Water, Taxes And A Short Unicameral Session

Nebraska Notebook

Nebraska study groups on water funding and tax changes will issue report by year's end.

Published on: October 4, 2013

Two Nebraska study groups have their work cut out for them in the coming weeks, and each one needs your input. They involve water and taxes. If that doesn't get your attention in Nebraska, nothing will. The adage of "nothing is certain but death and taxes" can be altered in this state to "death, high property taxes and water fights."

The Nebraska Water Funding Task Force and the Legislature's Tax Modernization Committee have to produce reports by year's end, in order that their recommendations can be considered in the 2014 Unicameral. That's a very tall order, not only in garnering a consensus among each group's members on those recommendations, but also moving them through a packed, short 60-day Legislative session.

Four state senators, in a panel at a recent meeting I attended, talked more about the questions facing the water task force in its remaining meetings than about possible answers. It's been estimated Nebraska needs $50 to $60 million a year to pay help address the state's perennial water conflicts. Foremost need is to solve conflicts between surface and groundwater users, especially in river basins where interstate compacts exist. Those dollars, if raised, would go for, among other things, water research, water modeling and a wide variety of water projects, including storage projects, in Nebraska.

How to raise that money is the overriding issue. Will it be a higher sales tax, a targeted portion of the existing sales tax or perhaps bonding authority for the state's natural resources districts?  

How to distribute additional dollars is another major consideration. State Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, one of the panelists I heard, said separate funds ought to be established for municipal water needs and for agricultural water needs. "That's the best chance for agriculture," he said. "There is less and less agricultural representation in the Unicameral every year."

Six state senators are non-voting members of the more than 30-member water funding task force, and they want to hear from you. They are Sens. Tom Carlson, 402-471-2732, tcarlson@leg.ne.gov; Mark Christensen, 402-471-2805, mchristensen@leg.ne.gov; Al Davis, 402-471-2628, adavis@leg.ne.gov; Rick Kolowski, 402-471-2327, rkolowski@leg.ne.gov; Ken Schilz, 402-471-2616, kschilz@leg.ne.gov; and Dan Watermeier, 402-471-2733, dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov.

You should also let your own state senator know your thoughts on the issue.

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Taxes
A committee of 14 state senators that make up the Tax Modernization Committee has embarked on a public hearing tour to take input on how to reform Nebraska's tax structure. The committee was created in the 2013 session after a proposal Gov. Dave Heineman to eliminate or reduce income taxes by ending several sales tax exemptions was shot down.

Revising the state's tax structure would essentially mean shifting the tax load in the state.

The committee members have a major challenge on their hands, and so will the full legislative body in the 2014 Legislature when it takes up the recommendations.

In the first two of its public hearings, in Scottsbluff and North Platte, the committee found out right away what's on the minds of farmers and ranchers—high property taxes and the need to reduce the heavy burden carried by landowners. Committee members got an earful.

A Dawson County farmer, Dale Gronewold, testified that the system is inequitable. Not only is it problem for all producers, it's especially tough on beginning farmers, he said.

Jim O'Rourke, referring to the Chadron School District in which he resides, says 50% of the budget is paid by 10% of the population—farmers and ranchers.

According to the Nebraska Farm Bureau, the state's ag landowners represent less than 3% of Nebraska's population, but pay roughly 24% of total property taxes statewide.  

The entire tax system needs to be revised, but Nebraska finally must get serious about reducing the property tax load on agriculture.

State Sen. Glen Hadley of Kearney is chairman of the committee. To offer your input to the committee, call his office in Lincoln at 402-471-2726 or email ghadley@leg.ne.gov.