ASHLAND, Neb. — Recent economic rankings place Nebraska either No. 2 or No. 4 nationally as the best state for business.
Maybe that explains why a roomful of businesspeople didn't voice many complaints Thursday to a panel of state legislators looking at ways to improve the state's system of taxing companies and individuals.
About 350 people attended the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry's annual Legislative Summit at the Strategic Air & Space Museum.
The event featured a panel of state lawmakers who discussed the Nebraska Legislature's tax modernization study aimed at possible tax changes to reflect today's economy.
But most of the questions that were posed focused on spending and process matters, such as the state's cash reserves and term limits, rather than complaints about high or unfair taxes.
One Omaha businessman, Chad Denton, asked if lawmakers planned to address the state's relatively high top income tax rate, which, at 6.84 percent, stands 16th highest in the nation.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha responded that all tax policies are being looked at, but said he wondered if the state has all that many tax problems.
A month ago, CNBC ranked Nebraska No. 4 among its Top States for Business. A week later, Pollina Corporate Real Estate Inc. of Park Ridge, Ill., rated the state No. 2 on its list of Corporate Top 10 Pro-Business States.
“When you get information like that, you have to ask yourself: 'What's actually going wrong?'” said Mello, a member of the Tax Modernization Commission and chairman of the Legislature's budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
The chamber, a heavyweight when it comes to state tax policy, outlined its goals for tax changes in a June memo obtained by The World-Herald. They include a cut in the top individual and corporate income taxes to 5.5 percent, along with exemptions on military pension income and restrictions on state spending to gradually reduce the cost of state government.
Barry Kennedy, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the lack of criticism Thursday shouldn't be seen as a lack of interest in tax changes. Businesses, he said, still complain about the worker shortages and believe that lower taxes on individuals and companies can make Nebraska an even more attractive place to stay or relocate.
“We don't have a problem that another 100,000 to 200,000 people working and paying taxes wouldn't solve,” Kennedy said after the five-hour summit. “That would go a long ways to creating a much more robust economy.”
Two Nebraska business officials, interviewed after the lawmakers took questions, expressed interest in some tweaks to state taxes.
Tony Raimondo Jr., chairman of Behlen Manufacturing in Columbus, said that his greatest business concern is training more workers with the skills to run the robots that fill today's modern manufacturing plants. Some companies, Raimondo said, are moving their plants back to the United States to take advantage of the greater efficiencies of robots, but are having a hard time finding skilled workers.
He added that some high-wage earners are discouraged from living here because of Nebraska's high top state income tax rate.
Dick Reiser, vice president of government affairs for Werner Enterprises, said that he thinks property taxes are too high and that local and state spending could be reduced.
“Not every solution needs to be more money,” Reiser said.
Sen. Greg Adams of York, speaker of the Legislature, told the business group Thursday that tax modifications will be on the agenda in the 2014 session.
But he also told of a recent meeting with two CEOs of major corporations. They said their main criterion in locating their business was an educated workforce, Adams said. Taxes were an issue, he said, but it was down on the list.
Gov. Dave Heineman, in a short speech at the beginning of the event, said he expected state lawmakers to “listen to the citizens of Nebraska, who want lower taxes.”
Thursday's summit also included short talks by the five members of Nebraska's congressional delegation, as well as an assessment of the economy by the chief economist of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Martin Regalia, the economist, said the turnaround in the housing industry is expected to provide more fuel for what has been a slow recovery from the Great Recession.
But he added that the nation's debt problem is not being addressed in Washington and promises to get worse. He predicted that within a decade, federal interest payments on the debt and spending on entitlement programs will consume 88 percent of federal tax revenue, leaving little for other federal programs.