Who Really Cares About Property Taxes?

It seems property taxes are the top issue for many Nebraskans, given demand for the Nebraska Legislature to do something about them in 2020, along with growing support for a property tax ballot initiative. 

But if actions speak louder than words, how much do Nebraskans really care?

I received my 2019 property tax statement recently, as you may have by the time you read this.

Soon after, I ran into my local school superintendent. As a former school board member, I was curious to know how many taxpayers attended the public hearings where the district’s tax asking was determined.

His answer: None.

How can we bridge this gap between taxpayers and taxing entities?

To its credit, the Legislature is trying to give Nebraskans more opportunities to be involved in the process that decides their property taxes.

This year, a new law required two separate public hearings and votes if local taxing entities sought to increase property taxes as a result of higher assessed valuations. The bill, LB103, was passed unanimously, taking effect immediately.

But most likely, neither your property tax bill nor your attendance at local meetings improved much this year. There’s even a good chance you didn’t know about the new law until I told you just now.

Clearly, taxpayers have a personal responsibility to be informed and organized. But state and local governments can still do more help taxpayers know how to exercise that responsibility.

One state controlling its property tax burden may provide a helpful example.

Like Nebraska, Utah requires special hearings for possible property tax increases. But after Nebraskans receive their property valuation from the county, they might only learn about hearings from notices in a newspaper or through the grapevine.

In Utah, valuation notices are mailed out along with the date, time, location, and potential cost of every public hearing for a property tax increase. This requirement is known as “Truth in Taxation.”

Since Utah’s counties will mail the valuation notice anyway, the expense of adding this information is minimal, though it requires advance coordination by taxing entities.

It’s fair to say some people will stay home and complain no matter how much information you give them. But Utah taxpayers do seem to take a more active role in local government.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that “Taxpayers — sometimes doing good imitations of villagers storming City Hall with pitchforks and torches at Truth in Taxation hearings — managed to petrify local officials,” causing taxing entities to be more reluctant to assume windfalls from rising valuations.

Former Utah state Sen. Howard Stephenson, now President of Utah’s Taxpayers Association, says some elected officials would rather run across the state naked than go through Truth in Taxation hearings.

Supporters of Truth in Taxation acknowledge that the law sometimes works too well, causing local boards to put off reasonable increases in property taxes, leading to larger hikes when they are adopted.

But after more than thirty years of the law, with tremendous population growth and demand for more government services in Utah, property taxes per person are still about half of Nebraska’s. In 2016, Utahns paid $1,019 per person while Nebraskans paid $1,909.

Adopting a measure like the Truth in Taxation notice in Nebraska may require a long debate, since it could introduce more scrutiny to local government proceedings.

However, it would also provide an opportunity for elected officials to make policy with greater local buy-in. Nebraskans have clearly shown a willingness to pay taxes for worthy causes, but there may still be too many taxpayers who feel their voices are excluded from those discussions.

Laura Ebke is a Senior Fellow at the Platte Institute.

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