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Among taxpayers in District 38, property tax issues dominate every conversation. All property owners have seen their total property tax bill increase dramatically over the past decade. Agricultural landowners have seen year after year of double digit increases in their assessed valuations, creating a shift of the overall tax burden disproportionately to farmers and ranchers. Residential and commercial property owners have also seen an increase in their taxes paid, creating pressure on family budgets and the financial viability of small businesses. Despite property taxes consistently ranking as the top tax policy concern among voters, organized resistance to significant changes to property tax policies remains strong. Taxpayer frustration over the speed and magnitude of property tax reform is high, while the taxing entities see every reform proposal as draconian, using your tax dollars to pay lobbyists to oppose tax relief.
Property tax discussions are complicated because the revenue they generate fund those government functions that are most personal to us. Our local schools, city services, county roads, groundwater management, and community colleges are the up-close aspects of government that impact our lives every day. Spending choices and tax levy rate decisions are made by our friends and neighbors on local boards. They determine the salary for our local teachers, the park and recreational facilities in our communities, the access to vocational education opportunities locally, and the maintenance of local roads.
An interesting phenomenon occurs when taxpayers talk to me about property taxes. Taxpayers will assert schools spend too much money in general, but not their local school. Taxpayers are reluctant to address specific spending with their city council or county supervisors, because potholes remain to be fixed on their street or their local bridge needs repair. Community College and Natural Resource District budgets have more than doubled in a decade, yet workforce development and water sustainability remain top priorities with no immediate resolution in sight. Local board members report no taxpayers show up to their budget hearings, yet meetings rooms are packed any time cuts to services are suggested or new infrastructure is debated.
We all make a cost/benefit analysis of our personal spending decisions and expenditures in our businesses. We separate what we need–housing, food, transportation–with what we want–vacations, entertainment, and the latest gadget. Our personal incomes are limited, and we prioritize accordingly. Local governments must do the same.
Successful resolution of the property tax issue requires collaboration among taxpayers, local taxing authorities, and state policy makers. Local citizens must be clear on what services they need and which they want, and understand who pays for those choices. Shifting the burden of funding to other taxpayers is not responsible. Local boards must establish clear spending goals and live within those means, prioritizing spending choices. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I have experience making those tough decisions. We have kept growth of the state budget to 3.5% in a single budget cycle, half of the growth in previous years. State legislators must not simply look out for the interests of their own taxpayers, but establish tax policies that are fair and equitable to all citizens, being aware of disproportionate burdens on a single group.
While initial steps were made this past legislative session, the greatest development of note was the wide disconnect between taxpayers and special interest groups. While citizens paying the bills continue to call for greater and faster reform, groups representing those governments spending the revenue aggressively resist any limitations on spending, budget growth, or their taxing authority. The League of Municipalities, Association of County Officials, Community College Association, Natural Resource District Association, and the almost endless list of school organizations lobby hard against reforms. Ironically, they are using your tax dollars to oppose tax relief, costing you more tax dollars.
Senator John Kuehn, District 38