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Beatrice 6

The six people convicted and later cleared of killing Helen Wilson in 1985: (from top left) Joseph White, Tom Winslow, JoAnn Taylor, Deb Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez.

Sen. Myron Dorn's bill that would allow Gage County to implement a sales tax to help pay a $28.1 million federal judgment advanced to final reading on Wednesday after hurdling an attempt to amend the proposal.

The Qualified Judgment Payment Act (LB472) would give the Gage County Board of Supervisors the option to create a half-cent sales tax for the specific purpose of paying the jury verdict in the Beatrice 6 case.

The Adams senator previously amended the bill so only counties with $25 million federal judgments could consider instituting a sales tax through a two-thirds vote of their county boards. In Gage County, it could generate $1.2 million annually.

But Sen. John Lowe of Kearney said he was concerned Dorn's bill did not put the sales tax to a vote of the people, as is the case with sales taxes used for other purposes.

Lowe attempted to amend Dorn's bill with a provision that would require the sales tax to pass a vote by county residents.

"This is a slippery slope bill," Lowe said. "Once we start this, there is no turning back and we take the people out of the equation."

Dorn said under current state statute, the only remedy the county has to pay Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathy Gonzalez and Debra Sheldon -- who were wrongfully convicted of a 1985 Beatrice murder and spent a combined 75 years in prison before they were exonerated in 2008 -- is through property taxes.

"I don't see this as a sales tax increase," Dorn said. "I look at it as helping pay the judgment off."

Other senators said they agreed with Dorn, that a sales tax was the only way to keep all responsibility from falling on property owners, roughly 52 percent of which are farmers.

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said the sales tax would provide more than $6 million in relief to property taxpayers until the judgment is satisfied, and said the $25 million federal judgment bar prevented other counties from creating a sales tax without a vote of the people.

"That's a pretty stiff hurdle to overcome," Erdman said.

Lowe said he empathized with Gage County, but wanted a sales tax hike "to be done right."

"The vote of the people is one of the strongest things we have in our country," he said, "we should not undermine that."

His amendment failed, however, gaining only nine votes.

The Legislature then advanced LB472 to final reading next week.

TIF amendment clears second hurdle

Lawmakers also gave second-round approval to a proposed constitutional amendment (LR14CA) from Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne that would extend tax-increment financing benefits for areas of high unemployment and poverty from 15 years to 20 years.

The proposal had previously been at the center of a nearly two-day shutdown after it had been pulled from the agenda.

Opponents said they wouldn't support the proposed amendment, which would go before Nebraska voters in the 2020 general election, unless it defined "extremely blighted" in the language. Wayne said the definition belonged in statute, not in the amendment.

On Wednesday, the Legislature approved compromise language from Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte that specified areas eligible for the extended TIF repayment period as those with "a high rate of unemployment combined with a high poverty rate as determined by law."

The amendment passed with 43 votes and LR14CA also advanced to final reading.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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