Nebraska governor candidates talk taxes, attracting talent and helping entrepreneurs
Six Nebraska’s candidates for governor participated in a forum in Lincoln hosted by the Nebraska Chambers Association. From left: State Sen. Carol Blood, Charles Herbster, State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, NU Regent Jim Pillen, Breeland Ridenour and former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Nebraska’s top candidates for governor tussled Thursday over taxes, attracting talent to the state and helping local entrepreneurs innovate.
The most interesting exchanges at a forum hosted by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry addressed how the candidates would persuade more young people to live in the state.
Republican Charles Herbster, the race’s biggest spender and the owner of Conklin Inc., a manufacturing and distribution company, said the state needs to do a better job of marketing itself.
He stressed the importance of emphasizing technology and trades and said young people need more “mentorship and apprenticeship.”
“Nebraska has so much to offer,” he said. “I’ve said on the campaign trail: We have to market what we are.”
Republican Jim Pillen, the race’s biggest fundraiser and owner of a Columbus-area hog operation, said he is working with people in the private sector on creating a privately funded scholarship program for every Nebraskan, including for trade and technical schools.
Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent, said Nebraska needs to get its regulations out of the way of the next generation of entrepreneurs. “The biggest issue is getting people to understand the government is not going to solve this,” he said.
He said abortion has cost Nebraska too many young lives and that ending it would help the state.
Republican Brett Lindstrom, a state senator and a financial adviser, said he wants more public-private partnerships focused on child care, like one operating in Red Cloud. He also said he would work to encourage developers to build more affordable housing.
Nebraska needs to stop embracing divisive political fights that alienate young people, Lindstrom said. It makes them want to move away or stay away from the state, he said.
“We need people in this state, and not just people who think and believe like I do,” he said after the forum.
Republican Theresa Thibodeau, a former state senator and former owner of a day care and preschool, said she would work with the state’s high schools and community colleges to make sure kids are prepared for the jobs of the future.
She would like to help more smaller Nebraska cities emulate Norfolk, which engaged its private and public sectors in offering more entertainment and amenities.
“We need to look at what our children are looking for in our state,” she said.
Democrat Carol Blood, a state senator and former Bellevue City Council member, said Nebraska’s governor needs to encourage more people sitting out of the workforce to renew their job hunt. She also wants to end restrictions that prevent nonviolent felons from obtaining professional licenses for certain careers.
She said she agreed with Lindstrom that Nebraska should make sure young people know that the state welcomes them. That includes listening to what they want and need.
“Until we hear their voices, until we address those issues and they feel welcome, we will continue to have that brain drain,” she said.
The four top Republicans agreed in broad strokes about the need for tax reform. Most of their policy differences hinged on how they would fund schools, roads and other priorities that are currently paid for with property taxes.
Blood also said property taxes are too high.
Herbster said the state should cut income taxes for middle-income earners such as teachers and nurses, rather than cutting taxes for high earners like him or Gov. Pete Ricketts. Herbster spoke about the need to consider all options to offset property taxes. He repeated his idea for a potential consumption tax and said he wants to evaluate tax exemptions.
“You’ve got to have a revenue-neutral tax base, and you absolutely have to address real, long-term property tax relief,” he said after the forum.
Pillen said a consumption tax was the wrong approach, arguing that it would drive consumer dollars to other states. He said he wants to cut spending before cutting taxes. He said he would incentivize state agencies and political subdivisions that didn’t spend all the dollars allocated to them.
“Our property tax problem has impeded growth in this state,” he said. “It’s so out of whack, it’s so far over that we can’t sit on the three-legged stool.”
Lindstrom talked about his legislative work, including Legislative Bill 432, which would cut the state’s top income tax rate. He said small businesses file as individuals and need the tax relief. He also wants more school districts to receive state education aid.
“We will roll into session in 2023, putting together a plan to tackle all these things that have been talked about for years” if elected, he said.
Thibodeau said she would focus first on cutting wasteful spending by state agencies and make sure a baseline of state aid to education follows each student. She, like Herbster, said she would seek input from rural and urban Nebraskans on a tax reform plan.
“We need tax reform now,” she said.
Blood said the only meaningful way to offer property tax relief is to address the number of unfunded state mandates on cities, counties and other political subdivisions that tax people’s property.
The state, she said, should restore aid to cities and counties.
“Until you change that one thing, you will never have true relief,” she said.
Republican Breeland Ridenour, the other candidate who attended the forum at the Marriott Cornhusker Hotel, has not raised or spent the $5,000 minimum triggering the need to file campaign finance reports with the state.
Nebraska’s gubernatorial primary is May 10. Early voting starts in April.
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