This past week was overshadowed by an incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. Unfortunately, two inmates lost their lives. Two years ago, an incident escalated into a riot on Mother’s Day. On Thursday, staff were able to quickly bring the situation under control and no staff were hurt. Although we still have a long road ahead, I see the procedural improvements that staff have implemented. I commend the employees at TSCI and other state institutions for their commitment to work in our correctional system, as their job is dangerous, but very important. I also want to recognize the Johnson County Sheriff, the fire and rescue squad, and the county attorney who are also highly involved during these situations. I was able to visit with some employees the night of the incident and saw first-hand their determination in keeping the public safe.
LB 45 authorizes military honor plates for reservists. I introduced this bill at the request of a constituent who served for 10 years as an army reservist and had a service-connected injury. He was surprised to find out that he did not qualify for the military honor plates. LB 45 was passed by the Legislature on Friday on a vote of 46-1.
LB 46, authorizing the creation of Choose Life license plates, received first-round approval this past week from the Legislature. The Department of Motor Vehicles would create a design reflecting support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Twenty-nine other states allow motorists to show their support for pregnant women and the unborn through the purchase of such plates.
I introduced LB 545 before the Appropriations Committee this past week. This bill would increase the appropriation to the Property Tax Credit program by $200 million per year in each of the next three years. The property tax relief offered through this program appears on every taxpayer’s property tax statement. LB 545 would increase the current annual appropriation of $224 million to $824 million.
Of the combined revenue used for governmental services, property taxes currently account for approximately 48%, income taxes 33%, and sales taxes 19%. In 2000, property taxes accounted for 42%, income taxes 35%, and sales tax 23% of total revenue for government services. Since that time, the share of revenue from the sales tax has decreased, the share of revenue from the income tax has decreased, but the share of revenue from the property tax has increased significantly. LB 545 is projected to lower the share of the tax burden from property taxes to approximately 40%, more evenly balancing the revenue streams.
Our last major tax reform 25 years ago increased state aid to schools significantly in an effort to decrease our reliance on property taxes to fund our public schools. One problem associated with this type of property tax relief is whether it results in dollar for dollar tax relief or if it allows for increased spending. By increasing the funding to the Property Tax Credit program, it truly does provide dollar for dollar property tax relief.
Nebraskans pay the 7th highest property taxes in the country. Over the last 10 years, the valuation of agricultural land has increased 176%, compared to a 35% increase in residential valuation. Nebraska farmers and ranchers represent less than 3% of the state’s population but pay more than 30% of the total property taxes collected statewide. In the majority of the state, agricultural land comprises more than 60% of a school district’s total valuation base. Rural landowners are disproportionately funding our rural school districts, even though all residents of the school district benefit equally from having their children educated in our public schools. Even though valuation of agricultural land has increased substantially more than other classifications of land, all property taxes are too high.
The Legislature is also facing a significant shortfall in the budget for the next two years. We are in the midst of cutting funding for government agencies and services. Although it will be difficult, I think we must also address property taxes. Legislation has been introduced to broaden the base of the sales tax. I am opposed to a tax increase, but am open to a redistribution of funding in order to offer property tax relief.
As senators and committees finish up the process of selecting their priority bills for this session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on this legislation. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.
According to the legislative rules, the Appropriations Committee must place appropriations bills on General File by the 70th day in a 90-day session or the Legislature reverts to the Governor’s budget proposal. The budget bills were reported to the floor on May 1, which was the 70th day, and must be passed by the 80th legislative day, which falls on May 20.
The Appropriations Committee has proposed a budget of $3.8 billion the first year and $4 billion the second year of the biennium. This represents a 5.5% growth in the first year and a 4.8% growth in the second year, for an average of 5.2%. The primary differences between the Governor’s budget proposal, with an average increase of 4.9%, was that the committee recommended a higher level of state aid funding for K-12 schools and appropriated additional contributions to the defined benefit retirement plans for school employees, due to a projected actuarial shortfall.
At the end of the 2012 legislative session, a $619.4 million shortfall from the required minimum 3% reserve was projected for the 2013-2015 biennium. Since that time, the projected shortfall has switched to a positive $50 million, due to higher revenue forecasts by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board and lower spending projections, including proposed alterations to the state aid formula for K-12 schools. This means that approximately $50 million is available for new legislative proposals.
The cash reserve fund is projected to have a balance of $625 million at the end of the next biennium. This is the fund that allowed the state to recover from the recent recession without major damage to programs and services or the necessity of a tax increase.
The budget is broken up into 3 major parts. Approximately 34% of the budget is dedicated to the funding of agency operations. This includes funding for the University, State Colleges, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Corrections, the State Patrol, the court system, and dozens of other agencies. Another 32% is for state aid to individuals, which includes funding for persons qualifying for Medicaid, child welfare, public assistance, and those with developmental disabilities. The last 34% of the budget is devoted to state aid to local governments, which includes school districts, special education, community colleges, and funding for the homestead exemption.
The Legislature gave first-round approval this past week to LB 93, which allows for the notation of the word “veteran” on a driver’s license or a state identification card. In order to implement this voluntary privilege, the Department of Veterans Affairs would create a registry to determine eligibility for use by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The intent is to make it more convenient for persons to identify themselves as veterans, as they must now show their discharge papers, which are cumbersome to carry and contain confidential information.
As advanced from the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, LB 93 also proposed to create the Military Honor license plate. Unfortunately, Senator Ernie Chambers pledged to fight this provision, so due to time constraints in the remaining days of this legislative session, the proposal was amended out of the bill and will be taken up next year.
Senators gave second-round approval to LB 517, which would create a Water Funding Task Force. The task force would be charged with the development of a 20-year strategic plan for water sustainability. They are to present the recommended plan, along with a funding proposal, in time for the Legislature to discuss it during the 2014 legislative session.
As the Legislature discusses the budget and other bills of interest, I welcome your input. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number at the Capitol is (402) 471-2733.