Beatrice Six

The Beatrice Six, clockwise from top left: Tom Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, Joseph E. White, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez.

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers overrode a gubernatorial veto Tuesday, clearing the way for Gage County to charge sales tax to help pay off a $28 million judgment owed to six wrongly convicted people.

Senators took up their first override of the year on Legislative Bill 472. The vote was 41-8, well over the 30 votes needed for an override to succeed.

Introduced by State Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, LB 472 allows the Gage County Board to impose a countywide, half-cent sales tax without taking the issue to voters for approval.

Dorn said the override vote gives Gage County property owners a little bit of tax relief, one of the top issues of the session. He said he expects that the County Board will approve the new tax once LB 472 takes effect this summer.

“This wasn’t a vote against the governor or anything,” he said. “This was a vote for the bill.”

Money collected through the new sales tax would go toward helping pay a federal court judgment won by the Beatrice Six.

The six, convicted in a 1985 slaying, collectively spent more than 70 years in prison before DNA testing showed they did not commit the crime. The case was one of the largest examples of wrongful confession and coerced testimony in the nation’s history.

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In his veto message last week, Gov. Pete Ricketts said that the events leading to introduction of the bill were tragic but that allowing the new tax without taking the issue to voters would set a “dangerous precedent.”

Sen. John Lowe of Kearney made a similar argument Tuesday. He said he had empathy for the property taxpayers of Gage County but doesn’t believe the decision about a sales tax should be made by the County Board.

“Our system is at stake here,” he said. “Let’s find another solution for the people of Gage County, one that will work.”

Lowe expressed confidence that, if Gage County voters were asked about increasing the sales tax, Beatrice residents would support the tax to help their rural neighbors.

About half of Gage County residents live in Beatrice, where they pay 7.5 cents in sales tax now. Those city residents could outvote the rural landowners who bear the burden of the property taxes.

Dorn said he had explored other options, including a plan to get a low-interest loan from the state. But he said the money would have had to come from the already-depleted cash reserve fund and that idea would have been tough to get through the Legislature.

Colleagues acknowledged his efforts to find a solution for the difficult situation facing his district.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who is not normally a fan of taxes, said he agreed with the governor in principle but had to make an exception in this case, which he described as being between a rock and a hard place.

The Gage County Board voted in September to raise the property tax levy by 11.76 cents to start paying the judgment. The increase, which takes the levy to the maximum possible under the Nebraska Constitution, is expected to bring in about $3.8 million in the first year.

The county will have to continue the levy for about eight years to cover the total cost of the judgment, attorney fees and interest. Dorn said the total could be paid off in about six years if the proposed sales tax were in effect.

Under LB 472, the county could impose the half-cent sales tax only if its property tax levy was at the maximum allowed under state law. The sales tax would end when the judgment is paid off, or after seven years, whichever comes first.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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