said would budget enough money to cover pension costs without raising fees.

“We can just do $4 million into this pension fund and not raise fees on anybody at a time when we have more money down here than we know what to do with,” Wayne said.

Wayne withdrew his amendment, but promised to bring it back at the next stage of debate. Senators then voted 35-5 to give the bill first round approval.

And, juveniles would be assigned lawyers in certain cases, under another proposal moving forward. Lawyers are already required for juveniles in the state’s three largest counties – Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy. But in the rest of the state, people can waive the right.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks has tried and failed to require them to be assigned lawyers in the past. This year, her proposal requires it only in certain cases.

“If a child is going to be placed out of the home or in detention, they have to have an attorney before they can make a plea. If they’re not going to be placed outside the home, then there’s no problem. They don’t have to have an attorney,” Pansing Brooks said.

Supporters said having an attorney is important to prevent someone getting a record that could later keep them out of college or the military, for example.

Sen. Mike Groene opposed the bill, calling it an example of urban Nebraska telling rural Nebraska what to do.

“We don’t have a problem in rural Nebraska, urban Nebraska. The system works. The system works. Egos of attorneys bother me sometimes. A parent is quite capable of deciding, along with their child, if they want an attorney or not,” Groene said.

Senators voted 29-2 to give the bill first round approval.



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