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How Will Your Vote Impact the Tax Debate?

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the Platte Institute and the Strong Roots Nebraska campaign doesn’t support or oppose candidates for public office, and we won’t tell you how to vote.

But we can speak and write about the issues at stake in this legislative election.

With eleven members of the Legislature term-limited, the people you choose in early voting or the May 10 primary will begin to shape the field that will ultimately decide how the Unicameral impacts tax policy in Nebraska.

Campaign season requires discernment. Sophisticated candidates who might very well vote to raise your taxes next year aren’t in the business of actually campaigning on it, or identifying their most controversial views in an election year. In candidate profiles published by the Lincoln Journal Star, only one of the thirteen candidates vying for the region’s four contested seats openly regards themselves as progressive or liberal.

Does anyone really think there is only one liberal running in Lincoln?

Of course, candidates calling themselves by any other label is no guarantee of performance either. But many people experience voter’s remorse after seeing how a candidate performs as a state senator. Here are some criteria that may help you separate the wheat from the chaff before casting your ballot:

Know where the candidate stands on legislative leadership positions.

Whether the ballots are secret or open, Nebraskans who want serious reforms in 2017 should be asking what kind of votes their candidates will make when it comes to the next Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature and relevant committee chairs. These roles are not just ceremonial posts of nonpartisan decorum. They carry additional power to prioritize legislation and adjudicate what gets to the floor of the Legislature.

You might also ask candidates about which committees interest them. How the Legislature looks at the fiscal impact of legislation and whether it advances tax relief all begins with this process. If committees that decide tax and spending issues are not hospitable to lower taxes and reduced spending, the rest of the senators are not likely to have a chance to vote on those issues.

Know what the candidate intends to do.

It’s one thing to say you’ll vote a certain way, but will the candidate introduce legislation to that effect? Will they fight to see those bills get a full debate? What will their priority bill be? Will they challenge the status quo in the Unicameral, or be co-opted by it?

Avoid candidates taken to boosterism and cronyism.

Lobbyists have enormous influence in the Nebraska Legislature. While it’s natural to seek buy-in from any constituency, be mindful of candidates who are running to serve as the personal representative of any particular established interest groups in the Legislature. In Nebraska, senators have jobs outside the Legislature. Unfortunately, sometimes their profession may be the indicator for how they are likely to vote and who they will side with.

A little change now and then could do this state some good, and the most needed changes won’t come from doing favors or running defense for the biggest funders and the loudest voices.

Don’t vote for anyone who overpromises on property taxes.

Granted, taking this advice too literally might leave you unable to vote!  Short of controls on local spending, reforms of unfunded mandates, or getting rid of personal property tax, the state will never be able to do more about property taxes than local taxing entities themselves.

As reported last week, a discrepancy with residential valuation assessments may lead to a 7 percent increase in property taxes for many homeowners in southwest Douglas County, essentially overshadowing savings from the state’s Property Tax Credit Relief Fund for taxpayers in Nebraska’s most populous region.

Because the increase was approved by a state equalization commission, the finger-pointing between state and local has already begun. But regardless of the process, when valuations go up, property taxes go up unless rates go down.

In a post-Common Levy era where there are no longer minimum levy requirements to receive state aid, taxpayers in Douglas County and elsewhere will have to address local boards and other political subdivisions about the tax rates that will be packaged with these valuation increases.

Candidates should not ignore local tax policies, but voters must be aware of the limits of what the state can accomplish, and when candidates are using the situation to mobilize support for worsening Nebraska’s state tax and spending policy.

Voter anger in this election cycle is palpable. Many people feel misled by the political class and want new ideas and leadership. No single person will ever satisfy this need. Any sea change in politics begins at home with many leaders being elected to offices like Nebraska State Senator.

And though these senators will be elected by relatively small numbers of people, they will often have the largest impact on your daily life of anyone on the ballot. If Nebraskans want these officials to share their vision for the kind of place Nebraska should be, they must have a better grasp of their priorities before sending them to Lincoln.