Pillen: Progress on taxes; winner-take-all session possible

April 10, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Governor Jim Pillen speaks Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Governor Jim Pillen speaks Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Gov. Jim Pillen said Wednesday more needs to be done to lower property taxes. And he said he’ll call a special session to change Nebraska to a winner-take-all electoral college system, if 33 senators say they’ll vote for it.

As senators debated tax bills Wednesday, Pillen expressed optimism about some things he thinks have a good chance to pass.

“We have a good opportunity to advance on caps. We have a good opportunity to get the credits front loaded. And we have an opportunity to be able to get some funding to be able to cover that front load. That's probably where it's at. But we have more work to do this year and we won't stop,” Pillen said.

Caps are limits on the ability of local government units, including schools, counties and cities, to raise property taxes and spending each year. Front loading refers to giving taxpayers property tax relief up front, rather than requiring them to pay their taxes and then file for an income tax credit, which many people neglect to do. And additional funding to direct toward property tax relief could come from eliminating some sales tax exemptions.

Those elements represent a scaled-down version of what the Revenue Committee, working with Pillen, originally recommended for passage. That version would have raised the state sales tax rate by one cent to help finance a doubling of state aid to schools, to decrease their reliance on property taxes. But that idea fizzled in the face of opposition by business groups and senators who said it would unduly burden low-income Nebraskans.

Pillen’s comment about further work to come could mean a special legislative session to consider more tax legislation later this year. The current legislative session is scheduled to end next Thursday, and lawmakers would not ordinarily resume meeting until next January.

However, Pillen has also raised the possibility of calling a special session on another subject: changing to a winner-take-all system of allocating Nebraska’s five Electoral College votes in presidential elections.

Since the 1990s, the state has given two votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, and the remaining three to whichever candidate wins in each of the three congressional districts.

In both 2008 and 2020, that gave Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden one vote from the Omaha-area second congressional district, respectively, while the state as a whole went solidly Republican.

In recent weeks, conservative activist Charlie Kirk has pressed for Nebraska to change back to the winner-take-all system used in every other state except Maine. Former President Donald Trump has endorsed the idea, and many people from both inside and outside the state have joined in the call.

Pillen has said he’ll call a special session if there are enough senators to make a change. Asked about that Wednesday, Pillen said it doesn’t seem top of mind to Nebraskans he talks to.

“You know, I've been out over three years. I've never been asked that question. Never, by anyone,” he said.

Tuesday night, Pillen tweeted that he looked forward to a special session to enact winner-take-all, quote “when there is sufficient support in the Legislature pass it.” When asked Wednesday, he expanded on that.

“My position is really simple. That (switching away from winner-take-all) was a mistake made 30 years ago, 30 years ago in the state. You know, you're not going to solve it in 30 minutes. And it's very, very pragmatic. I'm not into goober politics. It's what's right and what's wrong. So if what two states Nebraskan and other state are doing is right, let's get it in all 48 states, otherwise we ought to join with what's going on with the other 48 states. You know, that's where I'm at. So when I'm confident we have 33 votes, we'll get it fixed,” he said.

Pillen spokesperson Laura Strimple said by “goober politics,” Pillen was referring to making decisions solely for political reasons. She said rather, Pillen “believes strongly in basing decisions on what is best for the state and reflective of the values of Nebraskans. “

Thirty-three votes is what would be required to overcome an expected filibuster against changing back to winner-take-all. Nebraska governors have the power to call legislators into a special session. Speaker of the Legislature John Arch says there’s also another way.

“There are two paths to a special session: one called by the senators, one called by the governor,” Arch said.

It would also take 33 senators to call themselves into special session. That hasn’t happened at least since the state switched to a nonpartisan, one-house unicameral system in 1937.

There are 33 registered Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, but at least one, former Democrat Mike McDonnell, said has week he hasn’t changed his opposition to winner take all.

Arch said whether there’s support for a special session before the November election depends on priorities.

“The governor will decide if it’s important enough, and the body will decide if it’s important enough,” he said.

For Nebraska Public Media News at the Capitol, I’m Fred Knapp.