Some believe that the Unicameral experiment has failed to provide property tax relief and that Nebraska should therefore adopt a two-house system.
But that bicameral system would not increase the proportional representation of rural areas because apportionment of both houses would be governed by the U.S. Constitution’s one person, one vote requirement.
We could, for example, have a House with 98 members and a Senate with 49 members. Each district would still have a 1/49th say in each body as required by the federal Constitution. That seems to be a lot more expense with more people to argue over the same things.
More is not always better.
Blaming the Legislature for a failure to produce property tax relief because it is a unicameral and then blaming the people for the failure of various initiatives ignores history. In 1996, the people adopted an initiative for a constitutional amendment and eliminated the state’s ability to use property taxes for state expenses.
As a result, new taxes on sales and income were implemented to fund state government. Today, no property tax dollars are used to support the state.
The Unicameral has in the past produced property tax relief. As a result of legislative efforts in the years 1995, 1996, and 1997, total property taxes paid in Nebraska were less than those paid in 1996 for four years.
The total property taxes paid by year were:
- 1996 $1,644,161,755
- 1997 $1,546,541,470
- 1998 $1,471,472,636
- 1999 $1,519,472,636
- 2000 $1,640,581,719
The year 2000 was the beginning of financial difficulties for the state and one of the solutions was to cut state aid to local governments. Those cuts raised property taxes.
Since 2000, continuing cuts to programs aiding local governments have contributed to rising property taxes.
Other factors have contributed to the rise of property taxes but that’s a long discussion for another day.
The belief that a second elected house is needed as a check on the Legislature does not recognize the facts. As recently as 2016, the vote to reinstate the death penalty shows that the people, via referendum, are an effective check on the Legislature. Nor does the idea of a new check on the Legislature square with the idea that something needs to be done. A check can block an action but cannot create a new resolution to a problem.
Initiatives are the people’s avenue to create a solution, but they are static and, unlike debate of an issue in the Legislature, do not allow for changes due to new information or a better understanding of a problem. It is wiser in our opinion for the Legislature to stick to it until it gets an issue resolved.
Every two-house legislature we know of holds partisan elections for the members with the governing party selecting leadership and dictating the agenda. We were elected on nonpartisan ballots and served without regard to party working with people of all stripes. We see the corrosive effects of partisan politics on the governments of other states and the nation.
We cannot recommend that to you for Nebraska.
It is human nature to look for an excuse or to blame someone else if a failure is experienced, but the failure to produce property tax relief is not any one senator’s failure. And it can’t be any one senator’s solution.
Each senator has one vote out of 49. To find solutions, at least 25 have to agree and sometimes 33 are required, if the governor disagrees.
Maybe our minds are stuck in the past, but we remember a time when members of the Legislature informed themselves by research, interim studies and public hearings, sometimes over a number of years, on a difficult subject. We set objectives. We talked about how to achieve those objectives with other senators, even those we didn’t like or agree with, while accommodating varying interests across the state. We also listened to expertise outside the Legislature. That took time, but it was a process that worked.
Let’s encourage our representatives to try going back to research, hard work, patience, and cooperation before undertaking an expensive and politically charged remake of our Legislature.
— Former state senators Sandy Scofield (1983-91) and Bob Wickersham (1991-2002)