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As a member of the Nebraska Justice System Oversight Committee, I toured the Tecumseh Correctional Center and the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln this week. What an eye-opener that was. I’ll talk more about this in the near future as the committee completes its reports, but suffice to say Nebraska’s Correctional System faces some significant challenges. Our fellow Nebraskans working in this system are doing incredibly difficult work and I have the upmost admiration and respect for them.
I think we should seriously consider measures that structure the pay system for prison employees that reflects and rewards them for the very special circumstances they work in. They are not your ordinary State of Nebraska employee. State personnel bureaucracy or union formalities shouldn’t force a one-size-fits-all solution on employees who need to recognized for their uniqueness. Vocational opportunities for the inmates need to be explored. Many were lost years ago to budget cuts and now we have populations of inmates stuck in their cell most of the day because there is nothing for them to do. Idle time is a tool of the devil, and that is plainly evident in this situation. Caged men grow into dangerous men that pose a threat to staff and other inmates if they are locked up day and night for no other reason than there isn’t anything for them to do.
I toured a “Veteran’s Wing” of the prison and was absolutely amazed to see part of a prison ran by veteran inmates with military pride in organization and neatness. I sure hope we can come together in the Legislature in the next session and help provide the Department of Corrections with the resources and support they need.
On another note, we continue to work with a growing group of Senators and other Nebraskan’s determined to see property tax reform put on the ballot in November 2018. To know how we got where we are today, it helps to review where we came from.
In 1966, the only tax in Nebraska was a State Property Tax. The citizens put a ballot initiative together and made that unconstitutional.
In 1967, facing a crisis of no tax revenue to run the State, laws creating the sales and income tax in Nebraska were passed. The hearings for these bills were so large they had to be held in the Warner Chamber (the old House of Representatives in the Capitol building). These new tax laws were so unpopular they cost many Senators who supported them their seat in the legislature and after only one term in office, Governor Tiemann was defeated for re-election in 1970 by Democratic nominee Jim Exon after he encountered stiff opposition from within his own party.
Thus began the era of The State of Nebraska spending dollars collected in income and property taxes, and the legislature creating over 650 different Local Units of Government (LUGs) who have the authority to raise and collect and spend property tax dollars.
There are about 125 LUGs in the 43rd Legislative District. Most familiar to folks are our School Districts who spend about 60 cents of every dollar collected in Property Taxes. County Government, Educational Service Units, Natural Resource Districts, Cities, Towns, Villages, Rural Water Districts, Rural Fire Districts, Airport Districts, Cemetery Districts, Noxious Weed Districts, I even found a Bookmobile. Every one of these government entities has a Mil Levy and the authority to lay and collect property taxes within their jurisdiction.
Some of my colleagues like to say Property Taxes are a “local issue.” I don’t accept that. The legislature created the LUGs and defined their authority to lay and collect property taxes. I heard a man say, “Frankenstein needs to be made to dine with his monster.” The legislature created the LUGs, the legislature needs to work with them and help find ways to reduce their demand for property tax revenue.
Don’t get me wrong, many good and decent Nebraskans work very hard every day in our many local units of government, and I’ve heard from them too. I read an article about Colorado Springs, CO. Strapped for cash, the city shut off every other streetlight, among other things. This was followed by copper thieves stripping the wiring from street lights they knew wouldn’t electrocute them and it ended up costing more than just leaving the light on would have. It turns out some ideas to cut spending actually cost money. Nebraska spends too much and we need to cut the size and scope of government, but we cannot be hasty or shortsighted in our solutions.
I hear things like “whatever you do, the idea has to be revenue neutral.” I don’t know where this mindset comes from. For some reason if government spends $100 this year, somehow it is now chiseled in sacred stone tablets that say government must spend $100 next year, regardless of which revenue source is used to appropriate the money. Of course spending the same amount next year would actually be called a “cut” in spending because the amount didn’t increase enough to account for inflation. Government is the only place I know of where spending the same money one year to the next is actually called a cut in spending.
Many fear ANY reform that shifts funding from local property taxes to the legislature because they are afraid the legislature won’t pay 100% of what used to be funded. That is a reasonable fear to have because the only way property taxes will come down is if the legislature starts paying for things property tax currently pays for. The legislature doesn’t have any spare cash laying around so any new outlay means something else isn’t funded, or howls for tax increases will ensue. After all, the legislature didn’t create the LUGs and give them the authority to lay and collect property taxes only to end up paying the bill itself. There is built in resistance in the Legislature not to pay for things the LUGs have traditionally funded with property taxes. This culture needs to change.
Studying this problem I’ve come to the conclusion that all the easy problems must have been solved long before I got elected, because all that’s left are the hard ones. That said, selling the ranch because you can’t raise enough of a calf crop to pay the property taxes and have enough left over to feed your family is one heck of a lot tougher problem than a bunch of State Senators having an argument about tax policy. I won’t rest until property taxes are brought under control. People are really hurting. I welcome the argument. We need to have it.
Please contact my office with any comments, questions or concerns. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (402) 471-2628.