Nebraska’s rural-urban divide must be bridged

November 17, 2018

Perhaps no better illustration exists of the philosophical divide between Nebraska’s urban and rural areas than last week’s successful vote to expand Medicaid.

A majority of voters in just eight of the state’s 93 counties opted to approve the ballot initiative, but the spreads in the two largest counties, Douglas and Lancaster, and a narrow victory in Sarpy County were enough to carry the day despite widespread opposition nearly everywhere else in the state.

With demographic trends indicating that net migration of Nebraskans from the country to the city will only accelerate, the state is running out of time to strike an appropriate balance between rural and urban while both interests are evenly represented in the Nebraska Legislature, which has 25 seats in Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy counties and 24 elsewhere. Redistricting in two years will tip the balance even more in favor of urban areas.

By this point, readers may be tired of yet another call for unity. But the alternative of intransigence has been tried plenty — without getting Nebraskans much of note.

Consider property tax reform, a point of feverish concern in rural Nebraska.

Having valuations tied to the sale price of the land, rather than its productivity, has helped fuel rising tax bills as commodity prices have tanked, reducing farm income by 50 percent this decade. Yet many influential urban entities see reducing income taxes, not property taxes, as the priority.

Differing opinions aren’t the problem. Both sides can make valid points about a burden that’s hurting the state’s No. 1 industry, agriculture, or attracting employers and workforce to metropolitan areas.

The problem comes when nobody budges.

Room for common ground exists, as both Gov. Pete Ricketts and state Sen. Tom Briese proved by introducing multifaceted tax plans last legislative session. Neither plan was a perfect draft. But Ricketts’ proposal never received first-round approval by state senators, while Briese’s failed to advance out of committee.

Compromise isn’t a dirty word. Heck, it’s the only way to make any of the progress that’s proved so elusive in state government in recent years.

Besides, Nebraskans of all stripes do best when both rural and urban areas thrive. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the adage goes. Success isn’t a zero-sum game, particularly in a state this large and diverse.

Our tax dollars, often the cause of this divide, are indistinguishable from others’ contributions the second they leave our wallets — and they fund efforts that strive to ensure the Good Life can be as good as possible for all Nebraskans, regardless of their congressional district or home address.

The time is ripe for Nebraskans to move forward, setting aside the arbitrary divides of political ideology and geography to rally for a greater good. We must transcend our local identities to fulfill a shared one as Nebraskans.

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