Water, guns and property taxes at center of legislative discussion


March 4th, 2016

Sen. David Schnoor speaks to the Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Sen. David Schnoor speaks to the Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Water, guns, and taxes were at the center of attention in the Nebraska Legislature Thursday.

The water issue involves a proposal to let Natural Resources Districts, or NRDs, float bond issues to finance projects.

But before debate even started, Sen. David Schnoor made a motion to kill the bill, based on what he said its effect would be. “What I hear, and what the people of Nebraska need to hear, is an increase in their taxes,” Schnoor said.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rick Kolowski, said the bill is needed for projects to benefit flood control and irrigation. “This legislation is essential to ensure that water needs all across our state can receive funding,” Kolowski said.

Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala said allowing NRDs to float bonds would not necessarily increase taxes. He gave the example of what happened when there was not enough money to pay for projects all at once, and they got stretched out. “As those projects continued to get older and older and stay on the records and stay on the books without getting completed, the cost of each one of those projects continued to rise,” Schilz said. “And so over time, what happened was those projects cost tens of million if not hundreds of millions of dollars more than they could have, if a bonding program would have been put into place and used wisely by those NRDs.”

Sen. Beau McCoy said the proposal needs to be amended to allow the public to have more of a say. “The most important thing that I think could be done with this legislation is to put these bonding decisions by any of our 23 NRDs across the state of Nebraska to a vote of the people,” McCoy said.

Lawmakers adjourned for a long weekend before reaching a vote on the bill. Debate is expected to resume next week.

Thursday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee held an at-times contentious hearing on a proposal by Bellevue Sen. Tommy Garrett to replace a ban on carrying concealed weapons in various places with leaving it up to individual institutions to decide. Places the bill would let decide to allow guns include schools, colleges, universities, churches, bars, and the state Capitol. Referring to the Capitol hearing room where the hearing took place, Sen. Ernie Chambers said”In a room as crowded as this, if somebody started shootin’, you’d shoot back and there’d be a gunfight. And you think that’s appropriate, huh?”

“Absolutely,” Garrett responded. “Rather than sit there and just get shot and murdered? Absolutely. Somebody has to fight back. Someone has to have the guts to stand up and not just be slaughtered.”

Among those supporting the bill was Katie Spohn, representing the National Rifle Association. Spohn said the NRA supports the bill as a whole, and highlighted one portion that requires law enforcement agencies to return seized firearms to their rightful owner or if necessary, sell them at auction to federally licensed dealers. “NRA supports LB769 because it eliminates the wasteful and expensive practice of destroying firearms that could be recirculated through licensed dealer to the retail market,” she said.

A long string of testifiers opposed the bill. Among them was Courtney Lawton, a grad student and instructor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, who criticized the NRA’s support. “The firearm Industry has a vested interest in our community. That’s how they make their money. They have an industry advocate here. Gun manufacturers are here, advocating for this bill,” Lawton said. “The reason that they are here advocating for this bill is to sell more firearms. If you have more firearms, you are going to have more firearm violence.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill, which no senator has named a priority, and is not expected to be taken up by the full Legislature.

One subject that is expected to be debated at length is property taxes. On that score, the Revenue Committee tentatively endorsed an alternative to what Gov. Pete Ricketts has proposed.

Ricketts proposed limiting valuation increases on agricultural land to a statewide average of 3 percent a year. The plan being discussed by the committee would instead extend the number of years of comparable sales that would be considered when setting all property values from the current two or three years to five.

The idea is that by spreading out the number of years, a one or two year spike in property values would have less influence when property is assessed for tax purposes. Proposed limits on local governments’ ability to raise and spend property taxes are still being discussed.

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