Rural and urban lawmakers clash as property tax bill stalls

Senators from rural areas talk, as the legislature debate property taxes. Left to right are Sen. Steve Erdman, Sen. Mike Groene, Sen. Steve Halloran, Sen. John Lowe, and Sen. John Kuehn

With the clock ticking, lawmakers may have run out of time with a property tax proposal favored by rural senators.

State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte takes issue with those who suggest farmers complain too much about property taxes.

“This greedy, rich, rural Nebraska is dying and urban America is taking our children,” he said.

Senators from central and western Nebraska say it's the biggest issue their constituents face.

“We got a problem folks. We got a property tax problem in the state,” Groene said.

They argue for new caps on local school funding, and more state dollars to make up the difference.

Groene proposed LB 640, which was prioritized by Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson.

Groene said it would help the 175 schools who currently get no state money. He said the bill would lessen the burden on local property taxpayers, with the state boosting funding.

He said, “Our problem with property taxes is state aid to education. All property taxes collected stay locally. The big variable is that when valuations go up, the state gives less money to the districts and that's where the problem is”

But urban lawmakers questioned taking money away from tax credits that help property owners.

Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha asked Groene, “With this 640 our property tax relief fund will go away completely?”

Others said it would hamstring districts.

Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln said, “There's a teacher shortage only going to get worse, so school districts right now have trouble filling positions, in particular in outstate Nebraska.”

Rural senators found themselves talking to a dozen or more empty chairs, as many urban lawmakers skipped debate.

The legislature is in a race against time. With the end of session in sight, debate has been limited.

Amendments to Groene’s LB 640 found support.

He said, “I think we convinced some senators this is necessary.”

This bill’s three-hours of debate ended without a vote.

Supporters say it sends a message that they're closer now than ever.

“We finally had a voice on the floor,” Groene said. “I've been here three years and this is the basically the first time a property tax relief bill was on the floor.”

The tax debate resumes Friday. That's when the governor's proposal will be debated, bringing together income tax and property tax relief.

However, many farm and education groups say that effort falls short.

If the legislature does nothing on property taxes, senators suggest people may use the petition process to make it a ballot issue.

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