The following editorials appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
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The latest report on state property valuations shows that the tax ramifications of skyrocketing prices for agricultural land are growing too big to ignore much longer.
The latest round of legislative tax reform — although truly significant — did not deal with the problem in a significant way.
That’s hardly surprising. It’s a knotty issue that defies a simple solution.
The rapid increase in farmland values is stretching Nebraska’s tax system out of balance.
Counties in Nebraska have varying proportions of farmland, and commercial, industrial and residential property.
When values of property rise at roughly the same pace, the system stays in balance. But last year, for example, farmland outpaced other categories.
The latest report shows that agricultural land valuations for 2014 jumped by 29.2 percent, the state Revenue Department reported. Overall, the increase in valuations for 2014 was only 12.45 percent.
This means farmers are paying an increasing share of local property taxes. To a certain extent, the increase in recent years has been cushioned by high prices for grain. But those prices have declined recently, and farmers are feeling the pinch.
As Creighton University economist Ernie Goss said, the higher property taxes paid by farmers “just increases their cost of production and it doesn’t add anything to the bottom line.”
Some states have tried alternative methods for taxing farmland. Iowa, for example, reformed its laws in an attempt to tax farmland on the basis of productivity, rather than value to an investor.
The result is complicated. “Explaining how Iowa’s farmland property taxes work is a bit like explaining how quantum physics works — most of us can’t do it,” Iowa Farmer Today reported.
The description sounds reminiscent of the formula that is used to determine state aid to schools in Nebraska, which is so complex that at one point discussion in the Legislature was delayed because an Education Department official, who was one of the few people in the state who understood the formula, was on vacation.
It seems unlikely that state senators would embrace another scheme that would further complicate Nebraska’s tax system.
Some analysts believe the surge in prices paid for agricultural land is a bubble that will soon burst.
But some of those predictions were made three or four years ago, and they haven’t yet come true. Nebraska policymakers need to keep working on a way to keep the state tax system in balance.
Quicker disclosure would be better
Almost overlooked in the crush of legislative events in the recently completed session was the important step state senators took toward quicker disclosure of information on who has donated to political campaigns and for ballot issues.
The bill introduced by Sen. Bill Avery provides more than $630,000 to the Accountability and Disclosure Commission to set up an electronic filing system, which means the information can be made available very shortly after it is filed.
Congress should follow that lead. It’s ridiculous that in the 21st century U.S. Senate campaign committees are required only to file their reports on paper. Voters have to wait weeks and months to get the information.