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The Pillen Tax Plan: Plattsmouth Town Hall

Governor Jim Pillen visited Plattsmouth on May 30th, 2024 for a town hall on property tax reform. Roughly 50 people crowded a small classroom in the Southeast Community College building on Main Street to hear the Governor speak and ask questions. The crowd included Plattsmouth Mayor, Paul Lambert, and State Senator Rob Clements, who represents Cass County. Though the town hall lasted over an hour, residents seemed left with more questions than answers.

Pillen has proposed a plan he says will reduce property taxes by 40%. Portions of that plan have already been completed including the frontloading of a $750 million income tax credit and state funding of community colleges. Both of these proposals were largely uncontroversial in the officially nonpartisan legislature and received overwhelming approval from both progressives and conservatives.

The last portions of Pillen's plan have lawmakers and residents alike concerned. First, he would place a hard cap on the spending of schools and local governments. Second, he would expand sales tax by removing exemptions, raising the overall sales tax rate, and raising the tax on tobacco and alcohol. Hard caps have schools and local governments concerned about paying teachers and staff, while a hike in sales taxes threatens working families and small businesses.

The town hall started with Pillen laying out his proposal and various other details. Of note, Pillen recounted that he was called by the Governor of Oklahoma at the beginning of his term regarding Nebraska's failure to bring in federal money. Pillen emphasized that Nebraskans pay federal taxes and should receive ample federal funds. He did not address his initial refusal to accept Summer EBT funds for Nebraska children or his predecessor's denial of federal rental assistance during the pandemic.

The first audience question came from Bellevue Public Schools Board Member Sarah Centineo who expressed her concerns about keeping up with teacher and support staff salaries if the state capped or cut school spending. In response, Pillen largely dodged her question instead moving to talking points about the importance of Career and Technical Education.

Centineo repeated her question and the Governor simply said schools have to spend less without any clear instruction on where to cut the budget. Pillen brought up Taylor Swift in a hypothetical situation arguing that Nebraska high schools are treating athletes like celebrities and purchasing coach busses. Centineo shot back stating Bellevue still uses the classic yellow school bus. Cass County area schools Plattsmouth and Conestoga also use the classic yellow school bus. Weeping Water purchased a coach bus after a substantial donation was made by the estate of an alumni.

Jayden Speed, Vice Chair of Cass County Democrats, asked Pillen if he had worked with or planned to work with State Senator Carol Blood on unfunded mandates. Unfunded mandates from the state are consistently pushing up the operating costs of schools and local governments. Senator Blood introduced a constitutional amendment in the Legislature to end unfunded mandates. Pillen said he was unfamiliar with Senator Blood's work or her constitutional amendment, rather he had a working group of superintendents and county officials exploring the issue. He could not point to any issue with Senator Blood's proposal rather saying he was not familiar with it at all.

Multiple questions followed from area residents and farmers about the valuation of agricultural land and property taxes. One area farmer asked Pillen about the bill to tax agricultural land at 50% of its valuation. Pillen stated he once again was not familiar with this proposal and questioned if the farmer was getting his information from reliable sources. The farmer pushed back that his source was the Cass County Assessor. Further research, shows the bill LB750 was introduced in 2023 by Senator Albrecht at the request of the Governor. Unfortunately, the Governor either forgot he introduced the legislation or lied to the room regarding his position and knowledge of the proposal. Furthermore, one resident questioned the charts provided by the Governor that showed property taxes collected from 1867 to the present. The charts appeared to follow the value of the U.S. dollar and did not account for inflation. Obviously, taxes collected in 1867 would be a much lower dollar amount and taxes collected 1980s to 2020s would steadily rise. The chart showed property taxes would reach $6 billion in three years. The final question came from an employee with the City of Plattsmouth who asked Governor Pillen how the municipal government and others in their position could operate with less money and still provide all their required services. Once again, Pillen obfuscated. Pillen suggested Plattsmouth should figure out how to run its business. He then posed a question to the room: who values Plattsmouth more and who values Nebraska more? The room was hesitant to raise their hands for either. The townhall wrapped up almost an hour and a half after it started with residents not in a better place than before. Major questions were left unanswered or not addressed satisfactorily. Cass County Democrats continue to have strong concerns about the Governor's plan.

Starting with the cap on spending and potential cuts for schools and local government, we believe it is unacceptable for the state to place burdens on our communities and then blame continuing problems on local government. Despite Mayor Lambert's strong affiliation with Pillen and Clements, Lambert also admitted he was unsure how Plattsmouth would afford a new firetruck which could cost $2.4 million. One resident asked if the state is concerned about spending, how does it justify the appropriation of $10 million a year to private schools. Pillen repeated his strong support for private schools and downplayed the expense, arguing this expense was like taking $10 out of the piggy bank.

What was unaddressed was the other large expenditures of the State of Nebraska during his tenure and that of his predecessor U.S. Senator Pete Ricketts, there seemed to be plenty of money to go around to build a new prison, construct a legally dubious canal in western Nebraska, and cut corporate taxes for the wealthiest in Nebraska. Now that the state has spent its excess funds, it's on the schools and local government to pinch pennies according to Pillen. Finally, the threat a sales tax hike and the removal of exemptions poses to working families and small businesses was also unaddressed. Working families would find themselves paying more when back-to-school shopping, replacing household goods, or seeking services. Small businesses such as the independent coffee shops, bookstores, restaurants, and merchants that line Plattsmouth's Main Street would also be forced to charge a higher sales tax to consumers. This potentially reduces consumer spending and cuts into their ability to remain in the community. Governor Pillen was wholly insufficient at addressing the concerns of Cass County residents. He urges us to call other state senators, not Clements, and tell them to support his plan. Pillen could not clarify which senators he is targetting or when a special session would be called. Another townhall, this time in our community, with more questions than answers.



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