Neb. Teachers, Farm Group Join in Tax Plan

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Fear that a property-tax revolt brewing in Nebraska will hurt education has brought the state's biggest teachers' union and farm group together in a campaign for tax relief.

Nebraska voters don't go to the polls to decide state constitutional issues until next November, but the state capital of Lincoln is already awash in proposed constitutional amendments to cut or even abolish local property taxes. Citizens' groups are pushing two ballot initiatives, the legislature is considering a third, and Gov. Ben Nelson has signaled that he, too, may soon present his own plan.

The chorus for property-tax relief is loud enough that the Nebraska State Education Association, a frequent opponent of tax-cut measures, is picking up the refrain. The 23,000-member union is leading a coalition of farming and ranching groups that has drafted a proposed amendment to cut local property taxes by about 30 percent.

Property taxes are the single biggest source of revenue for Nebraska schools, accounting for almost 60 percent of the $1.3 billion spent on the state's public schools each year. But the union-led initiative attempts to safeguard school funding by including language that would require the state to still pay for a "thorough and efficient" system.

With such a constitutional guarantee, state lawmakers most likely would tap other tax sources to replace the school funding cut by the initiative, said Craig R. Christiansen, the president of the union.

"The bottom line is, something serious is going to happen here next year to our tax system," Mr. Christiansen said. "We think it makes sense to lead that discussion rather than sit back passively and wait for something."

The Nebraska Farm Bureau, the state's largest organization of farmers, joined the NSEA to lead the coalition because other tax-relief proposals would go too far, said Rob Robertson, the farm group's vice president for government relations.

"We are leery, even scared of some of the other plans," Mr. Robertson said. "They are very dramatic, very radical, and they would totally dismantle some government services."

A Nationwide Phenomenon

Property-tax relief has attracted the interest of state leaders nationwide in recent years, including more than a dozen gubernatorial candidates in the 1994 elections.

Last year's campaign rhetoric led to mostly small tax cuts this year, said Scott Mackey, a tax analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, based in Denver. Most states simply passed along one-time revenue savings to taxpayers, declining to overhaul their tax systems to reduce property taxes in the long run.

Still, some state leaders are talking about wholesale change in 1996. Texas Gov. George W. Bush Jr. in recent weeks has said that local property taxes are too high and that the state should shoulder more of the school-funding burden.

Strange Bedfellows

In Nebraska, frustration over property taxes has put schools on the defensive and made voter approval of school-construction bond issues difficult, said the NSEA's Mr. Christiansen.

The coalition headed by the union and the Farm Bureau aims to collect about 120,000 signatures on petitions to put its initiative on the ballot next November, roughly 20,000 more than the state requires.

The two groups are an odd partnership on the property-tax issue, since they frequently have stood on opposite sides of the debate.

While school officials have sought increased funding, farmers and ranchers have long fought high property taxes, said Mr. Robertson. Farmers now make up less than 4 percent of Nebraska's population, yet they contribute 27 percent of local property-tax revenue.

Anger among farmers about the property tax is so intense that some of the state's 45,000 Farm Bureau members may back its abolition, Mr. Robertson acknowledged. "We're not going to get 100 percent to be in line, but we never expected to. We feel we have a responsible, moderate proposal."

The NSEA will enlist its 23,000 members to gather petition signatures, but the state's school board association has declined to sign on to the campaign. Brian Hale, a spokesman for that group, said its members worry that the legislature could ignore the initiative's safeguard to protect schools and refuse to replace lost property-tax funds, leaving districts with huge budget shortfalls.

For now, resolution of the education implications of the tax issue is definitely taking a back seat to taxpayer anger, according to observers.

Jack Gould, a Valparaiso farmer and former teacher who has sued the state over its school-funding formula, said none of the tax-relief measures being considered would fix the state's inequitable funding system or pay for the building repairs and replacement that are desperately needed in many poor districts.

"The whole discussion in Lincoln isn't going to change our facilities situation," he said.

Vol. 15, Issue 10

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