Expanding solar power; cutting property taxes for community colleges face opposition

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March 5, 2013 - 5:44pm

Proposals to expand solar power in Nebraska, and for the state to take over community college costs, ran into tough sledding in the Legislature Tuesday.

The solar power proposal goes by the name "solar gardening." It would let people buy power produced by nonprofit or profitmaking organizations that operated solar generating facilities, which could be located away from people’s homes. Local utilities, like public power districts, would be required to buy any extra electricity that was produced at the same rates the utility pays for other power.

Randy Shantell, who owns an energy consulting and sales company in Lincoln, supported the bill. Shantell contrasted the solar generation facilities that could be built with those powered by coal, which he said is dirty and getting more expensive.

"The resource we’re talking about, we’re not even requiring the utilities to invest in. We’re talking about individuals on the street, homeowners, churches, you name it, that just want to do something to stabilize their rates for a long term," he said.

The Nebraska Power Association, including the public power districts, opposed the bill. Scott Benson of the Lincoln Electric System predicted customers who did not subscribe to a solar garden would wind up paying costs, including engineering and billing, for those who did. Benson said the utility is trying to strike a balance.

"You have customers who say ‘I would like to see you have more renewables in your portfolio, and I would like to spend more to see that happen.’ We have other customers who will come to the same meetings and say ‘You know what? My money is tight right now. I want to see you do this and meet the load in the most economical fashion you can,’ Benson said. "Neither one of those is wrong. They’re just different."

The Natural Resources Committee took no immediate action on the bill.

On community colleges, Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis is proposing the state take over responsibility for funding which currently comes from local property taxes. Davis said people in the state’s "grass counties" – predominantly ranch country, including the Sandhills -- feel like they are paying property taxes for community colleges they don’t get much benefit from. Davis used his own situation as an example. He said he lives 140-150 miles from Scottsbluff, where Western Nebraska Communty College is located, "so there’s very little opportunity basically for us to get any benefit from the community college." However he noted, "We are obligated to pay the property tax."

The community colleges opposed the proposal. Jack Huck, president of Southeast Community College, said it gets about one third of its revenue from property taxes, one third from the state, and one third from tuition. And Dennis Baack, executive director of the Nebraska Community College Association, said losing the ability to collect property tax could hurt students. "I think one of the things that’s part of our mission is access. And we’re supposed to be the most accessible…But if you get tuition too high you are cutting access for some students," Baack said.

Nebraska’s six community colleges levied more than $132 million in property taxes last year. Davis said the state could pay for most of that additional cost by using an existing property tax relief fund, started under Gov. Dave Heineman in 2007, that cost $115 million last year.

Baack said proposals to abolish property tax support of community colleges had been made about 10 times over the last 20 years, but had never succeeded. Davis said he is less interested in passing this specific bill than in having his idea considered as part of the comprehensive study of state taxes that is supposed to take place later this year.


Editor's Note: By way full disclosure, Dennis Baack is a member of the Nebraska Educational Telecommunications Commission which oversees NET, including NET News.



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