NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
The official site of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature

Sen. Mike Groene

Sen. Mike Groene

District 42

Welcome

January 6th, 2016

Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 42nd 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.

Sincerely,
Sen. Mike Groene

Home District Column 8/24/2016

August 25th, 2016

Tuesday, I attended the educational water management event at the West Central Research and Extension Center here in North Platte. The event was a perfect example of the success of the United States Congress’s passages of the Morrill Act in 1862 and the Hatch Act in 1887; first to create land grant colleges with an emphasis on agriculture and the mechanical arts in order to promote education for the industrial classes, and second to establish agriculture research and extension stations.

The event was also a good example of public-private cooperation.  The private organization “Nebraska Water Balance Alliance” (NEWBA) provided research to the forum covering stewardship practices and profitable economic solutions to maintaining long term irrigated farming in western Nebraska. Lincoln County Farmer Roric Paulman has been one of the driving forces behind the work of the statewide alliance.  In order to make stewardship of our ground water popular, it has to also be profitable; the NEWBA is providing much of that research.

What we are looking at on the legislative side of the ground water issue:

Sale of N-CORPE approximately 20,000 acres: We are researching legislation to allow the NRDs that own the land a way to sell it off but retain control of the water rights. The occupation taxes, paid by farmers, should be collateral enough for the bond holders.  Proceeds from land sales would help pay down the bonds thus lowering the present occupation tax and private ownership of the land would put land back on Lincoln County’s tax rolls.  Eliminating government ownership would also eliminate much of the cost of operating N-CORPE’s office.  Wells could be maintained by private contractors and management cost shared by all four NRDs could be easily accomplished by present employees of the Twin Platte and Middle Republican NRDs where N-CORPE is situated.

Water Sustainability Fund:  Looking at legislative ideas that would guarantee that the majority of the $11 million appropriated annually to the fund are used for agricultural purposes.

1)   Provide a voluntary opportunity for farmers, within the five mile surface water sensitive area of the Republican River, to farm individual irrigated quarters as dry-land for a year and then be reimbursed the difference in property and occupation taxes between irrigated and dry-land. We would first have to have Kansas agree to a 100% offset credit of the groundwater saved.

2)   Water meters: Use the fund to create a voluntary cost-sharing water meter program for agriculture wells in the over-appropriated Platte River Basin and the Tri-State compact controlled Republican River Basin. Encourage installation of meters on wells that don’t presently have meters or to update existing meters.  In today’s precision farming world, water over applied at the wrong time is costly. Eventually, I believe we need to manage the Ogallala Aquifer as one entity.  The University of Nebraska’s Research and Extension Services is the obvious entity to increase their involvement in gathering accurate groundwater usage numbers and then recommend sound scientific recommendations on management of the entire Ogallala Aquifer system.

3)   Platte River flood waters: We have been discussing with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources promotion of a state driven initiative to work with Kansas and Colorado to create a flood water diversion project to keep the water in Western Nebraska. We may present a Legislative Resolution next year to ask the Natural Resource Committee to start the ball rolling in that direction.

The N-CORPE Project was a reaction to a panic situation that forced 4 locally controlled Natural Resource districts (NRDs) to work together.  The vast majority of my constituents believe pumping precious groundwater into a creek to be a bad solution to a worse problem. We should learn from that experience: the groundwater issue is a statewide concern. Hopefully another drought will not bring another panic situation.  Decisions made in those circumstances are costly and not the wisest, as N-CORPE’s existence can attest too.

Maintaining irrigated farming for future generations should be our goal.  It was heartening to observe the mingling of free market solutions and University Research working together at the WCREC open house. My job is to attempt to bring balanced legislative guidance as the third leg of the solution.

Please do not hesitate to contact my office mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729 with any comments, questions, or concerns.

 

Home District Column 8/10/2016

August 10th, 2016

Sadly, in a well-educated society, issues that dominate the news are still those that titillate the worst in us.

Senator Kintner issue:  I will not support a special session (waste of tax dollars) and neither will I vote to impeach him.  I may support a censure motion depending on the wording of it. I took the same stance last year on Senator Chambers’ “shoot a cop” issue (click HERE to view my statement starting on page 18).  I said it then and I have not changed my principles since; their constituents should decide either to vote them out of office or petition them to resign. Neither man’s activity was a crime; Kintner did misuse a government computer. That matter was handled correctly by the Accountability and Disclosure Committee.  Just to let you know, my government laptop has never left the Capitol building.

Transgender bathroom use:  Public bathrooms are made available for citizens to use when our human body demands to remove its waste. Male and female bodies are designed differently and correctly, so are public restrooms. The privacy issue between the two sexes is also a major consideration why society settled on male and female designations for restrooms.  I fail to see what someone’s preferred sexual behavior has to do with going to a restroom.  I am also opposed to the huge public cost of converting from communal to individual restrooms in schools and other public buildings. It is much simpler if we go to the restroom we are designed for.

I attended the North Platte Public Schools budget hearing Monday night; first as a taxpayer concerned over the school board’s plan to raise their tax rate from 1.1697 to 1.1888 on top of the fact that taxpayers have seen double digit valuation increases. The last two years the superintendent’s budget will raise property taxes from $18.8 million to $22.2 million, an 18% increase and state aid will also rise from $10 million to $11.5, a 14.7% increase. Meanwhile, enrollment is expected to increase by only 129 students or 3%. The excess spending isn’t going to the classroom teachers; of the $5.6 million increase, only $1.2 goes to the teachers, although $2.3 million is being spent to indoctrinate them in new methods to teach and provide them new curriculum.  With five different Superintendents over the past 8 years you have to sympathize with any confusion teachers have about what is expected of them.

But what concerned me most was, even with all the extra tax dollars available,  the proposed  budget has a $3 million deficit and the cash reserves will be drawn down to $7.35 million, enough to only  cover  1.95 months, well below the best business practice of a 25% reserve ($11.3 million) or 3 months of expected expenditures.

I also went to the hearing as your State Senator to briefly explain to the board that they should prepare for a decrease in state funding due to a downturn in our state’s economy. The legislature already is facing a $343 million budget deficit, which is likely to grow. Since overall education spending is 47% of the state budget, education spending will have to slow down. After being told to shut up and sit-down after speaking three minutes, I informed the board of a couple of conclusions I came to: the State is responsible for funding free instruction in our common schools. It was obvious that the budget presented by the school administration was unresponsive to my constituents’ concerns and that the legislature needed to enact stricter spending controls on districts. I agree, local control is needed for who teaches and classroom materials used, but it is apparent spending needs to be addressed at the state level. Secondly, after being told the public had only three minutes to speak and a total of 30 minutes, I will present legislation that clarifies the public’s right to have adequate time to present comments to elected boards.

Over and over again, as a member of the Education Committee, I have asked representatives of the education lobby to show me the research that shows a relationship between spending and classroom outcomes. I have yet to be presented with any documented research.

Please do not hesitate to contact my office mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729 with any comments, questions, or concerns.

 

Below is the transcript excerpt mentioned in this week’s Home District Column. Click here to see the full transcript from March 26. 2015.  My statement starts on page 18.

SENATOR GROENE: THANK YOU, MR. PRESIDENT. WHEN I THINK OF…WHEN I SEE NEW STORIES LIKE ON FERGUSON, MISSOURI, AND THE PRESS SAYS, WELL, THEY’RE PARI-MUTUEL (SIC) AND THEY’RE DRESSED IN BULLETPROOF VESTS AND SHIELDS AND THEY’RE WALKING IN LOCKSTEP. AND I WATCHED THAT FILM, I DON’T SEE POLICE OFFICERS. I SEE AN INDIVIDUAL THAT HAS A JOB. HE GOES HOME EVERY NIGHT TO HIS FAMILY, TO HIS KIDS. ON THE WEEKENDS, HE GOES TO HIS CHURCH. HE’S JUST AN AVERAGE GUY. YOU DON’T PUT A UNIFORM ON AND ALL OF A SUDDEN BECOME A PARATROOPER. THESE ARE JUST FELLOW CITIZENS THAT CHOSE A CAREER IN LAW ENFORCEMENT. SO TO EQUATE THEM TO PEOPLE WHO DO THINGS BECAUSE OF SOME MISGUIDED RELIGIOUS PRINCIPLES OR SOMETHING, THEY’RE JUST PEOPLE. THEY’RE TRYING TO DO A JOB. AND WHAT SCARES ME MORE ABOUT WHAT SENATOR CHAMBERS SAYS IS NOT WHAT BOTHERS THIS…I’M A BIG ADULT. I BELIEVE IN FREE SPEECH. IT’S WHO HE REPRESENTS, AND HE HAS A CHALLENGE. I’M AFRAID, JUST LIKE HAPPENED IN FERGUSON, THAT SOME YOUNG HOT HEAD FROM WHATEVER RACE MIGHT LISTEN TO THAT AND SAY, I’M GOING TO GO POP A COP BECAUSE A MAN I RESPECT, AND I RESPECT HIM A LOT SAID THAT WAS OKAY. THAT’S WHAT BOTHERS ME. AND IF…HE DOESN’T HAVE TO APOLOGIZE TO ME. I’M A FIRM BELIEVER IN FREE SPEECH. BUT I WISH HE WOULD GO BACK INTO HIS DISTRICT AND MAKE THAT CLEAR TO THE YOUNG MEN ON THE STREET, THAT I WAS MAKING A POLITICAL POINT, NOT A POINT OF SOMETHING I WOULD ACTUALLY ADVOCATE DOING. HE DOESN’T NEED TO APOLOGIZE TO ME, BUT I WISH HE WOULD DO THAT. I ADMIRE SENATOR CHAMBERS. I’VE LEARNED A LOT FROM HIM. I’M A CHRISTIAN. I DON’T CONDEMN A MAN. THAT’S FOR SOMEBODY A LOT BETTER AND BIGGER THAN ME TO DO THAT. WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES. I’VE BEEN BLESSED WITH ONE SENATOR IN THE BACK ROW THAT KEEPS AN EYE ON WHAT I SAY. SENATOR CHAMBERS IS EVEN LUCKIER THAN ME. HE’S GOT 48 DOING IT FOR HIM. BUT IT WASN’T RIGHT. YOU KNOW, THEY SAY DON’T…BEWARE OF WHAT YOU ASK FOR. I’VE BEEN TO A LOT OF…POLITICAL CORRECT SPEECH PREACHED IN THIS COUNTRY THAT BORDERS ON TAKING A PERSON’S RIGHT AWAY, RIGHTS AWAY OF FREE SPEECH. SENATOR CHAMBERS WILL PAY FOR WHAT HE SAID. HE KNOWS IT. HE’S SEEN PEOPLE PULL SUPPORT FROM HIS BILLS ALREADY. THE SYSTEM WILL WORK. BUT AS THE QUOTE SAYS THAT WAS ATTRIBUTED TO VOLTAIRE, I DISAPPROVE OF WHAT YOU SAY, BUT I WILL DEFEND TO THE DEATH YOUR RIGHT TO SAY IT. THAT WAS SOMETHING SAID BY A FRENCHMAN BACK IN THE 1700s THAT HAD A LOT DO, THAT QUOTE. AND IT WASN’T ACTUALLY, SOME SAY, SAID BY HIM BUT REPEATED BY HIM. IT HAD A LOT TO DO WITH HOW OUR CONSTITUTION WAS RIGHT. HOW ONE MAN MAKES A DIFFERENCE, AND ONE MAN MAKES A QUOTE, GOOD OR BAD, IT HAS AN EFFECT ON OTHERS. SO, AGAIN, I WOULD LIKE TO ENCOURAGE SENATOR CHAMBERS TO MAKE SURE IN HIS DISTRICT, AT LEAST, THAT HE EXPLAINS TO THOSE YOUNG MEN THE HISTORY WHERE HE COMES FROM AND WHY HE TAKES THAT POSITION BECAUSE HE WAS THERE IN THE ’60s WHEN HE DID SEE SOME OF THESE THINGS HAPPEN. I WASN’T. NONE OF MY FAMILY EVER OWNED A SLAVE. IN FACT, ON ST. PAT’S I WAS DOING A LITTLE HISTORY ON ST. PAT HIMSELF AND HE WAS A SLAVE. SOME OF MY ANCESTORS WERE SLAVES ALSO. [LB70A]

Over the last two years we, in rural Nebraska, have witnessed the gradual slowdown in our state’s economic activity.  Locally, declines in agriculture commodity prices and a decrease in railroad coal and consumer goods shipments have lowered business and family incomes, thus lowering income and sales tax revenues.   Over and over again a few rural senators reminded our colleagues that we needed to control spending this past session because a looming economic slowdown was spreading from rural to urban areas. Our warning was ignored. Instead commitments to the lobby were funded. A few examples were:  $25 million to the University of Nebraska for a virtual reality medical training facility, $8 million for a private university’s new dental college, sales tax exemptions for tourists visiting zoos and for commercial grain drying fuels. We also made the bandage bigger over the festering sore of confiscatory property taxes by adding another $140 million of income and sales tax receipts to the Property Tax Relief Fund, totaling $428 million for the biennium.  Some good may actually come with a budget crisis, without state tax-dollars to throw at the problem, just maybe we will actually address the underlying causes of our burdensome property taxes.

So today, it is no surprise that we have the beginnings of a budget crisis.  There is an estimated $113.7 million budget shortfall in this year’s existing fiscal budget that ends July of 2017. Before we even start the session in January the legislature already faces an estimated $353 million shortage in funding for the next biennium budget.  The expected shortage is partially due to the passing of legislation this past year that added $234 million in new spending; that starts in the new budget cycle.

I am firmly against any attempt to call for a Special Session to address the budget shortfall. I agree with the Governor’s four step directive to state agencies to not spend to their budget limit, as the correct approach. It would be wise for all government entities funded by state tax dollars, including public schools, community colleges, and UNL to adopt the Governor’s course of action.

It is apparent that the University of Nebraska’s leadership does not live with the same economic realities the rest of us do. They have come out with a proposal for the legislature to increase their funding 4% annually the next two years, amounting to $70 million. That will not happen; I believe they will be fortunate to only have their funding froze.  We may have an opportunity to find out how good a fiscal manager our new University president is.

Mike Lucas, superintendent of York Public schools, in his Guest column  printed last Tuesday in a local paper “Myth busting: Public schools and Property taxes” reaffirms what  a group of senators, including myself,  are trying to address with legislation to fix the disproportional distribution of state aid through the TEEOSA formula that favors large urban school districts.  His example of his school district’s funding does not hold true state wide. It is not a myth that statewide property taxes have skyrocketed in the past eight years, going from $2.72 billion to $3.78 billion. Schools take the most heat because they take the largest share, increasing from $1.63 billion to $2.28 billion over the same period of time.  Statewide, his claim of lack of support from taxpayers does not hold true, total spending of property taxes plus state aid has increased from $2.46 billion to $3.23 billion.  Taxpayers need not apologize for a lack of adequate funding for public schools and as to his claim that some public officials and institutes “want to see public schools harmed“, I have yet to meet one of those individuals he speaks of.  But some of us are trying to understand why all the additional financial support has not improved educational outcomes as promised by the education lobby.  I have visited with  Mr. Lucas  during Education Committee hearings, I am sure he does not believe classroom results can be purchased with more tax dollars, I personally have more faith in our classroom  teachers than to accept  that assumption.

Please do not hesitate to contact my office mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729 with any comments, questions, or concerns.

I promised I would not take political donations from special interest Lobbying groups. The reality is that unless you are Donald Trump, to get your message out you must have financial help from donors.  I have only taken donations from individual citizens and private business owners who actually have a soul and can vote in elections.

Recently, the State Chamber of Commerce put out their rating of Nebraska’s 49 state senators.  After looking over the nine legislative actions that the chamber deemed friendly to them, and finding that I finished dead last in their approval ratings, I have come to this conclusion: I have never been more convinced that my decision to not take lobbyist money and instead represent individual voters was one of the wisest decisions I have made.

The nine votes the Chamber deemed Pro big business:

1)      LB176 Corporate ownership of swine from birth (farm) to Grocery store shelf. This legislation was pushed by the Chinese owned Smithfield Foods corporation. I voted NO.

2)      LB1059 Amendment 2067 Allowed Quality Growth Fund (LB840) money for workforce housing. Most of the language of the bill I agreed with, which added transparency to incentive programs; but I strongly disagreed with the housing section.  In a free market system, a business should pay enough for an employee to house their family or a family should downsize their preference for housing that fits their paycheck. Corporate Nebraska apparently believes the taxpayer should build their employees homes.   Voted NO on bill.

3)      LB1022 Extend sunset dates on corporate Nebraska Advantage Act tax credit incentives. The Act’s intent was to create good paying jobs in Nebraska. Nebraska has one of the most generous tax avoidance business incentives in the nation. Since its inception in 2006, $277 million in taxes have been abated so far out of $676 million tax credits earned. I agreed with most of LB1022, which gave the Legislative Performance Audit Committee access to more information to better evaluate the program. My No vote was for two reasons: A) I disagreed with political shenanigans used to extend the sunset dates on the Advantage Act from 2018 to 2022. Economic development legislation normally goes to the Revenue Committee but instead the amendment to extend the sunset dates was assigned to and added to LB1022 in the friendlier Executive Committee, B) Extending  the sunset date had nothing to do with the original intent of the legislation dealing with a Performance Audit of the Act. The legislature should adhere with the original intent of the Act.  The Act needs to be revised, adding more transparency and mandating more proof that new jobs are being created that would not exist without the Act.

4)      Senator Schumacher’s AM2398 to LB1022. It would have only extended Advantage Act sunset date one year instead of three.  Voted YES.  Chamber wanted a NO vote.

5)      LB1093 Expanded incentives for business to hire student interns. Expanded to include 11th and 12th grade high schoolers. I missed the vote on amendment.  I voted YES on the passage of the bill. Apparently that wasn’t good enough for the State Chamber.

6)      LB1083 Small Business/Startup Growth. Created a legislative task force to research existing and proposed new incentives’ effectiveness. I voted YES.

7)      LB754 Military and Veterans Commission. Work as a liaison between United States military and local governments to maintain and keep present military facilities here and campaign to add additional duties for those facilities. Voted Yes.

8)      LB690 Transportation Infrastructure Bank. Created a fund to speed up repairs on road infrastructure in Nebraska. I voted Yes.

9)      LB947 Professional licenses for children of individuals who are in our country illegally.  I have always been a proponent of “rule of Law”. Immigration law is a federal issue. States should not create sanctuary legislation that gives federal law breakers the same rights as American citizens. I had no choice but to oppose this legislation.

Fact is that political donations by special interests works, votes are bought.  I sleep well at night knowing I am free to vote for what is good for individual Nebraskans. I am a huge proponent of free enterprise, but corporate greed in lieu of good government, not so much.

Please do not hesitate to contact my office mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729 with any comments, questions, or concerns.

Lincoln County for another year just finished up our annual NEBRASKAland days and Sutherland Fourth of July celebrations. Every community in the county has its own celebration: Brady, Wellfleet, Maxwell and Wallace; and we also have the Lincoln County fair coming up later this month. I participated by walking in the NEBRASKAland Days and Sutherland parades. What struck me was the true meaning of these events: the coming together of families and friends along the parade route, great-grandparents all the way down to infants. No one identified by their occupation, or positions of authority. Just Americans of all stripes getting together to take pride in their community. The parade route serves as the best feedback I can get from constituents. It just takes a short shout out from a citizen to get their point across. Long dissertations are not needed.

My wife and I enjoyed Sutherland’s old-fashioned picnic lunch and after the parade, we had pie and ice cream at the community’s public school. All the activities were coordinated by volunteers — only in America.

The rest of this week, I headed back to the political reality of Lincoln to meet with other elected state leaders, public government agency officials and representatives from special interest groups to discuss proposed legislation.

There are 25 Unicameral seats out of 49 total being contested this year, 12 elections will bring new senators because of term limits. The influx of new senators and their ideas leads to a lot of speculation as to who will be elected to committee chairmanships. Those senators who are returning are all positioning themselves for the next year’s chairmanship elections and which committees they want to serve on. So in order to stay in the loop and also represent you the best that I can, I have to stay in contact with the happenings behind the scenes in Lincoln. I still plan on supporting a move to change the rules to have all legislative votes for leadership positions conducted as a public vote. I believe there will be a move to change the present secret vote to a public one at the beginning of next session. The public should know every vote that their representative makes. Secret votes lead to vote trading and other unethical political practices.

Other issues that I am working on this week:

Property taxes in relation to public school financing: Everyone in Lincoln knows that the present State Aid to schools formula (TEEOSA) is unfair to property taxpayers. They also know that the state which is rated as low as 49th nationally in state support of public schools is dumping the cost of public education on the property tax payer. Overall, according to the US News and World report study, Nebraska is 18th in overall support of public education. The fact is that the property tax payer in Nebraska is carrying the burden in support of public education. It is time we fix the inequity. Therefore, I am meeting with representatives of the State Education Department, Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, Cattlemen Association, Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association and others to gain insight and agreement. Property tax reform will take comprehensive changes to government spending trends, reshaping our taxation ratios between property, income and sales taxes and changing how we fund our schools.

NCORPE and our Lincoln County groundwater issue: I plan on presenting some type of legislation dealing with the issue. I will be meeting with individuals from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Departments of Agriculture along with other farm organizations. It has been good to learn that the new director of DNR, Jeff Fassett, has been meeting regularly with officials from Kansas and Colorado to look at joint solutions to the Republican River over-appropriation problem.

Please do not hesitate to contact my office mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729 with any comments, questions or concerns.

About 32 percent of the state’s general fund spending goes to state aid to individuals, more commonly referred to as welfare programs.  The $1.4 billion we spend in state tax dollars is on top of the $1.9 billion federal tax dollars supporting welfare programs in Nebraska. Another $257 million is spent by the state just to administer and operate the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Welfare programs are a necessity. We have citizens, through no fault of their own, who are physically or mentally disabled. They need our assistance. What has concerned taxpayers is the management of those tax dollars spent on programs that are meant for transition help for citizens who have due to personal health, substance abuse, or family issues found themselves in need of temporary help.  The problem is that once in the maze of welfare programs, it is hard to get out; compare it to a lousy job you may have had: you have to weigh the risk of losing the family income you now receive through your present job with the wish for better employment. Welfare parents face the same issue: risk the security of welfare with the uncertainty of a new job. Welfare eventually becomes an intergenerational lifestyle.

At present, a parent has to deal with multiple agencies and contacts, applying for Aid to Dependent Children(ADC) through the “Temporary Assistance to Needy families (TANF) federally funded program, food stamps (SNAP),  child care subsidies, child support enforcement (the courts), Medicaid eligibility, and in many cases, attend substance abuse programs. Welfare participation itself becomes a full time job and distracts from the parents ability to concentrate their efforts on gaining employment through the Employment First (EF) program.

So when officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) came to my office this past session with an inquiry, “Would North Platte be a good candidate for one of the two proposed ‘Family Focused Case Management in Economic Assistance Pilot Programs’ in Nebraska” with the goal to allow families to become permanent, proud, self-sufficient members of society, with the added taxpayer benefits of reducing the cost of TANF, SNAP, child care assistance, and Low-income Home Energy assistance programs.  I strongly agreed that North Platte would be a good location for the pilot program.

The program will kick off this July and be administered locally by the TANF’s programs private contractor ResCare locally managed by Jennifer Brandt. Two DHHS Family Coach positions will be created who will focus on the 115 (at present time) families in North Platte who are eligible for both ADC and EF programs.  The coaches will become the primary contact for participant parents. They will be the liaison between the parent, schools, court system, probation, and the Economic assistance and Protection and Safety divisions of DHHS. To eliminate misunderstandings and miscommunications of what is expected from all concerned there will be team meetings with the family and community agencies to develop assistance and interventions aimed at moving families to self-sufficiency.  The coaches may also help participants make contact with faith-based organizations, renew contacts with extended family members, and help get them involved in positive peer influencing local support groups. Imagine, why someone didn’t think of this before, everybody on the same page and accountability being achieved through peer pressures and expectations of success.

Governor Ricketts has assembled a great team at DHHS with Courtney Phillips CEO, Doug Weinberg as the Director of Children and Family Services, and Teri Chasten as Children and Family Services Administrator of the program.  There is now hope that finally through this and other initiatives by the Governor’s staff, an end has been put to the  long time known territorial infighting and lack of communication that has plagued cooperation between DHHS departments themselves and other government entities.

 

All of us have received this year’s property valuations from the county assessor’s office. The unofficial countywide estimate is a 6.5 percent increase, which is following a 12.4 percent increase last year.

First off, do not put all the blame on the assessor or the county commissioners; the assessor has to follow assessment laws set by the unicameral and guidelines developed by the State Revenue Department. The county commissioners just send and collect the bill; they also listen to your valuation protests. Maybe your vigilance at the county level is why the county has done the best job of keeping its share of total tax dollar asking increases the lowest.

Valuation increases are not the problem. We pay our taxes in dollars. In many cases, there seems to be a perception by local government officials that if valuations go up, it is a given that they can take from you the same increase in tax dollars. Statewide, over the last decade there has been a 66 percent increase in property taxes collected from $2.3 billion to $3.8 billion. Community colleges have seen the largest increases — 129 percent ($204 million total revenue), followed by rural fire districts at 93 percent ($50 million), Education Service Units 87 percent ($34 million), public schools 65 percent ($2.3 billion), counties 63 percent ($601 million) and cities 53 percent ($369 million). Before you give city governments credit, remember that they have sources of taxation besides property taxes that other entities do not have, mainly sales taxes. These are statewide numbers; some local entities have taken advantage of taxpayers more than others. In the case of the community colleges, two colleges — Northeast and Central — have been responsible for driving up a large portion of the college’s statewide average.

There is a basic reason why citizens are upset about rising property taxes. In the same 10-year period, Nebraskans’ mean household income has fallen 3.7 percent from a high of $54,642 in 2008 to $52,686. Each year, property taxes are consuming a larger percentage of Nebraskans’ incomes.

As a state senator, I am working on passing legislation in an attempt to rein in spending by local taxing entities. We have given property tax credits of $224 million annually, which in my opinion has done as much harm as good; the credit actually enables local entities to raise taxes by allowing them to hide their increases behind the state’s credits. Through LB 959, I helped get rid of one of the main excuses by school administrators for not lowering tax rates. The legislation eliminated the minimum tax levy mandate, which in the past took away state school aid if they went below the minimum. School boards can now lower their rates without penalty.

But if you want concrete property tax relief, you need to demand it from your local boards at the community college, public schools, ESU, city council, natural resource district and county commissioners. Ask them why a superintendent’s $10,000 raise is more important than tax relief; why, while your health care insurance has diminished and increased in cost, the community college still pays 100 percent of employees’ premiums; and why, while your income has decreased, some taxing entities continue to reward annual 3 percent-plus raises, well above inflation.

If we complained as much to all local elected officials as we do to the county commissioners, just maybe your property taxes would go down. Gov. Dave Heineman used to say property taxes are local; he was mainly correct. You elect local officials to manage your local affairs; they are not there to just observe management.

On February 25, 2016, the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee heard the introduction of LB792 by Senator John Kuehn.

LB792 sought to provide a “cooling-off period” for certain elected officials and public employees after leaving office and being employed as a lobbyist.

LB792 was indefinitely postponed on April 20, 2016 in a motion brought by Senator Kate Sullivan.

You can read the hearing transcript for LB792 by clicking the attachment below.

LB792 Government 2-25-16

Last night, May 25th, I took part in a “Where’s the Tax Relief” Town Hall forum sponsored by The Platte Institute for Economic Research. It was held here in North Platte. Senators Dan Hughes from District 44 and Senator Matt Williams from District 36 joined me on a discussion panel.

My focal point was, “If we want to create a fair tax system, elected officials have to stop catering to only those with the strongest lobbyist.”  Some tax relief was given last year, but only to a few special interest groups.

For example: last year we introduced LB717, legislation that would have given comprehensive property tax relief to all Nebraskans.  It gained traction and was considered a viable solution, what derailed it was that urban senators did not want to face the fact that the state is not doing its fair share of supporting K-12 public education. Although Nebraska, according to the last US News and World Report, was 18th in the nation in overall spending on public education, we rate at the bottom, 49th in state support of our schools.  The fact is, the state dumps support of our schools on property tax payers.

It was frustrating being a member of the Legislature to see the lack of overall rationale for legislation concerning taxes. During last summer’s joint Revenue/Education committee interim study on the relationship of property taxes to how we fund public education, we were presented by the Chairman of the Revenue Committee with information that Nebraska exempts many more items from sales taxes than most states do, thus forcing more reliance on property and income taxes.

So I was a little amazed that the Revenue Committee presented LB774 and LB884, and more astonished that they passed. LB774 expanded sales tax exemptions to drug treatment centers, and for the fuel cost for commercial grain drying facilities. It also added tax breaks for some low cost housing owners. LB884 extended the area around three sports complexes: Lincoln’s Pinnacle Arena, Omaha’s Century Link Center, and the Ralston Arena. The total cost to the state’s tax base through 2020 was almost $25 million.

We led a filibuster to defeat LB423 in 2015, a $75 million tax credit scheme for special interest in the electricity generating windmill industry. At that time, they told senators they could not be profitable without the addition of state tax credits. Ironically, in 2016 the wind lobby was back with LB824, telling us that they could build windmills profitably without state tax credits, but needed relief from some state regulations.

The point is that any attempt to address a comprehensive tax relief program is hampered when we continue to give tax breaks to those entities that spend the most dollars to lobby elected officials. It becomes even harder when we do not control government spending, which is fodder for another column. Someone has to pay the bills and it is you: the working and retired middle class along with the small businessperson who shoulder the burden.

The good news is, I think after pressure from citizens, this last session and reinforced by recent primary election results, some hard headed politicians are starting to get the message. Next session looks promising for tax reform.

Sen. Mike Groene

District 42
Room #1101
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2729
Email: mgroene@leg.ne.gov
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