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Nebraska lawmakers still sorting through property tax legislation as debate draws near

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — With the session more than half finished, Nebraska lawmakers are still sorting through ways to lower property taxes while balancing the state budget.

Bills slated for debate include personal property tax legislation to benefit businesses and a $45 million annual increase for the state property tax credit fund, which reduces the amount property owners must pay.

Some say the state can and should do more, but others are tamping down expectations that other property tax measures will be approved this year.

"I think folks would like to see something miraculous, a base-clearing home run rather than bunts and singles," said Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, chairman of the Revenue Committee. "But the state budget is such that for the next couple of years, we don't have the kind of money coming into the state that's going to allow us to do that."

Lawmakers have about $41 million at their disposal for legislative items that aren't already part of the two-year budget, but senators are vying for the money to pay for their priorities. Gloor said major spending cuts are unlikely because of Medicaid programs and K-12 education, which are politically popular and account for two of the largest pieces of the state budget.

Passing major tax cut legislation could prove more difficult this year and in the future because of recent bills that are slowing the growth of state revenue, said Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus.

Schumacher pointed to a 2014 law that ensures the state tax brackets move in tandem with inflation. Previously, taxpayers who received a cost-of-living increase would get bumped into a higher tax bracket where they end up paying more. The law is expected to reduce state revenues by roughly $100 million over the next decade.

"We've got to pay the bills," Schumacher said. "You cannot commit to reducing revenue and then assume the bills will naturally go down. That can put you in a real jam."

Gloor said his personal property tax measure would benefit Nebraska farmers who live and work on their land rather absentee owners. The latest version of his personal property tax measure would provide a credit on up to $15,000 for items used in business, such as tractors, combines and computers. The bill would lower future state revenue by roughly $26 million.

"You're talking about a big chunk of property tax relief," he said. "That's a lot in any one year. Whether we can afford all of it remains to be seen."

Some senators say the Legislature hasn't done enough. Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion said it's looking less likely that lawmakers will pass major tax packages this year. Smith sponsored legislation to lower both income and property taxes, but the idea faced criticism because it would have forced lawmakers to cut millions in spending in future years.

"The challenges appear to be multiplying," Smith said. "I'm going to continue to work for it, but with every day that passes I think it becomes less likely we're going to get something meaningful this year."

A property tax measure backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts stalled in the committee earlier this month, with opponents arguing it wouldn't help farmers as many believe.

The proposal would have lowered the taxable value of farmland from 75 percent to 65 percent. Ricketts and the Nebraska Farm Bureau supported the measure, but opponents said it would shift the tax burden to residential homeowners. The bill received only two votes of support on the eight-member committee.

Ricketts has argued that soaring values of agricultural land have created an unsustainable situation for farmers and ranchers.

Nebraska has no direct control over property tax levies, which are set by counties, school boards and other local governments, but the state can indirectly influence the taxes in a variety of ways. Last year they added $25 million annually to a state fund that offsets property taxes, for a yearly tax credit of $74.11 on property valued at $100,000.

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