GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Property taxes took center stage at a debate between Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his Democratic challenger, State Sen. Bob Krist, here Thursday.
The two sparred in front of a Nebraska State Fair crowd of some 435 people, many sporting red Ricketts T-shirts, at The World-Herald/KMTV debate.
The candidates answered questions about, among other issues, Medicaid expansion, the death penalty, prisons, medical marijuana, leadership and trade. Both took shots at the other at times, but the tone remained civil throughout.
The first two questions concerned the issue almost every public opinion poll shows atop Nebraskans’ lists — property taxes. They were asked their ideas and why more progress hadn’t been made.
Krist, of Omaha, said he would support using more of sales and income taxes to offset property taxes, saying that the state’s three-legged stool of taxation was off-balance and that the state needed to get back to investing more in education.
“Not funding education causes a further burden on the property taxpayers,” he said.
Ricketts defended his record, citing investments in the state’s property tax credit fund during his first two years in office. The fund uses state tax dollars to offset a portion of property tax bills. He blamed legislators, including Krist, for obstructing his more recent tax proposals.
“What we had on the table was something that would have delivered significant property tax relief,” he said. “It was significant, but it got stalled in the Legislature.”
Krist shot back, arguing that the governor had not worked to build consensus and had resorted instead to bullying lawmakers to get the bill out of committee.
The two returned to the property tax theme several times during the hourlong debate.
Ricketts brought it up in his closing statement, during which he characterized the election as one about “choices and contrasts.”
Along with highlighting differences on issues such as the death penalty, the governor touted his record on growth in Nebraska. He said his approach to lowering taxes, controlling state spending and cutting regulation have made Nebraska a more attractive place to build, expand or relocate a business.
Krist used his closing to emphasize his lifetime of service, including 21 years in the Air Force and 10 in the Nebraska Legislature. He pointed out several problem areas in state government, including the state prison system, child welfare and recent nursing home closures.
“I am running for governor because the state of the state is not as good as I think it should be,” he said.
Krist called the handling of state prisons a “debacle” and pointed to the riots, inmate deaths, assaults on staff and staff turnover as evidence that the governor has fallen short. He particularly faulted Scott Frakes, the corrections director appointed by Ricketts.
Ricketts countered by saying that the Corrections Department has made a “tremendous amount” of progress under his watch. He said his administration had put more money into the agency and increased programs that have reduced assaults on staff.
Krist, when it was his turn to ask a question of his opponent, asked Ricketts about his ties to a donor who some critics say steered the sale of Cabela’s from Nebraska owners to Missouri-based Bass Pro Shop.
Ricketts said he had no prior knowledge of the sale and stressed efforts to lure new businesses to Sidney. He said the state moved an office of the Nebraska Department of Labor there to help Cabela’s employees find work.
Ricketts went back to property taxes with his question, asking Krist why Nebraskans should trust him on the issue when only one of his bills in 10 years of service addressed property taxes and that bill would have increased them.
Krist said that bill was designed to draw attention to the state’s shrinking cash reserve fund. The fund stood at about $800 million in 2009 but is down to about $300 million now. The governor’s most recent property tax plan would have relied on cash reserve funds.
Another question probed Krist’s history of changing positions on issues including tax credits for private school tuition, the death penalty and his party affiliation. The senator said he has changed his views as a result of life-changing events and from learning more about issues.
“The worst thing you can do is think you can walk in the door and know everything about everything,” he said. “Everything is not black and white.”
Krist said the governor had changed his position on an increase in the gas tax, vetoing the bill at first, then traveling the state to promote the highway projects made possible by the tax.
Ricketts said legislation directing the road-building projects was his way of ensuring that the gas tax, once passed through a veto override vote, was used properly.
The governor then fielded a question about his influence over the state’s political process, including the $300,000 support of a petition to reinstate the death penalty and his donations to several legislative candidates.
He said people who agree with him appreciate his support of conservative causes and candidates. He compared his donations with those of labor unions, particularly the Nebraska State Education Association.
The two candidates agreed on some issues. One concerned how to distribute state aid to K-12 schools. Both said they supported a baseline level of aid for all Nebraska schools, no matter how much property wealth they have.
Right now, the bulk of state school aid goes to schools with less property tax resources and greater student needs, leaving property-tax-rich rural schools having to rely almost totally on property taxpayers. Ricketts and Krist said the state needed to support all schools.
Following the debate, both men said they thought the debate had gone well and that they had been able to bring out their key points.