Southeast Nebraska voters split on property tax reform issues

Southeast Nebraska voters split on property tax reform issues

Participants in the Platte Institute’s Southeast Nebraska Virtual Property Tax Town Hall voted in five online straw polls on property tax issues. The totals below may not add to 100% due to rounding.

While these voters expressed similar sentiments to previous respondents on the impact of COVID-19 on their priorities, and a desire to see spending restraint play a role in property tax reform, participants in this region were notably split when it came to questions about voter initiatives for property tax reform.

Most respondents said the pandemic did not change where property taxes stood on their list of priorities. Thirty-eight percent said it was a greater concern now than before the crisis, while 13% said property taxes became less important to them.

Southeast Nebraska participants had clearer feelings about the proposed ballot initiative idea of a consumption tax than last week’s group in Northeast Nebraska, with opponents and supporters in a tie. For the purposes of these straw polls, we refer to the consumption tax a 10.5% sales tax on all new consumer goods and services, and give some background on how the idea would work. As might be expected, as our town hall audience shifted toward more of the major metro areas of Eastern Nebraska, the enthusiasm for paying higher sales taxes for property tax reform wanes significantly, even with the proposed benefit of not paying other major taxes.

A policy called “Truth in Taxation,” which would require that taxpayers receive mailed notices of public hearings where property tax increases are decided won majority support from Southeast Nebraska participants, but the results dropped off significantly from last week’s program in Northeast Nebraska, where 89% of respondents said they would vote for the idea.

An identical share of participants said they would favor local spending cuts to achieve reduced property taxes, even if it resulted in cuts to local services. Naturally, this is an event about property taxes, so our self-selected participants are going to be more inclined to think something significant ought to be done about property taxes. Most (but not all) of these participants have built up a certain risk tolerance to cutting spending that many elected officials generally wouldn’t as easily demonstrate.

Most decided that, on the whole, cuts in property taxes would have a more desirable impact on their life than services they would have to give up. That means there is clearly an audience for a property tax reform approach that imposes spending discipline.

But one reason officials are not usually as quick with this answer is that they actually have to hear from the impacted constituents who do not want to see their services cut. In the same way, polling can also change in a campaign environment as voters hear other messages about spending priorities and people impacted. If we assume that these respondents are among some of the most interested in property tax reform, then there is clearly a point at which a certain share of them could have second thoughts and join opponents who say they don’t want to see local services impacted.

And that brings us to the final poll question, where Southeast Nebraska respondents were evenly split on whether voters or the Nebraska Legislature would do a better job on property tax reform. This is the first town hall where just as many participants thought the Legislature would be better suited to take on the property tax issue as voters. With few days left in the 2020 legislative session, this theory is about to be put to the test, but the result also raises the question of perceived urgency for property tax reform.

Do enough people in vote-rich in Eastern Nebraska agree with rural taxpayers who see property tax reform an immediate concern that can’t wait another year, or can’t be left up to senators anymore? Depending on who you ask in Nebraska, property taxes can range from a crisis to a non-issue. This level of intensity may decide whether voters and taxpayers from this part of the state are willing to give the Legislature even more time to work out the issue, or if they will join rural supporters of a potential ballot measure.

The details of what these Nebraskans would be asked to vote on will certainly matter, too. Generically, if at least half would consider a ballot measure right now, the quality of the choice offered to them will influence whether that number grows into a durable majority or slips below a threshold needed to make a real policy change.

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