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Taxation in the territory of Nebraska was never oppressive. To it the United States appropriated each year $20,000, out of which sum the territorial legislative assembly was paid its per diem and the printing of its journals and its statutes provided for, together with the postages and mileages and all other incidental expenses of that body. And to show how frugal and economical the management of federal finances in Nebraska was in those days, it is only necessary to point to the fact that after thirteen years of territorial existence, with an annual appropriation of the sum named, and without any debts, and all expenses paid to date, Nebraska territory, in March, 1867, became a state of the American Union and had $40,000 of unexpended balances remaining to her credit in the United States treasury out of that yearly appropriation, which to-day would be considered quite insufficient to meet the annual expenses of an ordinary board of county commissioners in one of the smallest eastern counties of the state. That annual appropriation of $20,000, however, paid the legislating and printing expenses of a territory which at that time embraced, for purposes of government and protection, all that vast area which is now the two Dakotas, Wyoming, and a part of Colorado. By the census of 1860 the territory contained between 128,000 and 129,000 population. This number of people was scattered in sparsely settled counties from north to south and east to west over an area of 75,000 square miles. Nevertheless, protection to life, liberty, and property was almost as satisfactory then as it is now. County organizations along the river were fully as well managed then as they are now. The counties of Richardson, Nemaha, Otoe, Cass, Sarpy, Douglas, Washington, Burt, and Dakota boasted then as reputable boards of commissioners, as honest and as well qualified and efficient sheriffs, judges, treasurers, and clerks as they have to-day. In 1865, two years before the admission of the state, taxes in Richardson county were twelve mills on the dollar. Ten years later, notwithstanding a promise made everywhere of lower taxes by the advocates of statehood, in the same county they were sixteen mills on the dollar. In 1885-twenty years later they were
twenty-five mills on the dollar, and in 1895 were still twenty-four mills upon the dollar. But the government of Richardson county is no more satisfactory to-day, as far as the protection of the life, liberty, and property of its citizens is concerned, than it was in 1855, when taxes were still lower than in 1865, though the actual amount of levy for the former year I have been unable to ascertain.
The average annual taxation from 1865 to 1895 in the county of Richardson has been 197 mills on a dollar's valuation. Why is it that a county which by nature-taking into consideration timber, water, and rock for building purposes-is, perhaps, by far the best county in the whole commonwealth, should have thus increased its taxation without materially or perceptibly improving its means of protecting property and citizens?
Nemaha county, on the north of Richardson, likewise on the Missouri river, began, in 1865, with a taxation of 117 mills on the dollar, ran up to 174 mills in 1885, and declined to 15 mills in 1895. But this county has scaled down (in some of its precincts) vast sums of indebtedness unwisely incurred by the voting of the public funds to private enterprises, like railroads. This misuse of the power to tax, which has raised funds out of all of the people for the purpose of bestowing them upon a few of the people who have projected and constructed for themselves railroads and other enterprises, has created for taxpayers in the state of Nebraska millions of dollars of unlawful and burdensome indebtedness. The town of Brownville, formerly the county seat of Nemaha, has, in its career, its life and death, illustrated the truth of the statement of Chief Justice Marshall that “the power to tax is the power to destroy." That thrifty and attractive little village was originally one of the most prosperous communities in the whole territory. In fact, it was the first point whence grain and other farm products were shipped from Nebraska to an eastern or southern market, via Missouri river steamboats and St. Louis. But in economic blindness its citizens voted $40,000 for the purpose of paying for grading a railroad from Phelps, in the state of Missouri, down to the river
landing opposite Brownville. This sum was given in the bonds of Brownville precinct, said bonds drawing 10 per cent. interest. The grade was completed, and while the people were tied to this debt and for some years regularly paid the interest, there never were any ties placed upon the grade nor any cars run thereupon, for the reason that no railroad was ever constructed from Phelps to Brownville. During many years the people of Brownville precinct continued to pay for that folly and fallacy. Nevertheless, even after this lesson, the people of Brownvillu were induced again to vote a large subsidy to the Brownville & Fort Kearney railroad. This line was graded, tied and ironed for about nine miles. Over it, with some considerable timidity and no less difficulty, an engine and a few cars several times carefully made trips. The bonds were issued, the interest began to gnaw upon the property of Brownville and to depress the spirit of enterprise which had characterized it; and then, to further illustrate the fallacy of taxing all for the purpose of raising money to give to the few who compose a corporation, and to emphasize its wickedness, the owners of the Brownville & Fort Kearney railroad tore up its tracks and abandoned the project. But they did not abandon the bonds nor relinquish their claim upon the right to use the taxing power in that precinct for the purpose of raising money to meet the coupons as they annually matured. The result was that taxes in Brownville ran up to 17 cents on the dollar. Brownville property was undesirable. No one demanded it. Its value declined with great velocity. A beautiful home, like that of ex-United States Senator Thomas W. Tipton, consisting of a pretty, substantial two-story brick house, honestly built, well finished, with all modern conveniences, and twelve lots, beautifully located and adorned with trees, was sold for something less than one thousand dollars. The county seat was removed, mercantile houses and banks deserted the townsite, until in some of the best buildings on the main street bats and owls found their most secluded and comfortable roosting places. Grass grew in streets that had been resonant with the rumble of farm wagons and brisk with the traffic of a rich and prosperous county.
Brownville is an instance of communal suicide. It destroyed itself by the mismanagement and extravagance of its local government. From prosperity, thrift, and contentment it was transformed into thriftlessness, discontent, and a corporate cadaver. The fate of this pioneer business center is recorded as an admonition to all the new villages in the new counties of the commonwealth. It shows that an overdose of taxation is as fatal to corporate health and life as an overdose of morphine is to the individual organism.
Leaving Nemaha county, going northward along the west bank of the Missouri, we come into the county of Otoe, where, upon the same half mile square of fertile land the writer hereof has lived more than forty years. The first tax paid upon that northeast quarter of section 7, town 8, range 14 east, long known as Arbor Lodge, was in 1855. It amounted to the sum of $5. That included county, precinct, and territorial taxes all told. In 1865 taxes in Otoe county were 9 mills upon the dollar's valuation. In 1875, 194 mills. In 1885, 22 mills. In 1895, 23 mills. And now this same home, adorned with beautiful trees and flowering shrubs and made valuable by the charm and grace of association and felicitous recollections, instead of paying five dollars a year to government for the service of protection, as it did when the domicile was a log cabin and its grounds were treeless prairie, must be taxed each year between two hundred and three hundred dollars.
The cost of that land, when the pre-emptor's title came from the government, on April 23, 1857, was $1.25 per acre, making an aggregate of $200 for the quarter section. And now each year its possessor is compelled to pay more for the cost of local government than the original price of the land. What for? For the protection of life, liberty, and property? Not altogether. But to meet the demands of a sometime extravagant and mismanaged county organization. Primarily the county was involved in debt by voting subsidies to railroads—$150,000 to the Midland Pacific, with 10 per cent. interest, twenty years to run; $150,000 more to the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad Company, 8 per cent. interest, with twenty years to run; and $40,000 more to the Kansas City, St. Joseph & Missouri River Railroad Company.
This voting of subsidies has been always, the writer thinks, contrary to law construed properly and to justice properly defined. It is guaranteed to the American citizen that neither his property, his liberty, nor his life shall be taken from him, except by due process of law. Money is property. Taxes take money from the citizen, and when it is taken by taxation to be bestowed in subsidies upon corporations, forcibly by a vote of a majority, it seems to me plain enough that it is not taken by due process of law. If it be lawful to take the property known as money, in the form of taxes, merely by the sheer force of a majority vote, what objection can there be to taking liberty or life by the same power? If it is legal to take one's money by the strength of a majority vote, without any recognized legal process, is it not equally constitutional and equally just to likewise so take liberty and life?
What is a tax? Whether laid for a local, state, or national government, a tax is simply payment for the service which that government renders to the citizen. And the service which government was instituted to give is the protection of life, liberty, and property. Never, in all the ballots which have been cast in Otoe county for bonds to be used for subsidizing corporations, has the writer of this paper given any other than a negative vote. At no time in his life has he for a moment believed that it was either righteous, just, or expedient for a community to burden itself with debt for the purpose of hastening, before their time, the building of railroads or any other alleged public improvement for the immediate “booming” of a town or county. This system of voting subsidies has prevailed in the state of Nebraska to such an extent as to have involved several counties and precincts in an indebtedness aggregating between ten millions and twenty millions of dollars. A result of such unwisely incurrred
. debts is a tremendous levy upon various precincts, cities, and counties for “sinking funds” with which to meet the annual in