Panelists, attendees discuss property taxes at forum

August 30, 2018

Norfolkans, legislators, farmers and ranchers, and school administrators came together at the Johnny Carson Theatre on Tuesday night with a myriad of thoughts branching from a single topic: property taxes.

Four panelists presented the challenges and opportunities related to property taxes from different perspectives. Omaha attorney David Domina; past president of the Nebraska Association of School Boards Linda Richards of Ralston; state Sen. Tom Briese of Albion; and Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska (ICON) President David Wright of Neligh provided historical and law, state education, legislative and agricultural angles, respectively.

The forum was necessary because Nebraska has more agricultural taxes than California and Iowa, and Nebraska has the seventh highest residential taxes nationwide, Wright said — yet the tax revenue isn’t being funneled back to rural towns like they used to.

“I don’t want to see our towns die,” he said.

And education spending shouldn’t be seen as the problem, Richards said.

“Breaking news: school board members want property tax relief, too,” she said.

The challenge for school board members is to meet students’ needs that are increasing yearly, Richards said. She also presented data contextualizing the use of Nebraskans’ tax dollars. Nebraska ranks, for example, third nationwide in percentage of education funds going directly into the classroom, she said.

Efforts to fix the problem should be centered on structural legislative changes, Domina said. “We need to fix underlying structure, not just the symptoms, or it will come back to haunt us,” he said.

Because of the wording of its constitution, Nebraska has a state obligation to provide free public education but is prohibited against using property taxes for state purposes, Domina said. This has caused over 75 percent of property taxes to bear the brunt of public education costs.

Making legislative changes can be difficult when a majority of 33 senators often is needed to pass a bill into law, Briese said. He has been working on a “revenue-neutral tax reform” bill that would provide both education funding and property tax relief.

“Nebraskans deserve property tax relief,” he said, and the audience applauded.

Panelists also proposed ideas for solutions.

Fixing the problem will depend on citizen action, because even two percent engagement at the state level can cause change, Domina said. Richards underscored the importance of individual action with legislative gridlock holding up progress.

Wright said a flat three percent tax would relieve the property tax and allow more spending in other areas, because current tax deductions, credits and exemptions are causing the problem.

Briese cited the need to change the school aid “formula,” or breakdown of how funding is allocated, to reach schools in greater Nebraska. “We have to get some of those dollars to rural Nebraska,” he said.

Audience members shared concerns about funding rural schools while supporting farmers and ranchers. They started discussions about administrative educator pay, the loss of state aid to rural schools and the challenges of consolidating schools.

ICON member Roland Paddock said these forums are needed to further discussion about an issue that heavily affects rural Nebraska. “We’re not mad enough yet,” he said.

Paddock invited those who are interested to get involved with ICON’s efforts to help bring about property tax reform.

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