Property Taxes and Judgeships Considered, Civics Update Advanced

Feb. 26, 2019, 5:41 p.m. ·

The Appropriations Committee considers the state budget (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A tax policy advocate says senators crafting a new state budget should hold off on increasing a property tax credit fund. Also in the Legislature Tuesday, a proposal for a new judgeship ran into questions about its effect on property taxes. And the Legislature advanced an updated law on civics education in Nebraska.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has proposed increasing the credit property owners get to offset part of what they pay for local government services, like schools and police. That credit was worth about $86 on a $100,000 house last year; his proposal would increase that to about $106. That would bring the annual cost of the program to $275 million, funded largely by existing income and sales taxes Nebraskans pay.

In a hearing on the governor’s budget proposals, that idea was questioned by Renee Fry of the Open Sky Policy Institute. Open Sky has supported proposals before the Revenue Committee to raise other taxes in order to lower property taxes.

Sen. Steve Erdman questioned Fry about her recommendation. “You’re recommending that we wait to see what the Revenue Committee’s doing before we make a decision about contributing $275 million to the property tax credit program?” he asked.

“Given that you’re likely going to have to make significant adjustments to the governor’s budget if receipts continue to be down, we do believe that that issue is best left to the Revenue Committee. And we think it would be fair to not put additional dollars into the property tax credit program,” Fry answered.

Sen. Myron Dorn worried if senators don’t include the governor’s proposal in the budget, and the Revenue Committee fails to come up with a plan most senators can support, property tax payers could wind up with no relief. “I guess I’m a little hesitant today to sit here and say ‘If we need to cut, this is where we’re going to cut,’” Dorn said.

“I understand that. On the flip side – I guess I’m just going to throw it out there – so, if it’s in the budget, is that easier for the Revenue Committee to not have anything out?” Fry replied.

In other words, including Ricketts’ tax credit proposal in the budget could reduce political pressure on senators to come up with a bigger proposal. The Revenue Committee is expected to begin trying to craft a solution, perhaps by next week.

Meanwhile, senators are debating a plan to create a new district judgeship in Douglas County, which includes Omaha. Sen. Steve Lathrop, who introduced the proposal, said it’s needed because of the high caseload there. He said in the last eight years, Douglas County held 67 first and second-degree murder trials. By contrast, he said Lancaster County, which contains Lincoln, held 4 such trials. Douglas County has 16 district judges; Lancaster County has 8.

Lathrop’s bill would cost the state just over $300,000 a year, which would pay for a judge, a court reporter, travel, educational and computer expenses. But Sen. Andrew LaGrone said the real cost would be much higher than that, and would be paid for by property taxpayers. “What I think we need to do is address all the costs associated with our court system. Now that’s going to be a very large fiscal note. I’m completely aware of that. But at least we’ll be aware of exactly how much money we’re spending; exactly how much money we’re requiring our counties to pick up from our property taxpayers,” La Grone said.

La Grone has an amendment to require the state to pay the additional for expenses like baliffs, clerks, and defense lawyers throughout the state. Lathrop called that a “poison pill” that would derail an urgently needed proposal. He referred to a story told him by fellow senator Justin Wayne, a defense attorney. “He’s got somebody that’s awaiting sentence in Douglas County – been three months. Can’t get him in front of a district court judge. Guess where his client’s sitting? In the county jail. And guess what the country jail’s doing? They’re paying a daily rate to have that person sit there,” Lathrop said. “This is way more complex than simply dropping a bill that’s going to blow up a fiscal note and make this thing radioactive.”

Lathrop also said if legislators don’t create a new judgeship, Douglas County will get one anyway the next time the Judicial Resources Commission looks at caseloads. In that case, he added, it will be taken from some other part of the state. Lawmakers adjourned for the day before reaching a vote on his proposal.

Senators did act on another proposal, giving first-round approval to updating a 1949 law on teaching civics in Nebraska schools. Sen. Julie Slama, who introduced the bill, said the subject is sometimes neglected. “Our students face an almost-constant workload of standardized testing in English, reading, math and science. Thanks to the competitive nature of these tests, these subjects can take the limelight from other areas of instruction, such as civics,” Slama said.

Slama’s bill changes the description of what’s to be taught from “Americanism” to “American civics,” and changes other wording as well. For example, the old law says students should be taught in such a way as to “develop a love of country.” The new proposal changes that to being given the opportunity to become “competent, responsible, patriotic and civil citizens.”

The new proposal also says “The youth in our state should be committed to the ideals and values of our country’s democracy and the constitutional republic established by the people.”

Sen. Megan Hunt objected to what she sees as the underlying direction of the proposal, and said it takes the wrong approach to teaching students. “They should learn how to think about government and how to think about political governance, not what to think about it. Because students also have the right to not be indoctrinated,” Hunt said.

The bill has been held up for days by a filibuster by Sen. Ernie Chambers. But Tuesday, senators reached the minimum of a cumulative six hours of debate Speaker Jim Scheer has set before they can vote cloture and end first-round debate. They did so, then advanced the bill on a vote of 42-3, with only Chambers, Hunt, and Wayne opposed.