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In a wide-ranging interview in advance of the launch of the 2019 legislative session, Gov. Pete Ricketts staked out his position on a number of critical policy issues while remaining laser-focused on a frugal state government and statewide economic growth.

Among the highlights emerging from a half-hour session in the Governor's Office: 

* Ricketts said he'll propose that all of the revenue raised by collection of state sales taxes on online purchases be allocated to local property tax relief with none of it funneled into the state's general fund for support of state programs and services.

Early estimates have suggested online sales taxes — which previously had been owed, but largely not collected — could initially total $30 million to $40 million a year.

* The governor said it is unlikely that voter-mandated expansion of Medicaid coverage to 90,000 Nebraskans generally identified as the working poor can be implemented until "2020 at the earliest" because of the complexity of preparing for, implementing and funding the plan. 

* Ricketts said he is "absolutely open" to a proposal that would revamp the legislative formula allocating state aid to local schools to assure that all school districts would receive at least some state assistance.

But, the governor said, his support for any school aid reform would come with an accompanying caveat that "it's got to fit within the budget."

During the interview conducted on Thursday, Ricketts also erased speculation that he might be a potential candidate for the Senate seat now held by Republican Sen. Ben Sasse two years from now.

Asked what he would do if President Donald Trump called him and said he wanted Ricketts to be a candidate for the Senate in 2020, the governor said: "The answer would be no. Even if that Senate seat would be open, I will not be running for it."

Sasse has not yet decided whether to seek re-election to a second six-year term.

Ricketts' initial venture as a political candidate was in pursuit of a Senate seat in 2006 when he was defeated by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, and the governor said he wouldn't rule out the possibility of a future Senate bid after he completes his second gubernatorial term. 

The governor outlined his second-term goals as "connecting Nebraskans with great-paying jobs," cutting regulatory red tape, controlling state spending and promoting the state nationally and internationally with a continuing commitment to trade missions.

Tax relief remains a fundamental priority, he said, "and the only way to have sustainable tax relief is by controlling spending."

Ricketts noted the state already has earned recognition for being the most fiscally stable state while sharply curtailing the growth rate of state government spending during his administration. 

The governor will take the oath of office to begin his second term on Thursday during ceremonies in the legislative chamber. He will return to the chamber on Jan. 15 to deliver his State of the State message along with his proposed 2019-2021 budget recommendations.

Ricketts said he plans to sit down with the new chairman of the Legislature's Revenue Committee to try to work together on proposals for tax relief. A new chairman will be chosen to succeed former Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion when the Legislature fills its leadership positions on Wednesday.

Sens. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn and Brett Lindstrom of Omaha are viewed as the top contenders for that committee chairmanship. 

Ricketts and Smith agreed on an ever-changing tax reform package last year, but the final product could not command enough support on the floor of the Legislature to clear the threat of a filibuster by its opponents. 

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The Medicaid expansion proposal approved by Nebraska voters in November represents "a big project," Ricketts said, one that requires detailed planning, coordination with the federal government, technology and website updates and substantial state appropriations.

Ricketts said he is not prepared to say what requirements he might attempt to attach to continuing eligibility although he has hinted at the possibility of some work-related provisions.

The governor said he wrapped up his budget recommendations last month and declined to offer a preview before they are presented to the Legislature.

His legislative focus this session will be property tax relief, Ricketts said.

But, he said, "it's not tax relief if you're just shifting taxes."

Ricketts said he believes his first four years as governor have helped "create opportunities for Nebraska families" and that will remain a fundamental focus.

And, he said, he approaches the new legislative session with a determination to "work together" with senators on addressing a wide agenda of issues.

Among the new senators will be two gubernatorial appointees who will be among the youngest members of the 2019 Legislature: Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, 22, and Sen. Andrew LaGrone of Gretna, 28.

"I appointed them because they gave the best interviews; they were knowledgeable on the issues," Ricketts said.

"I was very pleased that they are very young, but that's not why I appointed them."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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