The Legislature gave first-round approval to both bills introduced on behalf of Governor Ricketts, containing his plan for property tax relief. However, the bills have been completely rewritten through the amendment process.
LB 959, as amended by committee amendments, eliminates the minimum levy penalty which reduces state aid to districts with levies less than .95 cents, removes the levy criteria from the averaging adjustment calculation, and caps the special levy school districts can use to address health, safety and accessibility problems in school buildings at 3 cents, down from 5.2 cents. LB 959 will allow a number of school districts to reduce their levy and will also provide more state aid to some districts that depend heavily on property taxes to fund their schools.
LB 958, as introduced, would have affected local governments by placing limitations on the budget of restricted funds and reducing the number of exclusions to the property tax levy limit. It also would have limited the state-wide increase in agricultural land valuations to 3 percent. Following the public hearing, when the committee heard significant opposition from representatives of cities and other political subdivisions, LB 958 was advanced from the Revenue Committee with committee amendments that rewrote the bill. Although a portion of the original bill remained in the committee amendments, pertaining to the unused restricted funds authority for community colleges, the sponsor of the bill has filed an amendment to strike this portion during the second round of debate, as he doesn’t want it to hinder the passage of the bill.
Under the committee amendments, LB 958 proposed a $30 million increase in the Property Tax Credit program, targeted for agricultural landowners. This would be accomplished by valuing agricultural land for purposes of the Property Tax Credit program at full market value rather than 75% of market value. With the additional funding, on top of the $204 million already appropriated for the program, the credit for agricultural landowners would result in an approximate 10% reduction in property taxes.
During debate on LB 958, urban senators felt that all taxpayers should receive tax relief, not just rural landowners, and an amendment was offered to strike the provisions of the bill, replacing it with an income tax reduction. Following several hours of contentious debate, a compromise amendment was offered to reduce the additional funding for rural landowners through the Property Tax Credit program to approximately $20 million annually. I was disappointed that we had to compromise in order to get LB 958 advanced. Considering that property taxes collected statewide on agricultural land increased 176% over the last 10 years, compared with a 35% increase in residential property and a 49% increase in commercial property, it was obvious that agricultural landowners deserved some immediate relief. However, the Legislature must continue to work to provide significant relief for all taxpayers.
LB 1032, is Nebraska’s fourth attempt at expanding Medicaid, as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. After about an hour of debate, a motion was offered to bracket the bill until April 20, which is the last day of session. The motion was successful, meaning that the bill is essentially killed for this session.
The Health and Human Services Committee amendments to LB 1032 proposed to add a sunset date in three years. The amendments also proposed to appropriate $63 million from the Health Care Cash Fund to fund the state match for the coverage of the newly eligible.
In addition to the sunset, LB 1032 also states that if the federal share falls below 90%, the coverage for newly eligible individuals shall terminate. Although the intent of the bill is to ensure no appeals to the loss of eligibility if the program terminates, this could be problematic. Federal law classifies the new Medicaid expansion population as a “mandatory population” for states that opt into the expansion.
Furthermore, senators questioned whether the source of funding was sustainable. When federal reimbursement falls to 90% in 2020, the projected cost to the state for the expanded population would be approximately $58 million annually. Although the Health Care Cash fund has a positive balance currently, it only brings in approximately $59 million annually and is used to fund many other programs as well, such as tobacco-cessation programs, biomedical research, and behavior health and substance abuse services. Senators sympathized with those who fall in the gap, making too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to be eligible for subsidies. However, the majority feared that the program could end up costing more than our state could afford, thereby requiring cuts in other essential programs and services.