NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

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Sen. Lou Ann Linehan

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan

District 39

The content of these pages is developed and maintained by, and is the sole responsibility of, the individual senator's office and may not reflect the views of the Nebraska Legislature. Questions and comments about the content should be directed to the senator's office at llinehan@leg.ne.gov

The second graders crouched on the carpet.

“T,” the students yell while starting to stand.

“H.” Standing taller still.

“E.” Blastoff.

The students hopped.

It was only the second day of school, but the students in Alexa Feiereisel’s class in the Elkhorn Public Schools’ Westridge Elementary School already were practicing spelling and recognizing frequently used words such as “are,” “the,” “you,” “and,” “like” and “of.”

They snapped, clapped and hopped the words before returning to their desks to use colored markers to practice writing the words in composition notebooks.

Within 30 days of starting school, these students will be given the first of three reading assessments as required by a state law that goes into full effect this school year.

The assessments, given to students in kindergarten through third grade, are intended to identify students who may have a reading deficiency.

If a deficiency is detected, the law requires the school to provide students with a special reading intervention program and notify parents.

All Nebraska students won’t be taking the same assessment — districts pick an assessment from a list approved by the Nebraska Department of Education. The results are not reported to the department.

Some metro area districts, such as Elkhorn and the Omaha Public Schools, have selected the same assessment.

After third grade, students no longer are taught reading fundamentals. Instead, students are expected to learn from what they read.

“Reading is a skill that cuts across everything we hope a student learns in their K-12 experience,” said Cory Epler, chief academic officer for the Nebraska Department of Education.

The law, known as the Nebraska Reading Improvement Act, was introduced in 2018 by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha.

“If you let a child keep going up in grades without the ability to read, they’re not going to do well in school,” Linehan said in an interview. “Kids who don’t do well in school too often end up dropping out or getting in trouble.”

Nebraska is not the only state to enact a third grade reading law.

Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., require that students not reading proficiently by the third grade be held back, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2017, Linehan introduced a bill that would require schools to hold back third graders who were not reading on grade level. That bill was met with sharp disagreement, and the current law does not have that requirement.

Epler said many districts have been doing a lot of what’s outlined in the law, but now everyone in the state will have the same parameters. Districts were not given additional funds by the state to implement the changes.

Officials at Elkhorn and the Westside Community Schools said the requirements in the law are not radically different from what the districts had been doing.

“The law is kind of the starting point,” said Jadi Miller, director of assessment for Elkhorn. “And then we’ve found ways to kind of supplement around that to make sure that we have a full and accurate picture of what a student can do or where they might need extra support.”

Gregory Betts, director of professional learning for Westside, said when data showed that students entering and leaving kindergarten weren’t where they needed to be, the district started changing curriculum.

Betts said the district started the initiative in the 2015-16 school year and now uses scientifically proven methods to teach reading.

“We’re not guessing at words anymore,” said Linda Safranek, reading coordinator and elementary literacy co-chair for the district. “You will use the code that is in place. And use that code because the No. 1 comprehension strategy is to read the words correctly.”

Epler stressed that just because a student is found to have a reading deficiency, it does not mean that student belongs in special education classes.

Linehan, who said she is dyslexic, struggled with reading until high school.

“It’s OK. It is OK if your child is not at grade level,” Linehan said. “There’s ways to get them there.”

Editorial staff

Aug 2, 2019

Taxpayers have long made an understandable complaint about local government in Nebraska: Even when the property tax rate stays the same, valuations go up, so citizens wind up paying more.

The Nebraska Legislature unanimously approved a bill this year to force change on how local taxing authorities handle the process. The governing bodies for entities such as counties, municipalities, school districts, community colleges and natural resources districts still have the authority to reap the revenue gain if they choose, but the state now requires them first to hold a public hearing on the matter.

The requirement is a responsible action to promote transparency and accountability in local government. The new process better informs citizens about the taxes they pay and provides an appropriate forum in which taxpayers can directly address elected officials on the issue.

The process also sends a needed message to local governing boards about how the upward climb in property valuations produces a steady increase in the tax burden on households even if the tax rate remains unchanged. Elected officials can still move ahead with the revenue boost if they like, but not without first informing taxpayers and giving them a chance to speak.

State senators made this change by passing Legislative Bill LB 103 by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of the Elkhorn area.

The Omaha city government, for example, plans to collect about $11.3 million more in property taxes in 2020 than this year, given the 6.65% increase in total valuation within the city, estimated by the Douglas County assessor.

The city, no question, faces significant demands for services such as trash collection, street repairs and fire and police protection, but Omaha leaders have an obligation to make the case for their budget plans.

The new process under LB 103 is constructive, all around. It better informs taxpayers and gives them an opportunity to express their views. And it compels local government leaders to explain the budget situations they face and the choices they feel are necessary. It’s good to see state law promote this accountability to taxpayers.

Nebraska property taxpayers should start seeing double this year, with a new state law requiring all levels of local government preparing to collect more in property taxes the next year to hold a second public hearing and vote.

Too often, spending critics say, local politicians celebrate no increase in local property tax rates as no increase in property taxes. Then Nebraskans get their property tax statements in the mail, and their bills are higher than before.

For instance, the City of Omaha.

Mayor Jean Stothert proposed a budget that would hold property tax rates steady at 47.922 cents per $100 of valuation in 2020. But Omaha plans to collect more in property taxes in 2020 than in 2019 — about $11.3 million more.

The reason the city predicts the same tax rate will collect more revenue: The Douglas County assessor projects that the total valuation of properties within the city limits will increase by 6.65%.

Local officials say cities, counties, school districts and natural resources districts have long used the windfalls from valuation growth to cover the rising costs of governing, including inflation, salaries, health care and retirement.

Omaha City Council President Chris Jerram said he does not consider holding the tax rate steady to be a tax increase. Neither does Stothert. Both have said they realize that some constituents might disagree.

The Nebraska Legislature does. It unanimously passed Legislative Bill 103 in March to help rein in the growth of property taxes.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, said her goal was to help voters see what’s causing Nebraska’s property taxes to rise — local government spending.

She also wanted people to have a chance to speak up earlier in the budgeting process.

“We have to be clear about language,” Linehan said. “I don’t know whether they should or should not spend. But taxes don’t have to go up. They could drop the levy.”

The new law requires transparency from local governments with property taxing authority in the form of a separate public hearing and vote when they plan to collect more in property taxes than the year before.

It also makes them advertise the separate public hearing in a newspaper of record.

Local governments that expect local property valuations to increase can avoid the hearing and vote by lowering their property tax rates enough to collect the same amount as they did in the previous year.

Spending by many local governments has been growing faster than inflation, Linehan said.

That affects the state’s bottom line because Nebraska spends almost $400 million a year on local property tax relief. For example, in 2020, Nebraska is set to spend $88 million on the homestead exemption, which offsets local property taxes for the elderly and disabled.

Local governments have for years filed reports with the state auditor that disclosed property tax collections.

The increased transparency that LB 103 requires offers both opportunity and risk for local elected officials, said Jim Vokal, chief executive officer of the Platte Institute, a conservative think tank co-founded by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Vokal, a former member of the Omaha City Council, said he hopes that local leaders might think twice about casting votes that future political opponents could describe as votes to increase property taxes.

“This law requires them to hold a separate public hearing, explain why they want to keep the windfall and go on record,” Vokal said.

More reflection about the collective cost of increased spending by local governments — including bond issues — might help Nebraska avoid a voter revolt on property taxes, Vokal said. Taxpayers, he said, are “fed up.”

Linehan said she borrowed the idea for LB 103 from Virginia, where she and her family lived while she served in the State Department and as chief of staff for then-Sen. Chuck Hagel.

Omaha scheduled a second budget public hearing and vote for Sept. 10. Each will acknowledge that the city expects to collect more in property taxes in 2020 using the same property tax rate as 2019.

By Erin Duffy / World-Herald staff writer

Published June 6th, 2019

 

The questions about flood recovery came fast and furious at an Iowa community meeting in April, just one month after floodwaters hit eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.

Several residents asked variations on the same question: What about taxes due on properties that had significant flood damage? Would residents still have to pay taxes on homes that are uninhabitable or farm fields that are too wet to plant?

“Don’t pay ’em,” someone shouted from the audience, to laughter and applause.

Nebraskans in disaster-stricken areas have another option besides tax evasion, thanks to a law change approved by legislators and signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts last month. Owners of properties destroyed or significantly damaged by flooding, a tornado or other natural disasters can request a new property assessment — what could amount to a tax break if officials agree that a property’s value has dropped.

That applies to all types of properties — homes, businesses and agricultural land. The measure amends a previous state law that required a property’s assessed value to be set as of Jan. 1 — no exceptions, even if a house burned down on Jan. 2.

State Sen. Steve Erdman, the amendment’s sponsor, actually introduced the bill last year and again this year before the March floods. The proposal gained new urgency, and supporters, afterward.

“Hopefully the word will get out,” said Debbie Churchill, the Dodge County assessor. “People, take advantage of it. Don’t wait until the last minute.”

There are fairly strict parameters and a narrow window to apply:

  • The damage has to have occurred between Jan. 1 and July 1 of the current assessment year.
  • “Significant property damage” is generally defined as damage exceeding 20% of the assessed value of land, a structure or the property’s total assessed value, if it’s in an area with a disaster declaration or if the property has been declared unlivable.
  • Owners have until July 15 to fill out and send in a form — available at http://www.revenue.nebraska.gov/PAD/forms/f_425.pdf — to their county assessor and county clerk.
  • The damage cannot be man-made — you can’t apply for a reassessment if your house caught fire because of a lit cigarette, for example.
  • A county board of equalization has final say on any assessment adjustments, which must be approved before July 25 or, if an extension is requested, Aug. 10.

Thousands of properties across Nebraska could be eligible for valuation adjustments. Churchill estimates that at least 800 homesin the Fremont area alone are substantially damaged, plus more in hard-hit towns like North Bend and Winslow. Roughly 900 have been affected by flooding in Douglas County, although not all may meet the damage threshold. In Sarpy County, hundreds, maybe 1,000 or more, homes, businesses and fields covered by sand or water could qualify for some property tax relief.

That’s not the case in Iowa.

Barring any change in state law, residents will have to pay full taxes on the preflood assessed value of their property. Iowa taxes are paid nearly two years in arrears, so the tax bills that will appear in mailboxes this August reflect valuations as of Jan. 1, 2018. Residents could appeal for a lower valuation due to flood damage, but that wouldn’t be reflected in tax bills until 2021, at the earliest.

“It’s difficult to tell people devastated by flooding, ‘Sorry, you got to pay taxes for two more years on your house that floated down the river,” said Brenda Mintle, the Fremont County, Iowa, Assessor.

Kay Askew lives in Omaha but owns and rents out two houses in Pacific Junction, Iowa, a small city inundated by floodwaters. Her tenants had to relocate and both houses have to be stripped of the ruined drywall, insulation and flooring inside. In April, she said it stung that she would still have to pay taxes on two properties that were all but destroyed.

Askew said she understands that taxes are paid in arrears, “but it still doesn’t seem right.”

After devastating flooding in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area in 2008, Linn County officials offered a tax abatement to displaced residents and business owners. For a one-year period, they could apply to not pay taxes while their property was unlivable or unusable. Local taxing entities, including school districts, had to sign on to the provision, and more than 2,700 applications were received.

Whether new valuations go into effect now or in two years, some towns and counties are already worried about the toll flood damage will take on the local tax base. If a portion of property valuations decrease in a small town, that could affect how much tax revenue is collected at a time when some places are scrambling for funds to fix mangled roads, bridges and water pipes.

“The fear is out there,” said Christina Govig, the assessor in Mills County, Iowa. “You’re going to lose so much value, you just are.”

In Nebraska, the possibility of tax savings and amounts will vary by circumstances. Even if a house was swept away in a flood, for example, the owner could still be taxed on the value of the land left behind. If someone renovates or rebuilds, the property valuation will change again. Because Nebraska taxes are paid one year in arrears, any adjusted valuation this year will show up on tax bills mailed in December and due in 2020.

State and county officials are taking different tacks to get the word out through traditional and social media sources. The Nebraska Department of Revenue uploaded the reassessment form on its website Wednesday. Sarpy County posted a notice on its website, the neighborhood app Nextdoor and Facebook groups, and is preparing a mailer to send out to property owners who may be eligible.

Douglas County Assessor Diane Battiato said, “I’d love to see radio stations do PSAs (public service announcements).”

Sarpy County Assessor Dan Pittman has no doubt that residents will apply — they’ve been calling his office since March.

Nebraska officials have one very important tip: document, document, document. Property owners applying for a reassessment should submit anything that shows the extent of the damage, such as photos, letters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, contractor estimates or the difference between this year and last year’s crop production. Assessment teams may have to do on-site inspections, too.

“We need something besides just their word for it,” Dodge County’s Churchill said.

If you need any assistance from FEMA because of the floods you can find contact information below:

1-800-621-3362

1-800-462-7585 (TTY)

www.disasterassistance.gov

Welcome
January 9th, 2019

Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 39th legislative district in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature.

You’ll find my contact information on the right side of this page, as well as a list of the bills I’ve introduced this session and the committees on which I serve. Please feel free to contact me and my staff about proposed legislation or any other issues you would like to address, and please include your address and telephone number.

Sincerely,
Sen. Lou Ann Linehan

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan

District 39
Room #1116
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2885
Email: llinehan@leg.ne.gov
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