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I collect quotations and passages. Usually scribbled on a scrap of paper when first encountered, they find their way into decor in my home and office, tucked into books to be found years later, and even into a Google Doc that is a running “cut and paste” of bits of wisdom I accumulate for some unknown future reference. Walking from my desk to my kitchen for a coffee refill while writing my column for this week, one such passage I had crafted into a wall hanging captured my attention.
Last week I wrote about the tax incentives report released by the Nebraska Department of Revenue. The report laid out the fiscal details of one of the most discussed programs of state government, the Nebraska Advantage Act, and its companion corporate incentive programs. State law requires a public hearing of the members of the Appropriations and Revenue Committees to answer questions and provide context to the data. My intention was to follow last week’s rather long and very data heavy column with context and specifics gleaned from the public hearing.
However, the hearing did not provide any information that could not be obtained by simply reading the report. Senators, including myself, asked a few questions about items not included, and the Department of Revenue will provide written follow up in the coming weeks. Some senators had read the report in detail, while it was not apparent others had. It was obvious that some senators did not have a command of how the incentives programs that were the subject of the hearing even work.
Nebraska’s corporate tax incentive programs are significant by any measure. With $905 million of state tax credits earned, over $6 billion in personal property exempted from taxation, and a projected net loss of $996 million to Nebraska taxpayers by 2027, these programs should command intense scrutiny and public attention. We have no evidence to support the claim that the programs advance Nebraska, and attempts to collect that evidence have faced opposition and apathy. There has been talk about improvements and changes to the programs during my entire term in the Nebraska Legislature. All the talk has yielded little result. My struggle comes in how to provide greater context and insight about these programs that is of value to taxpayers who read this column.
The passage on my wall that caught my attention while writing this column about the tax incentives hearing has been with me since 1994 when I printed it with my dot-matrix printer and posted it on my dorm room wall. When the edges became tattered, I mounted it into a frame, and it has accompanied me everywhere I have lived for the past 24 years.
For my 20th birthday, a friend gave me a copy of Robert Pirsig’s 1974 book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Written as a fictionalized autobiography with diversions into some philosophical discussions, the book isn’t a quick read and didn’t teach me anything about motorcycle mechanics. Nevertheless, it has become one of my favorites. Like the book’s narrator, I too take great interest in knowing the specifics and details of how things work. In contrast to those who think in broad strokes and themes, I want to take things apart and see how they are made.
The policy of tax incentives is based on noble themes. “Economic development” and “business growth” are laudable goals that are difficult to disagree with. I, however, cannot help but want to pop the hood and look deeper into how the programs work. It is a source of frustration for me when others do not have the same desire to dig down into the specifics. To my mind, even the best intended public programs require scrutiny and attention to the details of their operation. But, like the narrator in “Motorcycle Maintenance”, I have come to realize there is a sharp distinction between those like me who crave to know the inner workings and those who have no interest in knowing them at all. Politics and political messaging does not lend itself to the details, but rather the best sound bite or slogan sways public opinion.
I close with my favorite passage from Pirsig’s book, the one that I have kept on my wall for the past 24 years and caught my attention when writing this column. It has greater significance to me based on my experience in state government. As you think about the myriad of programs that government operates, including corporate incentives, it may resonate with you as well.
Pirsig writes: “If we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature or with programs full of things for other people to do. That kind of approach starts at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”