Farmers, schools at odds over Ricketts’ property tax plan

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Gov. Pete Ricketts’ property tax plan drew praise Tuesday from Nebraska’s farming community and opposition from school officials, who would face new restrictions on their budget authority.

Both sides argued their case to the Legislature’s Education Committee, which is reviewing one of two bills introduced on the governor’s behalf.

Ricketts said his proposal would slow the statewide growth of property taxes - a top concern of farmers and ranchers - and trigger an increase in state aid for K-12 public schools. Farmers and ranchers have seen their property taxes soar because of increased farm and ranchland values even as farm incomes declined.

The governor appeared in person to testify in support of the measure, as he did last week before the Revenue Committee.

“I’ve had farmers and ranchers come up to me and say, ‘You’re not doing enough,’’’ Ricketts said. “And I’ve had cities, counties, school board members and school administrators say ‘You’re doing too much.’ To me, that says we’re striking a good balance.’’

The schools bill presented Tuesday would require districts to seek voter approval before issuing bonds on capital projects and would impose new limits designed to slow the growth of their budgets. A second bill presented last week to the Revenue Committee would prevent the combined taxable value of all the state’s agricultural land from growing by more than 3 percent annually and place limits on cities, counties and other local governments.

Lawmakers took no immediate action on the bill discussed Tuesday.

Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, the bill’s sponsor, said the package is reasonable, doable and not overly burdensome for schools.

“I believe we are at a crossroads,’’ said Sullivan, chairwoman of the Education Committee. “Whether you personally believe it or not, Nebraska citizens have voiced their opinion. They want property tax relief, and they believe they have been waiting long enough.’’

Mary Lou Block, who owns and operates a 1,000-acre farm near Gothenburg, said she and her husband both work in jobs outside of farming but still struggle to pay their property taxes. Block said the area’s property taxes have risen so much that they now consume most of her paycheck as a dietitian consultant for a local hospital.

“I do think it’s an incredibly important decision for us in Nebraska,’’ Block said.

Dale Gronewold of Gothenburg said his farmland property taxes have increased by 90 percent over the last three years.

“Any property relief is a positive thing. Anything,’’ Gronewold said. “But somehow, we have to stop the bleeding.’’

York Public Schools Superintendent Mike Lucas disputed the argument that schools were to blame for the property tax increases. Lucas cautioned that some portions of the bill could have unintended consequences, such as requiring a local election to pay for a mold abatement project.

School districts’ spending authority “isn’t used for lavish things,’’ he said.

Ricketts has said he was open to changes in the plan. The overall package has won endorsements from the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation and the Nebraska Cattlemen Association.

The bill is LB959.

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