After a lengthy debate on property taxes, the rural-urban divide and COVID-19 concerns, the Nebraska Legislature advanced a budget proposal Thursday, March 12.
This budget will allocate $134 million for property tax relief and business tax incentives.
The debate, however, took a turn when Sen. Justin Wayne of North Omaha argued that the budget prioritizes rural over urban issues.
One of the items on the budget he disputed includes the $3.8 million for repairs for two tunnels and canals in the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District.
When the flooding occurred in Nebraska last March, water was overflowing from the canal and onto the highway. The emergency repair was to sand the canal and keep the water from undermining the highway, according to Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus.
Since then the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District has been working on trying to get funding from FEMA but the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency did not offer the sufficient funding needed for repairs.
So far, $6 million have been spent on emergency repairs but the repairs are not necessarily up to standards, according to Moser.
“They just did what they had to do,” Moser said.
Wayne raised an objection for the millions of dollars worth of tunnel and canal repairs because he finds it unfair. He does not think it is fair for one community to receive funding while Peru and West Point residents still do not have the funding for drinking water facilities.
“I’m not saying we should remove the money, although that is what this motion does,” Wayne said. “I think what’s good for one senator’s district should be good for somebody else’s district especially if you are talking about a community that needs it.”
He argued that one issue should not be more important than the other, but solving the water facility problem in Peru and West Point will be serving a more populated community.
“I would argue that one is more populated and might need a little bit more versus the vegetables, fruit, corn, beans and chickpeas that might need to be grown,” Wayne said. “That’s my point.”
Wayne also objected to the $10 million allocated to rural workforce housing.
As long as he has been in the Legislature, there hasn’t been anything done to make housing affordable in urban areas.
Sen. Curt Freisen of Henderson, however, said they should not be talking about affordable housing because property tax relief would subsidize housing. He says high property taxes are the main problem.
For example, in Loup County, the average per capita tax collected in income tax is $614. Per capita those same people are paying $5,930 in property taxes, according to Freisen.
Despite the objections, the budget bill advanced without changes on a vote of 41-2.
The budget was created prior to the spread of the COVID-19 virus and does not include a safety-net for any possible economic impacts due to the virus.
To prepare, Sen. John Stinner of Gering filed an amendment for the second round of debate that allocates $10 million for public health and $10 million for emergency costs.
The Legislature is not in session the week of March 17-20, pending developments in the corona virus concern. – Editor.