Local View: Artificial spending cap of constitutional amendment would harm public schools

By Dave Welsch, published in the Lincoln Journal Star, Thursday, March 21

As a farmer in southeastern Nebraska and president of the Milford Public Schools Board of Education, I am deeply familiar with Nebraska’s property tax problem. Twenty years on a school board and even more in the field have allowed me to advocate for solutions to our senators.

I write to express my opposition to Legislative Resolution 8, a constitutional amendment (LR8CA), which would harm public education in Nebraska by setting caps on local tax authority. I believe the people of Nebraska elected our legislators to come up with legislative solutions to high property taxes, not make it a constitutional issue.

The only reason that some believe there is a need for LR8CA is because they believe there is a spending problem. There is not a spending problem within education across Nebraska.

Over the past 10 years, school budgets have increased by slightly more than 3 percent annually, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office, barely covering cost of living increases. Despite this controlled growth, under this constitutional amendment, schools and local governments would be locked into a 3 percent cap, restricting spending growth to a level that even our state budget surpasses.

Our governor and a few others keep saying, “spending is the problem.” Frankly, just because something is said long enough and loud enough does not make it true.

In regard to lowering property taxes, it has also been said over and over that the solution should not come from “new taxes” or a “tax shift.” Both of these have already occurred. And, they have occurred most recently on the backs of property owners in rural districts who receive equalization aid from the state.

As agricultural land values went up, equalization aid went down. In most of these districts, for every dollar lost in state aid, it had to be replaced with increased property taxes. In addition, if those lost state aid funds had not been replaced by property taxes, the education of Nebraska’s students would have suffered.

The challenge before the Legislature is to do the right thing for all of Nebraska.

I would suggest that their first step should be to adjust agricultural land valuations down to 40 percent within the school funding formula to bring back equalization aid to those districts that were hit the hardest by increased property taxes. Then, move on to increasing special education reimbursements from 50 percent to 80 percent and providing supplemental aid outside of the equalization formula to all students across Nebraska.

To provide real relief, the Legislature will need to increase other taxes or use some of the current Property Tax Credit Fund. Rather than entertaining the idea of reducing the top corporate and personal income tax rates, senators should be discussing the addition of tax brackets and closing tax loopholes that leak millions of dollars from our state budget.

Senators have been elected to legislate solutions to the No. 1 issue in the state, property tax relief. I encourage our state senators to do so this year.