The last legislative session was marked by acrimony and the largest (and unfunded) property tax cut in state history. This risky tax scheme will most likely cause cuts in services like education and health care, which are essential to a vibrant economy.
The November elections which followed this legislative session resulted in the Republicans picking up two seats — which was a bit of a setback for Governor Ricketts. In the session that begins on January 6, there will be 32 Republicans and 17 Democrats. That leaves the billionaire governor at least one seat shy of a filibuster proof super majority.
Ricketts has already laid out his agenda for the new session. He would like even more property tax cuts and would like to spend $230 million on a new prison. What’s more, Ricketts has indicated he wants to pay for this extreme agenda by cutting spending on education.
Opposition to Ricketts’ legislative program is already forming up. Nebraska ACLU executive director Danielle Conrad has said building any new prison would only add to current problems while costing taxpayers millions. “I cannot understand why the department would want to embrace a business model that depends on locking up more and more of our Nebraska neighbors. Nebraska is struggling to adequately staff the facilities we already have.”
Similarly, there will be vigorous opposition to any cuts in education. Stand for Schools — a non profit working to support public education in Nebraska — tweeted: “Public schools already work under levy limits and spending limits. Ricketts is making the case property taxes are too high because of school spending — which is totally false. They are high because of decades of underinvestment by the state. According to the state’s own funding formula, public schools have only been fully funded in 4 of the last 17 years. Nebraska schools don’t have a spending problem; the state has a funding problem. A tired excuse by Ricketts & friends to continue underfunding public education.”
Ricketts’ plan to cut school funding is a “solution” in search of a problem. State Senator Adam Morfeld said it best in a tweet: “Governor Ricketts economic development plan for Nebraska: — Gut public education on Friday — Build a new prison on Monday And he lectures schools and teachers to tighten their belts. We already have spending limits on schools — it’s called the local school board. I don’t think local governments need Pete Ricketts micromanaging their budgets and priorities.”
Lurking in the background is a radical tax scheme hatched by a corporate front group which calls themselves Blueprint Nebraska. This right wing group wants to double down on Nebraska’s failed trickle down policies by funding what they call a “significant reduction or the elimination of individual and corporate income taxes” with a huge increase in sales taxes. As I’ve discussed here before, Nebraska’s super wealthy are already lightly taxed and Nebraska corporations already grab $200 to $300 million per year in corporate welfare.
The non-partisan Open Sky think tank blasted this proposal. Open Sky executive director Renee Fry contended that “most of the financial benefits of any income tax cuts would flow to high earners, leaving most Nebraskans with a net tax increase. This is a tax cut for wealthy families that low- and middle- income families would pay for,” she said.
In addition to the usual bills that would comfort the already comfortable, there will be progressive legislation introduced by both Democratic and Republican senators. Republican Senator John McCollister will introduce bills that would end gerrymandering, take aggressive action on climate change, establish ranked choice voting, reform parole, establish gun purchase waiting periods, and expand SNAP benefit eligibility. Unfortunately, these bills stand little prospect of passing.
Engraved over the entrance to Nebraska’s state capitol are the words: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.” Those words have never been more relevant. I would urge all of you to contact your state senators and let your views be known. In addition to that, we have crucial city elections in Lincoln and Omaha this year. A good result in those elections could lay the foundation for a successful 2022 election cycle. Now let’s leave it all out on the field!