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Upcoming legislative session will feature wide variety of rural topics

Upcoming legislative session will feature wide variety of rural topics
Courtesy/ Legislature. George W. Norris Legislative Chamber (back view).

LINCOLN–The 106th Nebraska Legislature is set to start Jan. 9, and a number of topics and issues affecting rural Nebraska, like agriculture, property taxes, educational funding and voter-approved Medicaid, will take the stage.

The state’s 49 senators—11 newly elected and two more to be appointed to vacancies—will convene to discuss, debate and vote on these and other issues.

For many lawmakers, property taxes are a major issue.

In Nebraska, counties and municipalities, not the state, levy property taxes, which help fund public schools, police, fire departments and other local government services. The biggest chunk of property tax payments goes to fund local schools.

The average property tax rate in Nebraska is 1.88 percent, according to the Nebraska Department of Revenue. That means the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $1,880 per year in property taxes. Property taxes in the state range from 0.84 percent to 2.12-percent.

Senator-elect Dave Murman, 65, is a new senator from Glenville, representing the 38th District. Murman said property taxes were his top campaign issue. “We need to substantially reduce property taxes. They are way out of line compared to neighboring states,” he said.

Murman comes from a farming community and a rural background. He graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has spent most of his life on the family farm. He said farmers in his area and throughout the state are hurt because of the property taxes.

“Farmers (whose properties are worth more, therefore they pay more in taxes) are much less competitive than they should be, and I think the earlier we can discuss the issue and come to a conclusion the better,” Murman said.

Tom Brandt, 58, of Plymouth will be a new legislator from Nebraska’s 32nd District. Brandt will replace incumbent Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete. Brandt, a farmer like Murman, has a strong stance on property tax relief and said he will make it a priority in the upcoming session. Brandt decided to run for the Legislature because he said Ebke didnt provide the state with property tax relief.

“What’s happened over the last 15 to 20 years is previous legislatures have kicked (property tax legislation) down the road,” Brandt said. “The day has come where we need to shift taxes around so it’s more fair to the homeowner.”

“We need to find a better way to fund rural schools,” Brandt said. “People want to see some sort of property tax relief and fairness in school funding,”

Both Murman and Brandt suggested a shift away from property taxes to other sources of revenue to help fund schools.

“We need to find a way to bring in revenue to decrease the cost of the schools,”Brandt said.

Murman said he will not support a tax increase, but said, “Any changes we make in regard to taxes must shift away from property taxes.”

In addition to school funding, expanded access to Medicaid, which Nebraska voters approved in November, will be another topic facing state lawmakers.

Most of the funding for expanding Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income people, will come from federal dollars. But Nebraska lawmakers will have to figure out how the state will pay its share, which is estimated to be $18 million to $20 million in the first year.

Brandt said a bonus of Medicaid expansion is that it will expand the number of jobs in the health care industry. When those jobs are created, Brandt said, workers will “pay sales tax and income and property tax if they own a home, and those will revolve through the state of Nebraska.”

Brandt noted, however that it’s uncertain how many newly eligible people will sign up for Medicaid coverage.

 “It’s difficult to budget something when we don’t know what will happen,”Brandt said. “But in this long session, the legislature will have to give it their best shot.”

The 90-day legislative session is scheduled to conclude June 6, 2019.

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