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There is no doubt property taxes are of concern to Nebraskans. In a poll conducted in March of 2016, 45% of Nebraska voters listed property taxes as their top priority for tax relief. Of note, when those numbers were broken down by congressional district, 49% of voters in the metro Omaha 2nd Congressional District selected property tax relief as their top priority, higher than even the rural 3rd District where soaring ag land valuations have created the large inequity in property tax bills among taxpayers. In contrast, 19% felt incomes taxes should be the priority, while 13% selected inheritance taxes.
Despite clear evidence that taxpayers see their property tax bills as excessive, achieving significant reform continues to be a challenge. I share the level of frustration felt by many taxpayers at the slow pace of reform. It is counterintuitive that every proposed solution to such a widely recognized problem would meet formidable opposition. In the bill hearing for LB 958, the bill proposing several initial steps to property tax reform, seven proponents testified in support of the concepts introduced in the bill. Those testifying represented taxpayer interests, including the Nebraska Cattlemen and Platte Institute. Even the Nebraska Department of Revenue testified in support of the bill. Yes, that is correct: the agency in charge of tax collection testified in support of the property tax reform bill.
In stark contrast, 29 groups representing the spending side of the property tax equation testified in opposition to property tax reform. Opposition testimony ranged in specifics, but one central theme was present throughout: don’t restrict spending. Ironically, the paid lobbyists and public employees obstructing the property tax reform process were paid by you, using your tax dollars. The Nebraska Public Employees Union, League of Nebraska Municipalities, Nebraska Association of Resources Districts, Nebraska Association of County Officials, Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, Greater Nebraska Schools Association, and other public employees turned out to oppose limitations to their spending and greater transparency of local government budgets.
Use of taxpayer dollars for lobbying is not a new development, but it is one that obscures the policy process. In many cases, public funds are used for membership dues for organizations who employ full time staff to lobby on their behalf. While associations may also provide other membership benefits, their lobbying efforts to keep dollars flowing to their member governments are their top priority. Many political subdivisions, including cities, schools, natural resource districts, and community colleges will use taxpayer dollars to hire private lobbyists. Assessing the total cost to taxpayers of these lobbying efforts is a challenge. Several organizations have not been forthcoming with information about membership dues and fees paid using taxpayer dollars when requested by my office.
Although tax shifts, changes in how we assess property valuations, and other technical improvements may blunt the force of the property tax burden, the ultimate solution lies with responsible spending. Government at all levels must have an open discussion about what represents a reasonable rate of growth in spending. Increasing the ask from taxpayers of 4.5-6% a year or higher when their incomes are growing at 2-3% in real terms is not sustainable. Determining restrictions on spending that are both reasonable and fair is not possible when proposed solutions are met with a wall of paid opposition. I am elected to represent the interests of taxpayers in Lincoln, and local elected officials are responsible for representing the interests of their taxpayers as well. Using taxpayer money to lobby against the interests of taxpayers obstructs the path to meaningful solutions to the property tax crisis.
As always, I value your input on any matter facing state government. You can reach my office at 402-471-2732 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For daily updates, please follow me on Twitter at @JohnKuehnDVM.
Senator John Kuehn, District 38