LINCOLN — It was “same song, second verse” for Gov. Pete Ricketts’ property tax package Tuesday.
Opponents outnumbered proponents at a legislative hearing on a measure that seeks to ease property taxes by tightening budget and spending lids on local governments.
This week, it was the Education Committee taking testimony on Legislative Bill 959, which aims to restrain school spending.
State Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, the committee chairwoman, introduced the bill on behalf of the governor.
Last week, the Revenue Committee heard LB 958, which would affect cities, counties and other local governments. The bill also would cap statewide growth of agricultural land valuations at 3 percent annually.
Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, the Revenue Committee chairman, introduced that bill for the governor.
At both hearings, most of the support came from farmers and ranchers, who have seen steep increases in their property tax bills as prices for agricultural land shot up in recent years.
Several told the Education Committee that rising property taxes have become a crisis that threatens to drive farmers and ranchers out of business.
“I’m here to tell you that we are bleeding here in agriculture,” said Dale Gronewold of Gothenburg. “Somebody’s got to stop this.”
Barb Cooksley of Anselmo, speaking for the Nebraska Cattlemen, said LB 959 doesn’t represent the long-term solution to property taxes but it is a positive first step.
Opposition to LB 959 came from school administrators, board members and teachers.
Several of them argued that school spending did not cause the state’s property tax woes and pointed to the state’s lagging support for K-12 schools instead.
Mike Lucas, superintendent of the York Public Schools, said funding for K-12 schools used to account for 32 percent of the state budget. Now it accounts for 27 percent.
“We have a school funding problem, which causes the property tax issue,” he said.
The school representatives said the budget and levy restrictions in LB 959 would have unintended consequences for individual districts.
As an example, Lucas pointed to a provision that would require schools to seek voter approval for an additional tax levy to address health and safety issues in school buildings.
He said it would create problems if York had to wait for an election before it could deal with mold growing in a building or a leaking roof.
State law now allows schools to levy up to 5.7 cents for such projects, on top of the $1.05 levy they are allowed for general operating expenses.
Tim Royers, a history teacher at Millard West High School and the 2016 Teacher of the Year, said budget pressures on school districts can lead to the loss of teachers and heavier burdens on those who are left.
“Teachers take the hit in our personal lives,” he said. “Teacher burnout is real.”
Sullivan said she doesn’t expect the Education Committee will discuss LB 959 until next week or later. The fate of LB 958 remains pending in the Revenue Committee.
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