LINCOLN — A freshman state senator hopes that voters will act to relieve property taxes where the 2017 Nebraska Legislature did not.
State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said Monday that he plans to launch an initiative petition drive with the goal of putting a proposal on the 2018 ballot.
Erdman said he’s undertaking the effort because Nebraskans have been demanding lower property taxes for decades and he’s “done waiting” for the Legislature to do something meaningful on the issue.
He said he does not have the petition completely worked out or an organization put together.
But Erdman has a press conference set for today in the State Capitol Rotunda to get the process going. The event will come after the adjournment of the 2017 legislative session.
“We’ll make an announcement tomorrow and see who steps up,” he said Monday, noting that he had invited about a dozen like-minded senators to join him.
Some potential allies said they wanted to talk with Erdman before joining his effort.
Reform for Nebraska’s Future, a coalition of agriculture, business and homeowner interests, lamented the Legislature’s failure to pass any property tax measures this year and hinted at other options.
“If the Legislature and the governor can’t get it done, it might now be time that Nebraskans look at alternative ways to get this done,” said Mark Fahleson, the group’s chairman.
Trent Fellers, executive director of the group, said the group has not decided its next step but options could include a petition drive or a lawsuit.
Craig Head, vice president of issue management for the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said that group will wait to see what Erdman is proposing.
But Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, a veteran of a previous petition drive, said he supports Erdman’s effort.
“We’ve got to put pressure on all sides,” he said.
Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, the Revenue Committee chairman, expressed concern that a petition limiting property taxes would lead to a tax shift or tax increase.
He said the way to control property taxes is at the local level, where spending is determined.
Smith, who introduced a bill this year on behalf of the governor to cut income taxes, said good tax policy should encourage economic growth and job creation.
Gov. Pete Ricketts said he could not comment on the petition proposal until he knows more about it.
Erdman said he has been considering a property tax petition drive for some time.
Two years ago, he said, he thought about a petition drive to eliminate property taxes.
He said the idea was born of frustration at rising tax bills on agricultural land and his inability, as a county commissioner, to control them.
That frustration remains even though a decade of double-digit valuation increases on ag land appears to have ended.
This year, ag land valuations statewide dropped 0.15 percent. But farmers and ranchers are still dealing with the 250 percent increase in valuation that built up over the past decade.
Erdman also said past state attempts to ease property taxes have not done enough. Nebraska will provide $224 million worth of property tax credits this year, of which $20 million is reserved for ag land owners.
“We have to have significant property tax relief, not $20 million,” he said. “Whatever relief we’re going to get from the property tax credit won’t be much.”
Erdman said that now could be a good time to pursue a petition because residential and commercial property valuations have started heating up.
State lawmakers rejected two property tax proposals this year. Opponents said neither would provide significant relief.
One, introduced by Groene, would have redistributed the existing Property Tax Credit Fund to the benefit largely of rural property owners.
The other, introduced by Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft on behalf of the governor, would have changed how farm- and ranchland is valued for property tax purposes, which could have helped some landowners.
Depending on whether he pursues a constitutional amendment or a state law, Erdman would have a daunting task ahead of him.
He would have to collect thousands of signatures from across the state — more than 118,000 for a proposed constitutional amendment, more than 83,000 for a proposed law.
Then there’s the checkered history of Nebraska petition drives that attempt to control property taxes.
More than 50 years ago, in 1966, voters narrowly approved an initiative that ended the use of property taxes to support state government. In 1990, they voted to keep the new state school aid law, which was aimed in part at easing property taxes.
But voters soundly rejected measures that sought to relieve property taxes through various limits and lids.
In 1990, 1996 and 1998, they shot down constitutional amendments that would have capped the growth of state and local budgets, limited the growth of tax revenues or put a lid on property tax levies.
Voters also turned thumbs down on a 1978 proposal that would have capped budget increases by law.