Linehan moves into tax reform leadership role in Legislature

January 13, 2019 GMT

Onward and upward.

Beginning her third year as a state senator, Lou Ann Linehan was handed the reins of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee on the opening day of a 90-day session that will put her at the center of the politically charged and daunting battle over tax reform.

For Linehan, it’s the next step in an ongoing adventure.

From that day in 1995 when she agreed to manage the 1996 Senate campaign of Republican underdog Chuck Hagel, Linehan has been embracing new challenges and opportunities.

They have taken her on an adventurous journey that has included serving as Hagel’s longtime Senate chief of staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s deputy secretary for legislative affairs, along with a daunting assignment in war-torn Iraq during the George W. Bush administration.

Linehan worked with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Patraeus to advance the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq in 2008 while leading the civil capacity element of a Baghdad provincial reconstruction team as it helped Iraq build a new provincial government and civil society.

In 2016, a few years after her return to Nebraska, she decided to seek a seat in the Legislature, and she won.

The first legislative year was largely listen and learn; in 2018, Linehan began to speak out more, making her voice heard particularly on education issues.

Now, she has moved into a leadership position at the Legislature’s ground zero, where the vexing challenge of property tax relief awaits Linehan and a revamped Revenue Committee.

And that big elephant in the room — big enough to sometimes be measured in terms of a billion dollars in tax reform — draws into its orbit a whole range of decisions on sales tax exemptions, tax incentives and tax credits, along with the huge sister issue of state aid to local schools.

A reconstructed Revenue Committee — five of its eight members, including Linehan, are new — contains a wide variety of independent voices, both rural and urban.

Among the holdovers is Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, who also sought the chairmanship and fell a few votes short as Linehan prevailed on a 26-23 count on opening day.

During an interview in her temporary quarters on the 11th floor of the Capitol on the morning after her election as chairwoman — she since has moved into a larger committee chairperson’s office on the first floor — the Elkhorn senator peered down the road ahead.

“We’ve got to find 33 votes” to enact tax reform, she said, enough support to unlock a filibuster that could be mounted by its opponents, and that won’t be easy to do.

“It can’t be my way or the highway,” Linehan said in considering how her committee will approach the challenge.

“We have to find some compromise; everyone has to win something.”

“Yes,” she said, “it’s doable.”

“I will encourage a lot of input,” Linehan said, and provide an opportunity to hear from all senators “before we try to cobble everything together.”

The committee’s public hearings on revenue bills will be “very, very important” in helping craft a path forward, Linehan said, and it’s her intention to not attempt to fashion a tax package until those hearings have been completed.

Yes, Linehan said, she expects to work with the governor’s office — “they have the facts and figures” — but she’s not sure Gov. Pete Ricketts will have a bill of his own this time.

“My goal is to lower taxes,” she said. “Taxes in Nebraska are too high.”

In approaching tax reform, Linehan said, “property taxes have to come first, but you can’t have long-term property tax relief unless you also fix the state school aid formula.”

Linehan will also hold a seat on the Education Committee.

Some current sales tax exemptions may be “questionable,” she said, but elimination of any tax exemptions should not be tied to new spending.

As for the governor’s proposal that all revenue raised by collection of state sales taxes for online purchases should be allocated to property tax relief: “I’m all for that.”

Linehan’s third-year emergence into a major legislative leadership position follows on the heels of her earlier selection as state chair of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is dedicated to limited government, free markets and federalism.