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When I ran for the Legislature four years ago, property taxes were the top issue with voters. As we approach the final days of my fourth year, substantive policy changes to address the property tax burden have yet to be adopted. Like most taxpayers, I am frustrated by the inability of the legislature to substantively address such a widely recognized and commonly discussed problem.
It is my belief the Legislature is not able to accomplish the major policy overhaul needed to correct the property tax problem during a regular session. The politics involved in completing the required duties of a legislative session get in the way of productive, thoughtful policy discussions that are necessary to reform the system. Thus, I assert a special session for the specific purpose of property tax reform is the only option for crafting a meaningful solution.
A regular session requires focus on a number of issues necessary to keep state government running. The top of the list is adopting a state budget. Having served on the Appropriations Committee for the past four years, I have spent five days per week in committee in the development of the state budget. Spending decisions, by their nature, should take top priority. There are necessary state adjustments in response to ever changing federal policy, including revenue, education, transportation, and natural resources. These immediate concerns take precedence over the comprehensive approach needed for restructuring the property tax system.
Property tax reform requires a frank and honest discussion about a number of topics that are often deemed “sacred cows”. Property taxes fund many of the most visible and direct services taxpayers experience every day: education, local government, and emergency services. The spending decisions are made locally, by our neighbors. Policy discussions, rather than focusing on facts and a strategy for the future, are taken personally.
The special interest groups that represent each of those constituencies have a tried and true formula for protecting their specific piece of the pie. Each year property tax reform bills begin their debate on the floor late in the legislative session. Despite the fact all bills must be introduced in the first 10 days of the session, lobbyists “run out the clock” as a negotiating tactic. Rather than working to find compromise and bring the bill for floor debate early in the session, interest groups stall and drag their feet. Once the deadline looms, each group tries to force senators into a “take it or leave it” scenario. As we have seen, this approach does not lead to progress.
Given the importance and magnitude of the property tax issue, bringing bills to the floor for consideration, debate, and compromise as early as possible would be the best strategy for achieving reform. Yet year after year the bills are stalled in committee and delayed until the final days of the session. Of the many ideas introduced, few are allowed full discussion by the entire Legislature.
With all of the issues being addressed in a regular session, every senator and group has their own priorities and interests. Vote trading among senators on tax bills is rampant. Interest groups promise to support or withdraw opposition of unrelated issues to leverage their bargaining power. The sequence of unrelated bills on the floor has more influence on the success of a property tax bill then the policy itself.
Honesty and candor are rare commodities in political discourse. A property tax solution that works for all Nebraskans–homeowners, farmers, commercial property interests–requires everyone to set their parochial interests and short term needs aside and work collectively for the good of the state.