Legislature notes: Lawmakers hear tearful testimony from Eagle woman who could lose home over unpaid taxes

Legislature notes: Lawmakers hear tearful testimony from Eagle woman who could lose home over unpaid taxes
Lindsay Brinson, a nurse from Eagle, Nebraska, tells state lawmakers that she will have to pay nearly $100,000 to keep her home after a private company paid off a small tax debt. She testified at a hearing on Legislative Bill 463 on Friday. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — Fighting back tears, Lindsay Brinson told a group of state lawmakers on Friday that she may lose her $108,000 home because she couldn’t afford to pay her $2,500 property tax bill in 2013.

A private company, which paid the tax bill and her unpaid taxes in subsequent years, acquired the title to her home in Eagle, Nebraska, under a legal process designed to get people to pay their delinquent taxes.

At a legislative hearing Friday, Brinson said the process was a nightmare for her and doesn’t give homeowners like her proper notice that a company could soon take away their home.

To keep a home that was already paid for, she is now paying $507 a month for 15 years to an Omaha management company that paid her tax debts. She said that, including an $8,000 down payment, she will eventually have to pay more than $99,000 to keep her home because of $16,600 in delinquent taxes.

“These investment companies are taking advantage of people who are already in severe financial crisis and making their situation dramatically worse,” she told a panel of state lawmakers. “Now I’m paying twice for my home.”

The testimony came as the Legislature’s Revenue Committee considered a measure, Legislative Bill 463, to increase notification to delinquent taxpayers so they clearly understand that they owe back taxes and could lose their home or farm if they don’t pay companies that pick up such debts.

The problem came into focus last year in a series of stories in The World-Herald about such tax liens. In one case, an infirm 94-year-old widow living in a nursing home in North Platte lost a farm worth $1.1 million after neglecting to pay tax bills that grew to $50,000. The Legislature had passed a bill in 2012 to improve notification in such cases, but lawmakers put the changes on hold temporarily in 2014 and again in 2017.

State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg said he crafted LB 463 to “significantly address” the notification shortfalls after discussions with county officials involved in the tax lien process and two companies that obtain properties through the system.

He said the bill would have prevented the case in North Platte by ensuring that an attempt would have been made to personally notify the owner of the farm, as well as the farmer who rented the land, that taxes were delinquent and a private company could soon take the title to the land.

Under current law, no in-person notification is required; instead, a notice can be sent via certified mail — a notice Brinson said she never saw because she picked up her mail at the Eagle post office every week or so.

Williams said his bill would also improve notification by requiring — if other means of notification fail — that a legal ad be placed in the newspaper designated by the county board as the legal paper for the county. Right now, such an ad can be placed in any newspaper in the county, which increases the likelihood that it could be overlooked.

A representative of Legal Aid of Nebraska and an elderly client of the organization testified that LB 463 didn’t go far enough.

Caitlin Cedfeldt, a Legal Aid attorney, said delinquent taxpayers whose debts are being bought up by private investors should get a clear warning immediately after a company buys a “tax certificate” on their home or farmland, not three years later when companies can move to acquire the property by obtaining a tax deed. After three years, the tax debt grows considerably, she said, making it even more difficult to pay.

“Notice should be provided earlier, in plain English,” Cedfeldt said.

Legal Aid is challenging the constitutionality of the state’s tax lien process .

Cedfeldt said the current system is “unjust and inequitable” and particularly unfair for elderly, handicapped or low-income homeowners who may not understand the gravity of the situation or have the money to hire an attorney.

Williams, who is a banker, said earlier notification, as suggested by Legal Aid, was not supported by the group of bankers, county officials and companies that helped craft LB 463. He emphasized that people don’t get into this trouble unless they don’t pay their property taxes and continue to not pay for three to five years.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill.

Therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation would be banned for minors under Nebraska bill

LINCOLN — If fear and shame had been enough to make him straight, Adam Witte never would have suffered through 15 months of therapy aimed at changing his sexual orientation.

Instead, as a 16-year-old in 1998, he sneaked out of his parents’ house twice a week for treatment that involved getting increasingly powerful electric shocks while being shown arousing pictures.

His last treatment knocked him unconscious, and he awoke to find that he had bitten off a portion of his tongue.

But none of it made him stop being gay, the Omaha man told members of the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

“My circumstances and specific experiences may be different from others, but my outcome was not,” Witte said.

He joined a long line of people backing a bill to restrict conversion therapy, sometimes called ex-gay or reparative therapy, which is aimed changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

But the line of opponents to Legislative Bill 167 was long as well.

Both sides offered personal stories and testimony from therapists, religious leaders, educators and others.

LB 167, introduced by State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, would bar licensed health care professionals from providing conversion therapy for minors.

In addition, it would prohibit anyone from advertising or charging for conversion therapy services, whether to youths or adults.

She said the therapy is ineffective and harmful. It is opposed by almost all medical and mental health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association and American Counseling Association.

“Being LGBT is not an abnormality. It is not something to be fixed,” Hunt said. “This is based on pseudoscientific beliefs, it is based on prejudice.”

But Brady Cone, who grew up in Nebraska, said that, through counseling, he was able to change his identity and his attractions. He said there are thousands of others like him, whose stories he said threaten the agenda of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“I now live a life that the LGBT community says is impossible,” he said. “I’m happily married to a wonderful woman. My life is full of peace and joy.”

Like other opponents, Cone said the government should not prevent people from getting the help they want.

Karen Bowling, executive director of the Nebraska Family Alliance, said children and families should be free to decide what counseling and personal therapy goals are best for them. She said LB 167 would take away that freedom and infringe on the client-professional relationship. She said recent court cases suggest that the bill could violate First Amendment free speech rights.

A 2018 report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 20,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth will undergo conversion therapy from licensed health care professionals before they turn 18. An estimated 57,000 teens will get such therapy from religious or spiritual advisers.

The report said that talk therapy is the most common technique used in conversion therapy currently, but some practitioners have also used various types of aversion therapy, such as induced vomiting or electric shocks.

Fifteen states ban the practice for minors, but it remains legal in all states for adults. In New Jersey, a court held that providing conversion therapy for money constitutes a fraudulent business practice, regardless of the age of the patient.

Hunt withdrew a companion measure, LB 168, which would have classified conversion therapy as child abuse.

She said survivors of conversion therapy have told her that parents often are misled or tricked into putting their children into such therapy. She said the focus should be on those who provide such therapy, not on parents.

Bill would increase amount of money families could make and still qualify for child care subsidies

LINCOLN — More struggling Nebraska parents could get help with child care costs under a proposal heard Friday by a legislative panel.

State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said Legislative Bill 329 would increase the amount of money families could make and still qualify for child care subsidies. The bill also would give families more time to ease their way off subsidies as their incomes increase.

LB 329 would allow people to qualify for subsidies while making up to 165 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or $27,159 for a single parent and child. Once they qualify, parents could keep the subsidy until they reach 200 percent of poverty.

Bolz argued that her measure would give low-income families a boost toward self-sufficiency by partially reversing budget cuts made to the program in 2002. That year, then-Gov. Mike Johanns dropped the eligibility level for child care subsidies to 120 percent of federal poverty guidelines, down from 185 percent of poverty.

In 2013, lawmakers increased eligibility to the current 130 percent of poverty, or $21,398 for a single parent and child, while allowing transitional subsidies for parents making up to 185 percent of poverty. Nebraska has among the lowest eligibility levels in the country.

“I would argue it’s time to raise it again,” Bolz said. “Other issues might be useful, but they don’t make the impact on families’ lives like this would.”

But Matt Wallen, children and family services director for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, opposed the eligibility change, saying it would cost “tens of millions of state dollars.”

Agency officials estimated that an additional 9,513 households, or about 19,000 children, would qualify for subsidies under the bill, at a cost of $96 million annually. In contrast, the Legislative Fiscal Office projected the cost at closer to $10 million a year for about 4,500 children.

Advocates for children and for low-income Nebraskans argued for the change, saying the current situation forces parents to turn down raises or curtail their work hours rather than lose the subsidy.

Robert Patterson, chief executive officer of Omaha’s Kids Can Community Center, told of one mother whose three boys are in care at Kids Can. The mother had been working a job that paid $10 an hour. She was promoted to assistant manager, a position that offered more experience and better pay but meant losing her child care subsidy.

“Without help from Kids Can, I would not have the money I would need to feed my family,” Patterson quoted her as saying.

Pro-medical marijuana senator challenges Ricketts, attorney general to debates

LINCOLN — A state senator who is pushing for legalization of medical marijuana has challenged the governor and Nebraska attorney general to three debates on the controversial issue.

State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, a co-sponsor of a medical marijuana bill pending in the Legislature, even offered to allow Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson to invite “a football coach of their choice” to help — a jab at opposition expressed recently by former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne.

“We feel as though it is important for the public to hear from leaders on the issue,” Morfeld wrote in a letter hand-delivered Thursday.

In the letter, the senator said a debate is important because medical marijuana may soon be legalized by the State Legislature, or by Nebraska voters via a proposed constitutional amendmentbacked by Morfeld and another Lincoln senator, Anna Wishart.

The governor’s spokesman, Taylor Gage, said Friday that Morfeld’s letter was “a stunt to get media attention.”

Morfeld, in comments to The World-Herald, said that Ricketts and Peterson ought to be more concerned about how to implement cannabis for medicine rather than voicing opposition.

“Nebraskans overwhelmingly support this,” the senator said.

Ricketts and Peterson have said that there is no medical proof that marijuana is an effective and safe remedy, and both expressed concerns that legalizing cannabis as medicine was the first step toward allowing it for recreational purposes. They, along with Osborne, have pointed to negative impacts in Colorado, where cannabis is legal for both recreation and medicine.

Morfeld, in his letter, suggested debates in Omaha, Lincoln and a place selected by the governor and attorney general in “greater Nebraska.”

He and Wishart are among 14 co-sponsors of LB 110, which would allow Nebraska to join 32 states that have legalized cannabis for medicinal use. The senators are also organizers of an initiative drive to put the medical marijuana issue before state voters in 2020 — a drive they say they will pursue if the Legislature fails to act.

Veterans support Ricketts’ military retirement tax break bill; policy groups urge caution

LINCOLN — A parade of military veterans, many wearing VFW or American Legion hats and at least one using a cane to walk, testified Thursday in favor of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal for a bigger and better income tax break for military retirees.

But despite the show of strength, two of the state’s leading organizations that track tax policy urged caution about Legislative Bill 153.

A representative of the Platte Institute — which Ricketts helped launch — testified that lawmakers need to be focused on overall tax reform.

“We would argue that lower taxes for everyone, not just veterans, could fill (vacant) jobs” in the state, said Sarah Curry of the Platte Institute.

 

Renee Fry of the Open Sky Policy Institute struck a similar tone, telling the Legislature’s Revenue Committee that granting more tax breaks for special groups could harm funding for other state priorities, like schools and roads.

“An incredibly small percentage” of people make decisions based on tax policy, Fry added. Most often, people decide to move or stay in Nebraska because of the quality of life here, she said.

The comments come in a year in which state lawmakers have made reducing the state’s historically high property taxes a top priority.

So has Ricketts, but he told the committee on Thursday that there was room to do both: help retired veterans and provide some property tax relief for all.

LB 153, he said, would replace a “clunky” and inadequate tax break that is now provided to military veterans in Nebraska. The current law, passed in 2014, applies only to those who retired in 2012 or later, and requires retirees to chose one of two options. There are about 14,000 veterans in the state, and the current law provides about $390,000 a year in income tax breaks.

By contrast, LB 153 would provide a 50 percent reduction in the taxable portion of a veteran’s pension, amounting to an estimated $13 million in tax breaks a year.

Both the governor and State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, a decorated military veteran who introduced the bill, said that LB 153 was really a “workforce development” proposal. They said it would keep highly trained veterans in Nebraska after retirement, filling vacant jobs here and bringing many benefits in terms of paying other taxes and contributing to their communities.

“They not only have earned and deserved special treatment, it is a benefit to Nebraska,” said Brewer.

Ricketts said that three of his best managers when he worked at the family business, TD Ameritrade, were retired military veterans. Some veterans, he said, retire as early as age 38, then enter second careers in the state they choose to locate.

“This bill is about retaining these veterans in Nebraska,” the governor said.

Brewer said that Nebraska’s neighboring states all have more generous tax breaks for military retirees and that retirees from Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha can easily choose to commute from Iowa, where there are no income taxes on their pensions.

But at least two members of the Revenue Committee, Sens. Curt Friesen of Henderson and Mike Groene of North Platte, said property tax relief is what their constituents are seeking. Groene added that Nebraska’s high property taxes are probably the reason some Offutt retirees are choosing to retire in Iowa.

Curry, of the Platte Institute, said Maryland and Connecticut both saw reductions, rather than increases, in the number of veterans in their states after enacting tax breaks on military pensions. She added that if lawmakers believe that a bigger tax break for military retirees is a top priority, they ought to eliminate some other tax exemptions to accomplish it.

Omaha Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who is one of 11 co-sponsors of LB 153, said it would be a win-win for the state if it can retain retired veterans. She said she expects the bill to advance to debate by the full Legislature.

Lawmakers advance amendment to remove exception to prohibition of slavery

Ending slavery. Nebraska lawmakers voted without dissent Thursday to advance a constitutional amendment that would ban all slavery in the state. Legislative Resolution 1CA must clear two more rounds of consideration to appear on the 2020 ballot for a decision by voters.

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, who introduced the measure, said it would remove an exception to the state’s prohibition on slavery. The exception, which dates to 1875, allows involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. Wayne said the exception supported a post-Civil War practice known as convict leasing, in which prisoners were leased out to provide labor for farms, roads and other projects.

Wayne said Nebraska was one of few states outside of the South to allow the practice. Leased convicts were used during construction of the state’s second Capitol building in the 1880s. By 1908, he said 82 percent of state prisoners were put to work as leased convicts. The practice continued off and on until 1940.

Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood questioned whether there would be a concern about Nebraska having anti-slavery language that differs from the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Wayne said the two could differ, just as they do regarding the right to keep and bear arms. The Nebraska Constitution offers broader protection for that right than the federal one.

Caregiver benefits. Nebraskans caring for family members with serious health concerns could get unemployment benefits more quickly under a bill advanced by the Legislature Thursday. Legislative Bill 306 would add such caregiving to the list of “good cause” reasons for leaving a job. Under state law, people who leave jobs for good cause can start drawing unemployment benefits sooner than those who quit for other reasons.

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, who introduced the bill, said the change would help workers whose job duties conflict with their caregiving obligations. She said the benefits would be available only for people who can still work, if they find a job that accommodates their caregiving needs.

But some lawmakers questioned the potential cost of the change, noting that all employers pay unemployment taxes. Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus called the bill a “feel-good” measure but one that would add to the cost of doing business in Nebraska.

LGBT discrimination. Job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity would be banned in Nebraska, alongside race, color, religion, sex, disability, marital status and national origin. Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who has a gay son, has described LB 627 as a way to recruit and retain workers in the state.

Proponents of the bill on Thursday told stories of discrimination and workplace harassment, and said that in the absence of protections, LGBTQ people often eventually leave Nebraska.

Opponents, including the Nebraska Catholic Conference and Nebraska Family Alliance, argued that the bill is a violation of religious freedoms.

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