Call him the businessman governor. Or maybe Governor Businessman.
Nebraska’s CEO, Gov. Pete Ricketts, now in the last year of his first term, touted the state's accomplishments in growing the economy while shrinking its government during his State of the State address Wednesday.
Heaping praise on both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Ricketts struck a conciliatory tone as he introduced his plans to push more state budget cuts and rework tax policy, which he says will spur growth while providing relief to farmers, ranchers and homeowners alike.
“In the spirit of cooperation, we come together each year to accomplish the priorities that matter most to Nebraskans,” Ricketts said during his fourth annual address.
“Our work together is helping to grow our state and keep Nebraska the best place in the world to live, work and raise a family,” he said while addressing the Legislature and state employees gathered in the George W. Norris Legislative Chamber.
Individuals and businesses from across the U.S. are taking note, Ricketts said. Last year, Nebraska recorded record levels of employment — “1 million nonfarm jobs” — while also the lowest unemployment rate — 2.7 percent — since 1999.
Nebraska’s population also inched higher in 2017, topping 1.92 million people for the first time, the governor added.
Ricketts attributed the growth to international trade partnerships, growing investments in Nebraska’s workforce and transformations to state government in the form of slowed growth and greater efficiency to citizens — what he calls a “more customer-focused” approach.
He heralded Nebraska being awarded the Governor’s Cup, a top award from Site Selection magazine bestowed on the state with the most economic development projects per capita, and pointed to high rankings for Nebraska’s business climate by Forbes and Chief Executive magazine.
“Folks, this matters, because when companies move here and invest, they create job opportunities for people,” he said.
Ricketts credited those opportunities as the result of work done by lawmakers in crafting policies friendly to new businesses — cutting regulations, making licenses easier to obtain — and for the state’s ambassadors reaching beyond U.S. borders to open new trade possibilities.
Trade missions to Canada, China, Japan, Denmark and elsewhere have spurred growth on the Great Plains, Ricketts said.
A trip to Canada in August helped snag a small plant for Agri-Plastics in Sidney that has created 20 jobs, Ricketts said, while the Denmark-based Novozymes launched a new investment in Blair after state leaders visited.
Ricketts introduced Eric Jones, a production worker at Kawasaki who landed a spot in the plant’s new aerospace division in Lincoln — a move the governor said was supported by a 2015 trade mission to Japan.
“Eric told me Kawasaki is great for Lincoln,” Ricketts said. “Besides the good-paying jobs and investment, Kawasaki supports local charities and uses local vendors.”
From the ranchlands of western Nebraska, Ricketts said beef has found a new destination after a 14-year hiatus: China. “I’m excited to report that over half the American beef in China now comes from Nebraska,” Ricketts said.
Other ag commodities are also finding new markets worldwide, Ricketts said, which are being opened by efforts from the Department of Agriculture and Department of Economic Development.
U.S. companies, too, have sought investments in Nebraska, the so-called Silicon Prairie. Ricketts pointed to a 970,000-square-foot facility under construction to serve as a data center for Facebook in Papillion, and a Costco chicken processing operation in Fremont.
Ricketts said his 2018 priorities will seek to create more opportunities for businesses to invest in Nebraska while also providing much-sought tax relief to Nebraska landowners and homeowners living in the state.
His threefold plan includes restructuring existing property tax credits into a new tax credit for Nebraskans and not “absentee landowners,” which the governor said would provide $4 billion in property tax relief over the next decade.
Next, Ricketts’ plan will reduce property tax rates incrementally if the state’s growth exceeds revenue projections by the state’s forecasting board. The plan uses existing tax credits to achieve a permanent reduction in the state’s individual and corporate tax rates.
“Right now, 90 percent of individual income taxes paid by Nebraskans are at that top rate, and 90 percent of Nebraska businesses pay at the top individual rate,” he said.
The third and final part of the plan, injecting $10 million into workforce development programs offered by the state over the next two years, would also be a boon to businesses looking to locate in the state, he said.
“We have our work cut out for us, but I have no doubt we are up to the challenge,” he said. “Nebraskans expect results.”
To help balance the budget with those proposed cuts, Ricketts proposed slowing state spending from a 0.6 percent increase this year to 0.2 percent next year.
His decrease calls for across-the-board spending cuts, with the caveat they won’t touch state aid to K-12 schools, investments into the Department of Corrections, which include nearly $6 million to build 100 new prison beds, or aid to the state’s population of developmentally disabled individuals.
Receiving 33 votes to get those priorities onto his desk for signing is going to take a bipartisan effort, however. Ricketts praised lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle for their efforts last year to bring him “many great things.”
Ricketts urged the Legislature to once again “roll up our sleeves and get the job done” in cutting red tape, balancing the budget and delivering tax relief.
“We have our work cut out for us, but I have no doubt we’re up to the challenge,” he said.