Senators wrestling with ag prop tax relief; higher park fees, roads funding advancing


March 16th, 2016

 Nebraska Capitol from the northwest (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Nebraska Capitol from the northwest (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The Nebraska Legislature is considering alternatives to relieve property taxes for farmers and ranchers. And higher fees for state parks moved one step closer to approval.

As crop prices rose a few years ago, agricultural land values followed suit. Now crop prices are down, but land values are still high, leaving farmers straining to pay their increased property taxes.

To emphasize the problem, members of the Nebraska Farm Bureau held a news conference outside the Capitol Tuesday. Among those stressing the need for change was Jeff Metz from Bridgeport. “People clear across the state want to see something done on this issue. And I can tell you, if the Legislature doesn’t start to solve this problem, people are going to take it into their own hands,” Metz said.

Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson said he’s frequently been asked if his organization would try to run an initiative petition drive to reform the property tax system. Nelson said that’s not in the works right now. “If we fail to take some steps, if we’re not making any progress, taxpayers will become more and more frustrated and at some point, we can’t predict what will happen. But we don’t have any plans to do anything at this time,” Nelson said, adding “continue to work with the Legislature, that’s our plan.”

Nelson said the goal should be to reduce the percentage of school funding that comes from property taxes to 40 percent. It’s currently about 54 percent. Reducing that share could reduce property taxes by between $400 million and $500 million.

That’s a far cry from what the Legislature’s Revenue Committee is discussing, which is a property tax credit for agriculture with a price tag of about $30 million. And committee chairman Sen. Mike Gloor said that proposal, which would be contained in LB958, would not take effect until next year. “Nothing’s come up with (LB)958 that would have an immediate impact,” Gloor said.

Gloor said there are other bills, including his own proposed cigarette tax increase, that might have a more immediate impact. Another Revenue Committee member, Sen. Jim Smith, said the ag property tax credit might be a necessary compromise. “I would prefer for there to be something for all segments of our population, including non-ag commercial, business and residential. But we appear to be at a stalemate here until we do something on agriculture,” Smith said.

Committee member Sen. Paul Schumacher said the proposed credit would represent a reduction in property taxes of less than $2 an acre, which he suggested would be laughed at. But committee member Sen. Lydia Brasch said it was at least a step in the right direction. The committee has not yet taken final action on the bill.

Meanwhile, the Legislature gave first round approval to letting the Game and Parks Commission increase the fees it charges for things like hunting, fishing, and state park admissions. Sen. Ernie Chambers tried to get lawmakers to include a ban he favors on the hunting of mountain lions.

Chambers criticized people who engage in such hunts. “Is this how wisdom manifests itself?” he asked. Chambers described the hunts as “Killing unoffending animals for fun. Stuffing them, hanging their heads on the wall. Making rugs for your floors, or trophies — their pelts — to hang on your doors. And you’re very proud, and you feel like more of a human being, having taken the life of something that was not harming you in the least, but fulfilling Nature’s purpose.”

Chambers got only 10 votes for his amendment, far short of the 25 needed. Senators then gave first round approval to the Game and Parks fee increase bill on a vote of 42-2.

Under the bill, annual resident hunting permits could increase from the current $13 to $18; fishing permits could go from $17.50 to $24; and daily park entrance fees could increase from $5 to $7.

With little debate, senators also gave first round approval to a package of adjustments to the current two-year budget, including $27 million for a 148-bed addition to the Lincoln Community Correctional Center. And they gave first round approval to transferring $50 million from the state’s cash reserve to accelerate expressway construction and the repair of county roads and bridges.

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