Property tax levy cuts heard; train crew minimum size debated

Jan. 31, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Mike Jacobson during debate on train crew size Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Mike Jacobson during debate on train crew size Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Property tax levies would be automatically reduced if valuations increased, under a proposal heard by the Legislature’s Revenue Committee Wednesday. And senators debated requiring at least two crew members on trains crossing the state.

What you pay in property taxes is the result of a multiplication problem: how much your property is worth, multiplied by the tax levy approved by local governments. In recent years, as property values have increased rapidly, many local governments have not reduced their levies proportionately, meaning they’ve collected more taxes. Sen. Brad von Gillern said he wants to change that.

“Everybody knows a story where they were they said, ‘Hey, you guys said you were cutting our property taxes. And even my local taxing authority said, Hey, we cut your taxes.’ But what they did was, they may have cut the levy by a tenth of a percent, but valuations went up 10, 15, 20, and I heard some horror stories in Lincoln about valuations going up 30 percent,” he said.

Kyle Fairbairn of the Greater Nebraska Schools Association, representing 25 of the largest school districts in the state, was among those opposing the bill. Fairbairn said it would freeze property tax revenue at whatever level it was when the bill was passed, without a mechanism to replace it.

“The bill looks like a bill to stop growth of property taxes to support public education in the state and replace it with state funding. The change in this funding, though, would not change the amount of state aid going to schools,” Fairbairn said.

Von Gillern said he is open to changes in the bill to allow for increased revenues if an area is growing. His bill is just one of a series of measures introduced in support of Gov. Jim Pillen’s attempt to lower property taxes by 40 percent. Another proposal, by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, would do away with school board’s ability to raise property taxes above legislatively-mandated limits. Currently, school boards can do that if the increase is approved by 70 percent or more of the board members. Linehan’s proposal would require increases above the limit to be approved by voters in an election.

Those proposals, along with others to end sales tax exemptions and increase sales tax rates, are expected to be a prominent subject of debate between now and when the legislative session is scheduled to end, in mid-April.

In debate by the full Legislature Wednesday morning, senators considered a proposal by Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte to require trains to have crews of at least two people. Jacobson said it was a matter of safety to have a conductor, in addition to the engineer.

“Conductors often act as the first responder and leave the train to help those injured in an accident, particularly at a rail crossing. They provide assistance and information when first responders arrive. They help if the engineer had a health emergency such as a heart attack. They cut crossings for emergency responders if they can't get to the other side for emergencies,” Jacobson said.

The two biggest railroads in Nebraska, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, currently have two-person crews. But that is as a result of contract negotiations, not laws or regulations.

Von Gillern opposed the bill, saying conductors wouldn’t be much help in some situations Jacobson described.

“I don't believe that the two-man crew would have changed the outcome of a collision at a crossing. Generally collisions of crossings are the fault of the car driver, not anything to do with the train. So I'm not sure a two-man crew is going to change any of those outcomes,” he said.

Sen. Rob Clements, a banker, opposed the bill as an unnecessary mandate.

“I do oppose this mandate on individual freedom principles. I do have many mandates in my business because of bad actors in other businesses like mine. But I don't believe these mandates make my customers any more safe, and it does increase my expense. I would keep my customers safe without mandates, and I urge the railroad to make sure they're doing it also,” Clements said.

Other opponents [SB1] argued that regulations should be left up to the Federal Railroad Administration, which has announced it will come out with a ruling on the subject in March. But Sen. Lynn Walz of Fremont said her constituents are demanding more railroad safety.

“The number one reason I hear from my constituents is railroad safety. Blocked crossings, the length of trains, the inability for our first responders to get to emergency situations, the accidents and the death -- the most correspondence from my constituents over the last seven years has been about railroads,” Walz said.

The Legislature adjourned for the day before reaching a first-round vote on the bill.