Property tax breaks for homeowners and renters; easier welfare and food stamp qualifications; marriage license fees discussed in Legislature

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January 29, 2015 - 5:57pm


How much Nebraska homeowners pay in property taxes, what benefits are available to low-income families, and how much people should have to pay for marriage licenses were all discussed Thursday in the Legislature.

A proposal designed to help homeowners whose property taxes go up while their incomes stay the same had some lawmakers choking on the price tag Thursday. The proposal by Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz would give an income tax refund to homeowners and renters whose property taxes exceed a certain percentage of their income. But the Legislature’s fiscal office put the cost at more than $200 million a year.

Bolz admitted that wouldn’t happen. But she said she’s trying to make a point. "In the broader context, of having the governor talking about a goal of having $400 million of tax relief, I want to make sure that the folks I represent are a part of that conversation," she said.

The state is already using $140 million a year, mostly from sales and income taxpayers, to give property owners a credit. Ricketts has proposed increasing that by $60 million a year. That would increase the value of the credit for the owner of a $100,000 house from about $72 to slightly more than $100. Last year, before the credit, that property owner paid just over $1,700 in property taxes, if he or she was paying the statewide average rate.

Bolz said her Lincoln district comprises mostly homeowners and renters, who would also qualify for a credit under her proposal. But former Sen. and Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann, now a lobbyist who testified for the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, said ag land owners need property tax relief. He said that in the last 10 years, property taxes on residential property have increased 40 percent, while property taxes on ag land have gone up by 162 percent.

The committee also heard a proposal by Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse to reduce the valuation for tax purposes of ag land from 75 to 55 percent of market value.

Also Thursday, the advocacy organization Voices for Children in Nebraska released its annual Kids Count report highlighting the situation of children in the state. Research Coordinator Chrissy Tonkinson said unemployment has gone down since the most recent peak during the recession, but median income has also declined.

Nebraska’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate last month was 2.9 percent. That’s down from a peak of 4.9 percent in January and February of 2010. But Tonkinson said that adjusted for inflation, median family income in Nebraska declined from $65,692 to $64,763 from 2005 to 2013. "We’re working just as much. Why are we making less money?" she asked.

The report also says the percentage of families with children who qualify as low income – about $40,000 for a family of 4 – increased from 36.5 percent in 2005 to 40.9 percent in 2013. To help families deal with that, the group is supporting proposals including removing the limits on assets low income families can have, like money in checking and savings accounts, and still qualify for benefits like welfare and food stamps. Currently, those limits include $6,000 for welfare and $25,000 for Food Stamps. Aubrey Mancuso said while most low income families don’t have substantial savings, the paperwork involved in proving that makes programs inefficient.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ernie Chambers continued his filibuster against a proposal to raise the fees for marriage licenses from $15 to $50. Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln proposed the increase, saying the fees haven’t increased since 1995, and the proposal reflects the costs to Nebraska counties. Chambers says the state shouldn’t charge people for a piece of paper they need to qualify for certain benefits. He’s tied up the Legislature for two mornings on the issue so far, but the issue could come to a head on Friday.

Correction: An earlier audio version contained an incorrect figure for Sen. Watermeier's tax proposal. He would reduce the valuation of ag land for tax purposes to 55 percent.

You can watch Sen. Bolz discuss her property tax proposal on this week’s edition of Capitol Conversations.



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