AP NEWS

Ricketts vetoes sales tax bill to pay ‘Beatrice Six’ debt

April 24, 2019
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks at a news conference in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, April 24, 2019. Gov. Ricketts has vetoed a bill that would let Gage County in Nebraska impose a half-cent sales tax to pay off a $28.1 million legal debt to six people wrongfully convicted of murder. Ricketts said Wednesday he opposes the measure because it would allow the Gage County Board of Supervisors to approve the tax without submitting it to a county-wide vote. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill Wednesday that would let a rural Nebraska county impose a half-cent sales tax to pay off a $28.1 million legal debt to six people wrongfully convicted of murder.

Ricketts said in his veto letter that he opposes the measure because it would allow the Gage County Board of Supervisors to approve the tax without submitting it to a county-wide vote.

County supervisors have already raised their property tax levy to the maximum allowed under state law to cover the judgment, but sales tax increases typically require voter approval.

Supporters of the bill contend that voters would almost certainly reject a sales tax increase because many didn’t live in the county when authorities were investigating the 1985 murder, and that some residents still believe the six people were involved even though DNA evidence exonerated them in 2008 and state officials have declared them innocent. Some of the six have been diagnosed with mental health problems, and were coerced into confessing and threatened with the death penalty.

“Fear that the people will not vote to increase their taxes should not lead the Legislature to circumvent taxpayers by allowing (Gage County) to impose a tax without the consent of those taxpayers,” Ricketts said in his veto letter. “This bill sets a dangerous precedent for authorizing a sales tax increase.”

The bill was introduced after a federal judge ordered Gage County to pay $28.1 million plus attorney fees and interest to the group collectively known as the Beatrice Six. The county didn’t have proper insurance at the time of the convictions and all of its appeals have failed, leaving the county board with no options other than paying the judgment.

Sen. Myron Dorn, a former Gage County supervisor who introduced the bill, said he plans to submit a motion to override the governor’s veto on Thursday.

He appears likely to succeed, given that lawmakers passed the bill on a 43-6 vote. Overriding the governor requires 30 votes.

One lawmaker who opposed it, Sen. John Lowe, of Kearney, called the measure a “slippery slope bill” and tried unsuccessfully to add a requirement that voters approve an increase.

Dorn said the sales tax bill was intended to spread the burden throughout Gage County, easing some of the pressure on land-rich farmers who will otherwise pay most of the property taxes despite being a minority of the population. He said he was also concerned about low-income homeowners whose property tax bills will increase.

Both the sales and property taxes will expire once the judgment is paid in full, and imposing the sales tax could allow the county to cover the expense in about six years instead of eight.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte