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We have been hearing, and having, a lot of discussions about property taxes over the past several years. Nebraska taxes real estate and improvements on those properties at a higher rate than our neighboring states. There are several reasons why that is the case, but I would like to examine why we tax real estate in the first place.
Starting over 150 years ago when Nebraska first became a state we had little commerce for sales tax revenue and no state income tax was in place. The only revenue stream available for the state to raise money for the operation of government was the taxation of real estate. Taxing real estate was and is relatively easy because the legal descriptions of every parcel of real estate are recorded and tracked in our local courthouses. Now, 150 years later, we have billions of dollars of commerce which we pay state and city sales taxes on. Each transaction gets an additional percentage added on and is remitted to the state and cities as a revenue stream. This stream has been steadily drying up over the years because the legislature has granted sales tax exemptions for certain things and with the popularity of internet shopping, the amount of commerce that sales taxes are being collected upon has decreased.
Nebraska has currently exempted about half of the things that are taxed in other states. Now, I do not necessarily disagree with reducing the amount of money the government has to spend. Most everyone will agree, the government is inefficient by its very nature and waste of taxpayer dollars happens regularly. My concern has always been that whenever the state runs short of revenue it cuts state spending and does not reduce mandates on local governing bodies correspondingly. Thus, forcing our local school boards and counties to increase the number of dollars required from local real estate taxes to make ends meet. Eroding our sales tax base and forcing state aid cuts upon school boards and counties is something the Legislature has done for years with little pushback from the citizenry.
Until now, we have had a relatively balanced stream of revenue to fund the government with about one third each coming from income, sales, and real estate taxes. With the recent jump in agricultural land values and the current escalation in home values, the real estate portion is taking on more than income and sales, and thus has thrown the balance off. To be more fair we must find a way to lessen the reliance on real estate taxes. I do not believe we can reduce the spending of our real estate tax revenue to bring our three-legged stool back into balance. I think we must look at reducing spending and expanding our sales tax base in order to bring our government spending back into balance. As I stated at the beginning of this week’s article, we need to examine how and why we tax real estate and I plan to continue that discussion in my subsequent articles. Plus, I want to begin the philosophical debate of, should we even be taxing certain classes of real estate. Stay tuned.