LINCOLN — Anger, disappointment and relief greeted the end of a petition drive that sought to save Nebraska property tax payers about $1.1 billion.
The Yes to Property Tax Relief Committee announced Friday that it was calling off the drive and halting efforts to collect signatures on the proposed ballot measure.
The decision means property tax payers are out of options for cutting their property tax bill this year. The Nebraska Legislature adjourned last week without taking action. An effort to call senators back into special session fell short.
Both petition supporters and opponents pledged to continue searching for ways to reduce property taxes, especially for farm and ranch land owners.
“We’re taking a step back from this and reloading,” said Trent Fellers, a spokesman for the petition group. “What remains clear through this process and our discussions with Nebraskans is that people across the state are committed to finding permanent solutions to both the property tax burden and the broader issue of education funding in this state.”
Taylor Gage, Gov. Pete Ricketts’ press secretary, hailed the announcement and said Ricketts plans to “continue to work to bring together both rural and urban interests to deliver property tax relief for Nebraskans.
“The decision by ballot initiative organizers not to move forward will help protect Nebraskans from big tax hikes and severe damage to key state priorities like K-12 education and public safety,” Gage said.
In the announcement, Fellers expressed gratitude to those who signed the petition and had worked on the effort, while offering little explanation for the decision to call off the drive.
“Unfortunately, we no longer believe their interests are best served by this initiative, and we are ending the campaign,” he said. “Doubts remain that a ballot measure to change state law is the correct means to address this issue.”
State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, who called for a petition drive to be launched last year, has no such doubts, however. He called the decision to end the petition drive “stupid,” saying the petition had forced state leaders to focus on property taxes.
“I feel like I got stabbed in the back,” he said. “I’m so disappointed for those people who signed this thinking they were going to get something done.”
Erdman said he wants to see if there is any way for others to take over the petition drive and continue it.
Others turned their sights to next year.
Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said he was “a little disappointed” and “a little relieved” to see the petition die. Agricultural producers desperately need help, he said. But he said he wasn’t a particular fan of the petition proposal and believes the end of the petition will give all parties time to find an answer.
“I think we can get something done in the Legislature next year,” he said.
Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who introduced a property and income tax proposal for Gov. Pete Ricketts, called it the “right decision” to end the petition drive.
He lamented that, during the just-ended session, some lawmakers had pinned their hopes on the petition drive instead of backing the governor’s proposal. Legislative Bill 947 could not clear first-round debate.
The petition drive, which got underway in February, sought to put proposed legislation on the November ballot that would give income tax credits to Nebraska property owners equal to 50 percent of the school property taxes they pay.
The credits would have amounted to about $1.1 billion annually statewide, or 30 percent of the total property tax bill.
Fellers said there had been concern about whether the Legislature would implement the proposal, if passed by voters. Lawmakers could have altered the legislation with 33 votes.
“We are exploring other options that would set a higher bar to ensure the will of the people is carried out,” he said, noting that a constitutional amendment could not be changed by the Legislature.
Petition circulators would have needed nearly 85,000 valid signatures from registered voters by July 5 to get the proposal on the ballot. Fellers said signature-gathering efforts were on track.
He acknowledged, however, that the drive needed significant financial backing. Organizers of the successful 2014 petition to increase minimum wages in Nebraska spent nearly $1.5 million on signature-gathering and campaigning for passage of the measure.
The property tax petition drive had raised $334,100 as of late March, with $170,000 coming from Reform for Nebraska’s Future, $100,000 from the Nebraska Farm Bureau and smaller amounts from other agricultural groups. The drive only collected $600 in March. Reform for Nebraska’s Future is a coalition of agriculture, business and homeowner representatives that was launched last year to push for property tax reductions.
Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said his organization was not part of the decision to halt the petition. He said the Farm Bureau was disappointed in the decision but understood the reasoning behind it. He would not say whether the organization had been willing to continue funding the drive.
If it made the ballot, the property tax petition would have faced stiff opposition.
Gov. Pete Ricketts and business groups have criticized the proposal, saying it would raise taxes to cut taxes. Others warned that it could force “devastating” cuts in needed government services.