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Nebraska lawmakers debate ‘last, best hope’ for tax cuts

April 1, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — After months of negotiations, Nebraska lawmakers are set to begin debate Tuesday on a new version of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ tax plan geared toward property owners and corporations.

The package, endorsed by the state’s largest farm and business groups, will face heavy scrutiny from lawmakers in the final days of the 2018 session.

“It’s likely our last, best hope for tax relief in this legislative session,” said Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who sponsored it on the governor’s behalf.

Here are five things to know about the package:

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WHAT WOULD IT DO FOR PROPERTY OWNERS?

The package would offer income tax credits to reimburse some of the property taxes paid by agricultural landowners and homeowners.

Homeowners would get a credit equal to 1 percent of their total property taxes in 2018, up to a maximum of $25. That means a homeowner with a $2,000 property tax bill would get $20 back after filing an income tax return. The credit would increase each year until 2030, when it would total 20 percent of a homeowner’s property tax bill. At that point, the credit would be capped at $500 to prevent mega-homes from getting too much of the benefit.

Agricultural landowners would get a credit totaling 2 percent of their property tax bill this year, with no cap. That credit would also increase annually until 2027, when landowners would get a credit equal to 20 percent of their property tax bill.

In both cases, the tax credit would be refundable, so property owners would get a payment from the state if the credits are greater than the total income taxes owed.

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WHAT WOULD IT DO FOR BUSINESSES?

Commercial property taxes wouldn’t be cut, but the plan would lower Nebraska’s top corporate income tax rate over five years and pump $5 million a year into job-training programs.

Nebraska’s top corporate rate of 7.81 percent would ratchet down to 6.84 percent, the same rate levied on individual taxpayers. Business groups such as the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry say the lower rate will help companies compete against businesses in neighboring states.

The original bill would have lowered Nebraska’s top individual income tax bracket as well, but that provision was taken out because of the cost.

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HOW WOULD THE STATE PAY FOR IT?

Nebraska state government would lose millions in revenue each year if the bill passes, and the totals would increase over time. Once the package is fully implemented in 2030, state officials estimate it would cost more than $644 million a year.

Supporters would pay for the first year of tax breaks by drawing about $40 million from the state’s cash reserve, which was designed to cover one-time expenses and sudden declines in tax revenue. They haven’t given specifics beyond that point, but Ricketts and Smith have said it’s doable by keeping tight control on state spending.

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WHAT ARGUMENTS HAVE BEEN MADE FOR AND AGAINST IT?

Supporters say the bill would help farmers whose property taxes have soared over the last decade, despite a recent decline in commodity prices that has hurt their incomes. The bill “puts us on a path for long-term relief for all property tax payers,” said Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

Smith and business groups argue the package will spur economic growth and make Nebraska more attractive to businesses. They also point to neighboring Iowa, where the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds are pushing their own tax-cut packages.

Opponents argue the property tax benefits would take too long to go into effect and won’t keep pace with inflation. Most of the benefits in the bill would go to larger, wealthier farm operations, said Sen. Paul Schumacher, of Columbus.

“For the farmers that are really hurting, it’s not going to be much help at all,” Schumacher said. “Whatever help they get from it will be absorbed by the increased cost of fertilizer, fuel and insurance.”

Schumacher said the corporate tax cut isn’t large enough to make a difference for any businesses.

Some moderate and progressive senators said the bill would make it harder to invest in other priorities, such as child welfare services, water conservation projects and changes to the state’s troubled prison system.

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DOES IT HAVE A CHANCE OF PASSING?

Smith said supporters will have to navigate a “narrow path” to pass the bill in a tight budget year, but he and Ricketts have been meeting with senators to try to win more support. The bill is certain to face a legislative filibuster, forcing supporters to gather votes from at least 33 of the Legislature’s 49 senators.

That could prove challenging. Several rural senators have pitched their own ideas to lower property taxes, including a statewide ballot measure, and some progressive lawmakers say the governor’s bill would hurt the state’s finances. Three or four senators could provide crucial swing votes.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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