Property taxes, LGBT rights, teachers' religious clothing discussed in Capitol

Feb. 21, 2017, 4:52 a.m. ·

Jerry Stahr with a stool designed to reflect the unequal share of school costs paid by (from left) income, sales and property taxes (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Discussion of property taxes, LGBT rights, and whether or not teachers should be allowed to wear religious clothing, took center stage at the Capitol Tuesday.

Property taxes have been a sore point in recent years, especially for farmers and ranchers in Nebraska. And most property taxes go for the support of schools. Tuesday, a new coalition of farm and education groups held a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda to say it will push for changes in the way schools are financed. The coalition includes the Nebraska Farm Bureau, the Nebraska State Education Association, and others.

York Public Schools Superintendent Mike Lucas analyzed the problem, saying "Low levels of state funding for public education is at the heart of Nebraska’s property tax issues. It’s not school spending. It’s a funding problem."

Jerry Stahr of Nebraska Fair, a group of York-area farmers, said Nebraska relies too heavily on property taxes to support schools. He held up a three-legged stool with uneven legs that he said represented the 48 percent of school costs paid by property taxes, compared to 33 percent from income and 19 percent from sales taxes.

Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson suggested those were areas to look for change. "Expanding the sales tax base is one of those areas. And as was represented by the three-legged stool, you can certainly see what needs to take place in order to have balance," Nelson said.

Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen pointed to the projected state budget shortfall as an argument against one of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposals. "It’s fairly obvious that you can’t continue to meet those obligations adequately, much less deal with the inequities in how we fund education by pursuing an income tax cut," Hansen said.

The Revenue Committee will hold a public hearing Wednesday on proposals to broaden the sales tax base by taxing more services and to raise the sales tax rate by one cent to offset property taxes. Ricketts has opposed those ideas as representing tax increases.

The governor has promoted his own alternative proposal to change how ag land is valued for tax purposes from market value to income potential. Farm groups say that doesn’t go far enough.

Also Tuesday, advocates of a bill that would prohibit employment discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity rallied in the Capitol Rotunda.

Among the speakers was Eli Rigatuso, a transgender man who said even though his employer has a nondiscrimination policy, a law is needed. Rigatuso said he puts up with a constant stream of comments, for example, that he doesn’t appear "man enough."

"While this may seem like no big deal to some, it is a pretty big deal to me. I could be fired tomorrow for sharing my story with all of you today, and have no recourse whatsoever," Rigatuso said.

The Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill Wednesday. Among those opposing the bill is the Nebraska Family Alliance. Nate Grasz, that groups’ policy director, said "We’ve seen similar laws across the country and what we know is, rather than being used to stop actual discrimination, they’re used to go after people of faith and to punish those who hold different beliefs on marriage."

And in legislative debate Tuesday, senators took up a proposal by Sen. Jim Scheer to repeal a law, originally passed in 1919, to prohibit teachers from wearing religious garments while teaching in public schools.

Scheer said the law was passed as part of a wave of anti-Catholic legislation around the country a century ago. But he said it discriminates against the rights of teachers generally. "It discriminates against the followers of any religion. If your religion requires you to wear a yarmulke, a habit, a hijab, or otherwise, you could choose between that or working as a teacher," Scheer said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers opposed repealing the law. Chambers said Catholics have alternatives to public schools. "The Catholics have an alternative or a parallel school system, from preschool to postdoctoral. And they can do anything they want to in terms of banning other people. So there should be plenty of opportunities in their system to hire their own teachers," he said.

Chambers said he will try to amend Scheer’s bill to eliminate any criminal penalties for wearing religious garments, while keeping the prohibition itself in place.