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CAPITOL VIEW: Bill’s initial approval befuddles local officials PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Thursday, 17 February 2011 22:02

The long-gone debate over term limits for state senators sometimes centered on how the depth of debate would suffer without the “institutional memory” provided by longtime lawmakers.

Credit one of the Legislature’s youngest members, Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, with stepping into the gap and reminding his colleagues of promises that went with policies adopted long ago.

Mello’s effort was to no avail. Lawmakers gave first-round approval to a bill that takes $44 million in direct state aid away from cities, counties and natural resources districts. Together with other pending cuts, it has local officials wondering whether they will have to resort to increased local property taxes, or reducing / eliminating services and programs.

Years before Mello was born in 1979, and for some time thereafter, the Legislature was busily enacting tax breaks for business and agriculture. A big part of that movement had to do with eliminating some of the taxes levied by local governments. The inventory tax and personal property taxes among them.

While lawmakers were stripping local governments of their tax base, the locals were demanding compensation. Without some makeup money from the state, cities and counties would be up against it to meet expenses, including state-mandated expenditures.

The Legislature agreed to throw the locals tens of millions of dollars each year. It wasn’t full reimbursement, but it was the best they were going to get.

A month ago this column noted state senators were confronted with a potential revenue shortfall of up to $1 billion, but said: “Don’t bleed for them. In the first place, they asked you for the job. In the second place, chances are your local elected officials may well face problems far tougher than those awaiting legislators.”

It further noted: “It is local officeholders who must decide whether to tap citizens for higher property taxes — or to get rid of however many teachers and / or law enforcement officers, firefighters and other public employees, and programs and projects, to make ends meet.”

Soon, the neighbors you elected to serve in local government may have to make those choices. Some will have to make a lot of them.

Mello argued, in less direct terms, that the locals are being double-crossed. It was the old “A deal is a deal” and “Fair is fair” argument.

The response from his colleagues: Life ain’t fair. Times are hard.

The locals always knew they were at the mercy of the state, because one Legislature cannot bind another. If the Legislature enacts a major program in 2011, it can modify or repeal it in 2012.

Lawmakers kept the bargain, in varying degrees, for more than 30 years. Then came the current recession. And it stayed.

Usually, aid to cities and counties would be safe. Lawmakers know crewing local governments is bad business – politically and otherwise. Senators don’t want to rock the boat back home unnecessarily. These days, they obviously think it’s necessary.

Local governments might soon be asked: “The Legislature cut spending, why can’t you?”

And they could answer: “Because the Legislature cut spending.”

 

ED HOWARD is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association.