NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

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Sen. Tim Gragert

Sen. Tim Gragert

District 40

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The One Hundred Sixth Legislature, First Session, has adjourned sine die. The Legislature passed some important bills and failed to agree on other critical issues. Of the forty-nine individual priority bills, thirty-four became law. Of the thirty-three committee priority bills, twenty-nine were passed by the Legislature.

LB 720, the ImagiNE Nebraska Act, was the priority bill of Seward Senator Mark Kolterman. It proposed to replace and update the Nebraska Advantage Act, which offered tax incentives to businesses for investment and employment growth. LB 720 was voted on two days after the property tax relief measure failed. Although I believe our state needs some type of tax incentives in order to compete with other states, I had to withhold my support for LB 720. I did not think we should proceed with appropriating funding for tax incentives prior to funding property tax relief. I felt we needed to keep these two issues as a package deal, if we wanted any hope of getting property tax relief passed next year, as property tax relief is my top priority. The vote to end debate on LB 720 fell three votes short. All bills pending at the end of this legislative session are automatically carried over to the 2020 session.

Priority bills that were passed include LB 686 dealing with prison overcrowding, LB 149 raising the legal age from 18 to 19 for purchasing and using cigarettes, tobacco and vaping products, and LB 657 allowing Nebraskans to grow, process, and handle hemp and hemp products. Priority bills left pending include LB 44 to eliminate the death penalty, LB 110 to allow for medical marijuana, LB 483 to change the method used to assess agricultural land, and LB 670 offering scholarships to private school students.

A balanced budget was passed, limiting spending growth to 2.9%, which was lower than the Governor’s recommendation. The budget included additional funding for the Property Tax Credit Fund, increasing the annual funding for this property tax relief program to $275 million annually.

Both of the bills that I introduced were passed. LB 243 creates the Healthy Soils Task Force, which will be appointed by the Governor in the next couple weeks. The task force will develop a comprehensive healthy soils initiative and action plan. LB 406 updated the statutes pertaining to the State Treasurer’s unclaimed property division.

An initiative petition drive calling for property tax relief is currently underway to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 general election ballot. The proposal would give taxpayers a refundable income tax credit in the amount of 35% of property taxes paid each year. Property taxes collected in 2018 amounted to just under $4.2 billion, of which 35% would be approximately $1.5 billion. Although budget cuts would be considered, to deal with this amount of property tax relief, the Legislature would most likely also have to increase taxes or broaden the tax base by repealing exemptions or taxing more services in order to fund the income tax credit proposal.

The residents of Northeast Nebraska that were victims of the March flooding still continue to be a top priority to me. The Legislature passed LB 512, which will require the County Board of Equalization to adjust the value of destroyed real property to its assessed value on the date of the damage. Current law required land and buildings to be valued for property tax purposes on January 1 of each year. The passage of this bill will put a process in place to reduce property values when damaged by a natural disaster between January 1 and July 1.

With the completion of the legislative session, I will be spending more time back in Creighton. During the interim, I will try to get around the district as much as possible. I will still travel to Lincoln periodically for meetings and office work. If I’m not in Lincoln, my staff will be able to assist you. My contact information is tgragert@leg.ne.gov. My telephone number at the State Capitol is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.

 

The public hearing on the amendment to LB 289 that contained the Revenue Committee’s proposal for property tax relief was held April 24th before the Revenue, Education, and Retirement Committees. The public hearing started at approximately 4:00 p.m., after the Legislature adjourned early, and finished at 11:00 p.m. More than sixty people spoke at the hearing, with only four testifying in support of the measure.

Senator Lou Ann Linehan, the chair of the Revenue Committee, explained the amendment, which was introduced in an effort to provide long-term property tax relief for all Nebraskans. Nebraska places well among states in per pupil K-12 school spending. However, in terms of state funding as a percentage of overall funding, we rank 46th. Unsurprisingly, Nebraska ranks 3rd from the highest for local funding of our schools. With the proposed amendment, Nebraska would increase from 46th to 20th, when comparing state support for K-12 schools with other states. The proposed amendment would establish a foundation aid factor, amounting to a per student state revenue contribution of $3,474 per student for the 2019/2020 school year. The proposal would also lower the local effort rate in the school state aid formula and reduce the valuation of property by ten percent. It guarantees that every school district will receive at least one-third of its formula needs from state aid. School spending would be limited to the CPI inflation rate.

Most of the testifiers commended the committee for their work on property tax relief, but proceeded to criticize the portion of the plan that affected them or the people that they represent. The largest school districts warned that it would reduce their funding, realtors fought the increase in the documentary stamp fee, veterinarians feared the imposition of sales tax on services for pets, farmers resisted the loss of the Property Tax Credit program, cities lamented the reduction of property tax revenue, grocery store owners rejected the collection of sales tax on candy, pop and bottled water, and convenience store owners opposed the increase in the cigarette tax.

From studies I’ve seen, Nebraska ranks high in property tax burden among the states, about average in income tax burden, and somewhat low in sales tax burden. The proposed amendment to LB 289 seeks to increase the state’s sales tax rate from 5.5% to 6.25%, eliminate a couple of sales tax exemptions, and tax a limited number of services, in order to fund the property tax relief measure. I would rather see further broadening of the sales tax base than an increase in the sales tax rate.

In light of the opposing testimony, the Revenue Committee is meeting in executive session in an attempt to alter the funding sources for the property tax relief plan. Discussions have included retaining the current Property Tax Credit program (that gives $224 million worth of relief to taxpayers and is reflected on their property tax statements), eliminating more sales tax exemptions, and lowering the proposed sales tax increase.

The Legislature debated Senator Ernie Chambers’ annual bill to repeal the death penalty this past week. After approximately three hours of debate, LB 44 failed to advance to the second stage of debate on a 17-25 vote. In 2016, voters overturned the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty. Most senators felt it was too soon to attempt to change this, as it would ignore the will of the people.

I am continuing to work with local officials, NEMA and the Department of Transportation on the bridge projects and water issues, due to the recent flooding. I can assure you that state officials have prioritized these projects.

The Legislature will start meeting into the evening in order to get our work accomplished by the early part of June. I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation before us. I can be reached at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov.

Sen. Tim Gragert

District 40
Room #11th Floor
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2801
Email: tgragert@leg.ne.gov
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