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Beatrice 6

The six people convicted and later cleared of killing Helen Wilson in 1985: (from top left) Joseph White, Tom Winslow, JoAnn Taylor, Deb Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez.

The Legislature easily hurdled Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a bill allowing Gage County to create a sales tax to help pay a federal judgment in the so-called Beatrice 6 case.

Only two senators who voted for the bill (LB472) on final reading, where it passed 43-6, peeled away during the motion to override the governor's veto.

On Tuesday, 41 senators voted for Beatrice Sen. Myron Dorn's bill allowing the Gage County Board of Supervisors to create a countywide half-cent sales tax for the specific purpose of paying the $28.1 million federal judgment.

It needed just 30 votes to go into law over the governor's objection. Dorn cast the 30th vote.

"I'm happy with the outcome," Dorn said. "Very, very happy."

LB472, which is narrowly tailored to Gage County's circumstance, makes the sales tax only available to counties facing federal judgments in excess of $25 million if their property tax levy is at the maximum allowable under state law.

It would require five of Gage County's seven board members to vote for the sales tax, which will sunset seven years after being enacted or when the judgment is paid in full, whichever comes first.

Ricketts issued his first veto of the 106th Legislature last week, calling the events underlying the so-called Beatrice 6 case and its effects on Gage County "tragic," but adding none should allow "the county to break with the principle of allowing the people to vote on whether to raise sales taxes in their community."

"This bill sets a dangerous precedent for authorizing a sales tax increase," Ricketts wrote in his veto message to the Legislature.

Two senators who voted for LB472 on final reading explained why they were switching their votes.

Sen. Steve Erdman criticized Dorn for voting to reduce the amount the governor recommended be put into the property tax credit fund while seeking to create a sales tax to minimize pressure on property taxpayers with his own bill.

Ricketts recommended putting $51 million into the fund this year that provides direct property tax relief, but Dorn and a majority of the Appropriations Committee ultimately voted to put half that amount into the fund and the rest into the state's cash reserve.

"You can't have it both ways," the Bayard senator said.

Sen. Rob Clements of Elmwood said he reluctantly voted for LB472 even though he had concerns about creating a sales tax without the vote of the people because of the some of the parameters Dorn put into the bill.

While other senators have said Gage County is in a unique situation, Clements said the possibility of large federal judgments assessed to other municipalities is not out of the question and that he hopes Gage County would create its own sales tax through a vote of the people.

"I'm voting no today hoping they will do that," he added. "I've made my own decision, it's not from pressure from the governor."

Other opponents who voted against LB472 earlier, including Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers and Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, reiterated they would stand by the principle of not raising sales taxes without letting the people have their say.

"I have faith in the people of Gage County that they will vote in favor of this," Lowe said.

Hilgers said creating a precedent for establishing a sales tax without a vote of the people could be abused in the future by the Legislature or other municipalities.

Backers of Dorn's motion to override the governor's veto said the circumstances behind the Beatrice 6 case, the decade-long legal battle and extraordinary judgment were so unusual they didn't foresee anything like it coming before the Legislature again.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, who chided Gage County for voting to reinstate the death penalty in 2016 even after the threat of capital punishment was used to secure the pleas of several of the six decades ago, said he admired Dorn for "putting his head on the political chopping block" in introducing a bill that would raise taxes on only the citizens of his district.

The longtime Omaha senator also rebuked Ricketts for reminding lawmakers in his veto message the Legislature "traditionally had not authorized political subdivisions to impose new taxes" without first asking for a vote of the people.

"Traditionally, no governor has spent more than a half-million dollars to overturn the legislative enactment over his veto, but he did it," Chambers said, referring to Ricketts' support of the death penalty ballot initiative.

Property tax hawks Sen. Tom Briese of Albion and Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said a sales tax was the only way to ensure payment of the judgment didn't fall 100 percent on property owners of Gage County.

And Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said Gage County and state senators found themselves between "a rock and a hard place," requiring a practical solution that may go against some principles.

Dorn said Gage County had few options in paying the $28.1 million judgment, plus nearly $2 million in attorney's fees and an estimated $1 million in interest.

The money will be used to compensate Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Sheldon and the estate of Joseph White, who spent a combined 75 years in prison after they were wrongfully convicted of a 1985 Beatrice murder.

They sued the county in 2009, and in 2016, a federal jury found Gage County and two former sheriff's deputies liable for leading the reckless investigation that put them behind bars.

The county appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the nation's highest court decided earlier this year not to hear the case.

Supervisors in Gage County last year raised the property tax levy to the maximum allowed under state law to begin paying the verdict. Dorn said voters were not given the choice to weigh in on that remedy and argued the same principle should apply to the countywide sales tax.

The sales tax, if approved by the county board, is expected to generate as much as $1.3 million annually, which when combined with the $3.8 million the county expects to collect in additional property taxes, would allow Gage County to complete its obligation in roughly six years rather than eight, Dorn explained.

It will also mean property owners pay $6 million less in taxes to fund the judgment, he added.

In his close before the vote was taken, Dorn said he prays the remarkable set of circumstances — from the wrongful conviction of six people for a crime they did not commit to the massive federal judgment imposed on a county with few options to pay it — never happen again.

"This bill cannot correct all those things," he said. "It can help pay off the judgment with something besides property taxes."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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