The writer is publisher of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald.
I am human, and with that comes a few characteristics I am proud of, along with quite a few I am ashamed of. One of those is my use of language when my dander is kicked up a couple notches. Words tend to get a bit ahead of my brain and slide out before I can stop them.
That was the case as I watched debate from the Capitol regarding that misconceived bill (Legislative Bill 1013) that would raise cigarette taxes $1.50 per pack. Sen. Mike Gloor, from Grand Island, introduced this bill. It is his third attempt at raising cigarette taxes. He is a former hospital administrator, so I understand where he is coming from. He wants to use a portion of the increased taxes for a large variety of health care initiatives. No argument from me on that. But this bill needs to go the way of his first two, up in smoke (pun intended) because it has some serious flaws.
Gloor wants to dedicate $30 million of the increased cigarette taxes to: the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, Department of Health and Human Services and the County Public Health Aid Program. Again, no argument from me on that.
But here's the smokescreen. This new tax wouldn't raise just $30 million from the folks in Nebraska who are addicted to tobacco. It would raise $120 million! That's $90 million more than Gloor needs to fund his health related suggestions. So what would he do with the extra $90 million? He would apply that to property tax relief.
Yes, our property taxes are way too high. They are way too high because our tax code is archaic in political terms, dating back to the 1960s. The Legislature hasn't done the difficult work to modernize and equalize the tax base. Instead, it has spent years playing around the edges of the tax code, granting income and sales tax exemptions to special interests groups, which in turn has created a tremendous burden on property taxes to carry the load to fund counties, cities and schools, mostly schools.
Most states play a major role in funding their schools, but a 2014 report from the Open Sky Policy Institute ranks Nebraska 49th out of 50 states in the percentage of school funding coming from state coffers. This is disgraceful. Without adequate, fair and equitable state funding, our schools are forced to rely on property taxes. The Legislature has failed to come up with a once-and-for-all solution to the property tax problem because they lack the will to modernize our tax code, plain and simple. So what does Gloor's long-term fix to high property taxes in Nebraska? Tax smokers an extra $90 million every year. This type of governing is exactly what has placed us in the position we're in.
If the motivation in Gloor's bill is to raise cigarette taxes to deter smoking, treat tobacco addiction and tobacco-related illness and research, fine. The he should introduce a bill that does just that and only that. Then if he wants to submit a serious and fair solution to relieve property taxes, do that and only that.
These two issues, smoking and property taxes, are not related, and his attempt to kill two birds with one stone falls short.
To select the one out of five Nebraskans who are addicted to tobacco, and say to them that because they smoke (which is legal in our state) they are going to be the ones singled out to reduce property taxes for everyone is pandering politics at its worst. The smokers will be the ones who pay to cover up the years of inaction from a Legislature unwilling to do the hard work of reprioritizing the imbalance between state and local taxes? Can any state senator actually say this is a rational and fair way to address the property tax issue? Of course not!
The bill needs to have the $90 million property tax relief language removed. Gloor's cigarette tax bill would have a fighting chance of passage. Then the senators on the Revenue Committee could go about the difficult property tax work the citizens have been waiting for them to do for over 50 years.