While individual candidates will steal the spotlight on Nov. 3, Nebraska voters also have the opportunity to amend the state constitution this fall, and that privilege should not be overlooked.
This year, there are two constitutional amendments that Nebraskans can vote on, both of which were introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha in the Legislature. Now, it is up to Nebraska voters to get these amendments passed.
Proposed Amendment No. 1, “A constitutional amendment to eliminate slavery or involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime.”
This amendment is pretty straightforward. It would remove a clause in the Nebraska Constitution that allows for slavery and involuntary servitude for criminals. In other words, you have the opportunity to finally abolish slavery in Nebraska — in 2020. And guess what? You should.
Nebraska is one of just 12 states that still allows for slavery as criminal punishment, in addition to the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which allows for slavery as punishment as well.
A vote for this amendment may seem obvious, as even the Unicameral, for all of its recent dysfunction, voted in favor of the amendment 44-0. However, when a similar amendment was proposed for the Colorado Constitution in 2016, voters rejected it. The amendment passed two years later, with around 65% of the vote, but still lost 26 of Colorado’s 64 counties, all of them majority Republican. In a state more conservative than Colorado, this vote could be close.
Some voters may have misinterpreted the question, and assumed that an AGAINST vote would be a vote against slavery, when instead, voters need to vote FOR an amendment to end slavery.
Others may worry that this amendment would affect inmate work programs, and although I am not a proponent of prison labor, this amendment will still allow for these programs.
Failing to abolish slavery would be a massive embarassment for the state of Nebraska, and there is little reason to keep this exception in the state constitution, which should reflect Nebraska values. Even though no judge has sentenced a criminal to slavery in modern times, there is no reason for slavery to remain in the Cornhusker State’s most important document.
So please, vote FOR, not AGAINST, Amendment 1, and finally abolish slavery in Nebraska. Plus, saying you helped abolish slavery in the state will be a great fact to tell your grandkids when they ask how old you really are.
Proposed Amendment No. 2, “A constitutional amendment to authorize the Legislature to allow cities and villages to pledge property taxes as part of a redevelopment project for a period not to exceed twenty years if, due to a high rate of unemployment combined with a high poverty rate as determined by law, more than one-half of the property in the project area is extremely blighted.”
This amendment is a bit more complicated than the first, but it is just as deserving of your vote.
Tax increment financing, also known as TIF, is a staple for funding private property developments across the state. Developers that are building on properties that are determined to be blighted can be funded by the future property tax that will be generated on the property. This is a way for private developments to be publicly funded while coming at no additional cost to local taxpayers. It is also a way to encourage developers to invest in low-income, high poverty areas.
Currently, developers have 15 years to pay back their development costs through property taxes, but this amendment would change that timeframe to 20 years in extremely blighted areas, which could encourage additional economic development in low-income communities. The current 15-year timeframe to pay back is the strictest requirement of all 49 states which allow for TIF, according to Wayne.
Additionally, there is currently no distinction between undeveloped properties in medium-income areas and those in the inner city. For example, the developments in the west Haymarket have the same requirements as North Omaha, which means there is little incentive for developers to invest in inner city areas when they can just as easily redevelop blighted properties in places like the Haymarket or 72nd and Dodge in Omaha.
With the new requirements, areas which are “extremely blighted,” meaning they have unemployment rates of 200% of the state average and poverty rates exceeding 20%, will now be able to offer developers 20 years to pay back their tax increment financing, something that could spur development in North and South Omaha as well as parts of Lincoln, Fremont, Scottsbluff, Grand Island and South Sioux City.
The Unicameral was nearly unanimous in its support of this amendment, as it passed with a 43-2 vote in April 2019. Sen. Groene of North Platte and Sen. Erdman of Bayard were the only two to oppose the plan, arguing that TIF has allowed some businesses to skirt around paying taxes and that local developers will twist the law for personal gain.
However, given the near unanimous approval of the Legislature and the opportunity TIF can bring to revitalize low-income areas in Omaha and Lincoln, this is an amendment that Nebraskans should support.
While your votes for candidates are important, please do not pass up the opportunity to improve the Nebraska Constitution this fall. Candidates may come and go, but the Constitution will endure. Make sure you make your mark while you can.
Brian Beach is a sophomore journalism major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.