When the Legislature's 60-day session comes to a close Wednesday, Nebraskans will still be in want — or need — for the kind of property tax relief lawmakers couldn't deliver this year or in the past 40 years, said Sen. Steve Erdman.
Three major proposals offering various tax relief packages died in committee and/or on the floor of the Legislature this year, and a last-ditch attempt by several lawmakers failed to bring a compromise plan forward.
Nebraskans were watching, Erdman said in an interview last week, and they are increasingly frustrated.
He hears it on the phone and reads it in his emails. People stop him on his 385-mile journey between his home in Bayard and the state Capitol in Lincoln when they see his campaign bumper sticker to ask him about it.
Erdman tells them they now have the power.
"Nothing happened in the Legislature, as we assumed," Erdman said. "So we're moving forward with the petition."
Driven and funded by Reform for Nebraska's Future, the petition drive Erdman is now shifting his focus to would let Nebraskans directly implement the plan he introduced before the Legislature earlier this year.
If the petition drive collects the signatures needed to appear on the November ballot, voters could enact a plan requiring the state to refund 50 percent of the property taxes paid to support their local school districts.
An estimated $1.1 billion would be reimbursed to property taxpayers in 2019 as part of the most-sweeping tax relief package to be proposed since Nebraska voters abolished both the state property tax and state income tax in 1966.
Erdman's proposal (LB829) failed to advance out of committee, trapped by opponents in the Legislature who said both the plan and the petition drive could potentially cripple the state's finances.
As a conservative who said he takes pride in his reputation as a "No" vote among his colleagues, Erdman said he doesn't buy into the doom-and-gloom predictions tied to the property tax reimbursement plan.
"Last year, we had a $1.1 billion shortfall, but we figured it out," he said, referring to the wide-ranging budget cuts to state agencies approved by the Legislature. "We'll figure it out again."
Erdman has not shied from criticizing opponents of what he called the most meaningful tax relief offered to property owners in the past 40 years, even those who share his political party affiliation.
He derided the plan (LB947) championed by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, the outgoing Republican chairman of the Revenue Committee, and backed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts as "a joke, an illusion."
"The governor's plan didn't mean anything anytime soon to anybody," Erdman said with his characteristically blunt style. "If you're running for re-election and you want to say you're for property tax relief, that's what you have to say.
"But he (Ricketts) has never been for property tax relief, he never will be, just face it, straight up," he added, saying that was a common feeling expressed in Nebraska's Panhandle.
A Ricketts spokesman said the governor has sought property tax relief each year he's been in office, including a 2015 increase to the Property Tax Credit Relief Fund and $20 million in new agricultural property tax credits in 2016.
The governor and Erdman had worked together last year on a failed attempt to change the way the state values ag land, spokesman Taylor Gage noted.
But Ricketts opposed Erdman's plan this year, as well as a proposed special session called for by 13 senators, including Erdman, to address the property tax issue, saying it would shift the tax burden elsewhere in the state.
"Unlike other plans proposed this session, the governor's tax cuts proposal fit within the state's tight budget and didn't rely on tax increases on Nebraska families," Gage said in a statement.
Other senators — particularly in the 105th Legislature that will wrap up its work this week — have also drawn the ire of Erdman, particularly for their unwillingness to confront the property tax issue.
He compared the Legislature to the frog sitting in a pot of water over a burner, unable to tell when water is boiling all around it.
"This body, the one before it and after it, will never make a decision about anything of significance unless we're forced to," he said. "We just kick the can down the road. This petition drive puts the Legislature between a rock and a hard place."
Taxpayers who contact Erdman to ask about where they can add their names to the petition are empowered by the opportunity, he said, and a growing number of urban voters are joining the rolls of rural voters long frustrated by the state's lack of action.
It's his singular focus from now until the Nov. 6 general election.
The campaign needs to have about 85,000 valid signatures of registered voters by July 5 to gain access to the ballot.
"When you offer them the opportunity, it's like you've given them something," he said. "The people are going to speak, and the people are going to get a refund on their property taxes."