Platte Institute Poll: The Revenue Committee's Constituents

Download file Property Tax Poll Methodology
Download file Property Tax Poll Questions
Download file Property Tax Poll Topline Results
Spreadsheet with Tabs for Party, Age, and Gender Breakdowns

Eight Nebraska state senators sitting on the Legislature’s Revenue Committee decide whether property tax reform legislation reaches the whole Unicameral for debate. These senators represent a diverse group of legislative districts that span urban and rural parts of the state.

Here are the senators for each polled district, ordered by district number:

District 18 – Sen. Brett Lindstrom (Omaha)
District 20 – Sen. John McCollister (Omaha)
District 24 – Sen. Mark Kolterman (Seward)
District 34 – Sen. Curt Friesen (Henderson)
District 39 – Sen. Lou Ann Linehan (Elkhorn)
District 41 – Sen. Tom Briese (Albion)
District 42 – Sen. Mike Groene (North Platte)
District 45 – Sen. Sue Crawford (Bellevue)

The Revenue Committee faces the difficult challenge of cobbling together a property tax reform plan that addresses the concerns of enough of their constituents and that can win the support of 33 of the 49 Nebraska state senators. To better understand this landscape and identify opportunities for policy compromise, we decided to poll their constituents on a variety of property tax reform questions.

The poll was conducted through an automated telephone survey of active likely voters in each district. In total, 2,977 voters were surveyed, the vast majority of whom self-reported as property taxpayers. You can read more about the methodology of the poll and see the full results in the attachments at the top of this article.

As it turns out, many of the debates the Unicameral is having about property taxes are also happening in communities across the state.

Nebraskans are divided on many questions about how to change the tax system to reform property taxes and to what extent government spending should be changed to enable tax reductions. The majority of Nebraskans we surveyed do, however, reach a strong consensus on wanting the state to place stricter limits on local property taxes. A consistent plurality also responded favorably to ending exemptions in the sales tax to reduce property taxes.

Voters Are Split to Unsure About an Open-Ended Tax Shift
 

Some maintain Nebraskans are definitely against a shift to other types of taxes for property tax reform, while others say that’s all they hear from their constituents. The real answers seem to be that Nebraskans are closely divided on the idea of a generic tax shift, and many simply haven’t made up their minds yet.

Here’s the question we asked: According to the Tax Foundation, Nebraska’s property taxes are the 7th highest in the country. These taxes fund local governments including public school districts, counties, cities, and more. In order to reduce property taxes, would you be willing to pay other taxes to fund local government?
 

36 percent said they oppose paying other taxes, 33 percent said they would support paying other taxes, and 31 percent were unsure.
 

Q5 - Willingness to Pay Other Taxes
 
District 18 20 24 34 39 41 42 45 All
                   
Supportive 32% 28% 36% 36% 31% 37% 30% 33% 33%
Opposed 32% 44% 34% 35% 42% 34% 36% 36% 36%
Unsure 37% 28% 30% 29% 27% 29% 34% 31% 31%
 

The district results also confirm what Nebraskans know from watching the Legislature: there tends to be at least some difference of opinion on how to address property taxes between many urban and rural voters.

Voters opposed an open-ended tax shift in 3 of the 4 polled districts in Douglas and Sarpy County (Sens. McCollister, Linehan and Crawford). Support and opposition tied in one Omaha-area district (Sen. Lindstrom). Paying other taxes to reduce property taxes was also opposed by a plurality in Lincoln County’s District 42 (Sen. Groene).

But a tax shift eked out the top spot in 3 districts in Central and Northeastern Nebraska (Sens. Kolterman, Friesen and Briese). 

Given the high profile of the property tax issue, it may be surprising just how many voters were undecided on whether it would be better to pay other types of taxes instead of property tax. Unsure voters took the top spot in District 18, and the response came in second place in District 42.

At Least a Plurality in Each District Favored Ending Sales Tax Exemptions for Property Tax Reform

Urban and rural voters in Nebraska gave stronger support across the board to ending sales tax exemptions to pay for property tax reductions.

Here’s the question we asked: Currently, many purchases Nebraskans make are exempt from state and local sales taxes. If all the proceeds were used to reduce property taxes, would you be willing to pay sales tax on goods and services that are currently exempt?
 

Q6 - Taxes on Exempt Purchases
 
District 18 20 24 34 39 41 42 45 All
                   
Supportive 46% 43% 47% 43% 56% 48% 49% 43% 47%
Opposed 30% 38% 34% 37% 25% 28% 33% 35% 33%
Unsure 24% 19% 19% 20% 18% 24% 18% 22% 21%

 

Forty-seven percent said they would be willing to pay sales tax on goods and services that are currently exempt, while 33 percent opposed the change. 21 percent were unsure.

This proposal polled 14 points higher than the previous, open-ended proposal to use other taxes, which could mean different things to different respondents.

Expanding the sales tax base won the top spot in every district, including in Sen. Linehan’s district, where it won the highest total support at 56 percent. However, unsure voters denied the proposal a clear majority in the seven other districts polled.

Opposition by district ranged from a low of 28 percent to a high of 37 percent.

But Wait…
 

As we saw in a previous unscientific survey on property tax reform, voters who are initially positive about the concept of paying sales tax to reduce property tax can still get pretty flaky once you ask them for specifics.

We listed five categories of sales tax exemptions for voters and asked them to select one on which they would most be willing to pay sales tax. They were also allowed to select “none of the above” or that they were unsure.

Q7 - Exemptions Taxpayers Are Willing to Give Up
District 18 20 24 34 39 41 42 45 All
Personal Care Service 5 6 5 5 6 5 5 5 5
Professional Services 6 5 6 6 5 6 6 6 6
Transportation Services 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
Groceries 4 4 4 3 3 3 4 4 4
Gasoline 3 2 3 4 4 4 3 3 3
Unsure / None of the Above 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1


Because this was an automated phone survey, the responses are ranked by which sales tax exemptions the respondents said they would be the most willing to see ended. The presented responses were also rotated as the survey was conducted, to reduce the chance respondents would simply favor the choices by order.

Still, in every district, voters were reluctant to choose a sales tax exemption they could live without. The top response in each district was that they were either unsure, or did not want to pay sales taxes on any of the listed purchases.

This may mean that while voters approve of the general idea of getting rid of sales tax exemptions to reduce property tax, they still don’t love having to pay the tax. Policymakers will have to figure out how to contend with that reality.

Among voters who did express an exemption they would eliminate, the most likely sales tax exemption favored for repeal was on transportation services, like taxis, limousines, or ridesharing. Perhaps surprisingly, voters were more likely to favor repeal of tax exemptions on gasoline and groceries, traditionally considered a third rail, than they were to favor imposing sales taxes on personal care or professional services.   

Voter Support for a Countywide Sales Tax

Across all the districts, 41 percent said they would support a voter-approved countywide sales tax for property tax reduction, while 40 percent opposed the idea. Nineteen percent of voters were unsure.
 

Q8 - Countywide Sales Tax
 
District 18 20 24 34 39 41 42 45 All
                   
Supportive 31% 33% 41% 47% 43% 44% 45% 36% 41%
Opposed 49% 47% 39% 36% 40% 34% 42% 44% 40%
Unsure 21% 20% 20% 17% 17% 22% 14% 21% 19%

There is a noticeable urban-rural split among respondents, however. If a campaign for a countywide sales tax were conducted in these respective communities, the “Yes” campaign would start with a deficit in most of the Douglas and Sarpy County districts we polled, while the proposal would have an advantage in Central and Western Nebraska districts, which include Lincoln County, York County, and Boone County.

In Omaha, 49 percent of voters in District 18 opposed a countywide sales tax, and 47 percent were against it in District 20. In Sarpy County, 44 percent of percent of voters polled said they would not support the new tax.

Support for the policy was strongest in District 34, which spans a number of Central Nebraska counties. Voters there give the idea 47 percent support, with 36 percent against. 

Support outnumbered opposition by a range of 2-3 percentage points in the rest of the rural districts. 

One district may straddle the divide. Voters in Sen. Linehan’s District 39, which includes suburban and rural areas in western Douglas County, favored the countywide sales tax 43-40, with 17 percent unsure.

Keep in mind, these respondents are answering to whether they’d favor the new tax if all the proceeds went to property tax reduction. If their county were to propose the tax for another purpose, that may change their response, and the close results suggest it would still be a vigorous campaign to earn approval.

What About Cutting Spending Instead?
 

We wanted to find out if voters had reached enough of a tipping point with their property taxes that they were willing to forgo some of their local government services to see a reduced tax bill.

Here’s the question we asked: One alternative to new revenues is reducing government spending. Local government services include public schools, local health programs, and county or city road maintenance. In order to reduce local property taxes, would you be willing to reduce government spending, even if it resulted in cuts to these services?
 

Q9 - Reduce Gov Spending
 

District

18

20

24

34

39

41

42

45

All

                   

Supportive

35%

34%

37%

42%

47%

44%

38%

35%

40%

Opposed

51%

52%

41%

42%

40%

36%

42%

45%

43%

Unsure

14%

14%

22%

16%

13%

20%

20%

20%

18%


In total, a plurality of voters opposed making reductions in spending to reduce property taxes if it resulted in cuts to local services. But even with a question that was designed to create a difficult choice for voters, the tally was closer than you might expect. 
 

43 percent opposed reducing property taxes by making cuts to local services. But 40 percent felt it was time for cuts. Eighteen percent were unsure.

There was not as much of an urban-rural divide on this question. While majorities in Sen. McCollister and Sen. Lindstrom’s districts opposed cutting local spending to reduce property taxes, and the idea lost by ten points in Sen. Crawford’s district, cutting spending was also rejected by a plurality in Sen. Groene and Sen. Kolterman’s districts.

Voters in Sen. Friesen’s district were tied on cutting spending, while Sen. Linehan and Sen. Briese’s constituents favored cutting spending 47-40 and 44-36, respectively.    

The results may reflect that some taxpayers and regions of the state are closer to the tipping point than others, particularly those with more agricultural land or residential property, and that will determine whether they see the property tax issue as serious enough to justify making cuts.

Voters Favor Greater Limits on Property Taxes
 

Though the tax shift and spending cut debate seems to divide Nebraskans, a clearer and more unified picture emerged when we asked voters if more should be done to limit how much local spending and property tax levying should be allowed.

We asked voters: Would you support a new state law that places further restrictions on the amount local governments, including school districts, cities, and counties, can increase spending on services in a given year?
 

Q10 - Restrict Spending Increases
 

District

18

20

24

34

39

41

42

45

All

                   

Supportive

45%

49%

44%

52%

62%

52%

54%

49%

51%

Opposed

31%

27%

27%

24%

21%

21%

20%

27%

24%

Unsure

23%

23%

29%

24%

17%

26%

27%

25%

25%

 

In total, 51 percent of voters supported placing further restrictions on how much local governments could increase spending on services in a given year. Only 24 percent opposed the concept, and 25 percent were unsure.
 

Support ranged from 62 percent in Sen. Linehan’s district to 44 percent in Sen. Kolterman’s district. Opposition ranged from 31 percent in Sen. Lindstrom’s district to 20 percent in Sen. Groene’s district. In many districts, unsure voters outpolled or polled closely with opponents.

Support for additional property tax limitations grew even more when the subject of property tax rates and valuations was broached. We asked: Would you support a new state law that places further restrictions on the amount of property taxes local governments are allowed to collect on the properties in their area, either through limiting property tax rates or valuations?

A majority of voters in every district supported putting these further restrictions in place.
 

62 percent of respondents statewide favored further limits on how much property tax local governments could collect. Only 17 percent opposed.  Once again, a greater percentage were unsure, at 21 percent.
 

Q11 - Restrict Property Tax Rates or Valuations
 

District

18

20

24

34

39

41

42

45

All

                   

Supportive

58%

57%

64%

57%

69%

63%

70%

56%

62%

Opposed

20%

20%

18%

22%

16%

14%

12%

19%

17%

Unsure

22%

24%

19%

22%

15%

24%

19%

24%

21%



Interestingly, the political makeup of the districts had only a modest impact on the results for this question. At least a plurality of Republicans, Democrats, and independents favored the additional limitation in seven of the eight districts polled.

Swing districts that have more Democratic and independent voters also saw support in the mid-to-high 50s, along with Sen. Kolterman’s heavily-Republican district. Support reached its peak at 70 percent in Sen. Groene’s district. 

The partisan breakdown for each question can be viewed in the spreadsheet attached at the top of the article.


A What-If Question
 

We wanted to re-check the level of dissatisfaction with property taxes and willingness to entertain a major tax shift with one final, hypothetical question.
 

We asked: With property taxes continually rising, would you be willing to pay more state and local taxes today if it guaranteed your property taxes would stay flat and would not continue to increase in the future?

While this specific promise may be a hard one to keep, under these circumstances, support increased over the original open-ended tax shift question, but was lower than the proposal to expand the sales tax base.
 

Forty percent of respondents said they would accept a state and local tax increase if their property tax bill was frozen. Twenty-eight percent opposed the idea, while 32 percent were unsure.
 

Q12 - Tax Increase Paired with Property Tax Freeze
 

District

18

20

24

34

39

41

42

45

All

                   

Supportive

36%

32%

40%

45%

43%

44%

43%

36%

40%

Opposed

25%

34%

28%

31%

31%

23%

24%

33%

28%

Unsure

39%

34%

32%

24%

25%

33%

34%

31%

32%

 


Support was stronger in rural districts, while some urban districts were more closely split between each of the options.

What Does It All Mean?
 

How can the Revenue Committee use this data to inform their decisions?

The fact that so many taxpayers are still unsure about replacing a significant chunk of property taxes with something else, after all the debates over property tax in Nebraska, suggests a lot of the heavy lifting on policy is going to be up to elected officials.

As much as Nebraskans hate property taxes, it’s hard for a majority of Nebraskans to get truly enthusiastic about the alternatives on their own. We are talking about paying taxes, after all.
 

Voters were more open to the idea of ending sales tax exemptions to reduce property taxes, or getting to vote on raising sales tax in their county, than a generic invitation for them to pay other, unnamed taxes.

While most urban voters seem to reject cutting spending, there does seem to be at least some support for cuts in certain districts. Voters also seemed to perk up more when the benefit of a property tax bill not increasing or being limited was made clear.

If the committee decides to move forward with a tax shift, it may be up to them to explain to Nebraskans how that gets them closer to what many do clearly support: additional limits on property taxes without too many cuts in services.

The results may also signal that these districts have different ideas of how to solve the property tax problem.

Giving these districts the tools to address the issue in their own way may work better than imposing one plan on all of them. For example, voters in Sen. Friesen’s district were closely divided on whether a tax shift was a good idea, or if local spending should be cut, but they supported a voter-approved countywide sales tax by 11 points.

Comparing Results to our Past Survey

We had 344 Nebraskans participate in an unscientific online survey in Summer 2018 that addressed many similar questions, and some of the results are similar. The largest number of voters expressed a general support for sales tax as an alternative to property tax, but also rejected many ideas for how to actually collect those sales taxes.
 

However, support for a general tax shift away from property tax was more muted in this scientific survey. One reason may be that the unscientific survey attracted more participants who were “in-the-know” about tax issues and have a decided position. Ag or education leaders, or taxpayer activists, to name a few, may have more of an interest in responding to an online survey about an issue they care about.

In this setting, when 2,977 active likely voters were called up on a weeknight about the property tax issue in Nebraska, we found that many did not have as firm of an opinion on what should be done.

Also, voters in this latest poll were provided the option to state that they were unsure, which we did not include in the unscientific survey.

Given that there are few issues more widely discussed than property taxes in Nebraska, some of these respondents might remain undecided no matter what policymakers do. But there are clearly a lot of Nebraskans who are still persuadable to both sides of these arguments, and under the right conditions, could boost support in either column.

Posted by: Adam Weinberg

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