In recent years, residents of unincorporated areas around Omaha were the beneficiaries of a state law to combat city taxation without representation.
Yet the Omaha City Council now proposes to give people outside the city limits the opposite: representation without taxation. It is an unwise, possibly unconstitutional train that the Nebraska Legislature should stop in its tracks.
The City Council voted 4-3 this week to ask the Legislature to allow people living in a 3-mile area around Omaha in Douglas County to vote in city elections. Councilman Franklin Thompson offered the proposal, saying he has heard from people frustrated by city decisions on which they lack input. “I think it is the time now to have all the people pitch in on the pros and the cons,” he said.
If folks want a say in the City of Omaha’s governance, they should live where they want to vote. Nebraskans shouldn’t vote in Iowa, even though some of that state’s policies impact our state.
Omahans pay Omaha city taxes. Their tax dollars maintain city streets and sewers. They pay city police and firefighters. Their choice of residence earns them a vote on city matters.
Others living outside the city get many of the advantages of urban life — job opportunities, shopping and entertainment options — without paying those costs.
Some live in sanitary improvement districts, resident-funded developments just outside city limits. Once those SIDs grow and mature, they can seek annexation by Omaha. But many near-city residents resist the additional taxes and obligations that follow formally joining the city.
A few years ago, Omaha officials felt the legal and political pushback over a plan to extend a city wheel tax fee to some suburban commuters, the idea being they should help shoulder the load for the roads that take them to and from work.
The Legislature sided with the non-residents in that case, passing a law limiting Omaha’s wheel tax authority to the city limits. Sounds like a good policy for voting, too.
And what about the potential for lawsuits based on the diluted value of actual city residents’ votes if non-residents could cast ballots, too? Or the decreased city incentives for annexation of suburban neighborhoods, a not-so-secret weapon in Omaha’s continuing prosperity? Or the constitutional questions raised by the City Attorney’s Office about allowing non-residents to vote on changes to the Omaha City Charter?
It is true that in zoning matters, Omaha has a say over developments up to three miles beyond the city limits while the people living in those areas get no vote (as Midlands Voices author Ed Truemper notes on today’s More Commentary page.) But there are risks of haphazard development without that zoning authority.
It also is true that decisions made in Omaha affect other communities, much like decisions made in Bellevue, Papillion, Gretna and other places can affect Omaha. But residents of Omaha have no expectation of voting in those communities.
Imagine if Omahans said they wanted a vote on the future of Council Bluffs’ Mid-America Center because it has the potential to impact the CenturyLink Center. The door to the Council Bluffs Mayor’s Office would rattle with laughter.
Lawmakers in Lincoln would do well to disregard any effort to move Omaha ballot boxes beyond the city limits.
City elections are for city residents.