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Ricketts visits western Nebraska, outlines budget
January 29, 2015 Jerry Purvis   

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Photo by Jerry Purvis/Gering Citizen - Gov. Pete Ricketts greets fourth graders from Bayard Elementary School prior to his speech outlining his proposed upcoming budget.

Governor Pete Rickets, on the job for just two weeks, was in the area last Friday to outline his budget proposals for the 2015-2017 biennium. And among the audience were fourth graders from Bayard Elementary School, who made the trip to Scottsbluff to see the governor in person.

After greeting the fourth graders, Ricketts rolled out what he saw for Nebraska’s future.

“My first priorities are creating jobs and strengthening the economy, because those two go together,” Ricketts said. “One of my first actions I took, even before I was sworn in, was to find an economic development director who could put the plans in place to grow our state.”

He added that high taxes are a barrier to job creation. The item he hears the most about is property taxes.

“In my budget, I’ve put an additional $60 million a year for direct property tax relief,” he said. “In the next biennium, we’ll have more than $400 million in property tax relief going to property owners all across the state.”

Part of the high property tax issue involved ag land, which has gone up an average 29 percent just last year. “That’s why I’m supporting reducing ag land values from 75 to 65 percent over the next three years,” he said. “If we do that, we’ll have to put more money into the school aid formula. I’ve pledged an additional $9.5 million in the second year of the biennium.”

Another $23 million of Ricketts’ proposed budget would be used to further exclude military retirement benefits from state income tax.
Ricketts said state revenues grow about five percent each year. To provide long-term tax relief, the state must keep spending growth below revenue growth. In the previous biennium, state spending was about 6.5 percent a year, while revenue was growing at about 5.4 percent.

He said a conservative approach to budgeting would hold the two-year budget growth to 3.1 percent with no tax increases.
Another area of state government that needs reform is the corrections department. In addition to hiring a new director, Ricketts has already put $10 million into the prison system and plans another $45 million in the next biennium.

The new governor has implemented nationwide job searches for new directors, but a new head for Nebraska Health and Human Services is yet to be hired.

“We have to make sure we have a culture at HHS that focuses on helping people,” he said. “We can’t just deliver programs, but we need to also take care of the entire person. And the costs will come down once we’re seeing better outcomes.”

The new governor also touched on the problem of overregulation at both the state and federal level. He pledged to stand up for the state against regulatory overreach by the feds, from restrictions on carbon emissions to water issues to delays in the Keystone XL pipeline project.

“Washington just doesn’t get it,” Ricketts said. “But we also have to set a good example. I’ll challenge all my agency directors to innovate and figure out ways to reduce bureaucratic delays and overregulation. We can’t create barriers for companies that want to create jobs.”

Ricketts also said Nebraska needs to continue to strengthen education. One of his focus points is on career vocational training. “I want our young people to know what options are available to them. My budget sets aside $250,000 for each of the next two years to set up a public-private partnership. This group will work with private companies and our schools so kids can see what’s available for their careers.”

Before asking for public input, the new governor answered questions from the elementary kids on topics such as how he likes the job, what he did before he was governor, and how much the governor makes.
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