By Grant Schulte
Nebraska voters could get to decide whether to restrict local government spending next year under Gov. Pete Ricketts’ property tax proposal that he presented to lawmakers on Thursday.
Ricketts said he is backing a constitutional amendment that would limit the growth of local government property taxes to 3% per year, and he warned that if lawmakers don’t act, voters might launch a petition drive to do it themselves. The governor’s measure would apply to public school districts, natural resources districts and all other local governments that levy property taxes.
“New local spending constraints are critical to ensure the relief we provide goes into people’s pockets and to maintain local control in future years,” Ricketts said in his annual State of the State address.
Here are some other highlights from the governor’s plans:
WHAT DOES THE PROPERTY TAX PROPOSAL DO?
The ballot measure is a constitutional amendment that voters would have to approve in 2022 if lawmakers agree to place it on the general election ballot.
It would prevent local property tax collections from growing by more than 3% per year, so if revenues come in higher than expected, schools and other governments would have to lower their levy rates until it equaled 3% growth. Bond measures would be excluded.
In a briefing with reporters, Ricketts said local governments would still be able to generate additional revenue by imposing other taxes, such as a local sales tax. He also acknowledged that clamping down on local revenue growth could lead to additional state funding for schools if their needs grow substantially and they can’t generate enough money themselves.
Ricketts is also calling on lawmakers to continue the state’s current property tax relief programs, for a total of $1.36 billion returned to property owners over the next two years.
NOT GIVING UP ON BRINGING U.S. SPACE COMMAND TO NEBRASKA
Ricketts said he’s not giving up yet in his effort to bring U.S. Space Command operations to Offutt Air Force Base, even though the Trump administration announced that it has chosen Alabama as its site.
Ricketts is still seeking $50 million from lawmakers for the state to use in a bid. He told reporters that he hopes to persuade the incoming Biden administration that Nebraska is the best location.
A NEW PRISON
As expected, Ricketts urged lawmakers to approve $230 million in spending over five years to build a new state prison that would house maximum-security inmates. The prison would house an estimated 1,512 inmates and replace the outdated Nebraska State Penitentiary, which would then be converted into housing space for minimum-security inmates.
“The Nebraska State Penitentiary is decaying,” Ricketts said in his speech.
Ricketts also wants $40 million over the next two years to expand high-speed internet service to an estimated 30,000 households that lack the service. He said more than 80,000 households currently don’t have broadband speeds that are considered adequate for modern usage.
“The pandemic revealed how impossible work from home or remote education can be for those on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Ricketts said.
The money would go toward grants to give broadband developers an incentive to set up service in remote areas where it isn’t otherwise feasible.
MILITARY RETIREMENT PAY
Military service members who retire in Nebraska would get a full tax exemption on their retirement income under another proposal from the governor.
Lawmakers and Ricketts approved a partial exemption last year, largely out of concern that Air Force service members at Offutt Air Force Base were moving across the Missouri River to Iowa, which doesn’t tax that income.
Ricketts said he also wants to make it easier for military spouses to find jobs by letting them get automatically licensed in Nebraska is they hold a professional license from another state. He’s making a similar push for health care workers, arguing that it would help Nebraska attract out-of-state doctors and nurses.