Rural, urban battle was a draw this year

Friday, June 1, 2007

The 2007 Legislature is history, and there was a lot for us in greater Nebraska to think about.

The biggest issue for Southwest Nebraska, of course, was LB701, designed to keep us in the irrigation business at a cost of 10 cents per $100 of assessed property value, plus $10 an acre for irrigated land.

The state will kick in another $2.7 million annually for the next decade, with all the money going to buy and lease water to send to Kansas -- the process is already under way for this year, with the Bostwick Irrigation board already agreeing to sell water from Harlan Reservoir.

It shouldn't be hard to persuade the folks in Hayes County to send as much water as possible to Kansas, but many observers are alarmed about the new taxation and regulatory powers granted to Natural Resources Districts in the bargain. That includes the power not to grant permission for new irrigated acres.

There are already rumblings about court challenges to LB701, so while the mechanism is in place, the issue is far from settled.

But, while Southwest Nebraskans will bear the brunt of the expense associated with LB701, there will be some relief in the form of LB367, which provided relief of 8.3 cents per $100 of assessed valuation as well as cutting income taxes for married couples, more credit for low-income working parents and ending sales taxes on construction labor.

Transfer of wealth is an important issue for our area, with its elderly population, and while the Legislature eliminated estate taxes and reduced inheritance taxes on assets left to children, it also generally increased taxes on assets left to others.

Lawmakers met for nearly a year to fix a misguided vote last year to split Omaha Public Schools into three districts, largely along racial lines, passing LB641 to give Omaha districts a common tax levy, forcing them to integrate, allowing students to cross district borders and provide before and after school centers.

But the Class I school issue will go on, thanks to Gov. Dave Heineman's veto, upheld by six votes, of LB658, which would allow the re-establishment of the elementary-only school districts only after a complicated and difficult process.

Rural voters struck a blow for local control last year, repealing the law that merged the small districts into adjoining K-12 districts.

The Legislature passed the merger law largely because of the per-pupil cost in the small districts, but the cost of travel time and gasoline prices will give Class I supporters ammunition against mergers in the next round of debate.

All in all, observers were pleasantly surprised about the amount of work the Legislature, with its disproportionate number of freshman lawmakers, was able to accomplish.

But for those keeping track of the rural vs. urban battle, this year's session was a draw.

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