A panel of state senators asked for public input, and even “pressure,” on Tuesday to help them solve Nebraska’s decades-old problem of high property taxes.
And those who filled half the seating area at the Omaha Firefighters Hall attempted to oblige, asking lawmakers why the state’s taxes pinch homeowners and landowners harder than in neighboring states like South Dakota and Iowa.
A farm manager from Waterloo provided the most dramatic testimony, saying that property taxes on cropland he oversees have risen by 278% over the past decade and gobble up 36% of the rental income from the property.
The tax burden will drive farmers out of business, said Ed Herlein, who supports shifting the tax load onto sales or other taxes. Before he stepped into the hall Tuesday evening, he signed an initiative petition that — if passed by state voters — would do that, by mandating a 35% state rebate on property taxes to all property owners. Senators have said it would force either drastic cuts in state services or steep increases in state sales and income taxes.
“We’ve got to do something,” Herlein said. “It’s to the point that we need to get the governor’s attention. I feel like he’s ignored this.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts did not attend the property tax town hall, but he’s made it clear that he opposes any tax hikes, or tax shifts, to lower property taxes. True tax relief, the Republican governor has said, only comes via reduced spending.
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Tuesday’s gathering, attended by about 60 people, was sponsored by the Omaha-based think tank the Platte Institute, which issued a report earlier this year urging lawmakers to “get real” about property tax changes.
The five state legislators on the panel included four who sit on the Legislature’s tax-writing Revenue Committee, which has been meeting for the past three months to fine-tune a property tax proposal that failed to advance in the 2019 legislative session.
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who chairs the Revenue Committee, said her committee plans to have its new plan ready by mid-November. That presumably would be plenty of time to sell it to the 49-member Legislature before the session begins in January. Property tax relief is expected to top the agenda.
The tax plan, which is still being formulated, has moved away from proposing an increase in state sales taxes and is focused more on eliminating sales tax exemptions and taxing more services like haircuts and auto repairs. Senators said that by doing that, between $300 million and $500 million in additional revenue could be raised, allowing property taxes to be reduced and even the sales tax rate to drop.
Two veteran Omaha politicians had some other ideas.
Hal Daub, a former Omaha mayor and U.S. congressman, said high income taxes are the real top problem with Nebraska taxes because, he said, the income tax discourages businesses from locating here and young people from staying.
Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle, also a former Omaha mayor, said the state is being “holier than thou” by refusing to allow expanded gambling and sales of marijuana, which could both generate more tax revenue. He said he particularly supports allowing betting on sporting events, as Iowa just legalized.
The “35 Percent Solution” is being pitched by the grassroots group called TRUE Nebraskans with the goal of gathering enough signatures to put it up for a vote in 2020. A petition gatherer with the group said he collected only about seven signatures Tuesday evening, though the drive has reportedly gathered momentum in recent weeks, in part by focusing on large events, like Husker Harvest Days in Grand Island.
Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell was among the senators who thanked those taxpayers who testified. He urged them to “tell their stories” and even “pressure” lawmakers to do something about property taxes that are among the highest in the nation.
Sales tax exemptions on the chopping block in Nebraska
To raise new revenue for a property tax relief plan, a legislative bill proposes to do away with about 20 sales tax exemptions. Here are some of the goods and services that would be taxed under Legislative Bill 289, and the amount of revenue those taxes generate.