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Despite the lack of action in reforming Nebraska’s tax policy, there appears to be no shortage of catchy phrases, simple solutions, and political campaign slogans promising a fair and improved tax system for all. If it were so simple as a balancing out government funding between property, income, and sales taxes, a resolution would have been achieved long ago. The flaw in most talking points touted by politicos and special interest groups is that they fail to reflect the facts of Nebraska’s total revenue picture.
Virtually all discussion of Nebraska’s tax policy and spending is focused on the General Fund. Approximating $4.4 Billion, these are the dollars used to fund the most commonly thought of state expenditures. While the majority of General Fund dollars come from Sales and Income taxes, 5% is funded by excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco, as well as taxes assessed on insurance and financial institutions.
When comparisons are made between “government funding sources”, they are commonly made between the Sales, Income, and Property Taxes. Unfortunately, these combined represent only about half of the revenue that funds state and local government in Nebraska. Thus, the “three legged stool” commonly used to analogize tax policy only takes into account half of the total revenue picture, making it an inaccurate concept.
The General Fund only represents about 40% of the total $10.6 Billion appropriated annually by the State of Nebraska. Federal funds amount to over $3 Billion of state appropriations, primarily for healthcare, education, and transportation. Almost another $1 Billion is from revolving funds, primarily transactions between government agencies.
Almost always left out of the discussion of government revenue and tax policy are Cash Funds, which exceed both sales and individual income taxes as sources of revenue to fund government. Over $2.3 Billion are generated in various “fees” that most taxpayers probably don’t even notice. These include your lodging taxes, gas taxes, licensing fees, filing fees, hunting licenses, and hundreds of other small transactions. Ironically, the cumulative effect of all of these small, point of service fees is tax revenue generated in excess of all individual income taxes collected in the state.
Local governments also collect revenue in excess of property taxes that are not included in the bumper stick taglines of many tax policy discussions. These include local option sales taxes, motor vehicle fees, wheel taxes, occupation taxes, and inheritance taxes just to name a few.
The taxes that dominate the public discussion are the ones that are most readily seen by taxpayers. When you write out that check for your property taxes, you are acutely aware of the magnitude of the impact. You see the deductions on your paycheck for income taxes and see your total cost when you file your annual return. In contrast, do you know how much you spend annually on sales taxes? How much of your family budget is spent each year on the myriad of small “fees” that generate over $2 Billion of Cash Funds every year? Hiding taxes in small, less obvious, and more frequent tax bills is not transparent tax policy.
Over the next several weeks I will be digging deeper into each of the various sources of revenue that fund government in Nebraska. During the next two months, I encourage taxpayers to participate in an exercise to gain a better understanding of the taxes their family pays by keeping a running total. Collect your receipts from purchases and track how much sales tax you pay, a few dollars a time, every month. As you embark on summer travels, total the occupation and lodging taxes you pay for hotel stays. Every time you fill up at the pump, note how many gallons you purchase and track how much you pay monthly in gas taxes. When you renew your auto licenses, sum up the total impact of motor vehicle taxes on your disposable income. You may quickly find the sum of all of these taxes dwarfs the state deduction taken from each of your paychecks.
Informed taxpayers make the best choices. By the end of the summer you will have a better understanding of all the ways government is paid for in Nebraska, as well as the direct impact to you. Armed with that evidence, it might just change your perspective on how to best approach tax policy in Nebraska.