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 — Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill Wednesday aimed at helping Gage County pay off a $28 million judgment owed to six wrongly convicted people.

The governor said he objected to Legislative Bill 472 because it would have allowed the Gage County Board to impose a countywide, half-cent sales tax without taking the issue to voters for approval.

“In Nebraska, we trust the people to make political decisions on a myriad of issues,” Ricketts said. “Despite the claims by supporters of LB 472 to the contrary, I believe the people can be counted on to do the right thing.”

Under LB 472, introduced by State Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, the county board could have approved a new sales tax by a two-thirds vote. The money would have gone toward paying a federal court judgment won by the so-called Beatrice Six.

The six, convicted in a 1985 slaying, collectively spent more than 70 years in prison before DNA testing identified another person as the killer. The case was one of the largest examples of wrongful confession and coerced testimony in the nation’s history.

In his veto message, Ricketts said the events leading to introduction of the bill were tragic.

Those events included county law enforcement violating the civil rights of the Beatrice Six, the county lacking proper insurance, and county residents having to pay large property tax bills “for the unscrupulous actions of their elected officials.”

“However, none of these tragedies are severe enough to authorize the county to break with the principle of allowing the people to vote on whether to raise sales taxes in their community,” he said. “This bill sets a dangerous precedent for authorizing a sales tax increase.”

Dorn said he was expecting the governor’s action and plans to file a motion Thursday to override the veto. He said he was hopeful about having the 30 votes necessary for an override. LB 472 passed on a 43-6 vote.

“I think that was a good amount, but until the vote’s done, you’re never sure,” he said.

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Dorn said he believes the county board should be authorized to approve the sales tax for a couple of reasons. First, county property owners didn’t get to vote on whether their property taxes should be increased to pay the judgment.

Second, he said he is convinced voters would not approve a sales tax increase. 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.

The Gage County Board voted in September to raise the tax levy by 11.76 cents to start paying the judgment. The increase 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 and attorney fees. Dorn said the judgment 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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