Morrill County Farm Bureau hosts town hall with State Sen. Erdman in Bridgeport

February 18, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — Jeff Metz, president of the Morrill County Farm Bureau, introduced State Sen. Steve Erdman to an audience eager to talk about a wide range of topics during a town hall at the Prairie Winds Community Center on Saturday afternoon.

Erdman spoke about the 14 bills he has introduced this legislative session, with his primary focus being the fight to lower property taxes.

“We’ve been working (in Lincoln) on figuring out how to make your property taxes less and how to apply common sense,” Erdman said. “I’ve told them numerous occasions on the floor that common sense is a flower that doesn’t grow in everybody’s garden.

“It is a fact that they don’t understand how it is out here in western Nebraska and how we do business.”

Erdman said he told his staff in a meeting last October that they were only going to introduce five bills this legislative session: Land class evaluation change for agricultural land (LB 372), a constitutional amendment (LC3A) and a few others. Things changed as a constituent contacted Erdman with a request for a bill to authorize roadside memorials for those killed in auto accidents, and another constituent asking for a bill that would change the requirements for all-terrain and utility vehicles.

Of Erdman’s 14 bills, many are related to solving various property tax related problems.

His priority bill this session is LB 473, which will change the way ag land is valued for tax purposes and make it based on the production capability of the soil.

“If we would have had this in place back in the early 2000s, agriculture would not have seen that 300 percent run up in their value,” he said.

Erdman clarified that it’s not a property tax relief bill, but a fair way to value ag land.

“We are the only state in the region that uses the market approach,” he said. “We can’t continue to do that because people are buying land for other reasons besides agriculture and driving up the price.”

For example, individuals who buy land for hunting along the North Platte or up in the Pine Ridge drive up the land value for their ag neighbors, and in turn drives up property taxes.

“If you think about it, we sell less than one-half of a percent of ag land on an annual basis in any county in the state,” he said.

Erdman related this idea to Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne by propositioning that if only 45 houses were sold each year, would it be OK if all of the other houses in the area were upped in value off those 45? Wayne told him that wouldn’t make sense.

“But that’s what we’re doing in agriculture,” Erdman said. “We sell one-half percent, and base the other 99.5 percent off one-half percent. It doesn’t make any sense.”

LB 473 is Erdman’s first attempt with the bill since joining the Legislature during the 2017 session. The first year, Erdman and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts had similar bills introduced, and they tried to combine the two. However, the end result included property tax relief and income tax relief on top of the valuation changes, dooming it to fail.

“It didn’t have enough time to do all three of those bills in one,” Erdman said. “Some of those people in Lincoln and Omaha told me that had the bill showed up by itself, they would have voted for it.”

Erdman said he’s looking for that support this year and that he’s optimistic it will get done.

In other bills, LB 161 would eliminate “learning communities.” Erdman said he learned of the concept in 2016 when the governor introduced a bill to reduce agricultural property tax by $100 million. However, when it was all said and done, only $20 million was available for agriculture property tax relief, with $30 million going to learning communities, he said.

The learning community is an organization that consists of 11 school districts in Sarpy and Douglas counties that came together to help with preschool education. Erdman said it has since run off its tracks.

“It’s an organization looking for a mission,” he said. “You might say, ‘why would a guy 450 miles from Lincoln give concern about the learning community?’”

To Erdman, it’s the organization that doesn’t do what’s promised. The hearing for LB 161 will be Tuesday afternoon in Lincoln, and already has many opponents.

“They collect about $9 million in property tax, and they don’t do anything for anybody,” Erdman said.

Another bill, LB 386, would reduce the amount of cash reserve that local units of government can have in an operating budget. Erdman gave an example saying that Western Nebraska Community College has just around $16 million in cash reserve with an annual tax asking of about $12.9 million.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate that we pay our taxes into (WNCC), and they put it in an account and draw two-tenths of a percent in interest because they have an excess amount of cash,” he said.

LB 386 would make it so that local units of government can store no more than 50 percent of their tax asking in reserves. The bill has a hearing scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21.

LB 372 would change the way county assessors assess the classes of land and make it based on NRCS data.

“Right now, (assessors) are just guessing that,” Erdman said.

The bill provides the opportunity to break down assessments based on the classes of land and production capability. It is on select file, meaning it is open to a second round of debate and amendment.

For more on the town hall, see Tuesday’s Star-Herald.