It’s back to the drawing board for Nebraska property tax proposal

It’s back to the drawing board for Nebraska property tax proposal
District 39 Senator Lou Ann Linehan (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — A much-anticipated debate over a proposal to reduce Nebraska’s traditionally high property taxes ended quietly and with a big question mark on Tuesday.

After three hours of mostly philosophical debate about the urgent need for such relief, state senators moved on to other issues without taking a vote on Legislative Bill 289.

Left in limbo is what’s next for one of the top issues for the 2019 session of the Nebraska Legislature.

The main sponsor of the proposal, which would raise sales taxes to lower property taxes and pump an additional $500 million into state aid to K-12 schools, said she plans to regroup, consider new amendments, and see if she can show support of 33 of the one-house Legislature’s 49 senators necessary to bring the bill back up for debate.

“This is a hard decision (for senators),” said State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn. “But I’m an optimist.”

Already, a small group of lawmakers were talking about pushing an alternative property tax relief plan, and Gov. Pete Ricketts’ more simple solution — increasing the state’s property tax credit program by $51 million — is sure to get another look.

One option Linehan and several other senators don’t want to see is doing nothing. That might open the way, they said, for voter approval of a tax-cut initiative that a rural grassroots group hopes to place on the 2020 ballot, an initiative that could lead to $1 billion in state budget cuts.

Albion Sen. Tom Briese, one of the main proponents of the increases in sales taxes to offset high property taxes, urged colleagues to keep trying.

“We’re either going to stand for tax relief or stand in the way,” he said. “The public’s getting really tired of waiting on us.”

Tuesday’s lack of a vote to advance LB 289 was not unexpected. Under a rule adopted by the Speaker of the Legislature, Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer, to give every bill a debate during first-round consideration, discussion on a proposal must end after three hours if a vote to advance the bill hasn’t been taken by then. The only way such a bill gets back on the agenda is if a senator can demonstrate the support of 33 senators, which is enough to overcome a filibuster.

During debate Tuesday, it appeared that several senators were in a listening mode over a complex proposal that wasn’t finalized until late last week. Others, though, were waiting to see if a better bill might be coming.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the last version of LB 289,” said Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop. “We’ll see what’s coming. I’m still listening.”

LB 289 not only shifts support of K-12 education away from property taxes and onto state aid, but also reworks the complicated formula for delivering state funds to the state’s 244 school districts.

While the state’s small and midsize school districts generally support the bill and will see big boosts in state aid, Omaha, Lincoln and the rest of the state’s largest school districts remain wary. They’re concerned about long-term negative impacts on their budgets from a new lid on property tax revenue. There’s also worry about whether future state lawmakers will honor the bill’s commitment to dramatically increase state support of local schools from about $1 billion a year to about $1.5 billion.

Right now, Nebraska lags at about 47th in the nation in state support for public education; LB 289 is projected to raise that to about 20th.

“This is the time to step forward and be a ‘state’ senator and do what’s best for the state,” said North Platte Sen. Mike Groene, who drafted the state aid changes in the proposal. “What’s best for Nebraska is LB 289.”

Medication abortion bill in Nebraska overcomes filibuster, clears first round of debate

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers overcame a filibuster Tuesday to advance a bill that aims to help women who change their minds halfway through a medication abortion.

Legislative Bill 209 cleared first-round consideration on a 36-9 vote, after lawmakers voted 37-5 for a filibuster-ending cloture motion.

The measure, introduced by State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, is this year’s top priority for anti-abortion groups. Similar measures have been passed in at least eight other states.

Supporters argued that the bill could save lives and offer hope to women who don’t want to go through with a medication abortion.

Albrecht cited evidence showing it may be possible to continue a pregnancy if a woman gets high doses of progesterone within 72 hours of taking mifepristone, the first abortion drug, and if she has not taken misoprostol, the second drug. Advocates tout the treatment as an abortion reversal.

Opponents argued that the bill offers false hope to women and represents government interference with the doctor-patient relationship.

They said the evidence comes from cases reported by a California doctor in 2018, not from rigorous scientific studies, and questioned whether the treatment actually makes a difference. An estimated 25% to 50% of women who do not take the second abortion pill remain pregnant.

“Patients who want to continue their pregnancy should not be guinea pigs, and the Nebraska Legislature should not sanction that,” said Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha.

As advanced, LB 209 would require that women be told that mifepristone may not end a pregnancy and that it may not be too late to continue their pregnancy. The bill refers women to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services website for help finding treatment.

Medication abortions can be done during the first 10 weeks of a pregnancy. Typically, women take the first medication in a clinic and are directed to take the second one at home, anywhere from 6 to 48 hours later.