Some in elective office honestly try to solve public problems; others disingenuously pander to serve their own personal ambitions. If there had been any doubt about where Gov. Pete Ricketts hung his hat, the past few weeks have confirmed him inflexibly entrenched in the latter category.
This legislative session is winding its way into the quagmire of property tax relief. Last Thursday, the Unicameral’s Revenue Committee held a public hearing on LB 289, this year’s comprehensive property tax relief proposal. The bill acknowledges the truth that any serious consideration makes clear: Appreciable property tax relief will occur only if state resources fund a larger percentage of K-12 public education. To generate approximately $500 million to replace and thereby lower local real estate taxes, the committee’s initial proposal included increasing the state sales tax by three-fourths of a cent, eliminating sales tax exemptions on junk food and soda pop, and raising the cigarette tax. On Monday, the committee looked at eliminating more exemptions in an attempt to limit the sales tax increase to half a cent.
The Revenue Committee’s bill elicited the expected ruckus of objections from those negatively impacted by the proposal, generally opposed to anything and everything, and legitimately convinced that some other approach was superior. Was Ricketts to be found, shirtsleeves rolled up, genuinely toiling with senators to find a solution to the acknowledged priority of property tax relief? Not quite. Instead, our governor was busy denouncing the proposal as the largest tax increase in state history and accusing lawmakers of lacking the budgetary discipline to control spending.
Many in our part of Nebraska consider the growth in their property taxes over the last few years to be their largest tax increase in the state’s history. The grindings of the state’s school funding formula have combined with dramatic increases in land valuations to produce huge hikes in property tax liability, particularly in farm and ranch country. And contending that senators on the Revenue Committee, such as Lincoln County’s Mike Groene, lack budget discipline is beyond laughable. Committee Chair Lou Ann Linehan, another conservative hardliner on spending, noted at the hearing that the state cannot responsibly produce meaningful property tax relief through spending cuts.
Of course, Ricketts’ comments are no more aimed at being truthful than at producing property tax relief. Ricketts knows what Groene and Linehan and everybody knows: Taxes are hated; sloganeering against them is popular. Groene, Linehan and their colleagues have sincerely studied the problem and thoughtfully worked to offer a real solution, only to be flippantly and dishonestly criticized by the governor. Ricketts has again opted for the spineless path at the expense of — again — accomplishing nothing on property taxes. When he runs for whatever higher office he has his heart and father’s fortune set on, the governor’s ideological resume on taxes will be pure even if his record on addressing the state’s largest economic issue is blank.
But serving the governor’s political ambitions accomplishes nothing on a large, real problem. Agriculture is the indispensable engine to Nebraska’s economy. One of every four jobs in our state is rooted directly in the ag industry. When producers struggle, so do our main streets, and state sales and income tax revenues decline. Property taxes have become one of farmers’ and ranchers’ largest expenses. In our time of low commodity prices and President Trump’s tariff and protectionist policies generating uncertainty in markets, ever-increasing property taxes may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some producers. With Nebraska confronting the cost of additional penitentiary space to accommodate a failing criminal justice system, the infrastructure expense to repair this winter’s flood damage and voter-mandated Medicaid expansion, we cannot much longer fail to alleviate the harm being perpetrated on agriculture by high property taxes.
Ricketts probably hopes deep down that the Unicameral will take him off the hook by collectively exercising the necessary courage to make the politically unpopular decisions to honestly address property taxes over his opposition. If that does not happen, our governor undoubtedly will tightly cross his fingers and pray that he is firmly ensconced in whatever higher office he seeks next before Nebraska suffers the inevitable economic upheaval sure to result sooner or later if his demagoguery on taxes continues to win the day. Sadly, we citizens gullibly elected a governor promising undeliverable fairy tales rather than one who will work honestly on hard problems.