Property tax issue more than campaign smear

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The flap over two Senate candidates' property tax bills inadvertently puts the spotlight on another issue facing voters this fall: The Stop Overspending Nebraska issue, placed on the ballot by petition.

The reason? Passage of the spending limit will place the tax burden squarely on the shoulders of property owners -- who already must be overburdened, judging from the reaction of two multimillionaire candidates.

To be fair, the comparison between Nelson's property tax protest -- 21 years in the past -- and Rickett's, who protested his taxes in the 21st century, is a stretch.

Nelson's camp made that point by noting that Ricketts purchased a home for $1.2 million in 1999 and tried to have it revalued to half that in 2002, and to $900,000 in 2006, both times unsuccessfully.

Ricketts countered by dredging up Nelson's 1985 property tax protest, which Nelson won.

In 1984, Nelson purchased a home in Omaha for $345,000. After it was assessed at $256,500 a year later, he successfully protested and the property's valuation was lowered to $220,000.

Nelson's campaign points out that the senator has not protested 10 property valuation increases since then, including a 46 percent increase in 1995. He also won similar protests on his Washington property.

The incumbent naturally contends that Rickett's actions indicate a willingness to get out of paying his fair share of taxes.

But a larger point can be made: If millionaires are feeling the pinch, what about the rest of us?

In fact, that's probably the factor that brought in enough signatures to put the Stop Overspending Nebraska petition on the ballot.

It's hard to argue with a plan to limit government spending growth by tying it to inflation and population growth, but only if the issue isn't thought through.

Colorado voters found that out when they enacted a similar law, then suspended it after the pressure on property taxes set in.

Anyone who creates a budget for a local governmental entity can tell you: A lid usually turns into a floor. Financial officers who otherwise might be able to hold a budget even or perhaps -- if rarely -- reduce it, are afraid to do it because they are held to a strict level of growth. Because they might need the extra money a year or two down the road, they take the allowable growth even if they don't need it.

And rural property taxes, the majority of which always go to support local schools, are disproportionally high in Nebraska, thanks to lower property values, smaller population and now, higher fuel costs.

It's too late not to sign the petition. But there is still time to make the point for defeat of the SOS amendment before the fall election.

Rather than tying their hands with artificial lids, it makes better sense to elect traditional, fiscally conservative Nebraska leaders, then trust them to pinch pennies where they can.

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