The opening skirmish in this year's legislative showdown over property taxes pitted individual property taxpayers and a broad coalition of agricultural organizations against business groups, schools and other interests concerned about the impact of potential revenue losses and tax shifts.
Sen. Steve Erdman's bill (LB829), designed to provide an estimated $1.1 billion in tax relief for property taxpayers, triggered the first salvos, with the Legislature's Revenue Committee serving as the battleground at a public hearing Thursday.
The hearing room was nearly filled with a panorama of business and casual attire, including work caps and a scattering of boots and cowboy hats.
The Bayard senator's bill proposes to provide property tax relief distributed through state income tax refunds or credits equal to 50 percent of local school property taxes paid.
"Property taxes are rising faster than income," Erdman told the committee, and it's time for government to "learn to live within a budget just as families do."
The Nebraska Ag Leaders Working Group, which includes the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska Cattlemen, as well as several commodity organizations, joined in support of the bill.
"Something substantive must be done this session," Robert Johnston told the committee on behalf of the working group.
"It takes a big solution to solve a big problem," he said.
Johnston said the group would prefer a legislative solution rather than the alternative of taking the issue to a vote of the people in November through an initiative petition drive.
Trent Fellers of Lincoln, executive director of Reform for Nebraska's Future, is leading that petition effort and skipped Thursday's hearing to work on the ballot initiative.
"We would like to see something happen this session, but we're just not hopeful we will see it this year," Fellers said during a telephone interview.
"If the Legislature doesn't get it done, we will," he said.
Among opponents lining up to speak against the bill were representatives of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, Nebraska Bankers Association and Nebraska Association of School Boards.
Two public policy groups that usually are on opposite sides expressed opposition to the bill for somewhat differing reasons.
Open Sky Policy Institute said the proposal "would blow a huge hole in the state budget and leave lawmakers faced with making massive cuts to education, public safety and other vital services or drastically increasing sales taxes and fees or other sources of revenue."
The Platte Institute warned "the state might actually be forced to raise state income and sales taxes to finance" the proposal.
That was the same concern voiced by a number of business organizations.
"We can't raise taxes to lower taxes," Gov. Pete Ricketts has stated in a re-election campaign-funded flyer.
Erdman told the committee "the governor lacks the political will to solve this problem."
Ricketts is supporting an alternative tax proposal (LB947), which would reduce personal income, corporate income and property taxes over a period of time.
That measure is being championed by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, chairman of the Revenue Committee.
The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry suggested "reduced spending, coupled with more efficient management by local entities, is the most effective way to provide relief from property taxes" in a statement submitted by Barry Kennedy, its president.
Erdman's bill proposes "a tax shift," he said, and that has been "tried before and it has failed before multiple times."
Doug Kagan of Omaha, president of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, told the committee that urban property taxpayers are uniting with rural taxpayers now in "an overdue effort" to resolve Nebraska's high property taxes.
"All taxes in Nebraska are too high," the Omaha Chamber of Commerce stated, and that is coupled with "excessive spending" by government.
At one point, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte suggested to Lanny Boswell of Lincoln, president of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, that schools could be more efficient.
When Boswell responded he does not believe there's "a problem with school spending," supporters of the bill responded with loud laughter.
The Revenue Committee is expected to hold the bill for later action after it considers several other major tax reform proposals.