Property tax, marijuana, backgrounds divide Nebraska candidates for governor
October 22nd, 2014
Lincoln, NE – On a recent weekday afternoon, Democrat Chuck Hassebrook spent an hour talking to students in a University of Nebraska at Omaha class on Nebraska politics and government.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/governor-fred-knapp.mp3]
He talked about having been executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, an advocacy organization, and a University of Nebraska Regent.
In an interview later, Hassebrook, 59, said his campaign fits with what he’s be doing for decades. “I spent my life in public service working to create genuine economic opportunity for ordinary people to build a better future in our state – in America — for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “That’s why I’m running for governor, for all those reasons.”
A few miles south, in a morning visit to the Omaha Print company, Republican Pete Ricketts toured a printing plant making the transition to the digital age. Later, Ricketts, 50, talked about how his background as an executive for TD Ameritrade, founded by his father, and as Republican national committeeman, helping raise money for the party, would help him guide the state to greater prosperity.
“I really have a unique combination of skills and experiences that really make me uniquely qualified to be able to take on the job of governor,” he said. “It’s an executive position that I’ve held in the private sector; I know something about politics from having been involved behind the scenes. And this really kind of creates an opportunity for us to really make some changes in government — to make government work better for the citizens of Nebraska.”
And a few miles to the east, in the dark Stiles Public House bar in Omaha’s Old Market, Mark Elworth Jr. was meeting with Libertarian Party supporters at their weekly meet and greet. Elworth, 38, talked about the perspective he gets as a member of the “working poor,” getting by on odd jobs from painting houses to cleaning out garages.
“I feel like the workers of Nebraska are a little bit abused. I can’t afford health insurance. I have a hard time paying my rent,” he said. “There’s other issues too that I felt needed to be taken care of, like the environment. I felt like corporations in Nebraska were destroying our environment, like the corporate farms. I feel like the corporations are taking over, and I want small businesses and workers like me to be in charge.”
These different perspectives are reflected in the candidates’ positions on issues, as well. Take the big issue of property taxes, for example – a problem that’s hit farmers especially hard in recent years, as ag land values have boomed.
Ricketts wants to limit annual increases in tax valuations. So for example, if the limit were five percent, then the tax hit on someone whose land went up 20 percent in a year could be spread out over four years. Ricketts says making that change would probably require voter approval. “There’s no doubt we’ll have to make a change to our constitution, most likely, to be able to put that cap on how fast valuations can go up,” he said.
Ricketts acknowledged the change would not permanently keep valuations low. “But what it would do is prevent the property owner from getting hit with that big bill, all in one year. And that’s the big squeeze that folks are seeing, and it’s really unfair,” he said.
Ricketts also wants to expand an existing property tax credit program that uses state income and sales tax revenue to offset a small portion of property taxes.
For instance, the owner of a $100,00 house might save about $70 on their property taxes this year. That comes at a cost of $140 million to the state treasury. Hassebrook says the money is not well-targeted. “Right now, the biggest beneficiary in Nebraska of our property tax credit program is Ted Turner, because he’s the largest property owner. And I have to believe that Ted Turner doesn’t need property tax relief nearly as much as many of our family farmers and ranchers and many of our modest income homeowners,” Hassebrook said.
Unlike Ricketts, Hassebrook said this change he wants would not require changing the Nebraska constitution. The constitution’s so-called uniformity clause requires all property to be valued the same for tax purposes, unless voters approve an exception. “That question’s been raised, and I’ve looked at that and I believe that we have the authority to do a tax credit system through the income tax to reimburse property taxes paid without running afoul of the uniformity clause,” Hassebrook said.
Libertarian Mark Elworth favors a still different approach. “We need some property tax relief real bad. We in Nebraska – I know we pay more taxes than anywhere. I know people that move out of state just because the taxes are too high. They get some money and they go because they think they’re spending too much money here,” Elworth said. “We do need relief and the marijuana legalization that would be a great …additional revenue source.”
That points to another difference between the candidates: their positions on marijuana. Elworth thinks Nebraska should legalize it. “I do support the legalization of marijuana. That’s another…reason why I ran, because they did legalize it in Colorado, our neighboring state. And there was nothing going on here to legalize it,” he said. “I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by not legalizing it, because there’s a ton of money going over there.”
Hassebrook rejects legalization, but allows for a possible exception. “I do not support the legalization of marijuana. (There is) significant evidence that marijuana use, particularly by adolescents, interferes with intellectual development,” he said. However, “in cases where there is compelling scientific evidence of a medical benefit, to have it available for those uses when prescribed by a physician and dispensed by a pharmacy, I’m open to that,” he added.
Ricketts takes an even harder line. “I don’t believe that we ought to be doing things unilaterally here in this state. When it comes to marijuana, that’s a dangerous drug,” Ricketts said. “If it is to be legalized, it would need to go through an FDA process just like every other drug. And until it does that, we ought not to legalize it here in Nebraska – certainly not for medicinal purposes, and then certainly not for recreational users.”
Voters will have their chance to indicate which candidate’s background and positions they prefer on Nov. 4.