Since our April adjournment of the Second Session of the 104th Legislature, I have attended over 95 community events and meetings in Legislative District 16. During this interim, we also assisted many constituents affected by catastrophic weather damages such as wind, hail, and tornadoes. The constituents of District 16 continue to prove their resiliency when dealing with Mother Nature.
During my interactions with constituents I am almost always asked about legislation. The most frequent questions for our district consistently address taxes, primarily ag land and income tax relief, ag land tax relief being the top concern. Discussions often transition into other state agency-related questions, such as four lane highways, road repair and shoulder work, internet connectivity gaps, energy, game and parks, law enforcement, insurance, and much more than can be discussed in a newspaper column. Therefore, my focus here will be about tax policy and concerns of expanding federal jurisdiction and oversight and our efforts to help address them.
In 2013, I introduced LB145 and designated it as my priority bill in 2014 following the Tax Modernization Committee’s statewide hearings during the 2013 interim. Because Nebraska was challenged four years ago with meeting fiscal obligations of a billion dollar deficit, the Tax Modernization Committee was formed during the 2013 session with the task of reforming Nebraska’s tax code. Studies developed by the Committee supported the fact that farmers and ranchers are disproportionately taxed in our district and statewide. My legislative bill would have decreased the assessed valuation of agricultural and horticultural land by ten percent, from 75 percent to 65 percent of its actual value. This bill was also previously introduced by former State Senators Deb Fischer and Lavon Heidemann during their time in the legislature. Unfortunately, LB145 was not advanced from the Revenue Committee. Various other tax relief bills introduced by Revenue Committee members advanced only to stall on General File due to our short 60-day session calendar.
Over the last four years, the Unicameral enacted legislation to reduce spending and increase revenue. The Nebraska Constitution requires the Governor to introduce a balanced budget, and state statutes require the Legislature to enact a balanced budget. As a result of diligent lawmaking and responsible fiscal policies, our Net General Fund revenue for fiscal year 2013-2014 is $4.117 billion, including a cash reserve of $707.5 million, also known as a “rainy day” fund. This puts our cash reserve right at the recommended 16.7 percent of annual revenues, which is very important if our state should experience a future revenue shortfall due to another economic downturn. A healthy cash reserve, if it continues, provides options and opportunities moving forward for re-introducing additional tax relief measures.
In 2014, we provided a good legislative start to tax relief in a very short time window with Legislative Bills 986 and 987. Together, they are expected to give Nebraskans more than $500 million in tax relief over the next five years. In addition, LB1087 provides a 100 percent property tax exemption for veterans who are receiving compensation for a 100 percent disability, have an honorable or general discharge, and do not qualify for the existing total homestead exemption. LB96 exempts from state sales tax the sale of repairs and replacement parts for agricultural machinery or equipment. Although we passed these valuable tax reform bills, property tax relief continues to be a priority, as some tax valuations rose more than 30 percent last year. In fact, the average increase statewide for ag land valuations was 29.1 percent, which heavily contributed to a 12.45 percent increase overall. Because we have seen these taxes continue to rise in the past decade, we will continue to explore various options to address further increases.
It is also important to remember our public schools are funded primarily by property taxes levied individually by Nebraska’s 93 counties. One of the obligations we must meet as lawmakers is Nebraska’s constitutional mandate to provide a free public education for all persons between the ages of five and twenty one. We must carefully balance the financial needs of our schools and our taxpayers. To manage this important task the Education Committee will hold public meetings beginning in October to gather information to develop a statewide vision for education in Nebraska. The public hearings will help determine how to properly fund the public school system. I am hopeful that we can find a solution to help fund education, yet I hope such funding will not place the burden so heavily on the backs of one group, our farmers and livestock producers.
Another item of great concern stems from federal regulation overreach affecting our district and state. First is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Waters of the United States” proposed rule change; second is the Middle Decatur Bend Shallow Water Habitat construction project in Burt County; and third, the Nebraska Department of Roads has been mandated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to re-route a once approved plan to repair bridges due to newly impacted protected wildlife species. In an effort to protect Nebraskans from the ongoing broadening of the Clean Water Act, I have been in contact with Governor Heineman, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ), the EPA, Corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and our federal delegation, only to learn of continued resistance by federal agencies to take into consideration the voice and rights of our property owners. The question I continue to ask is whether the decades-old task of “protecting” these birds and fish is truly based on sound science and a matter of national urgency. More importantly, in 2011, we experienced a 500-year flood on the Missouri River that struck a devastating blow to our farmland and livelihoods. Certainly, the protection of fish and wildlife cannot reasonably be more important than protecting the rights of our citizens and the land on which they live. It is my belief that our endangered fish and wildlife may not be as endangered as the Corps will have us believe. In fact, the interior least tern, one of the protected species on the Missouri River, is cited by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as of “Least Concern.”
As a district we have faced and will continue to face important issues of public policy. From September 5 through 10 I will be joining in conversation and study with 48 other state-level leaders across the country at the Council of State Governments Henry Toll Fellowship Program, asking questions and looking for solutions to better serve my constituents and our state and nation. I will continue to search for ways to provide the best possible education for our children, build and promote strong families, strengthen agriculture and create jobs, build and maintain a viable and affordable infrastructure, and provide public safety and wellbeing for all.