Chambers Delays Tax Relief for Flood Victims

April 5, 2019, 4:43 p.m. ·

Sen. Ernie Chambers in debate Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A proposal to let Nebraskans whose homes were destroyed by flooding not pay property taxes on those homes looked like it had lots of support in the Legislature Friday. But Sen. Ernie Chambers held it up, saying lawmakers have not done enough to help other people.

Senators were considering a routine bill adjusting tax laws when Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard introduced an amendment, to adjust people’s property taxes to reflect the value of their property after a disaster, like the recent flooding.

Under Erdman’s proposal, if someone had a $100,000 house and it got washed away, they’d only have to pay on the value of the ground left over, until and unless they built a replacement.

Erdman said the proposal makes a lot of sense. “It’s an opportunity for us, for once, we could pull up in somebody’s yard and say ‘We are from the government and we are here to help you,’ and really mean it. This is a chance. This is an opportunity for all of us to vote to give people a break in something beyond their control,” he said.

Sen. Rob Clements of Elmwood supported Erdman. Clements estimated if six percent of the houses in Cass County were destroyed, and the property tax burden were shifted onto the remaining taxpayers, it would cost the owner of a $120,000 house an additional $38 in property taxes, or the owner of 160 acres of farmland another $188.

Those are both increases of 1.7 percent. “I think people will be willing to pay another 1.7 percent for a year to help out their neighbors whose house is completely gone and have a lot more things to worry about,” Clements said.

But Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers moved to postpone the bill. He said its supporters, many of them rural senators, had opposed bills he supported to help marginalized people. Chambers cast his opposition in biblical terms. “What a man soweth, that shall he also reap -- the way that you treat others is what’s going to boomerang and come back to you. And this is boomerang time now,” he said.

Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus called it silly to frame the issue as a rural –urban conflict, and it shouldn’t be linked to other issues. “Let’s talk about the bill. Let’s talk about the facts. Let’s get over our hurt feelings and move on,” Moser said.

And Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard said the bill would help people who have suffered damages across Nebraska. “It isn’t just Schuyler, Nebraska, Bellwood, Nebraska, Linwood, Nebraska. It isn’t North Bend, Nebraska. It’s Omaha, Bellevue, Norfolk, Fremont. It’s the ranchers out west that lost all their cattle. It’s everyone in the state,” Bostelman said.

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz said everyone wants to help people affected by flooding. But she expressed concern about whether Erdman’s proposal was the right way to go about it. “I don’t want to reduce the revenue to political subdivisions that have increased responsibilities due to the flooding as well, related to destroyed bridges, matching funds for emergency funds, repairing roads, repairing civic centers, those kind of things,” Bolz said. “I just want to make sure that we are looking at the global picture.”

As debate continued and it looked likely no vote would be reached, Chambers offered his colleagues a practical way to get him to drop his opposition. “I’ll tell you how you can win me over,” he said. “Give me what I want.”

What he wanted, Chambers said, was three bills: a ban on employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity; SNAP benefits or food stamps for people convicted of drug felonies; and an increase in the minimum wage for tipped workers.

All three are contained in proposals that were sidelined earlier in this legislative session.

Chambers urged his fellow senators to consider his offe. “You’d do well to consider what the rest of the session is going to be like. Think about it over the weekend. I will be back,” he promised.

So will the rest of the senators. Speaker Jim Scheer said there’s enough support for the tax bill containing Erdman’s proposed relief for flood victims that he’ll schedule it for further debate early next week.