Ricketts Discusses COVID, Property Taxes, Prisons in Speech

Jan. 14, 2021, 5:41 p.m. ·

Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers State of the State speech Thursday (NET screenshot)

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Governor Pete Ricketts’ proposal for new limits on property taxes, contained in his State of the State speech Thursday, is getting a mixed reaction from lawmakers. NET News legislative reporter Fred Knapp talked with All Things Considered host Jack Williams about this and other parts of the governor’s speech.

Williams: Fred, Thursday was the governor’s State of the State speech, which usually involves looking back at the past year and ahead to this year’s legislative agenda. And of course, this past year has been consumed by the pandemic. What did Gov. Pete Ricketts have to say about that?

Knapp: He praised Nebraskans grit and determination dealing with it, and also implicitly defended his administration’s handling of it. Let’s take a listen.

Ricketts: Through it all, Nebraskans have been using our tools to slow the spread of the virus social distancing wearing mask at store washing hands As we all do our part the state followed our north star: protecting our hospital capacity.

Williams: So he described maintaining hospital capacity as the state’s “north star.” How has that worked out?

Knapp: Critics have faulted the governor for not doing more, such as shutting down non-essential businesses, as happened in other states, and not mandating mask wearing, saying that could have save lives. So far, 1803 Nebraskans have died of COVID, according to DHHS. Ricketts has pushed back, saying his balance approach has kept the state’s economy healthy, with the lowest-in-the nation unemployment at 3.1 percent, only one tenth of a percent above a year ago. And as of yesterday (Wednesday), 31 percent of the state’s staffed hospital beds, 34% of its ICU beds, and 75 percent of its ventilators were still available, according to DHHS.

Williams: Looking forward, what did the governor say is on his agenda?

Knapp: Several big initiatives, including on property taxes. Last year they passed a new property tax credit on the income tax, you get a credit for what you pay for schools, for example, if you pay $2,000 for schools you get a credit equal to about 6%, of that or $120 off. But the governor said that’s not enough.

Ricketts: But there’s more we must dot to keep Nebraska on the road to realizing property tax relief. That’s why sen. Linehan and I are proposing to limit the growth of local government property taxes to 3 percent. New local spending restraints are critical to ensuring the relief we provide goes into people’s pockets and to maintain local control in future years.

Knapp: Ricketts said if the Legislature doesn’t act, citizens use an initiative to cut off local governments’ ability to use property taxes completely. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of Revenue Committee, said the proposal will maintain local control by providing for local opt out elections and making allowances for growth in valuations due to new construction. But Linehan said limits are needed to make sure property tax relief winds up in people’s pockets. Sen. Lynne Walz, head of the Education Committee, sounded cautious about that.

Walz: I understand that concern but I am a big proponent of local control and making sure that our local communities have the authority to make the decisions that they need to make. I think back to the flood that we had a couple of years ago. I want to make sure that in cases like, or any strategic plans or plans or priorities that they have that they’re able to make the decisions that they want to make.

Knapp: If the Legislature approves the tax limiting proposal, it would then go to the voters, since it’s a constitutional amendment. I asked Linehan about locking a 3 percent annual increase into the constitution, if inflation reached higher levels or even double digits, as it has in previous decades.

Linehan: Well then we’d have to unlock it if that was the need. But what we have seen over the last 10 years is inflation has been less than two percent, and property tax growth has been over four percent (per year).

Williams: What other initiatives did the governor discuss?

Knapp: He talked about a new $230 million, 1,500 bed prison That’s expected to meet resistance from people who think a better way to do it would be sentencing reform or smaller community corrections; expanding an exemption on military retirement pay approved last year at 50 percent, this year he wants to take it to 100 percent. He talked about setting aside $50 million for a space command headquarters, although that’s been announced as the preferred site being in Huntsville, Alabama, but he’s still hopeful on that. Twenty million dollars a year for broadband to address the 80,000 households that don’t have FCC standard download speeds. There’s already 17,000 of those that are in the process of being upgraded; he says this would help upgrade another 30,000.

Williams: Anything else noteworthy about speech?

Knapp: There was one moment of controversy after Ricketts welcomed new senators.

Ricketts: Please also recognize the newest members of the Unicameral: Senators Aguilar, Bostar, Cavanaugh, Day Flood, Pahls and Sanders.

That left out Sen. Terrell McKinney, newly elected to represent largely black north Omaha, and succeeding former Sen. Ernie Chambers. McKinney said later his reaction was to laugh at the omission.

McKinney: It is what it is to say I’m surprised, no, because I come from north Omaha. We’re always forgot about. So I’m not surprised. You live with it and keep moving on, honestly.

Knapp: Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the omission was unintentional, and the governor had reached out to McKinney, who said the governor left him a note. Gage also noted the governor recently announced the opening of an office in north Omaha to promote economic development.