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As 2017 draws to a close, I sit by the fire with pen and paper in hand, reflecting on all that has transpired since I first took office back in January 2017. It has truly been an honor and a privilege to represent the good people of District 47 in the Nebraska Legislature. So, I thank you for providing me with this very exciting and wonderful adventure in Nebraska politics.
Nebraska really is the good life. So, I went to Lincoln with the understanding that my job is to somehow make the good life even better. This is no easy task when State revenues have been in decline. Nevertheless, I have communicated my vision for how to accomplish this task every week through these newspaper articles I write. I trust you have enjoyed reading therm.
The most important factor in shaping my vision for Nebraska’s future is you. I appreciate the way so many of you have shared your thoughts, your concerns, and your ideas with me this past year. I hope our conversations will continue. It amazes me to see how deeply so many folks living in the Panhandle care about what happens 400 miles away in a Capitol City far, far away.
This past year, I fought vigorously in the Legislature to provide all Nebraskans with agricultural land valuation reform. LB 602 was the most important bill I introduced this year, and this was strongly reflected by the positive support I received in the public hearing. So, I will continue to fight for the kind of agricultural land valuation reform which makes good sense for our farmers and ranchers.
Going forward, I plan to take up a new cause. I will fight for property tax relief. As I have stated so many times before, I will introduce a bill to give property owners back half of what they pay in property taxes for education. If I cannot successfully push the 50/50 plan through the Legislature, a citizen led initiative should ensure that the measure gets placed on the ballot for a public vote in November 2018.
In many ways, this is the calm before the storm. These days I am busily getting ready for the next legislative session, which will begin on January 3, 2018. For this reason, I will not submit a newspaper article for next week’s newspaper. Nevertheless, I will pick up right where I left off as soon as the New Year arrives. Thank you for reading my articles, and may God bless your plans for the year ahead.
Now we must pause, for we are about to enter one of the holiest times of the year. In a few days, we will celebrate the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. The baby who was born so long ago in a manger, came only to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. This is the true meaning of Christmas, and I invite you to join me in celebrating this most precious and joyous event in human history. Merry Christmas!
Last week the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a letter to University of Nebraska Chancellor, Ronnie Green, instructing him to reinstate graduate teaching assistant Courtney Lawton as a lecturer in UNL’s English Department by December 22. The letter was published in a Lincoln Journal Star article on December 10. This was a troubling development because all three Senators, Sen. Brewer, Sen. Halloran and Sen. Erdman, had previously asked the university’s administration to work with FIRE to rewrite their free speech policies. As much as we would like to commend UNL for reaching out to FIRE, it appears that FIRE was the one to initiate contact with the university, or at least they were encouraged to do so by letters written by the UNL chapters of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
While we do not completely agree with all of the findings nor the final recommendation offered by FIRE, we are not surprised by their conclusions given the limited amount of information they used to draw their conclusions. For instance, FIRE stated in the letter, “Our understanding of the facts of this matter is derived from public reports and correspondence, including letters sent by the UNL chapters of the American Association of University Professors on September 13, September 15, and November 28, 2017. Because the facts appear to be well-known and undisputed, this letter incorporates by reference the facts recounted in those letters.” So, Fire relied heavily upon the University and the AAUP, both of which have vested interests in protecting and perpetuating the prevailing culture on our university campuses. However, we maintain that these sources are extremely biased and one-sided. FIRE never contacted Kaitlyn Mullen or her attorney, nor did they ever contact or interview Sen. Brewer, Sen. Halloran or Sen. Erdman. As a matter of fact, FIRE never invited the Senators to contribute facts to the case until after the publication of their letter.
It is necessary to have all of the facts straight in order to make a right judgment about what actually transpired outside the Nebraska Union on August 25. For instance, FIRE never inquired about the proximity of Ms. Lawton’s protest to Ms. Mullen’s TPUSA table. Proximity matters. Proximity matters because Lawton protested directly in front of Ms. Mullen’s TPUSA table, effectively sharing the same space as Ms. Mullen. By demonstrating directly in front of the TPUSA table, Ms. Lawton was able to block access to the table. By sharing the same space and blocking access to the table, Ms. Lawton infringed upon Ms. Mullen’s First Amendment right to freely express herself.
FIRE never considered the pre-made protest signs of Lawton and Gailey, nor did they ever bother to ask who called the police that day, nor did they ever bother to investigate the reasons for the missing eight minutes of video tape. When the fact of Lawton’s proximity is coupled with the additional facts that Lawton and Gailey used pre-made protest signs, that another unknown employee of the University asked Ms. Mullen to move her table to a free speech zone, that eight minutes of video tape are mysteriously missing from the video recording of the incident, and that Ms. Mullen received a police escort away from the Nebraska Union by no request of her own, the facts suggest that this was a premeditated, pre-planned and well-orchestrated attempt by the English Department to shut down the recruiting efforts of Ms. Mullen and TPUSA.
Additionally, the letter by FIRE spends a vast amount of time addressing Ms. Lawton’s use of the middle finger while completely ignoring other key phrases used in her statement which were recorded on video tape, especially: “Neo-fascist Becky right here…wants to destroy public schools, public universities, hates DACA kids.” While Ms. Lawton made a number of unsubstantiated claims about what Ms. Mullen may or may not want to destroy, which unfortunately is a commonplace political strategy used today, FIRE never addressed Lawton’s use of the term “Becky.” FIRE has not been the only organization to ignore Lawton’s use of this term. Both the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World Herald newspapers have ignored this term in numerous articles when referencing or quoting from Ms. Lawton about the incident on August 25. They have referenced the term “Neo-fascist” with no problem, but not the term “Becky”. This is very concerning.
Why don’t these organizations address the term “Becky”? According to www.urbandictionary.com the term “Becky” is a white girl who is self-obsessed and who performs certain sex acts. Now, the words used in the urban dictionary to define a “Becky” are actually much more profane and graphic in nature. You are welcome to read them on your own. The use of the term “Becky” is both racist and sexist. So, Ms. Lawton was attacking Ms. Mullen’s gender and race. Calling someone a “Becky” is not political speech; it is racist and sexist speech! One has to wonder that if Ms. Lawton had been passing out literature for some other organization and the use of a racial or gender identity slur was used to describe her, what would the reaction have been by the University or the media? Would it have been the same?
We support FIRE’s position on “no free-speech zones.” Although the University has stated that there are no such zones on campus, we now know that an unidentified University employee used those terms to redirect Ms. Mullen on August 25. With proper education of all University employees and students, we feel that this particular issue can be easily resolved.
We also agree with FIRE’s statement that “A university may impose professionalism standards on its faculty members’ conduct in an educational setting,” and that, “A university could penalize a lecturer or professor who engages in this [kind of] behavior during a class.” However, Lawton has argued that because she was not in a classroom setting, this kind of “punishment” does not apply. To the contrary, we maintain that whenever a professor leaves the classroom, he or she remains a professor. The role of being a professor does not change simply by walking out the classroom door; instead, he or she remains a member of the UNL faculty, especially while on campus grounds and should conduct himself or herself accordingly.
The problem of political bias on campus is not limited to this particular situation. We have received correspondence from former students at UNL and UNO, as well as from other campuses about classroom decorum, fear of being punished, actually being punished, and for speaking or writing an opinion counter to that of the lecturer or professor. So far, the chant from the University has been, “This is an isolated incident.” However just as we have seen with the recent sexual misconduct within the entertainment, media, and political arenas, an “isolated incident” is often the opening to the truth about a much more systemic problem. Clearly, this is no longer about a single incident.
By way of their own admission, FIRE’s letter to Chancellor Green only addressed the incident from the very biased perspective of the AAUP’s “censure” edict. We believe their only motive was to protect the rights of graduate teaching assistant, Ms. Lawton. However, this is a gross misrepresentation of what actually transpired on August 25. We have maintained from the very beginning that this was never a free-speech issue for Ms. Lawton. Instead, we have always agreed with NU Regent, Hal Daub, when he said to Coby Mach on KLIN radio that this was not a free speech issue – it is a conduct issue. It is a conduct issue precisely because it appears to have been a premeditated attempt to deprive Ms. Mullen of her right to free speech on campus.
Contrary to the opinions of FIRE and the AAUP, the First Amendment does not give university professors (or any other private citizen for that matter) the right to harass students or to deprive them of their right to freely express themselves on campus. UNL’s Professional Ethics Statement forbids discrimination on the basis of political affiliation, and even the very liberal and progressive University of California at Berkeley maintains in their own Code of Conduct that professors may be disciplined for “Discrimination, including harassment, against a student on political grounds…” We would also like to remind our readers that the Statement on Professional Ethics provided by the AAUP states that professors are expected to “avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students.” So, the fact that this incident occurred at the Nebraska Union does not excuse these instructors from the English Department. We encourage administrators at the University of Nebraska to uphold these same standards of conduct which apply to “ANY” exploitation, harassment or discriminatory treatment of students.
The University of Nebraska exists for the primary purpose of educating students. It is not a forum for professors to proselytize or to shut down organizations they don’t like. Whenever the conduct of faculty nefariously distracts from this most fundamental purpose, corrective action must be taken. As State Senators, we are called to maintain a forum where people can be heard, study problems, right injustices, and when needed, to create legislative solutions to correct them. Therefore, we will continue to safeguard the wellbeing and rights of students attending our State Universities.
All I want for Christmas is property tax relief!
Nebraskans pay too much in property taxes. According to the Tax Foundation, Nebraskans pay the seventh highest property taxes in the nation. Nebraskans pay 1.65 percent of their home’s value in property taxes every year. The best state in the country for property taxes is Hawaii, where homeowners pay only 0.28 percent of their home’s value. Most importantly, though, we pay more in property taxes than any of our neighboring states. In Wyoming, for example, homeowners pay only 0.51 percent and in Colorado homeowners pay only 0.59 percent.
Nebraskans pay too much in combined state and local taxes as well! According to John R. Bartle, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Community Service at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, Nebraska’s combined state and local revenues collected per capita continue to be higher than the national average as well as higher than all the other states in the West North Central region of the country.
So, why are property taxes in Nebraska so high? I have long maintained that Nebraska does not have a revenue problem; instead, we have a spending problem. So, the primary culprit is how we spend our hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
One of the items we spend a lot of money on is education. Among the 50 states, Nebraska ranks 17th in the nation in per pupil spending, according to the website, “Governing.” In 2014 (the latest year with statistics) Nebraska spent $11,726 per pupil in K-12 education. By way of comparison, Utah spent only $6,500 per pupil. Most importantly, though, Nebraska’s per pupil spending was higher than in all of our neighboring states, except Wyoming. South Dakota, for example, spent only $8,881 per pupil and Colorado spent only $8,985 per pupil. Nebraska’s K-12 public schools are over reliant upon property taxes, receiving 49 percent of their funding from property taxes compared to the national average of only 29 percent. Worst in the State is the Adams Central School District, which receives 83 percent of its funding from property taxes.
Another reason our property taxes are so high is due to tax increment financing (TIF). When TIF monies are abused for economic development, the result is lost revenues appropriated for local expenses. Property taxes collected from TIF financed properties are often designated for non-local expenditures, and the result is that other property owners have to make up the difference in lost revenues.
Another reason our property taxes are out of control is due to too many tax exemptions. For instance, estimates for the Nebraska Advantage Act show that by the end of 2017 businesses will have received $295,000,000 in tax credits, while in 2018 they will receive $358,000,000. For the year 2020 estimates for tax credits from the Nebraska Advantage Act are projected to reach $500,000,000. Without a way to measure the results of these kinds of tax credits, the burden may soon become unbearable for the State.
Some businesses simply abuse their tax exemptions. Perhaps, the worst case of abusing a property tax exemption came when Goodwill Omaha claimed an exemption as a non-profit business while paying their executives six figure salaries but subjecting their disabled workers to subminimum pay. Because Goodwill Omaha was able to get away with claiming non-profit status, last year the city of Omaha lost somewhere between $300,000 – $400,000 in property tax revenues.
For these reasons, and more, in January I will introduce the 50/50 plan as a bill for property tax relief. The 50/50 plan will allow property owners to receive half of that portion of their property taxes which go to fund public education as a credit or refund on their Nebraska State income tax return. The Liberal approach for how to pay for the 50/50 will be to raise your sales taxes and income taxes, but the conservative approach will be to make cuts in the State’s budget. When you consider that Nebraska has 629.6 full-time government employees for every 10,000 people compared to the national average of only 537.6, it is not difficult to imagine ways we can pay for the 50/50 plan without having to raise your income taxes or sales taxes.
LB 496 is a bill which would expand the definition of redevelopment projects to include the new construction of workforce housing. By expanding the definition, the new development of workforce housing would be eligible for tax increment financing (TIF). Last year Sen. Friesen (LD34), Sen. Groene (LD42), and I, Sen. Erdman (LD47) led a successful filibuster against the bill.
LB 496 is not dead, though. The bill will come up again for a vote on the floor of the Legislature sometime next year. Last week, Sen. Stinner of Scottsbluff reaffirmed his commitment to the bill, saying, “I am determined to pass legislation that allows the use of tax increment financing…for workforce housing in rural Nebraska.”
As I did last year, I will continue to oppose LB 496. I will oppose the bill because it defies the original intention of TIF. In 1978 Nebraska voters approved TIF for the purpose of urban renewal, and Article VIII, Section 12 was added to our State’s Constitution.
TIF was never intended to be used for economic development. As the Nebraska State Constitution states, TIF was created: “For the purpose of rehabilitating, acquiring, or redeveloping substandard and blighted property in a redevelopment project…” So, TIF monies were never intended to be used for new construction on undeveloped land; instead, TIF is supposed to be used only for the redevelopment of substandard and blighted properties.
TIF was never intended to fund workforce housing projects. Instead, TIF was created for the purpose of renovating old dilapidated buildings in urban areas. In fact, at least 50 percent of an eligible building is supposed to have existed within the city limits for 40 years prior to the start of the renovation project. Instead of being used for urban renewal, today TIF monies are being abused for economic development, and that is the real purpose behind LB 496.
TIF eligible properties are supposed to pass the “but for” test, meaning that the rehabilitation project would never occur ‘but for’ TIF. So, the construction of housing developments, whether they be workforce housing or not, ought to be subjected to the “but for” test. But, workforce housing cannot pass the “but for” test; instead, workforce housing can be built without using TIF financing. Therefore, workforce housing ought to be subjected to the regular forces of our free-market economy. When TIF monies are used to fund these kinds of workforce housing projects, it upsets the natural forces of competition in our free-market economy. Once TIF monies become freely available, contractors quickly realize that the only way they can compete in the marketplace is to finance their projects through TIF.
Property taxes are distributed differently under TIF. When a building project is financed through TIF, the property taxes collected on the new construction will not be distributed to local units of government for up to 15 years or until the bond is paid back with interest. This means less money for schools, counties, cities, etc. Moreover, property taxes collected from homes built with TIF monies, do not necessarily go to fund local needs. Such was the case with homeowners in the Northbank Preserve in north Lincoln, whose property tax dollars were designated exclusively for sewer and water lines. In another case, TIF home owners in Omaha had to sign a document stating they could never protest the valuations of their homes.
TIF is easily abused. Because there are no teeth in the laws nor oversight to ensure that TIF monies are used appropriately, communities have been abusing TIF monies for years. For instance, some of Omaha’s nicest neighborhoods have been targeted for being “blighted and substandard” in order to get TIF financing, and the city of Omaha recently used TIF monies to solve a traffic problem caused by the TD Ameritrade project in the downtown area.
Going forward, my goal will be to restore TIF to its original purpose. I believe TIF should be used exclusively for urban renewal. Therefore, further clarification may be needed in the law to define what actually constitutes “blighted” and “substandard” properties, consequences may need to be added to the law to discourage the abuses of TIF, and better oversight may be needed to govern the appropriate application of TIF. The bottom line, though, is that TIF was never intended to be used as a tool for economic development.
On Thursday Nov. 16 Sen. Brewer (LD43), Sen. Halloran (LD33), and I, Sen. Steve Erdman (LD47), had a two hour meeting with University of Nebraska President, Hank Bounds, and Chancellor, Ronnie Green. During that meeting we reminded these two University administrators that the University of Nebraska is a land grant university. Because the University of Nebraska is a land grant university, its values ought to reflect the same values as the people living in the State. This cannot be the case when conservative students are being harassed on campus by University professors.
After they denied that conservative students were being harassed on the University’s campus, we showed them a litany of e-mails we had received from students and former students alike, who had been harassed, censored, and shouted down in class. Out of all the e-mails which came in, though, the one Sen. Brewer received from UNL English Professor Fran Kaye was the worst. Professor Kaye insulted Sen. Brewer by calling him a fool in the Lakota language. This kind of behavior is the very thing we hope to put an end to at the University of Nebraska. However, even after hearing the content of Kaye’s e-mail, neither Hank Bounds nor Ronnie Green would admitted to us that the University of Nebraska has a problem with hostility towards conservatives.
The false narrative they had constructed finally came crashing down like a house of cards the very next day. A conservative organization, known as Conservative Review, had filed a request for the emails of these University administrators through the Freedom of Information Act. Although they fought the release of the e-mails by citing “the extensive nature of the e-mails,” Hank Bounds decided to act preemptively instead. At 4:53 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 17 I received his e-mail. Those e-mails revealed the truth about what was really go on at the University of Nebraska.
On Aug. 31 emeritus Senior Vice Chancellor, Ellen Weissinger, A 40-year veteran faculty member of the University, had written the following words to Vice Chancellor, Donde Plowman: “This will pass. But the real issue is we’ve got to do more to advance civility on campus. And frankly campuses have to become more tolerant and welcoming to conservative students and faculty. This has worried me for years. I don’t think it is ‘safe’ to be conservative on our campus. Too many faculty espouse their personal political views as gospel in cases where there [sic] views have no relevance.” So, university administrators had known about this e-mail since Aug. 31, yet they continued to tell the public that no such problem exists at the University of Nebraska.
Also revealed in the e-mails, news director and University spokesman, Steve Smith had advised university administrators to spin the Turning Point USA incident in order to counter the right wing narrative. He suggested that the university use surrogates to write op-eds for the Omaha World Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star newspapers in order “to start peeling away at the right wing’s central narrative that has unfortunately been parroted by the mainstream media.” Both Steve Smith and chief communication and marketing officer, Teresa Paulsen, resigned from office the same day those e-mails were released.
The problem of censoring free speech at the University of Nebraska can no longer be ignored. I have recommended and will continue to recommend that NU administrators use the free services provided by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to help them re-write their free-speech policies. FIRE is an objective, non-profit, third party organization which has helped several universities become safe havens for those with differing points of view.
On Nov. 21 a misleading headline appeared on a story in the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper: “Firing UNL lecturer marks an abrupt change of course for administrators.” Such a headline would naturally lead any casual reader of the newspaper to conclude that Courtney Lawton has, indeed, been fired, but she has not! University administrators have only removed her from her lecturing duties at UNL. Lawton will remain on the payroll until her contract expires in May 2018. Lawton has been teaching English at UNL since 2012, and her doctoral program maintains a five year timeline. So, she may be eligible to graduate at the same time her contract expires. To me, this is unacceptable. If you agree, then I encourage you to contact NU Regent Bob Phares and let him know.
If you have personally felt that the culture at the University of Nebraska has been unwelcoming to your beliefs or to your right to freely express your point of view, then I urge you to contact the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and share your concerns. For everyone living in Western Nebraska, your Regent is Bob Phares, and he can be contacted at (308) 532-3180 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The University of Nebraska is our university. Our tax dollars substantially fund it. So, the University of Nebraska should reflect and respect the beliefs and values of all Nebraskans. I want our flagship university to become a champion for free speech, a safe place for conservative students, and a model for all other universities to follow.
In January I will introduce a resolution for property tax relief called the 50/50 plan. A citizen led initiative will soon start collecting the 85,000 signatures needed to ensure that the 50/50 plan appears on your ballot next year. This plan will allow property owners to receive 50 percent of that portion of their property taxes which go to fund public education as a credit or refund of their Nebraska State income taxes. The 50/50 plan will provide taxpayers with 30 percent in property tax relief statewide.
Last week Governor Ricketts criticized the 50/50 plan, calling it a “fantasy.” Gov. Ricketts criticized the 50/50 plan on KNEB News, saying the plan falls short because there is no way to pay for the refund or credit. Today, I would like to respond to the Governor’s criticism of the 50/50 plan.
Governor Ricketts erroneously believes that he can provide all property owners with property tax relief simply by reforming the way agricultural land is valued for property tax purposes. Like the Governor, I also believe we should scrap the current market based system and replace it with an income approach. However, switching to an income approach will not guarantee property tax relief for anyone. Indeed, some property owners will end up paying more in property taxes. However, the reason we should make the switch is to make the process fair, not to give people the false hope of property tax relief.
When the coalition designed the 50/50 plan last summer, they intentionally left out any specific way to pay for the plan. We understood at the time that any method we would have suggested for paying for the plan would have become the automatic target for criticism. Instead, we decided to focus like a laser on giving Nebraskans the property tax relief they desperately need and shift the burden of how to pay for it to the State Legislature. Needless to say, the right approach for paying for it would be to make cuts in the budget!
Strategies for property tax relief will never be perfect. The State does not have a revenue shortfall because they don’t tax you enough; instead, the State has a revenue shortfall because they spend too much. So, we should not allow what is imperfect to become the enemy of what is good. Property tax relief is that good thing all Nebraskans need.
As you give thanks this week for the many ways God has blessed you this year, please remember those who are less fortunate than you. Then, remember to thank God for our glorious country and our beautiful state. Benjamin Franklin once thanked God saying: “For all thy innumerable benefits; For life and reason, and the use of speech, for health and joy and every pleasant hour, my Good God, I thank Thee.”
The Nebraska Forecasting Advisory Board meets periodically to forecast (or guess) how much money they think will be coming into the State’s general fund. Lawmakers use these projections to craft the State’s biennial budget. On October 27 the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board met at the State Capitol and voted to lower its revenue projections. This is not good news for our State.
The revenue projections were lowered because the board members believe that individual incomes are decreasing, not increasing. Revenue collected from individual income taxes makes up more than 50% of the State’s general fund.
For the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the board projected that income tax receipts would fall short by $115 million. So, the board revised the total projected revenue receipts for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, lowering them to $4.5 billion, which is a decrease of $100 million.
The board also projected that income tax receipts for the 2018-2019 fiscal year would fall short by $125 million. So, they revised the projected total revenue receipts for the 2018-2019 fiscal year to $4.7 billion, which is a decrease of $123 million.
These revised forecasts mean that the projected general fund financial status is actually $194.4 million short of the minimum statutory cash reserve. Last year I proposed my own budgetary fix to the problem, which received 19 votes, and in May I said the board’s forecasts were too generous and that we needed to cut the budget by another $250 million. Regardless, lawmakers will be forced to make these additional cuts to the budget come January.
Because revenues are projected to be down, the Legislature won’t be passing any bills next year which come with a fiscal note. Instead, lawmakers will be forced to look for ways to cut spending from the State’s biennial budget. The State has been in this type of revenue shortfall before and we worked our way out it. We can, and we will work our way out of it again.
I appreciate the way so many of you read my newspaper articles.
I’ve been busy these past few months trying to write legislation I hope will be most beneficial for the folks living in the Panhandle as well as for all those living in Nebraska. Today, I would like to update you on what I have been working on.
My first order of business has been to deliver on property tax relief. Over the summer I met with a coalition of Senators, farm groups, and concerned citizens to put together a legislative resolution for property tax relief. The plan we came up with is called the 50/50 plan, and soon we will be collecting signatures for a citizen led initiative to ensure that this measure appears on your ballot next year. The 50/50 plan will allow property owners to declare half of that portion of their property taxes which pays for education as a credit or refund on their State income taxes.
I also want to fix the way destroyed property gets valued for property tax purposes. Currently, the value of a piece of property on January 1 determines its value for property tax purposes for the remainder of the year. But, what if your house burns down on January 2? My bill will give the Board of Equalization the authority to prorate a parcel’s valuation to the date of its destruction. A property owner should not have to pay a full year’s worth of taxes on property which was destroyed midyear.
Besides property tax relief, I have also been working to fix the way agricultural land gets valued for property tax purposes. Last year I introduced LB602, which was designed to change the method of valuation from the current market based system to an income approach. Although my bill never made it out of committee, the Revenue Committee combined various elements from my bill into LB461. However, LB461 in its current form does not solve the primary problems associated with agricultural land valuations. Consequently, I have been working to fix LB461 through the amendment process.
Finally, a piece of legislation I hope to recommend for the Consent Calendar is a bill which would raise the rate of pay for gas commissioners from $50 per meeting to $500 per meeting with an annual cap set at $6,000. The rate of $50 per meeting was set back in 1950 and has never been changed. Because gas commissioners get paid by the oil companies, the raise in pay would have no bearing on the State’s biennial budget. My bill would also allow the director to recommend any future pay increases. The way I see it, $50 per day amounts to charity work, so it is time to give these gas commissioners a well-deserved raise.
Finally, in a few days we will be formally remembering and celebrating our veterans. Personally, I believe we should honor our veterans all 365 days of the year. The reason why we should honor veterans all year long relates to the cost of being a veteran. When it comes to our veterans, we must never forget the slogan that “All gave some, and some gave all.”
We three Nebraska State Senators, Sen. Steve Erdman (LD47), Sen. Tom Brewer (LD43), and Sen. Steve Halloran (LD33), have some questions concerning the University of Nebraska. We have come into these questions because of recent developments with UNL Sophomore student and Turning Point USA recruiter, Kaitlyn Mullen.
Question #1: Are professors at UNL hostile towards conservative students? On August 25 English Department graduate assistant, Courtney Lawton, protested in front of Kaitlyn Mullen’s recruitment table for Turning Point USA with a sign, labelling her as a Neo-Fascist and verbally assaulting her as a “Becky,” a racist term for sexually loose white women. English professor Amanda Gailey also protested against Ms. Mullen with a sign, demanding her name be added to Turning Point USA’s professor watch list. Meanwhile, another unknown employee of the University asked Ms. Mullen to move her table to a “free speech zone.”
Question #2: Are university administrators warm, welcoming, inviting and transparent towards conservative students? University Chancellor, Ronnie Green, conducted a full-scale investigation of the August 25 incident and set up a meeting to report the University’s findings to Ms. Mullen on Monday, October 23. Chancellor Green asked Ms. Mullen to meet privately with him and his staff and that no recording of the session would be permitted. Ms. Mullen was asked to meet with Chancellor Ronnie Green, Executive Vice Chancellor, Donde Plowman, Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Laurie Bellows, and Chief of Staff, William Nunez. That’s a ratio of four college administrators to one undergraduate student. Feeling outnumbered and intimidated, Ms. Mullen insisted on bringing her own attorney to the meeting.
Question #3: Can the university’s administration conduct an honest investigation when a conservative student is involved? During the October 23 meeting, it was reported to Ms. Mullen that no disciplinary action whatsoever had been taken against English professor, Amanda Gailey, and teaching assistant, Courtney Lawton. Furthermore, Chancellor Green played a video tape of the incident to Ms. Mullen, which was mysteriously missing a ten minute interval when, according to Ms. Mullen, Professor Amanda Gailey had protested against her with a sign. Chancellor Green’s explanation for the missing segment was that the camera suddenly stopped filming in that particular location and jumped to another area of the campus.
Question #4: Can anyone at the University tell the truth about free speech zones on campus? Back in August University spokesman, Steve Smith, told the Daily Nebraskan, UNL’s student newspaper, that the “free speech zone” is “the space between the Nebraska Union and the Canfield Administration Building.” He later retracted his statement. When University President Hank Bounds was interviewed by Coby Mach on September 25 on KLIN radio, he denied the existence of any “free speech zones” on campus. However, Chancellor Ronnie Green told Ms. Mullen during the October 23 meeting that the “free speech zone” was for visitors to the campus, such as street preachers.
Question #5: Does anyone teach English anymore at UNL? The homepage for the English Department at UNL, https://www.unl.edu/english/home, advertises its core values as: 1) Pursuing social justice, 2) affirming diversity, 3) Engaging with a broad array of real and imagined communities based on empathetic understanding, 4) fostering a sense of belonging, and 5) Instilling a desire for civic engagement. Strangely missing from these core values are traditional English department words such as ‘classic literature studies,’ ‘writing,’ ‘poetry,’ ‘fiction,’ ‘grammar,’ and ‘novel.’ Instead, the English department at UNL proudly displays several political posters in the department. One such poster says, “Nothing in this country can mean anything without admitting it was founded on betrayal.” The English department has proudly condemned President Trump’s executive order to suspend immigrant travel and it has recently reiterated its support for the LGBTQA community: https://www.unl.edu/english/department-messages#20170224. When asked if he was aware of the contents of the English department’s webpage, Chancellor Ronnie Green said he was unaware of it. Most disturbing, though, is the fact that the English department’s webpage is missing anything which even remotely resembles a traditional English education.
As you can see, as Nebraska State Senators we have justifiable reasons to be concerned about the social condition and discriminatory actions of our State’s flagship university.
The time for property tax relief is now! Over the past several months, I, Nebraska State Senator, Steve Erdman, of Legislative District 47, have been collaborating with a coalition of Senators, farm groups and concerned citizens, facilitated by Mr. Trent Fellers, a former Lincoln City Councilman, to put together a plan for property tax relief which will appear as a measure on next year’s November ballot. As I promised in a press conference on May 23rd, I will introduce this plan as a Legislative Resolution in the Unicameral Legislature in January. At the same time, a citizen led initiative will soon begin collecting signatures for the same plan. If the Legislative Resolution fails in the Legislature, the citizen led initiative will ensure that this same plan appears as a measure on the ballot for a public vote in November 2018. The only catch is that we will need to collect 85,000 signatures from registered voters from across the State by July 7.
The Legislative Resolution I will introduce in the Legislature is called the 50/50 plan. This plan will give every property owner in the State a 50 percent credit or refund on that portion of their property tax bill which is paid to public education. Property owners will pay the full amount of their property taxes as usual; however, on April 15th, or whenever they decide to file their State income taxes, they will be able to declare 50 percent of the education portion of their property tax bill as a credit or refund on their State income taxes. In most cases education receives 60 percent of a property owner’s property tax bill. So, the 50/50 plan will result in a 30 percent property tax reduction for most property owners. Across the State, property owners will save a total amount of $1.1 billion in property taxes.
Here’s an example of how it will work. Suppose Tom the Taxpayer owes $10,000 in property taxes. Tom will pay the full amount of his property tax bill, which is $10,000. $6,000 of Tom’s property taxes will go to fund public education. So, on April 15th Tom will declare a credit of $3,000 on his State income taxes. If Tom still owes money to the State, say $3,000, then he will pay that amount back to the State. However, if Tom had already paid his regular income taxes through payroll deductions, then he will receive a refund check for $3,000.
Some people have asked me if the 50/50 plan is property tax relief or income tax relief. My response to this question has always been the same: “I don’t care what you call it, as long as the words ‘tax relief’ are in the name.”
The 50/50 plan is friendly to education. The 50/50 plan will fully fund public education as well as all other tax asking entities in the State. Every agency within the State with tax asking authority will receive its allotted funding in full. The State’s obligation will be to the property owners, not to the public schools or to any other agency. Therefore, those working in public education or those working in any other agency funded by property taxes have no reason to fear a potential loss of funding.
Another advantage of the 50/50 plan is that it makes the State Legislature, instead of local governments, responsible for reconciling the $1.1 billion difference in lost revenues. Some have criticized the 50/50 plan, suggesting that it would necessarily result in higher sales taxes or higher income taxes. But, this is not true. There is nothing in the 50/50 plan which mandates higher taxes of any kind. Others have criticized the 50/50 plan saying that it would take tax incentives away from businesses, but this is not true, either. There is nothing in the 50/50 plan which takes tax incentives away from businesses. These kinds of criticisms of the 50/50 plan only present false dilemmas about the plan, and they are designed to scare the public into voting against the plan. These kinds of criticisms of the 50/50 plan present false dilemmas about the plan because they conveniently forget that the State Legislature may pay for the $1.1 billion in lost revenues simply by cutting spending from the State’s biennial budget. Moreover, these same kinds of scare tactics would be lodged against any plan which seeks to reduce property tax revenues by the sum of $1.1 billion.
We have been talking about property tax relief in our State for the past 40 years. Until now, the State Legislature has never had the fortitude to address this problem in any substantial or meaningful way. The burden of property taxes has now become unbearable for many property owners across the State. Wherever I go, people ask me to deliver on property tax relief, so I have made this my top priority this year as a Legislator. I believe the time to act is now, and the 50/50 plan is the best way we have come up with to deliver on property tax relief for all property owners living in Nebraska. I sincerely hope you will join us in our effort to reduce your property taxes.
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