The writer, of Monroe, Neb., is a former Nebraska state senator.
In testimony to the Legislature’s Tax Modernization Committee, one rancher said property taxes consumed 30 percent of his ranch income. Another, $90 per head of cattle sold. I can relate. I have unimproved farmland taxed at $60 an acre, and now corn prices are back down.
So how did this happen? Incrementally, over a long time.
The Legislature collects or spends no property tax but creates these creatures called “political subdivisions.”
The question widely being asked is: How much government can we afford? It should be: How much government do we already have? The answer is, a lot more than we think.
In 1987, when I chaired the Government Committee, a witness said Nebraska led the nation in the number of public employees per capita. The committee, to a person, was incredulous.
The witness said Nebraska is not nearly as conservative a state as we think. He said we are actually a populist state, “more like Iowa than Wyoming,” and have “worshiped at the altar of local control.” And sooner or later, the bills come due.
The essence of our conversation included:
>> Public power. We are the only state with total public power, and it works well. But public ownership of utilities is the very definition of populism. Private owners of generating plants, office buildings and thousands of miles of transmission lines would pay a great amount of property tax. Someone has to make up the difference, so we made a trade-off: cheaper, dependable electricity for higher property taxes.
And with public power you see a recurring theme in our state: elected boards of directors, and the attitude that “I have no clue who represents me, but by golly if I ever have a beef I want the opportunity to vote against them.”
>> County governments. We have too many, 93, while Wyoming seems to get by nicely with only 24. But any elected official promoting consolidation invites early retirement at the next election.
>> Municipal governments. The situation is too varied for blanket statements, and I live in the country. But I read somewhere that it’s expensive to hire, let alone retire, police officers and firefighters these days.
>> Public school districts. Again, we probably have too many, but we have made progress. We should appreciate the difficulty of consolidation in a big, sparsely populated state like ours, and most would consider high-quality K-12 education our top priority.
>> Natural resources districts. A total of 23, a system probably unique to our state. Elected boards, of course. Can you name your representative? And we call this ‘‘local control”?
>> Educational service units. At this point, I’ll admit that I have to look at my property tax statement to know I am in ESU 7; I do not know my board member.
>> Rural fire districts. A property tax user, but a high priority for obvious reasons.
>> Community colleges. An obvious need and a high-quality product, relatively inexpensive. But in higher education, have we ever made hard choices at the voting booth concerning governance? Not really.
We have various community college boards, an appointed board overseeing state colleges, an elected Board of Regents for the University of Nebraska system. If all that bureaucracy weren’t enough, in 1990 there was a ballot proposal to create a new, overarching layer of government, a Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education. It passed 56 percent to 44 percent. Go figure.
I do not mean to belittle the good work done by all these folks who are willing to step up and hold public office at any level. They deserve our thanks.
The bottom line is, who do we blame for all this government “creep”? The answer, in my opinion, is: Look in the mirror.
State senators, contrary to popular opinion, try to give voters what they ask for. We tend to ask for too much sometimes.
I am a good example. When I came home to Platte County, our sheriff was making a case that the 27-bed jail was out-of-code, too small, lacked a separate facility for women, etc. The public demands that perpetrators be locked up, and he needed a place to put them. I not only voted for it, I co-chaired a committee to promote its passage at an election.
So can I complain about property taxes? Sure. Will it do any good? Not likely. Undoing everything described here and more would be the political equivalent of putting toothpaste back in the tube. Every program has accomplishments and defenders.
We simply must, collectively, give closer scrutiny to new ideas and programs, and, at the very least, find out who represents us on the multitude of entities where we are paying the bills.