- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

Kearney Hub. April 19, 2014.

‘Insensitive’ a label GOP must guard itself against

Sluggish economy. Anemic job growth. Weakened global stature. Health care reform nightmares. All of these reasons and more have Democrats verging on panic in this midterm election year. They don’t have a prayer of winning back the House in November and, worse, their six-seat majority in the Senate could evaporate.

In contrast to down-in-the-mouth Democrats, Republicans are enthusiastic. They smell a big win right around the corner.

They could be correct. CBS pollsters tell us that among Republicans, 81 percent say they will definitely vote in the fall. That percentage compares with only 68 percent of Democrats saying they will definitely vote.

Those percentages are important, because a strong turnout of their base definitely would boost Republicans’ chances of maintaining control of the House and winning back the Senate, but don’t count out the Democrats. They still have a few cards to play, and, as we witnessed in 2012, Republicans are completely capable of shooting themselves in the foot, or handing Democrats the ammo they need to energize their base.

Issues on which Republicans appear vulnerable include minimum wage, equal pay and immigration reform. The party has adopted a hard line on all three. It’s a strategy that GOP leaders believe will keep their base loyal, but it comes with some risk. Democrats are well-versed in exploiting GOP gaffes and trumping Republican insensitivity.

While Republicans poo-pooh a minimum wage hike, stand in the way of equal pay for women, and won’t move on immigration reform, Democrats are jumping at the opportunity to motivate women and minorities to support liberal candidates. Democrats are floating legislative proposals and executive orders on the pay issues and making bold accusations about racism and GOP intractability on immigration.

Certainly it is inaccurate to say all Republicans are racists, but politicians like Rep. Steve King of Iowa are compromising the party’s image among minority voters with comments like this on young immigrants: “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

Such foolish, inflammatory speech hurts all Republicans and should be condemned by the party’s leadership. Failing to put load mouths in their place while ignoring equal pay and minimum wage issues reinforces Democrats’ claims that the GOP is the party of intolerance, and it invites liberals to use such gaffes and policy omissions to their advantage.

It’s time for the GOP to put on a friendlier face, or 2014 could look a lot like the disaster of 2010.

___

Lincoln Journal Star. April 20, 2014.

The consequences of opting out

The opt-out movement against standardized testing in Nebraska is just getting started.

Across the state, only 14 parents have made the formal request to pull their children out of state tests.

Across the country, however, the movement is gaining strength. Advocates of opting out from the so-called high stakes testing seem to have struck a nerve.

Before parents jump on the bandwagon, they should remind themselves of why the tests were adopted in the first place.

They are part of the national push to hold educators accountable for their performance. In too many schools students were graduating who could barely read or do math.

It should also be pointed out that standardized testing in Nebraska differs in important ways from tests in other states.

In some states, for example, student scores are part of teacher evaluations. That practice is encouraged by the Obama administration, but there is no such requirement in Nebraska.

In some states the opt-out movement is linked with opposition to the Common Core standards, which are increasingly attracting criticism from liberals who contend the standards are academically flawed and from conservatives who view them as a federal takeover.

Nebraska, however, has not adopted the Common Core standards.

In some states the opt-out movement is being fueled by teacher groups who object to use of the tests for evaluation, and who contend that reliance on the tests discourages creativity in the classroom.

There may be some truth to the assertion that in some states students are spending too much time taking tests.

And Congress, mired in years of dysfunction, has been unable to reform the No Child Left Behind Act, despite widespread recognition that the law is seriously flawed because it sets unattainable standards.

But there is evidence in Nebraska that standardized testing has exposed problems that resulted in changes that improved student learning.

In Lincoln, for example, before the advent of statewide testing in Nebraska, the school district took note of test score results released in 1997 showing that only 49.2 percent of second-graders were reading at the national average. Test results released four years later showed that 72 percent of second-graders were at or above the national average.

As Valerie Foy, director of state assessment for the Nebraska Department of Education said, having students opt out makes the statewide tests a less effective tool to help schools improve. The consequences would be significant.

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The Grand Island Independent. April 20, 2014.

Senators chart own course in 2014 session

Amid a record number of filibusters, some heated debate and prolonged discussions about mountain lions and novelty lighters, the Nebraska Legislature still was able get a credible amount of work done during its 2014 session, which ended on Thursday.

In fact, the senators took a long-term view on several issues that should benefit the state in the future.

And through it all, the legislators exerted their independence in overriding several of Gov. Dave Heineman’s vetoes and setting their own course on tax and budget policies.

That’s not to say that there weren’t disappointments. Grand Island residents were frustrated that Sen. Mike Gloor’s bill on the veterans home failed to pass.

LB935 that would have given the Legislature a role when state services are relocated and looked back at Gov. Dave Heineman’s decision to build a new veterans home in Kearney and not Grand Island, where the home has been for 127 years.

Grand Island and Kearney officials got the opportunity to state their case before a legislative committee. However, the panel stripped the look back provision and then LB935 failed to advance in the full Legislature.

LB935’s rejection was a major disappointment for Grand Island, but everyone knew it was a longshot going into the session.

Tax policy was one issue where senators went their own way instead of following the governor’s lead. Lawmakers decided to take a balanced approach, which was smart. They rejected Heineman’s call to reduce income tax rates and reduce the percentage of ag land’s value that can be considered for property taxes.

However, they did make some major changes to lower taxes that even the governor applauded. They added $25 million to the property tax credit program. They provided exemptions for farm equipment parts, expanded the homestead exemption program and required income tax brackets to keep pace with inflation.

Overall, the governor said the Legislature provided $412 million in tax relief over the next five years. In addition, Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, chairman of the Revenue Committee, will lead a study this summer on how agricultural land is taxed. This is an important study to both farmers and school districts and is long overdue.

On three issues, the senators addressed lingering problems by looking ahead.

First, they provided funding for state parks that will help remedy a backlog of maintenance projects and protect the state’s investment.

Second, they took some steps on prison overcrowding. With the state’s prisons running at 156 percent of capacity, the discussion couldn’t wait. Among the steps were diverting some nonviolent offenders from prison and increasing mental health programs.

Perhaps most significantly, though, the state is going to work with the Council of State Governments to develop a reform plan built on consensus.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the senators took a long-range view on water issues. The governor signed LB1098 into law, which creates the Water Sustainability Fund that will be used to manage water supply, flood control, increase efficiency of water usage, enhance water quality and comply with interstate compacts and other agreements.

“This is the most significant bill for agriculture and livestock production in my eight years in the Legislature,” said Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege.

Whether that is an overstatement or not is left to be seen. What is clear, though, is that despite more filibusters than usual, the Legislature had a productive session in 2014.

___

Scottsbluff Star-Herald. April 17, 2014.

Taxation: Ag landowners pay high property taxes, but relief is complicated

Contrary to what some folks think, higher land values don’t automatically result in higher property taxes. Your property tax bill depends on both the value of the property and tax rates set by local governments, which are capped for school districts at $1.05 per $100 of assessed value. If the overall mill rate stayed exactly the same and everybody’s property valuation increased at exactly the same rate, individual tax bills wouldn’t change.

But in reality, that’s not what happens. If parcels change valuation at different rates, those with higher increases assume a bigger share of the overall tax burden. Nebraska valuation for agricultural land increased 29 percent over the past year. At the same time, the value of residential property increased by about 3 percent and commercial and industrial land value rose about 2.6 percent. In 2008, ag land represented less than 23 percent of Nebraska’s overall property tax value, and now it’s about 33 percent. Residential property dropped from 51 percent to 42 percent over the same period, shifting the tax load from homeowners and businesses toward ag landowners. The Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation complains that ag families who make up less than 3 percent of the population now pay more than 25 percent of statewide property taxes.

But most of Nebraska is agricultural - 93 percent of the state’s total land area - so you’d expect farmers and ranchers to pay a high percentage of the property tax. And high land values are driven by strong commodity prices, which makes acquiring more land desirable for producers.

Farmers and ranchers are generally “land rich” but depend on the success of their operations for income. They have no control over ever-shifting market prices. While they’re extremely efficient at getting the most production from their land, they can’t simply ramp up production to pay a higher tax bill. Unless you’re selling, rising land prices are more of a burden than a blessing.

In Nebraska, ag land is assessed at less than market value. Efforts to ease ag taxation included a proposal in the Legislature to reduce the current break from 75 percent of market value to 65 percent. It failed when lawmakers realized that the effect would be uneven across the state. It wouldn’t help ag producers much in heavily rural counties, where school districts would have to raise tax rates to sustain budget levels, wiping out any savings from lower valuations.

That points to the real problem, which is much harder to fix. Property taxes are essentially school taxes. About two-thirds of every property tax dollar in Nebraska is used to fund education. The national average is 47 percent. The national funding average for education is 12.5 percent federal, 44.1 percent state and 43.4 percent local. Nebraska education funding is 16 percent federal, 30 percent state and 54 percent local.

The share from state government, which levies no property taxes, comes via financial aid to school districts, paid for with revenues from income and sales taxes. It includes direct subsidies based on a funding formula, additional per-student funding for poorer districts and a rebate of state income taxes paid by district residents. The formula, which is often re-worked to the benefit of metropolitan districts, includes an expectation that a district will collect as much of its budget locally as possible. While most large districts operate at or near the $1.05 cap, many rural districts can operate on less, because of having enormous assessed valuation and few students. As a result, they don’t get much state funding.

A more sensible way to determine the agricultural share of property taxes could include basing farm and ranch valuation on the land’s actual productivity rather than its potential sale price, as some surrounding states do. But any effort to lower the property tax for farmers would require a major overhaul in state tax policy.

If lawmakers could start over, it would make sense to restrict property taxes to services that benefit property owners, such as police and fire departments and road maintenance. Property owners, especially elderly farmers, often have no offspring in the local schools, while families with lots of children bear almost none of the cost of educating them. Because income in America is usually dependent on educational achievement, it would make philosophical sense to fund schools through the income tax.

There would be enormous resistance to that from wealthy special interests. States with low taxes, such as Wyoming or South Dakota, raise money in other ways, such as royalties on oil or minerals or high sales taxes. Ag interests already oppose paying sales taxes on inputs, and they probably wouldn’t like metering and taxing water usage either.

So what do you do? Nebraskans don’t like taxes. As we’ve seen, they don’t care much for tax changes, either.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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