Sen. Dave Bloomfield listens to legislative debate Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
Property tax breaks for farmers and less partisanship in redistricting were among proposals heard in the Nebraska Legislature Friday.
As agricultural land values have risen in recent years, property taxes have gone up as well. Just ask Sarpy County farmer John Knapp, who told the Revenue Committee that taxes on his 160 acre farm rose from $2,532 in 2004 to $9,297 now.
Knapp was among those who supported reducing the percentage of ag land valuation subject to property tax in a Revenue Committee hearing Friday. Two bills that were heard would cut the value subject to taxation from 75 to 65 percent. That would give farmers and ranchers a tax break, and the Nebraska Farm Bureau supports it.
However, opponents like Renee Fry of the Open Sky Policy Institute said the effects would be to shift taxes unevenly across the state. “Residents in Lincoln and Omaha may see their property taxes increase, but because there is so little agricultural land, any increase is likely to be very small,” Fry said. However, “In communities like North Platte and Kearney, where there is much more agricultural land adjacent to urban areas, then taxes for these agricultural land owners will come at the expense of increased taxes on residential and commercial property owners, or significant cuts to roads, education and public safety.”
Other proposals dealing with property taxes would give an income tax credit for owners of agricultural land or homeowners, or increase an existing property tax credit for all property owners. The committee took no immediate action on the bills.
Also Friday, the Legislature’s Executive Board voted to send to the full Legislature a proposal changing how the state redraws its congressional districts and other political lines every ten years. Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber described part of the problem he’s trying to correct. “Across the country you’ll find gerrymandered congressional districts that were drawn by state legislatures to create safe districts for the incumbents of that state’s majority party,” Karpisek said. “Because these safe districts are either very conservative or very liberal, there’s no incentive for the Representative to compromise, because doing so would be viewed by his or her constituents as crossing party lines. And it could cost him or her reelection to a more partisan opponent.”
Karpisek, a registered Democrat, is suggesting a system where a bipartisan commission would draw redistricting plans for the Legislature to vote up or down. If three plans were rejected, the matter would go to the state supreme court.
Nebraska Republican Party Chairman J.L. Spray criticized the plan, saying the Legislature should continue to do its job, and the current process is open and transparent.
Also on Friday, debate continued on whether or not to make wearing motorcycle helmets optional for riders over age 21. Opponents say the state should keep its mandatory helmet laws to prevent disabling and expensive injuries to riders. That prompted Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher to question why senators were not proposing helmets for drivers of other motor vehicles, since more people are injured in them.
Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell said compared to cars, motorcycles are an especially dangerous form of travel. She said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that per mile travelled, the number of deaths on motorcycles in 2011 was more than 30 times the number in cars. Campbell also said riders without helmets are three times more likely to sustain traumatic brain injuries in a crash.
But Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins countered with statistics from the Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota departments of motor vehicles, comparing the rate of injuries for registered motorcycles in each state. “From 1993 through 2012, in most cases, Nebraska was the highest. That’s with our beloved helmets,” Bloomfield said.
Iowa has no helmet requirement; South Dakota’s applies only to riders under 18.
The Legislature adjourned for the week before reaching a vote on the bill.
Editor’s note: Sarpy County farmer John Knapp is not related to reporter Fred Knapp.