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Ricketts proposes property tax growth limit, new prison

Ricketts proposes property tax growth limit, new prison

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Gov. Pete Ricketts on Thursday urged the Legislature to place a 3% limit on the annual growth of local property taxes, fund construction of a new $230 million state prison and expand broadband access to 30,000 households lacking high-speed internet connectivity.

Those were the high-profile proposals wrapped into a compact State of the State address to the Legislature that outlined a conservative 2021-23 budget proposal that would hold increased state tax-supported spending to a 1.5% growth rate.

Ricketts' state budget proposal will be his last as he wraps up eight years in the governor's office at the end of next year.

"Even as we've had to overcome the challenge of the pandemic, the work of Nebraskans everywhere has kept the state of the state strong," the governor told members of the Legislature.

The State of the State address, usually a moment for high energy and enthusiasm with the Rotunda bustling and legislative balconies filled with the governor's supporters, interested citizens and often visiting school children, was delivered in a quiet and subdued atmosphere due to pandemic restrictions.

The balconies were empty except for a lineup of news media photographers and legislative reporters.

Senators sat quietly in their seats without the constant interruption of applause. Instead of handshakes on the way down the aisle in and out of the chamber, the governor greeted senators with elbow bumps.

Ricketts said he will work together with Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, chairwoman of the Legislature's Revenue Committee, to place a 3% growth limit on local government property taxes, applying constraints to what has been a 4.46% average annual growth rate for the past 10 years.

"Taxes are growing at a rate that Nebraskans cannot manage within their family budgets," the governor said.

"It is my belief that if the Legislature fails to enact spending constraints the people of Nebraska will take matters into their own hands and strip local governments of their property tax authority."

It happened before in the 1960s, Ricketts noted, when Nebraska voters eliminated the use of property taxes to support state government.

A cap on the growth of local property taxes would particularly affect public schools.

Total property tax relief provided by the state has risen to $1.36 billion in the coming biennium, Ricketts said, as reflected in his budget document.

The governor's budget plan includes a $115 million initial state investment to build a new $230 million state prison to replace the decaying state penitentiary in Lincoln.

Ricketts said the new prison could be operational in 2025, when Nebraska's corrections system is expected to house more than 6,400 inmates. Its current operational capacity is closer to 5,300.

"Nebraska's corrections system has been underbuilt for 40 years, and our infrastructure is aging," the governor said.

"It's no secret that many Nebraskans still do not have access to broadband," Ricketts said in unveiling his proposal for additional investment in better community connectivity through access to broadband.

"The pandemic revealed how impossible work from home or remote education can be for those on the wrong side of the digital divide," he said.

Over the past several months, the governor said, the state used federal funding from the CARES Act to begin connecting 17,600 households with broadband.

Working with Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson and Speaker Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, Ricketts said, he is proposing investment of $20 million in each of the next two years to help an additional 30,000 households obtain broadband connectivity.

Ricketts saluted Nebraskans for their response to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic immediately after their efforts to help the state recover from historic flooding in 2019.

"While battling coronavirus, we have kept building on our efforts to grow Nebraska even in the midst of tough circumstances," he said.

Touching on other topics, Ricketts said he and Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon will propose increasing the current 50% state income tax exemption for military retirement income to 100%.

The governor said he is working with Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chairman of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, to invest $50 million in state funding to help try to attract the new U.S. Space Command to Offutt Air Force Base.

Although the Air Force has selected Redstone Arsenal in Alabama as its preferred site, a decision about its location has not been firmly settled.

"I believe that when we look back on the last year, we will see a year that brought out the best in Nebraskans," the governor said, pointing to the response to the pandemic.

"And now Nebraskans are embracing the coronavirus vaccine," he said.

"As the pandemic continues, we have an opportunity to keep moving our state forward."

PHOTOS: STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESS

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSdon

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