Grand Islanders were able to learn more about Gov. Pete Ricketts’ priorities for this legislative session during his annual State of the State fly-around press conference Wednesday afternoon at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport.
Ricketts said he has four priorities that he hopes to build upon this session: property tax relief, flood relief, veterans tax relief, and workforce and business expansion. He said as he travels across the state, property tax relief is the No. 1 issue Nebraskans talk to him about, and it continues to be his administration’s top priority.
Last year, he said, the state made progress on this issue by increasing the property tax relief fund by more than 20%. As part of this year’s budget, he is proposing $500 million in property tax relief over the next three years.
Ricketts said he is working with state Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chairwoman of the revenue committee, on a proposal to do this.
“We have a high-level framework agreed to, but there is still more work to do on the details,” he said.
According to an Omaha World-Herald article, the revenue committee’s proposal seeks to increase state aid to local schools by about $520 million over three years, and then ratchet down property tax bills for schools by the same amount. On average, it would cut 13% to 15% from the portion of a taxpayer’s property tax bill that finances K-12 schools.
Ricketts said 2019 will be known as “Nebraska’s finest hour” as it was faced with flooding that proved to be “the most widespread and costliest disaster we have ever had in our state’s history.”
He said that while the federal government will provide a large amount of support, the state also has to do its part.
According to Ricketts, 84 Nebraska counties and five tribal nations have submitted more than $400 million in disaster relief projects, with the federal government picking up 75% of the cost. The counties must come up with 12.5% of the cost, while the state will pick up the other 12.5%.
The governor said his budget recommendation includes $50 million to address the state’s share for these projects. It also calls for another $9.2 million in aid to help counties severely impacted by last year’s flooding. He said the $9.2 million in aid would help small, rural counties that do not have the population or the tax base to cover the costs of the damage they received. These counties would include Garfield, Greeley and Nance counties.
The announcement was a huge relief for officials in Greeley County, where the North Loup River and numerous creeks spilled out of their banks.
The flooding caused so much road and bridge damage that county officials drained their general fund and raised property taxes by 43%, said county board member Michael Goldfish. Even then, Goldfish said they still had to take out a bank loan for the first time in his 21-year tenure in public office.
Under the governor’s proposal, the county would get an extra $2.2 million in state aid to help cover its share of the repair costs.
“That’s welcome news,” Goldfish said. ”It would make a huge difference for us. We’re pretty conservative with our spending, but we’re in farm country and the economy’s not good right now.”
Ricketts said he is also recommending $3 million to maintain an adequate balance in the Governor’s Emergency Fund so the state is prepared to respond to future emergencies.
When it comes to veterans tax relief, he said Nebraska is the only state in the region with a declining population of veterans and that the state needs to address this.
“We know that veterans continue to contribute to our communities and to our economy even after they leave military service,” Ricketts said. “We need to keep them here in our state. One of the reasons they leave is because we tax military retirement benefits. Many of our surrounding states do not tax military retirement benefits at all.”
He said he is working with state Sen. Tom Brewer on LB153 to provide a 50% tax rate on military retirement benefits. While it is not a 100% tax reduction, it is still a step in the right direction to let veterans know they are appreciated and to retain them in Nebraska.
On Monday, the Legislature voted 46-0 to give first-round approval to LB153.
Ricketts said his fourth priority is to grow the state and its workforce by connecting Nebraska students to opportunities in the state to allow them to make Nebraska their permanent home. He said he is proposing $16 million in scholarships for students at the state’s community colleges, state colleges and university system in order to connect these students with careers in high-demand fields such as engineering, health care and information technology.
During a question-and-answer session following his address, Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Area Chamber of Commerce, asked the governor about the renewal of Nebraska’s business incentives. He said his budget calls for renewal of Nebraska’s incentive program under LB720 — the Imagine Nebraska Act.
“If we do not have an incentive program, we will not be competitive nationally with other states and companies will not look at Nebraska when they are expanding,” Ricketts said.
Hall County Commissioner Gary Quandt asked Ricketts about corrections. The governor said he is recommending $8 million to “attract and retain quality teammates” in Nebraska and this supports the agreement recently reached with the Fraternal Order of Police — the corrections officers union.
Ricketts was asked by a member of the local media about his thoughts on the recent drone activities in Nebraska. He said he did not have any new information to share on this.
“I can tell you that the Nebraska State Patrol is working with the FBI, the FAA and local law enforcement officials,” he said. “I do not have any information on who is flying the drones. I would urge anyone who sees a drone to report it to law enforcement so we can collect that information to have a better picture of what is going on. I would also tell people to not try to shoot down the drones.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.