Ricketts opposes special session on property taxes

April 10, 2018, 6:01 a.m. ·

Nebraska's Capitol from the southwest (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Some senators want the Legislature to convene in special session later this year to try again to reduce property taxes, but Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes the idea.

The Nebraska Legislature’s regular session ends next week, but senators have already given up hope of passing legislation to relieve property taxes this year. Now, Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon is leading an effort to get senators to hold a special session this summer to deal with just that issue.

Brewer said while seven senators tried to work out a property tax compromise last weekend, most senators haven’t had a chance to work through the issue.

“I think a reasonable person has to want to come in and at least understand the true ground truth of where we’re at. And this is our chance to do that. Now maybe there isn’t enough votes – I don’t know. But I think we owe it a try,” Brewer said.

Brewer is trying to invoke a law that’s apparently never been used before. It says if 10 senators sign a letter to the secretary of state, he must essentially poll the others to see if there are 33 who support a special session. If so, the law says, the governor must call it.

Brewer said he turned in 13 signatures. Those came mostly from senators who represent large rural districts, whose residents have been most hurt by rising property taxes on agricultural land over the last decade. “Part of the reason I turned in those 13 was, it represents 75 percent of the physical landmass of the state of Nebraska,” he said.

In an interview with NET News, Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose property tax plan got out of committee but failed to advance in the Legislature, was decidedly cool to the idea of a special session. “The property tax relief bill was undermined by a small group of senators who were fixated on tax increases. And as long as senators are fixated on tax increases, there’s no reason to call a special session,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts was referring to supporters of an alternative tax plan, cosponsored by Brewer, that would have raised sales and cigarette taxes to lower property taxes. Brewer said such an idea could be considered in the special session he’s advocating. “I think it would, because it is shifting some of the resources from a particular area to another area to achieve that end state, which is to reduce property tax. I don’t think there’s anything that is off the table right now,” he said.

Ricketts said that possibility makes a special session pointless. “Again, these senators – all they want to do is raise taxes. As long as they just want to raise taxes, it’s a nonstarter – we’re not – there’s no need to have a special session,” he said.

Ricketts also renewed his criticism of another alternative, an initiative petition drive that would have the state pay half of everyone’s school property taxes, without saying where the money would come from. “It would mean either massive cuts in services or massive tax increase because it represents about 25 percent of our budget So this is not the solution – the ballot initiative is not the solution,” Ricketts said. “We need to work on legislative solutions, but we need to have our senators get off the idea that they have to raise taxes first.”

Ricketts was asked how to break the stalemate on taxes that has prevented action for the last two years. “What I hope is that we will use the interim here to be able to talk through some additional plans; that senators will go back and talk to their constituents about this; and that they’ll see that we have to look at ways we can reduce the property tax burden on our farmers and ranchers and homeowners without raising taxes,” he replied.

The law Brewer’s trying to use sets a 10-day deadline for collecting support from enough senators to call a special session. Its constitutionality has apparently never been tested.

In other action Tuesday, senators gave-second round approval to a bill intended to address problems at the Nebraska State Patrol. It would allow employees to file complaints of sexual harassment with the Department of Administrative Services, rather than the agency that employs them. It would give the Crime Commission power to subpoena patrol disciplinary records. And it would prevent future collective bargaining agreements with the state patrol from requiring confidentiality for such records.

Sen. Matt Hansen led an effort to remove the collective bargaining provision, saying it would undermine union collective bargaining rights. Sen. Laura Ebke said the provision needed to stay, to avoid having the union agreement trump the law making such records available. Senators defeated Hansen’s amendment, 28-19, then gave the bill second round approval on a vote of 37-4.

Also Tuesday, senators debate a proposal by Sen. Lynne Walz to put a social worker in every educational service unit to help schools connect troubled students and families with mental health services. Walz amended the bill to allow services for private and religious schools as well. “I think the more behavioral and mental health services we can provide to kids, the better this program becomes. This would ensure all schools can partake in this program,” she said.

Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Education Committee, opposed Walz’ bil. “I don’t believe mental health is part of the mission of education. We have a Health and Human Services department. We constantly hear we don’t have enough money for education. But yet we seem to have money to hire psychiatrists and social workers. That is not education,” Groene said.

Walz’ bill was amended, and then given second round approval on a vote of 29-8.