Property tax transparency measure gets 89% support at Northeast town hall

Property tax transparency measure gets 89% support at Northeast town hall

Voters and taxpayers from Northeast Nebraska joined the Platte Institute’s third Virtual Property Tax Town Hall of summer 2020, and like participants in the previous online events, they had the option to vote in five online straw polls about various property tax issues.

While participants expressed similar levels of support for cutting government spending to achieve a reduction in property taxes as past respondents, the audience was mixed to undecided-leaning on a number of proposals. However, 89% of voters expressed agreement with a proposal requiring that property taxpayers receive advance notice, by mail, of hearings where property tax increases would be decided.

As I stated in the town hall, I don’t doubt there are Nebraskans who are less concerned about property taxes during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many serious issues competing for our attention right now. But so far among the people turning out for our online town halls, the crisis has not changed their level of concern about property taxes, while a significant share says it has made them more concerned.

In past property tax town halls, the prospect of a ballot initiative providing sweeping tax reform in Nebraska through a consumption tax (broadening and increasing the sales tax to include all consumer purchases except for used goods) won strong support, with 66% of Western Nebraska participants and 75% of Central Nebraska respondents favoring the policy. For the first time, while there was no opposition to the consumption tax idea among participants, the majority of Northeast Nebraska respondents were actually undecided about the idea.

Since I was part of the panel for this town hall, I want to take some (possibly undue) credit for impacting this vote. I told my colleagues before the town hall that I wanted to spend some more time discussing the potential negatives voters might perceive about paying sales tax on virtually everything they buy, as well as policy problems that can arise from trying to take on nearly every tax we have on the books.

It’s noteworthy any time a majority says they are undecided. Like when elected officials don’t take a formal position, being undecided can often be a soft way for voters to say no, or that they remain unconvinced even if they want something different than what they have.

After all, it’s really easy to get excited about the prospect of not having to pay property and state income taxes anymore. But consumption tax supporters shouldn’t kid themselves that this potential benefit will make their idea invulnerable on a large scale. A strong property tax reform policy idea needs to be able to hold against many objections along the way. Some may be unfair, but others will be based on reasonable fears, uncertainties, and doubts, or policy considerations that opponents and even persuadable fence-sitters will bring.

On the other hand, this vote earns the headline from the Northeast Nebraska Virtual Property Tax Town Hall, because it’s the first proposal from any of the town halls to win such a high level of approval. The policy described here is called Truth in Taxation, and it would add a reporting requirement that would make it nearly impossible for property owners to be unaware local boards are considering property tax increases. The proposal won approval with 89% support and 11% opposed.

Some may say this is an easy issue to get a high level of support with since the ambition of the policy is not very great. It doesn’t involve cutting property taxes at all, just giving Nebraskans another option for how to respond to potential increases. Yet, on this particular evening, twice as many Northeast Nebraska participants were prepared to support Truth in Taxation as compared with the consumption tax.

This result deserves further investigation. If anywhere near 90% of Nebraska voters think Truth in Taxation is a good idea that adds value for them as taxpayers, politicians and grassroots activists wouldn’t want to miss out on championing the issue. It also leads one to speculate about what kinds of solutions most Nebraskans are really looking for with property taxes. If most voters have misgivings about what it would take to make major cuts to property taxes, would enough still be satisfied with approaches that give them more control over the growth of property taxes in the future?

Most of our town hall attendees continue to say they feel the property tax problem has become bad enough that some local programs should be cut to bring taxes down, even ones they may like, including public schools, local health programs, or road maintenance. Whether this opinion carries over to a wider body of voters and taxpayers probably depends on who you’re talking to. Next week, we’ll be discussing these same issues in Southeast Nebraska, and the answer might be different between residents and taxpayers in Lincoln or in Louisville.

Finally, we’ve asked respondents in each town hall about how our discussion shaped their attitudes about whether elected officials or voters should call the shots on property tax reform.

This result was fairly close to the answer we received last week in Central Nebraska, where a plurality thinks voters are better suited to move the issue forward, while slightly more than half of the respondents are split between being undecided or thinking the Legislature would do a better job.

It’s possible, of course, for there to be more than one way for this question to be interpreted. Although the majority weren’t convinced voters would absolutely do the best job, the same respondents still said there are ballot questions they would support if given the opportunity. It’s also possible, as in many elections, that voters will choose the lesser of two evils despite their answer to this question.

Some may feel elected officials would ideally do a better job, but are resigned to the reality that they haven’t; while others may not think elected officials have done well, but that proposed grassroots efforts are worse than the status quo.

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