NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
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Sen. John Kuehn

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38

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Each year the various agencies of the state of Nebraska spend $2.3 Billion dollars in taxes and fees that are designated as “cash funds”. Many of the taxes discussed in recent weeks, including the gas, lodging, and documentary stamp taxes, are not accounted for in the $4.4 Billion “General Fund” of sales and income taxes, but rather are directed to special designated cash funds. These various cash funds pay for specific government programs. If you would like to look at the hundreds of different cash funds and the fees that pay for them, you can access a digital copy of the “State Government Cash and Revolving Funds” book on the Legislative Fiscal Office page of the Nebraska Legislature website.

Although almost never mentioned in discussions about tax policy or tax burden, these various cash funds represent a significant amount of money paid by Nebraskans. On a per capita basis, cash fund spending is about $4800 annually for a Nebraska family of four. More taxes are collected annually in cash funds than either sales taxes or individual income taxes.

Understanding where all the tax revenue for cash funds comes from and how it is spent requires a look at an organizational chart of Nebraska state government. We are all familiar with the three branches of government: executive, judicial, and legislative. However, within the executive branch of Nebraska state government are 72 different state agencies. Only 20 of these agencies are known as “code agencies”, which are managed by the Governor.

There are 52 state agencies that are not the responsibility of the Governor, but rather report to independent boards. They are referred to as “noncode agencies”. Their board members, within statutory parameters, set the rates of tax money collected. While the Legislature appropriates the “authority” to spend the cash funds, the budget specifics and spending decisions are the responsibility of the governing boards. While some of the noncode agencies are managed by elected boards, most are appointed with no direct connection to voters.

The Nebraska Constitution establishes 13 of the 52 noncode agencies. Five of these agencies are the constitutional officers elected by the voters of the state, including the Secretary of State, State Treasurer, Auditor, Attorney General, and Lieutenant Governor. The state Department of Education and the Public Service Commission are the most notable large state agencies that are not managed by the Governor. Three constitutionally established noncode agencies deal with higher education–the University of Nebraska, the State Colleges, and the Coordinating Commission for Post-Secondary Education. Two more are quasi-judicial agencies, the Tax Equalization and Review Commission (TERC) and the Commission of Industrial Relations (CIR).

The 39 other noncode agencies, established by statute, are a diverse mix of entities. Six agencies are funded specifically by ag commodity checkoff dollars. Ten are agencies that administer specific professional licenses, such as the Board of Landscape Architects and the Real Estate Appraiser Board. Some agencies oversee specific areas of commerce in Nebraska, such as the Liquor Control Commission, Racing Commission, and Oil & Gas Conservation Commission.

The sheer number of executive branch agencies–72–can be overwhelming. There is almost always a historical, rather than consistent rationale for the existence of many of these agencies. For example, licensing for your health care providers is almost exclusively handled through the Department of Health and Human Services, while land surveyors and abstractors each have separate state agencies. The checkoffs for dry beans and grain sorghum fund state agencies, while beef and soybeans do not. Specific services for the blind and deaf are each provided by independent organizations, unlike other disabilities. The Commission on Indian Affairs and the Latino American Commission are two state agencies administering programs for specific populations.

While several code agencies spend significant cash funds, notably Economic Development and Transportation, most of the noncode agencies operate almost exclusively on cash funds. With no direct connection to either voters or any specific office for oversight, these agencies are frequently overlooked. When a scandal emerges, such as the debacle with the Tourism Commission, public attention is focused on the specific agency. That accountability quickly fades as attention shifts to other stories.

The coming weeks will provide a deeper look into the financial details of some of the cash funds and the agencies that administer them. Paid through a myriad of small fees, the cumulative impact of $2.3 Billion should not be overlooked. They are dollars going out of your pocket to fund government services.

 

Last week I addressed the legal history behind the collection of sales tax by online retailers who do not have a physical business in Nebraska. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case Wayfair vs. South Dakota negated the physical presence requirement that had been the constitutional precedent for over 25 years. The high court did not simply reverse its prior decision, but rather upheld the South Dakota law and laid out specific provisions that meet the constitutional test. Specifically, a state law should provide safe harbor for businesses that have only a few transactions in the state, nor should the collection of taxes occur retroactively.

Even more important, the Supreme Court specifically established a basis for streamlined tax collection and administration that does not present a burden to businesses, and therefore, interstate commerce. Included was access to sales tax collection software paid for by the state that, if used, provides the business immunity from audit liability.

The clarity provided by the ruling is critical to developing state policy that complies with the U.S.  Constitution. I was firmly opposed to a proposed online sales tax collection bill in Nebraska during the past two sessions on the basis that we knew any law passed was not constitutional by current standards. The South Dakota case was making its way through the courts, and it was prudent to know with precision how the court would rule rather than pass laws based on speculation.

Citizens should also consider two other philosophical tenets of the proposed bill, principles which I had significant concerns about. First, the bill presented a serious threat to the personal privacy of consumers. Under current law, when you make a purchase and pay sales tax at the point of sale, there is no identifying information linked to that tax payment. The state cannot tell you how much sales tax you as an individual paid, nor what specific purchases you made upon which tax was due.

Under LB 44, online retailers would have been required to send the Department of Revenue a list of all transactions and the identifying information of the purchaser. In other words, state government would be collecting detailed reports of your online purchases that specifically identify you. Government possession of such detailed information about private taxpayer behavior is unprecedented. Such intrusion into your privacy should not be taken lightly.

The other argument I found interesting was the claim that not collecting sales tax at the point of sale creates a competitive disadvantage between brick and mortar and online retailers, thereby decimating main street businesses. This was a frequent assertion of many local officials and retail organizations. The argument ignored differences in the retail price of goods, business costs of local property taxes, as well as the influence of convenience on consumer behavior. However, if the 5.5% state sales tax truly does create a significant competitive disadvantage, retailers and local governments are asserting that sales taxes have a negative impact on consumer purchases.

This has two interesting implications. First, it would mean that cities that charge an optional sales tax are actively discouraging consumer purchases in their community. If their logic holds, it is counterproductive to local businesses for cities to raise their sales tax rates to generate additional spending. Shoppers will simply take their business to communities with a lower tax rate.

The second implication of the argument that paying sales tax negatively impacts consumer purchases applies to the continued movement to generate more tax revenue by increasing the number of goods and services on which sales tax must be paid. Small town retailers, especially grocers, are already faced with higher business costs compared to their large-chain counterparts in larger cities and low-overhead online retailers. Our rural communities should apply the same logic the chambers of commerce, local governments, and retail interests used to lobby for online sales tax collection. If their logic is true, expanding the sales tax base to increase government revenue could decimate rural and small town businesses that now must charge new sales taxes.

Finally, the online sales tax issue reveals an important philosophical perspective about taxes and governments. No matter how you wish to spin it, collection of online sales taxes at the point of sale means Nebraskans will have $30-40 million less in their pockets next year. When people say “the government is missing out on revenue”, they mean you are not keeping money to spend as you choose. It is my belief that money is yours. Nobody knows how best to spend it efficiently and effectively in a market economy than you, the person who earned it. Across state and local government, officials and special interest groups see the Supreme Court ruling as a revenue windfall. Despite all the legal arguments and special interest lobbying, you are still the one who pays the bill.

Tax policy discussions in Nebraska tend to focus on the “big three” taxes: property, sales, and income. Most of the graphics you see and statistics you read compare the total amount of property taxes collected by local governments with the sales tax and income tax revenues of the state General Fund. Ignoring almost half of the other sources of revenue collected by state and local government in Nebraska, these oversimplified comparisons exclude a substantial tax you pay: local sales taxes.

In addition to the state sales tax rate of 5.5%, cities and counties have the option to charge an additional sales tax rate of 0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 1.75, or 2% on your purchases. The location of the point of sale determines the total tax rate. Over 200 cities and villages charge sales tax. One county, Dakota County, has a 0.5% sales tax. Of those cities, 16 communities, including Minden in District 38, charge the highest rate of 2%. The state collects the combined rate and distributes the municipality’s portion back.  

During calendar year 2017, $462 Million were collected by cities in local sales and use taxes. To put this amount in perspective, the total sales tax collections by the state of Nebraska for fiscal year 2017 was $1.55 Billion. Local communities charged you an additional 30% of the state total in local sales taxes. Each of those small, interval amounts on your receipts add up to a substantial sum.

As we all are aware, the property tax burden is a subject of much conversation across Nebraska. Cities set a levy and collect property taxes as well. In 2017, cities collected $398 Million from property owners. This amount is dwarfed by the $462 Million in sales taxes collected by cities during that same time period–a total of 16% more to be exact. Combined, cities and villages assessed $860 Million in local taxes to fund city government. These, of course, are not the only sources of revenue for cities and villages.

A number of tax reform proposals include charging sales taxes on goods and services that are currently exempt. The concept is to expand the tax base over more goods and start charging sales taxes on previously untaxed services. The purported purpose would be to use the additional revenues collected by the state to fund local government activities currently paid by property taxes. The historical experience and practical outcomes of that tax policy are the topic of another column, but the proposal does have significant tax implications beyond generating state revenue. Charging sales taxes on more goods and services will increase the amount you pay in local sales tax as well.

Unlike a simple increase in the state sales tax rate, which only increases your tax bill to the state, eliminating current sales tax exemptions increases both state and local taxes. Whether or not local cities would lower their property taxes in the same amount their sales tax revenue increases would be determined by each community. They could simply use the increased revenue as a windfall and increase their spending and your total tax bill.

Since 2006 Nebraska municipalities have collected over $4.6 Billion in local sales and use taxes. A 54% increase in sales taxes collected, over $162 Million more is charged annually by city governments today. During that same time period, city property taxes collected increased by 57%, from $253 Million to the current $398 Million. I don’t know about your personal situation, but I can assure you neither my income nor my disposable budget have increased by 50% since 2006. It is no wonder Nebraska tax payers are feeling pinched in every direction.

Any honest discussion about balancing Nebraska’s tax burden must include all of the taxes Nebraskans pay. Excluding significant tax burdens from the analysis of any tax solution, such as local sales taxes, is akin to trying to solve a Rubik’s cube with the specific color of half the squares covered. The “big three” is an incomplete representation of Nebraska’s tax burden. It must include all taxes collected by state and local government, including local sales tax.  

 

In addition to your annual property tax bill there is another tax assessed on property you are likely unaware of. When the legal ownership of a piece of real estate changes, by sale or by gift, a tax is imposed. Known as the “documentary stamp tax”, the County Register of Deeds affixes a stamp to each deed at the time of transfer that documents the tax has been paid.

The Doc Stamp Tax is assessed at a rate of $2.25 per $1,000 of value of the property. Unlike the theoretical value assigned for your annual property taxes, the valuation is determined by the actual amount paid for the property at time of transfer. If the transfer is the result of a gift, a market value is determined. To illustrate, upon the sale of a $100,000 home a tax of $225 is paid and the deed is stamped accordingly.

In the last fiscal year approximately $24.7 million was paid in Doc Stamp Taxes. The proceeds are divided five different ways.  Of the $2.25 tax rate, $0.50 per $1,000 of values stays in the county in which the property is located, or about $5.4 million. Other four recipients of proceeds from this tax are two economic development funds, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and the Site and Building Development Fund, and two human services funds, the Homeless Shelter Assistance Trust Fund and the Behavioral Health Services Fund.  

The largest share of the Doc Stamp Tax, 42%, is directed to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The intent of the AHT is to provide financial assistance for affordable housing projects to address local needs. Communities can apply for loans, credits, subsidies, or grants to build affordable housing. Approximately $10 million on Doc Stamp Tax revenue goes into the fund each year.

Given the identified needs for affordable housing throughout the state, it would seem logical every dollar going into this fund would be utilized. That is not the case. A 2017 Legislative Performance Audit found several significant problems with the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, including an unobligated balance of over $11 million, insufficient tracking of trust fund money, incomplete reporting, and a failure to follow the law with required match levels. Last year $7.3 million of accumulated balance was swept from the trust to create a new program for workforce housing through LB 518. In essence, mismanaged taxes intended for affordable housing, which would be for workers, were reallocated into a new program for more expensive “workforce” housing. Had the AHT Fund been properly managed and funds used as the law intended, it would have gone a long way to addressing the housing concerns in many communities.

Another portion of the Doc Stamp Taxes is directed to a program to provide public subsidies for industrial site development. Approximately $2.5 million annually is generated to provide financial assistance for recruiting industrial business to Nebraska. Ironically, in both 2012 and 2013 money from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund was transferred to the Site and Building Development Fund, taking dollars intended to build housing for working Nebraskans and using it to subsidize expansion of private businesses.

The Homeless Shelter Assistance Fund has received $0.25 of the $2.25 per $1,000 valuation since 1992.  Beginning in 2005, $0.30 of the $2.25 is directed to the Behavioral Health Services Fund, which funds the requirements of the Behavioral Health Services Act.

In 2005 $2 million was transferred from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to the Behavioral Health Services Fund. You may note a common theme: tax money directed by statute to address the need for affordable housing across the state is not used as intended. As an unobligated balance accumulates due to poor management of the program, those funds are swept and redirected toward other projects, which may be unrelated to housing.

The Documentary Stamp Tax is another example of an obscure tax that most taxpayers don’t readily see. The proceeds are then used to fund specific projects. Those tax dollars, if not carefully managed and subject to strict oversight, can accumulate and then be used as a slush fund toward pet projects. It provides yet another example of non-transparent taxes collected outside of the General Fund that easily slip through the cracks of accountability.

 

Being ranked “#1” isn’t always a good thing, especially when the list is highest tax rates. Although Nebraska ranks high in a number of tax rankings, it earns the dubious honor of highest inheritance tax rate of any state in the nation. Only six states have an inheritance tax. Although you will never pay this tax, your heirs will. The rate paid is determined not by the property owner who has died, but rather who the individual chooses to leave their assets to and the nature of their relationship. Because of its steep inheritance tax, a Forbes article listed Nebraska as a state “where not to die”, a distinction you won’t likely see on chamber of commerce fliers.

Although the inheritance tax is established by state law, the tax is paid directly to the county in which the individual lived or where the property was located. If the deceased owned property in multiple counties, the tax is paid to each county. Inheritance tax revenue is, by its very nature, unpredictable. The current market value is used to determine the taxes due. Thus, as property values have increased, the amount collected by counties has sharply increased, rising more that 75% over a 6 year period. Over $70 million is paid to counties in inheritance taxes annually.  

Using the nature of an heir’s familial relationship to the deceased as the basis for the tax rate and amount of assets taxed is unique to the inheritance tax in Nebraska tax law. It also creates some rather odd scenarios. All property left to a spouse is exempt from the inheritance tax.  Lineal descendants and ascendants–children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, and siblings–pay no taxes on the first $40,000 of assets inherited, and 1% on any amount above. The relationship does not have to be biological. Relatives of a spouse, even a deceased former spouse, can be included even if they have no biological relationship to the deceased.

If you inherit property in Nebraska but fall outside of a lineal relationship with the deceased, your tax bill rises dramatically. It is these rates that puts Nebraska at the top of the national rankings. Should you leave assets to a niece, nephew, cousin, aunt, or uncle, they will be taxed 13% of any amount over $15,000. Should you leave any of your estate to a non-relative, they will pay the highest rate in the nation: 18% of any amount over $10,000.  For comparison, the often maligned federal inheritance tax exempts over $5 million in assets before it applies.

The steep tax penalty for non-familial heirs has a curious loophole in Nebraska law. Any person to whom the deceased for not less than ten years prior to death stood in the acknowledged relation of a parent qualifies for the 1% lineal relative rate. This legal standard, known as in loco parentis, can apply to adult-adult relationships with no legal, biological, or familial ties. For example, a business owner could leave their business assets to a long-time employee whom they “thought of as a daughter”. The distinction has rather larger financial implications for the heir: the difference between a 1% and 18% tax rate.

The inheritance tax is controversial for a number of legitimate policy reasons. Depending on the type of asset inherited, the taxes due represent a second, third, or even fourth taxation of the same property. For example, a piece of farm ground you leave to your nephew was purchased with money you already paid income taxes on. The ground has been assessed property taxes annually. When the title changes, a documentary stamp tax will be assessed. The nephew will then be assessed a fourth tax on the same asset at a rate of 13% of the value above $15,000.

Using the assessments of simplicity, transparency, neutrality, and stability to evaluate tax policy, the inheritance tax fails all four standards. The various exemptions, rates, and use of familial but not necessarily legal or biological relationships to determine who pays the tax is far from simple. It is unlikely most heirs are even aware they are responsible for paying the tax, which may require them to sell some of the asset just to cover the tax bill. The taxes are due within 12 months of death, and will function as a lien against the property if unpaid. That makes the tax far from transparent. By treating different heirs very differently, the policy is not neutral. Finally, as a revenue source, counties cannot predict any stable level of revenue. Most counties direct inheritance tax revenues to special designated funds rather than general funds.

It has been said that only two things are certain in life: death and taxes.  Under current Nebraska law, those two events intersect with the inheritance tax. If you inherit assets from a loved one, you can be certain that within 12 months of their death the county will come knocking to collect.

The American Automobile Association estimates 41.5 million people will hit the roads this Memorial Day weekend. Your family may be included in that total, attending community events, family get-togethers, or enjoying the three day weekend away from home. With the average price of a gallon of gas in Nebraska rising almost 16 cents per gallon from April to May, you may feel the impact of rising costs on your wallet this holiday. As you fill up at the pump, it is also a good time to keep track of your total tax bill by taking into account the portion of the $2.86 per gallon average that is going to fund state and local government.

Based on current prices, approximately 10% of the cost of every gallon of gas you buy this weekend is state and local taxes. The current “gas tax” in Nebraska is 28.4 cents per gallon. In 2017 total gas taxes collected by the state of Nebraska totaled over $363 million. Of that almost $75 million is directed to the cities and counties to spend, while the remaining 80% is spent by the state Department of Transportation.

The gas tax rate changes from year to year depending on variation in two of the three components that determine the tax. The fixed component is 14.8 cents per gallon, with 9 cents directed to the state and 5.8 cents per gallon designated for cities and counties. In 2019, that will rise to 16.3 cents as a result of a gas tax increase passed in 2015. That legislation increased the fixed portion 1.5 cents per year for the next four years. Two smaller components change from year to year. The wholesale portion, currently at 8.7 cents per gallon, is calculated to be 5% of the six month average of wholesale fuel prices. As prices go up, so does the tax rate–an interesting double whammy to consumers. The variable portion, currently 4.9 cents per gallon, is determined by the state DOT to match their expenditures.

The federal government also collects an additional 18.4 cents per gallon, for a total of 46.8 cents in local, state, and federal taxes per gallon of unleaded gas. Thus, for every 20 gallons you fill up in your car while travelling this weekend, you are paying $9.36 in taxes.

If you spend time away from home this weekend in a hotel, you will pay another tax to fund local and state government: the lodging tax. The amount of tax you pay depends on the cost of your room. The more expensive the room, the larger the tax you pay. The state lodging tax is 1% of the total charges of any hotel room in the state. County lodging taxes add up to an additional 4% to the bill.

During 2017, counties collected almost $21 million in lodging taxes. Those dollars are split equally between the County Visitors Promotion Fund and the County Visitors Improvement Fund. The state of Nebraska collected almost $5.5 million in lodging taxes, which are under the discretion of the Nebraska Tourism Commission.

It is worth noting that over $26 million in lodging taxes collected annually are not managed by elected representatives. The Nebraska Tourism Board is an appointed board, and the Tourism Department is a “non-code agency”, not under the direction of the Governor or any other elected official. In 2016 a state audit found considerable problems with the oversight and use of Tourism funds, leading to the termination of the agency’s director. Most counties have a similar set-up with Convention and Visitors Bureaus spending lodging tax revenue.

With the official start summer travel season comes increased traffic and increased tax revenue. As you keep your running total of your family’s financial support of state and local government in Nebraska, make sure to include your gas and hotel receipts to add to the total. The sum total of each of those pit stops and overnight stays is $390 million in expenditures by state and local governments every year.  

 

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.

Voters engaging in the democratic process by casting their votes to select their lawmakers and voice their position on policy issues is the foundation of representative government. Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale recently predicted that only a mere 28% of Nebraska’s registered voters will vote in the primary election this spring. The anticipated 336,000 votes represents less than 18% of the population of the state. A small minority of Nebraskans will make the decisions that impact each and every one of us.

The implications of low citizen participation can be dramatic.  At this level of voter turnout, less than 10% of the population is all that is required to achieve a majority and win an election. In many races for local offices in our communities that difference may be a matter of only a handful of voters. It is not an exaggeration to say that every vote counts.

There are a number of reasons for projected low voter turnout this May.  It is a Primary Election. It is a midterm election relative to the presidential cycle. With all of the spring demands in agriculture and the end of the school year everyone is busy. While all of the reasons people have for not voting may be valid on the day of the election, the magnitude of the choices made on a single day have implications for the next several years of your life as a citizen and taxpayer.

Voting is a fundamental right. With that right comes responsibility. Participation is at the top of the list. The expansion of early voting options, both in person and by mail, provides additional access for voters. You are no longer limited to only the polling hours on Election Day. Each year the number of early ballots cast increases, which is a positive sign that voters are taking advantage of those options.

It is critical that voters understand the policy positions of the candidates on the ballot. For many local races, which have a direct effect on your property tax rates and local services, voters may not even be able to find information about where candidates stand on issues. Name recognition and familiarity has a shocking impact on the outcome of voter choices.

Special interest groups take advantage of low information voters. Standing by a tractor in a campaign photo doesn’t mean a candidate will advocate for agriculture, nor does a picture with kids mean they understand the fiscal intricacies of public education. Voters need to critically evaluate what candidates say, as well as what they don’t. Candidates aren’t likely to include their pro-abortion views or comfort with raising taxes on their campaign mailers. Voters need to seek information independent of what they passively receive to know the full impact of their choices.

Every race on the ballot matters. City council, county offices, and school board races are often decided by a relatively small number of votes in rural Nebraska, yet those officials make some of the most significant decisions for you. In a recent search for information about candidates on my local ballot, I was unable to find any information about their positions, nor did I receive any response to my direct inquiries to them. It is easy to see why voters become frustrated and cite lack of knowledge about candidates as a frequent reason for not voting.

Having the right of self-government comes with the responsibility to inform yourself and participate in the electoral process. The outcome of elections matter. Make sure your voice is heard and your values are represented at all levels of government.

 

 

The lawmaking process should be transparent and devoid of undue influence by special interest groups. The annual lobbying report of Common Cause Nebraska released this week provides insight into the ever-increasing amount special interests spend lobbying elected officials. In 2017 a record high $17,446,838 was spent on lobbying in Nebraska. This represents a 26% increase since 2013. In total, 377 paid lobbyists representing 550 special interests sought to influence the decisions of your elected officials.

During my four years in the Legislature I have introduced a number of measures intended to increase voters’ ability to clearly see how special interests are influencing state policy. A quixotic effort, none of the bills were ever advanced from the Government, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee. The data contained in this year’s Annual Lobby Report by Common Cause underscores the urgent need for greater transparency.

Aside from the shocking amount spent on lobbying, the source of the bulk of the money is equally jarring.  Of the top ten largest spenders over the past five years, half represent political subdivisions. The biggest spender is the League of Municipalities, which is funded by Nebraska cities and towns. The University of Nebraska is the fourth biggest spender, while the Nebraska Council of School Administrators and the Nebraska State Education Association are ranked seventh and eighth, respectively. Omaha Public Power is ninth.

Voters are often unaware how much of their tax dollars are used to pay for lobbying activities. The use of taxpayer dollars for lobbying is not new, but it obscures the policy process. In some cases, public dollars are used to employ full time lobbying staff. In addition, most also hire private contract lobbyists. The ever increasing amount of public dollars used to lobby state government indicates the success of the effort to keep state money flowing to the local governments that spend your taxes on lobbying.

A look at the lobbying efforts of some public school districts provides insight into why revising Nebraska’s dysfunctional school funding formula to distribute equalization aid to all schools has been unsuccessful. $2,399,081 has been spent over the past five years by 17 schools districts and the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy County. The seven biggest spenders–Omaha, Lincoln, Millard, Bellevue, Papillion, Ralston, and Grand Island–represent 70% of that total.

In the name of open government, political subdivisions using money derived from public funds should file the entire contract for public evaluation. All Nebraskans should be able to clearly identify how public money is used to lobby. Voters should be able to take this spending into account when voting for elected officials that serve on these local boards and councils.

For Nebraskans who wonder why income tax cuts continue to drag down efforts to address voter’s top concern, property taxes, follow the lobby money. Almost a quarter million dollars, the largest amount by any single special interest group, was spent opposing property tax reform and promoting income tax cuts by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce. Although Nebraska’s cities spent the most on lobbying as a five year total, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce comes in at a close second, edging into the top spot for single year spending during 2016 and 2017.

The money spent on lobbying does not exclusively represent money spent to buy drinks and dinners for lawmakers or contribute to their campaign funds. The impact of the money is to buy a constant presence, access, and relationships with elected officials. The continual presence of the lobby, both in the capitol and at social events attended by lawmakers, creates an echo chamber of special interests. Voters should expect their elected representatives at all levels of government to at least be transparent about when and how special interests leverage their influence.

In Lewis Carroll’s novel “Through the Looking Glass”, Alice, of Wonderland fame, encounters the character of the Red Queen. Alice runs next to the Queen who exclaims ““Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Known as the Red Queen’s Race, the characters represent an arms race of sorts, were no matter how fast one competitor runs, the other matches speed. The net result is neither gets anywhere.

Many state economic development programs intended to recruit and retain businesses to Nebraska remind me of Alice racing the Red Queen. No matter how extensive the package of incentives and tax breaks, another state is willing to up the ante to lure the company away. What ensues is a vicious cycle of incentives paid for by all Nebraska taxpayers. When large companies leave Nebraska, such as ConAgra and Cabela’s have, a new, more aggressive cycle begins again to retrain workers and recruit new businesses to fill the vacant space.

The argument in favor of economic development incentive programs is that they create economic activity that ultimately produces more in tax revenue in the form of jobs and investment than the cost associated with the incentives. While the argument sounds logical, supporting evidence is scarce. Ironically, the companies that profit from incentive programs provide the greatest political obstacle to obtain data needed to valid their benefits.

For the last four years I have served on the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, serving as chair for the past two. Since 2015 the Legislative Performance Audit Office has been required by state law to conduct evaluations of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs, the largest of which is the Nebraska Advantage Act. The overall goal of the performance audits is to objectively evaluate the outcomes of the taxpayer investment in the companies that receive benefits under the program. The financial benefits include income tax credits, sales tax refunds, and personal property tax exemptions.

According to Department of Revenue data, participating companies have qualified for over $842 million of income tax credits, $158 million of sales tax refunds, and over $5 billion of personal property value exempted from paying local property taxes. Despite the large financial cost of these programs, data to support the policy outcomes of the incentives is not readily available. Questions as basic as where are the incentivized jobs located in the state are not easily answered. These outcomes are important when determining the impact of the taxpayer investment.

Evidence does not exist to support claims that the Nebraska Advantage act provides returns greater than the investment Nebraska taxpayers have made. The companies do not report data that is useful in answering that question. However, I can say with certainty that participating companies, and the Chambers of Commerce that represent them, aggressively oppose any effort to obtain data to evaluate the incentive programs. With hundreds of millions of dollars invested by Nebraska taxpayers in these companies, having accurate and complete information about the impacts is simply good government.

In some cases, a few individual companies have been very forthright and willing to provide all information they can to support the economic impact of the incentive programs. However, the opposition to transparency by some of the largest companies receiving Nebraska Advantage Act benefits is concerning. It creates doubt about the true result of the programs. Are they actually creating new and critical economic activity in the form of better jobs and new investments, or are they little more than corporate welfare?

This past session the Performance Audit Committee introduced and prioritized LB 935 in an attempt to obtain the information needed to thoroughly evaluate the outcomes of Nebraska’s incentive programs. Opposition from Advantage Act beneficiary companies was strong. The bill advanced to Select File where it stalled due to costs requested by the Department of Revenue, claiming the need for a full time IT specialist to include an additional data field in the reports filed by recipient companies.

Without more and better information about the jobs and investments paid for by taxpayers, it is difficult to understand the full opportunity cost of the programs. While it may not be feasible to end the Red Queen’s Race of incentives, Nebraska taxpayers should know with clarity what the cost of the race is. Nebraskans deserve more than investing and investing without getting anywhere.

 

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38
Room #2000
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2732
Email: jkuehn@leg.ne.gov
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