One piece of Gov. Pete Ricketts' plan to address property taxes sailed through first-round consideration by the Legislature on Wednesday.
Supporters say the measure would allow school districts to lower their property tax levies without losing substantial state aid as a result. Another component of the bill would further restrict school spending on building projects that address safety or environmental issues.
Lawmakers voted 38-0 to advance the bill (LB959) to a second round of deliberation.
The clean outcome belied a complex political situation.
"This is a step-by-step process," Ricketts told reporters. "You know, politics is about persistent, consistent pressure. And we got a bill to move on."
On Thursday, the Legislature is set to debate the second piece of Ricketts' tax plan, which would boost property tax credits for agricultural landowners by $30 million and clamp down on budget growth by community colleges. That measure (LB958) could encounter significant opposition.
Adding to the intrigue, senators reached a handshake agreement Wednesday on eliminating the Omaha-area Learning Community's common property tax levy, a controversial topic that involves competing interests and led to heated debate in the legislative chamber.
Passage of the Learning Community measure (LB1067) — and even the exact form it takes — could prove critical as Ricketts seeks urban lawmakers' support for his tax plan, which primarily addresses rural issues.
"It's a tangled web," noted Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete as small groups of Omaha-area senators and others huddled in the chamber to discuss the Learning Community issue.
The governor's school finance measure, while aimed at reducing taxes at the local level, would trigger an estimated $8.5 million increase in state aid to schools.
"We found a line between things that might be seen as restraint versus things that would actually harm the ability of districts to carry out their mission," said Lincoln Sen. Roy Baker.
Baker supported the governor's bill and provided a key vote to advance it from the Legislature's Education Committee.
Much of the additional state aid would go to rural districts, but several rural lawmakers made it clear they will return to the Legislature next year angling for more.
Sen. Curt Friesen, a farmer from Henderson, proposed an amendment to provide each school district with $4,500 in state aid per student — a change that would cost the state billions of dollars over the course of a few years.
Friesen later pulled his amendment but said he introduced it to make a point about farmers' high property taxes and Nebraska's heavy reliance on those taxes to fund schools.
"This is a $500 million problem," said Sen. John Stinner of Gering.
But senior lawmakers warned their colleagues about the arduous process of addressing that issue.
Ricketts' tax bills were introduced in January following months of contentious meetings by members of the Legislature's Revenue and Education committees last fall. Lawmakers then spent additional weeks hashing out rewrites of the two bills to make them politically feasible this year.
"This is hard," said Revenue Committee Chairman Mike Gloor of Grand Island. "And this is going to be complicated. It doesn’t lend itself to swinging to the fences.”
Education Committee Chairwoman Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, who sponsored LB959 on the governor's behalf, said the bill provides a "semblance" of property tax relief.
"Is it perfection? Well, hardly. Are there some solutions? Partly.”