Gov. Dave Heineman said Monday his emerging Democratic challenger has broached an idea that would increase local property taxes.
Scottsbluff attorney Mike Meister's "idea to eliminate state aid to education and to increase the burden of school funding on property taxes is a very bad idea," the governor said.
Meister had raised the idea of replacing the current program of state aid with a new program of state financial responsibility for the physical plants of local schools.
Responding to the governor's statement later in the day, Meister said several school superintendents have told him "they could pay teachers and educate kids with no increase in property taxes (if) you took away the cost of the physical plants."
"I never would have floated this idea if they said they would have to raise the property tax," he said.
"I'm trying to decide whether it might make sense," Meister had said in a phone interview on Sunday.
Heineman quickly seized on the comment to say he was "strongly opposed to eliminating state aid to education."
In a hand-written statement, which he read over the telephone, the governor called upon Democratic state senators to "join with me in opposing Mr. Meister's bad idea."
Heineman named names in issuing his challenge.
"Activist Democrat(ic) state Sens. Tom White, Heath Mello, Jeremy Nordquist and Steve Lathrop should immediately indicate their opposition to Mr. Meister's idea to eliminate state aid to education," the governor said.
In response, Mello and White's campaign manager, Ian Russell, said it was Heineman who had proposed reductions in previously budgeted state aid to schools during a special legislative session last year.
"I'm glad to see Governor Heineman has finally rethought his position and joined people like me who have said from the beginning that cuts in state aid to education will inevitably lead to property tax increases," Mello said.
"During the special session, I worked with other senators to find alternative ways to cut and balance the budget without shifting the tax burden to homeowners."
"(White has) advocated alternative ways to reduce government spending and balance the budget without cutting state aid to metro-area schools because cuts to state aid will inevitably result in a property tax increase," Russell said.
White, an Omaha senator, is the Democratic congressional nominee in the 2nd District.
Meister, who formally announced his candidacy Monday at a news conference in Gering, said in Sunday's interview his idea could allow schools to apply local tax resources to education while eliminating the continual political battle over the state aid program.
Mello, also an Omaha senator, said he hadn't talked with Meister about education policy.
"But, if I do, I'll tell him what I'd tell anyone: Property taxes will go up if state aid to education is cut."
Meister would replace Mark Lakers as his party's gubernatorial nominee if his selection is ratified at the Democratic state convention in Columbus on Saturday.
Lakers withdrew from the race after coming under fire for disputed campaign finance reports.
Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.