Although Gov. Pete Ricketts spent much of his stop in Neligh on Tuesday afternoon addressing how he hopes to lower taxes, it was the result of budget cuts that were the biggest concerns of local residents.
Ricketts spent an hour at the Neligh Mills State Historical Site during a legislative update tour. It was Ricketts’ second stop in Neligh in the last 10 months.
“We try to do town halls all across the state, and it’s neat to do it at the mill museum to really bring in the historical aspect of Nebraska and what agriculture means to Nebraska,” Ricketts told the Antelope County News just prior to speaking.
It was one of the last concerns Ricketts heard that received the strongest response from the governor. Antelope County Sheriff Bob Moore and Neligh Police Chief Mike Wright said having fewer Nebraska State Patrol officers in Northeast Nebraska has created a dangerous situation, both for other officers requesting backup as well as for those needing police assistance.
Moore said closing the State Patrol office in Neligh means even fewer officers will be available.
“We’re feeling the impact out here from losing those troops and now closing the Neligh office and moving our sergeant into the Norfolk area,” Moore said. “We just feel a little bit like rural Nebraska is slowly losing and the bigger towns are gaining when it comes to the State Patrol.”
Wright agreed and said there are nights when backup from the State Patrol doesn’t arrive for 30 minutes because fewer troopers are covering larger areas.
“Every time we lose an officer, we really feel it. Not just on our side but for the public safety,” Wright said.
Ricketts said improving troop strength is a concern, although he admitted to not knowing the exact details of what was happening in Northeast Nebraska.
The governor immediately said he would contact Nebraska State Patrol Colonel Bradley Rice about the situation and have the three men discuss the issue.
“Why don’t we get the colonel to get back in touch with you and sit down with both of you and kind of talk about how he is thinking about it?” Ricketts said. “Maybe you can give him some idea of about what you are seeing and maybe there’s somethings he can do to modify how he is thinking about his plans up here that would be helpful to addressing some your needs. Does that sound fair?”
Both Moore and Wright agreed meeting with Col. Rice would be beneficial.
Several audience members voiced concerns about education, from retaining teachers to offering preschool. The questions come at a time when the Neligh-Oakdale district is also weighing concerns about its preschool situation.
In past years, the district has offered preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. However, for 2017-18, nearly all 3-year-olds in the district were rejected by Neligh-Oakdale due to the high number of 4-year-olds. Priority goes to 4-year-olds, so only a couple of 3-year-olds were selected for preschool once the 40-preschool-student limit was reached.
Ricketts said he hears from many Board of Education members who want more control of their budgets, and he hopes LB 461 — the Nebraska tax payer reform act — is a start. Ricketts called the act “the most comprehensive tax policy that has come out of the revenue committee since the 1980s.”
With both property tax and income tax relief, Ricketts said it addresses the ag land evaluations, have increased 252 percent in the last 10 years. He said this would change Nebraska to an income-potential assessment, which if it were in place this year, would bring evaluations down 12 percent on average across the state.
“Now that will mean that we will have to put more money as a state into the school aid formula, but what that will mean is that 40 school districts that are currently not now getting equalization dollars will get those equalization dollars under this act,” Ricketts said. “So that’s one of the ways that we are addressing with regard to property taxes. Now there’s other work still to do but this is a significant piece to address how we value ag land here in our state.”
Ricketts said he hopes to implement a new budget that focuses heavily on education. In fact, nearly half of the budget would go toward education. That’s 29 percent of $1.2 billion for K-12 education, 14 percent ($588 million) to the University of Nebraska, 2 percent ($96 million) for community colleges and 1 percent ($53 million) to state colleges.
What’s left, Ricketts said 32 percent ($1.4 billion) would go toward aid to individuals, 14 percent ($595 million) to agencies that run his office, 6 percent ($276 million) to non-recorded agencies and 2 percent ($107 million) to state aid to local governments.
Ricketts also spent time going over tax valuations and said if the state would have implemented a new system, land values would not have escalated as they have.
He said ag land valuations in the last 10 years have increased from $28 billion to nearly $100 billion. That’s a 25 percent increase each year. The taxes, Ricketts said, went up 137 percent from 2003 to 2013, which is 13 percent each year.
Ricketts said he is proposing to change how ag land is valued from market assessment to income-potential assessment because “it would be more fair to our farmers and ranchers because it would tie the value of that ag land more closely to what you can actually make off that land.”
He said it’s also more standard across the ag states.
“South Dakota does this. North Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio have all gone to this methodology to help their farmers and ranchers become more competitive,” he said.
Ricketts said Nebraskans are paying 2-3 times the property taxes that their colleagues are paying in the other states.