If a plan to upset any status quo upsets nearly everyone it could upset, there might be something to it.
Members of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, including state Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, were bound to face more work on their property tax relief plan no matter who and how many testified on it last week.
Several changes were taking shape at week’s end, though it remains to be seen how they’ll be received.
These things were clear after Wednesday’s public hearing:
» The tax-relief plan, including Groene’s effort to rewrite and ramp up state school aid, would upset the status quo that leaves rural and small-town Nebraskans, and especially their schools, deeply dependent on property taxes that their farmers and ranchers struggle to pay.
» Except for rural school leaders, those who manage the status quo (local governments and their professional groups) are wary of upsetting it.
» Nebraskans being asked to help their neighbors by sharing a little more of their fiscal burdens weren’t thrilled, either.
» Our agricultural sector remains split. Some want even more tax relief. Others fear risking what little relief the state now provides.
What cannot happen is a rerun of recent history in which everyone stands their ground and partisans wring another year of political profits out of it all.
That won’t comfort farmers and ranchers who reach the end of their fiscal ropes because property taxes helped put them there.
Some Nebraskans apparently think that kind of talk is pure bluster. We have no reason to doubt our rural neighbors’ sincerity, though.
We won’t try to prescribe a precise mixture of revenue sources to make this plan work.
But rural Nebraskans might as well forget about property tax relief if they don’t unite behind the final product — which, again, needs two-thirds of the 49 senators to overcome a floor filibuster and a governor’s veto.
What we do know is that just as urban and rural Nebraskans alike face legitimate challenges, we all must share the burden of relieving them. And that most likely requires revenue tools one group or another doesn’t like.
Property tax relief doesn’t need to yield a net tax increase (by which we mean combined state and local taxes) for individual Nebraskans. But nothing will change if we aren’t willing to help each other.
Comments like those at Wednesday’s hearing by Andy Rikli, superintendent of the Papillion-La Vista schools, suggest that willingness isn’t yet there.
According to NET Nebraska’s account, Rikli pleaded solidarity by saying he comes from farming roots. But he nonetheless opposed the tax-relief plan’s Groene-authored proposal to restore per-student school “foundation aid.”
“The majority of Nebraska’s most vulnerable children live in our largest, most equalized districts,” Rikli said, so state school aid should “not only funnel more money to the larger districts, but more importantly to those districts where the needs are the most profound.”
We’ve acknowledged urban students’ needs in this space. It’s too bad urban school leaders won’t reciprocate regarding rural students’ needs.
But, as we’ve observed, the status quo favors the east.
One wonders how farm and ranch families felt when they read Gov. Pete Ricketts’ call (April 17 Telegraph) for Nebraskans to oppose “raising taxes on working families.”
As though our hard-working rural neighbors don’t also fit that category. They’ve absorbed repeated tax increases through soaring ag land valuations and miserly school aid. State leaders claim this is entirely due to local decisions. It isn’t.
We appreciate Ricketts’ reiterated support (April 24 Telegraph) for Sen. Steve Erdman’s effort to base future valuations on earning capacity. But as Erdman has repeatedly said, his plan isn’t about property tax relief.
It’s also good that the governor repeated his general support for foundation aid. But if Omaha and Lincoln leaders oppose it in a plan that otherwise boosts school aid for everyone, they’ll fight against sharing any of the aid they now get.
We’re heartened by the ongoing signs that urban and rural senators are working to understand each other and develop a plan that recognizes the legitimate needs of all Nebraskans across our 500-mile state.
Nebraskans need to realize, after years of failed gimmicks to permanently lower property taxes, that no device can accomplish that and still generate enough money for our communities’ basic needs.
But we can share our overall tax burdens more fairly. We aren’t now. And that’s exactly why the status quo needs upsetting.