Evidently, to our governor, the last “tax shift” wins.
And, since that last shift a decade ago favored Omaha and Lincoln, the rest of Nebraska is out of luck as Pete Ricketts sees it.
The Legislature’s Revenue Committee will present its plan for property tax relief at a Thursday public hearing. The final pieces of its puzzle aren’t yet in place.
But it’s clear that state Sen. Mike Groene’s plan to revamp the state school-aid formula will be one of its main features.
His plan, as first introduced in January, would more than wipe out the collective 40 percent slash in west central Nebraska school aid since 2008-09 — funds left to farmers, ranchers and other real estate owners to replace with property taxes.
Our senator’s plan restores per-student “foundation aid” while retaining “equalization aid” for high-need districts. It also would boost aid for Omaha, Lincoln and other urban schools with undoubted challenges in educating poor, minority and immigrant students.
It speaks well indeed of Groene’s extensive study of Nebraska’s convoluted school-aid formula that his Revenue Committee colleagues are adopting his approach to help rebalance local and state government funding among income, sales and property taxes.
Of course, his plan also takes money. Everything does.
And that’s something this governor, whom rural votes have helped elect twice, isn’t interested in providing.
Redirecting Ricketts’ drop-in-the-bucket Property Tax Credit Relief Fund toward school aid would provide a portion, likely a significant portion, of a minimum $400 million in additional state funds for K-12 schools.
But the committee plan likely would also lift a handful of sales tax exemptions — especially on pop, candy and other “junk food” — and add a half-cent to the state’s 5.5 percent sales tax. (Remember that sales tax is the only major tax non-Nebraskans help pay.)
Forget it, our governor says.
The Revenue Committee has adopted a “theme” of raising some types of revenue to lower property taxes, and “it has to stop,” Ricketts said last week. “We’ve tried this before, and it’s failed.”
You’ve got property taxes (and city sales taxes, which we all know you shouldn’t have been given anyway). Vote to tax yourselves more. Better yet, cut spending. Just don’t ask for more of “our” income and sales taxes.
This newspaper will never stop urging fiscal responsibility. But these are not wild-eyed big spenders trying to correct the property-tax tilt in Nebraska’s fiscal stool. And no sane person would hang a big-spender label on Mike Groene.
Do you suppose that, just maybe, this isn’t about fiscal responsibility?
Except for one year (when a temporary federally funded school-aid boost expired), overall state school aid has risen since the Great Recession. The current state-aid formula once gave K-12 districts a 20 percent share of their local patrons’ income taxes. Now it’s just over 2 percent.
Those cuts have never been reversed. Meanwhile, farm and ranch taxable valuations soared year after year, further redirecting state support until less than one-third of all K-12 districts receive the bulk of state school aid.
Any guesses where the money went?
Yes, North Platte still gets equalization aid. Most of its neighbors don’t. And North Platte also gets less aid than it did a decade ago.
Of course a tax-averse governor from Omaha doesn’t want “tax shifts” away from Omaha, its suburbs and Lincoln. Why would he?
Any wise policy can be taken to absurd extremes. Take Ricketts’ recent “photo op” at a Lincoln grocery store where he argued that taxing junk-food items would harm poor Nebraskans.
Does he seriously believe soft drinks, candy and potato chips (as much as we all might love them) are life “essentials” that we dare never tax?
Fleets of trucks could be driven through the holes left by Nebraska’s sales tax exemptions. But we’re at a sorry place indeed if taxing junk food has become an unacceptable “tax shift” and “tax increase.”
Fiscal responsibility and equitable revenue sharing among state and local governments are not mutually exclusive. The idea that they are has lingered in the State Capitol for decades.
To be fair, Ricketts didn’t invent that attitude.
But he seems to be trying to perfect it, rural interests be ... well, you know.