The urban-rural split remains alive and well as the Nebraska Legislature enters into its final crucial days.
It has reared its head in debate on the budget, property tax relief, eminent domain and economic development incentives. Not surprising, but important as one seeks legislative approval of solutions to major problems that impact both rural and urban residents.
Budget opposition came not so much in the form of what was said, but what wasn’t said. Consider a recent vote to amend the Appropriations Committee's state budget proposal by moving $51 million the committee had allocated to nourish the state's depleted cash reserve fund into the state's property tax credit fund.
The motion was adopted 28-8. Twelve senators who were present decided not to cast a vote.
Of the 20 senators who either voted no or declined to vote, 18 of them are from Lincoln or metropolitan Omaha. Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. John Stinner of Gering and Senator Dan Quick of Grand Island were the other two.
Those 18 Lincoln-Omaha senators are also a key factor in the fate of the Revenue Committee's proposed tax reform bill with property tax relief funded by state sales tax increases and delivered through state aid to schools. During a lengthy committee hearing, opposition to the plan came primarily from cities, urban schools, chambers of commerce, the Nebraska State Education Association, policy think tanks, retailers, real estate agents and contractors. Even the Nebraska Farm Bureau and allied ag organizations – by far the biggest proponents of property tax relief – said they are adamant that the state maintains the current property tax credit fund.
Lawmakers passed a bill that would give property owners a foot in the door in challenges to utility companies that want to build wind turbine farms in the Sandhills. Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne took an opportunity during final reading on the measure to suggest an interim study of public power in Nebraska. He said thinking has to change as we move forward into the 21st century.
Wayne said development of a power storage battery is a bigger threat to public power than either wind or solar energy. He urged his colleagues to consider that and net metering for commercial industry.
"If you don't like wind in the Sandhills, then offer an alternative for us in the city who want to be green," Wayne said.
Seward Sen. Mark Kolterman admits his business incentive tax bill “Imagine Nebraska” (LB720) may have become ensnared within the rural-urban differences that are apparent in the property tax debate.
During a public hearing on the bill, which would replace the current Nebraska Advantage Act, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte complained, "This thing goes a little too far."
"This helps three counties mostly,” Groene said. “The rest of the state pays for these projects in Omaha. There's frustration in rural Nebraska; how does this help us?"
Kolterman cautions that failure to enact a new package in advance of next year's demise of the existing incentive measure, the Nebraska Advantage Act, would send a negative signal to business leaders who usually plan new developments or expansion a couple of years or more in advance.
Former Sens. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse and John Harms of Scottsbluff have authored an opinion piece for OpenSky Policy Institute pointing to the unexpected costs of earlier incentive programs and suggesting
that they are crowding out funding for property tax relief and higher education now.
"Nebraska Advantage was projected to reduce revenue by $24 million to $60 million per year," the former senators wrote. "In (fiscal) 2018, it reduced state revenue by $154 million."
Harms and Watermeier were both former chairmen of the Legislature's Performance Audit Committee. They suggested a better move would be to invest in targeted workforce training programs that are tailored to Nebraska’s economic needs or to work to “expand high-speed broadband coverage to ensure businesses around the state have access to the critical service."
Urban senators. Rural senators. How about Nebraska senators? Yes, I know that’s a long shot – somewhat akin to having a truly nonpartisan Legislature – but I think it’s possible.
I was born and reared in the Panhandle. I now live in the Capital City. Does that make me any less mindful of the issues that affect greater Nebraska? I think not.
Can Senators Groene and Wayne understand each other’s issues? I think so.
Is that attitude transferable to every state senator? I hope so.