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Editorial, 1/14: State of state indeed strong, but priorities are slightly off

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State of the State, 1.13

Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers his annual State of the State address at the Nebraska Capitol on Thursday.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan used a new word to describe the state of the union: “strong.”

That word has been repeated by his successors, creeping down to the state level, where governors use it annually when welcoming a new crop of lawmakers and laying out legislative priorities.

Gov. Pete Ricketts certainly was correct to use that adjective in his State of the State address on Thursday. That being said, the governor’s stated legislative priorities – tax relief, prisons, water and COVID-19 relief – are critical topics.

However, on all but the last one, the governor’s approach misses the mark slightly.

* Tax relief: The editorial board’s objection here is not with the end goal but the means. Pumping hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the Property Tax Credit fund papers over the systemic problems plaguing Nebraska’s tax system while decreasing incentive needed to accomplish the heavy lifting required for results.

Nebraska has some of the highest relative property taxes in the U.S., but that’s largely because of an imbalance in how they’re collected. Inadequate state funding for K-12 schools puts the onus on local school boards – and property owners – to fulfill their constitutional obligation for universal public education. Increasing state support while decreasing the levy, as has been proposed by Sen. Lynne Walz, would help immensely.

* Prisons: We remain skeptical of the need for a new prison, but we agree with the governor that “pursuing policies that aim to reduce crime and recidivism” shouldn’t interfere with that debate.

With the nation’s most overcrowded prisons system, Nebraska cannot sit by and let the status quo continue. Now that some progress has been made on staffing, structural improvements must follow.

Certainly, the Nebraska State Penitentiary is showing its age. And replacing a prison is a significantly better proposal than adding a new one to the fold, as had been proposed by Ricketts last year.

Still, criminal justice reform is more than just buildings, and reducing the crowding will require changes made at both the Capitol and county courthouses.

* Water: Ricketts is absolutely right to shine a light on Nebraska’s water resources.

The Platte River not only powers Nebraska’s economy but provides Lincoln’s drinking water – and water levels have declined over the years. And Colorado’s explosive growth would increase demand on the river, but the devil will truly be in the details for this proposed $500 million canal project.

And the biggest talking point – a $200 million proposed lake the size of Iowa's Okoboji, to be located between Lincoln and Omaha – would conceivably reduce the risk of flooding on the Platte, but it has so few specifics and so many question marks that it’s difficult to address.


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