Environmental Trust bill advances despite questions

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April 3, 2013 - 5:38pm

Despite questions, the Nebraska Legislature advanced a bill Wednesday aimed at safeguarding property tax revenues in counties where land is set aside for conservation purposes. And lawmakers waded into making changes in election laws.

The property tax bill sponsored by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill would apply to groups that seek money from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, which gets its money from lottery profits. If a group wants to use money from the Trust for land that will eventually be transferred to the federal government, the bill would require them to replace the property tax revenue that would be lost to the county government.

Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, a supporter of the bill, said the Nebraska Environmental Trust performs a valuable function. "I want to make sure that the NET is protected as much as possible. I want to make sure that they have the money to do what they need to do going forward. And I want to make sure that counties, where possible, are protected from state interests pulling their tax dollars away from them, possibly," Schilz said.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers opposed the proposal, and compared it to others introduced this year. "This bill is aimed against the federal government -- just like they shouldn’t be able to enforce their laws, federal laws, that gun owners don’t believe in. The Legislature was asked to pass a bill that those laws cannot be enforced by the federal government in Nebraska. And this bill is just the tail on that dog," Chambers said.

Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher, who supported the bill, asked Sen. Holdrege Tom Carlson, another supporter, about whether the replacement property tax revenue for land transferred to the federal government would be enough to reflect rising land values. "If this had been done 30 years ago when land was selling for $100 an acre, and now it’s selling for $1,000 an acre, and neighboring farmers were having their valuations based on the $1,000 an acre figure, this particular land would get a 90 percent discount, if it’s interpreted to be that it’s just whatever its value (is) today. Is that correct?" he said.

"Well I think it is a matter of how it is interpreted, and I think this could be interpreted either way," replied Carlson.

Critics of the bill said it shouldn’t be advanced with such questions unresolved. But supporters succeeded in cutting off debate on a vote of 34-9, and the bill then got first round approval on a vote of 27-17.

On election laws, senators began debating changes designed to address a discrimination complaint.

By law, people are supposed to be able to vote early, in person, at election offices, 35 days before the election. But last year, when a visually impaired person tried to vote early in Lancaster County, she was told she had to wait while special machines for that purpose were programmed.

Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh wants to correct that by shortening the time allowed for early, in-person voting to 25 days for everyone. Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said it’s a reasonable change. But others, including Sen. Russ Karpicek of Wilber, called that an easy way out.

Chambers used the debate as a platform to criticize Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps for actions Chambers said suppressed voter turnout in Omaha’s African American community. The debate is expected to continue Thursday afternoon.

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