GRAND ISLAND — Gov. Pete Ricketts and state Sen. Bob Krist offered competing visions for assisting property taxpayers during an hour-long debate at the Nebraska State Fair on Thursday.
Ricketts, the Republican incumbent, said he has worked to cut Nebraskans’ tax bills in his first term, signing legislation that increased the state’s prope photo to come to citydesk email - use on jump if room or use mugs if there is not. rty tax credit relief fund by 40 percent as well as a second initiative that added $20 million in aid for farmers and ranchers.
While he has backed other property tax relief proposals in the Legislature, those measures stalled out, Ricketts said before a crowd of 435 at the Bosselman Conference Center.
Krist, a state senator from Omaha running for governor as a Democrat, said that’s because the tax relief bills offered on Ricketts’ behalf couldn’t find consensus. He said Ricketts was more interested in cutting taxes for his family’s businesses than for average Nebraskans.
He said he’s open to using more income and sales tax in order to relieve the pressure placed upon property taxpayers without harming public education and other local government programs, citing the oft-mentioned “three-legged stool” tax system.
Thursday’s debate kicked off the gubernatorial campaign that will culminate with the Nov. 6 general election.
Candidates sparred over the Medicaid expansion petition that obtained enough signatures to go on the ballot, ongoing staffing and safety issues at the Nebraska Department of Corrections, higher education funding, medical marijuana, as well as their vision for the state’s future.
Krist said he supports the ballot initiative to expand Medicaid in the state, saying it will ensure an added 90,000 Nebraskans have access to health insurance, including 35,000 veterans. “It is not going to cost the state that much money and it needs to be done,” he said.
Ricketts said the federal government needs to take charge of reforming the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, in order to “make it affordable so people could actually buy it.”
He said if the ballot measure passes, the state would be obligated to spend an additional $100 million that would detract from education funding, property tax relief and infrastructure.
Disputing the status of the state’s prison system, Krist laid blame for a pair of prison riots and several inmate murders at the feet of the governor as well as Corrections Director Scott Frakes, whom he said he would fire if elected governor.
Krist blamed Ricketts for disbanding a stakeholder group that watched the intake of prisoners and other issues that have caused problems in favor of a top-down approach in managing the agency, saying that group should be re-established.
Ricketts said his administration is seeing results in reforming the Department of Corrections, but admitted more changes are needed, including $117 million in capital expenses and operational funding to help pay for, among other things, increased pay for correctional officers.
On education, both candidates said they support returning to a foundational aid program, which provided K-12 districts a base amount of state support for every student enrolled.
But they diverged on how best to partner with the state’s higher education systems: Krist said more funding was needed, while Ricketts said those institutions should be expected to make cuts at the same rate as other state agencies.
They also disagreed on how the state should proceed on medical marijuana. Ricketts said he wants Nebraska to wait for the Federal Drug Administration’s approval; Krist said Nebraska should allow several cannabis products already approved for medical use.
Several times, however, the debate circled back to where it began.
Ricketts cautioned Nebraskans against trusting Krist to tackle the challenge of cutting property taxes, saying the Omaha state senator had been a member of the Legislature for a decade without anything to show for it.
Krist said Ricketts was also seeking another term, which he said indicated the governor had not provided the broad property tax relief sought by Nebraskans.
In their closing statements, the candidates summed up the divide between their campaigns.
Ricketts said he wants to continue growing Nebraska, making it an attractive place for families and businesses to move, while also placing more controls on government spending and cutting regulations.
Krist said he believes Nebraska should go in a new direction: “I’m running for governor because the state of the state is not as good as I think it should be, as we think it should be.”