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Nebraska Gov. Pillen taking ‘potshots’ at state senators while seeking tax relief support

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Nebraska Gov. Pillen taking ‘potshots’ at state senators while seeking tax relief support

Jun 15, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Zach Wendling
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Nebraska Gov. Pillen taking ‘potshots’ at state senators while seeking tax relief support
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Gov. Jim Pillen leads his third property tax town hall Friday, May 24, 2024, in Beatrice as he seeks to launch a special session to lower taxes this summer. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

NEBRASKA CITY, Nebraska — As Gov. Jim Pillen seeks to rally Nebraskans behind his property tax relief ideas, tensions are heating up, with rhetoric one senator described as “potshots” at state senators.

Pillen has hosted a dozen town halls across the state, with the latest being held Friday in Auburn and Nebraska City, which are represented by State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar. Pillen has made clear the purpose of the town halls is to encourage constituents to motivate their state senator to support a special session focusing on property tax relief.

Slama was a key voice during the regular 2024 legislative session in defeating the last proposal, criticizing it as unconstitutional because it included a digital advertising tax and because, she said, it would have raised taxes on her constituents.

Pillen directly criticized Slama during his town halls Friday.

“She’s got to change her ideology and understand balancing a checkbook and what it takes,” Pillen said of the southeast Nebraska senator.

‘Stop trying to raise taxes’

Slama did not attend the gathering. She said in a text that she was home sick with her child. She responded to Pillen’s comment about her ideology by saying,  “Stop trying to raise taxes. That part of my ideology will never change.”

She continued, “The governor can talk a big talk, but he still hasn’t had the courage to call and talk with me this interim. … My mom’s a retired bank teller — I learned how to balance a checkbook when I was 5.”

Pillen wants lawmakers to sign off on another $1 billion in property tax relief by year’s end and has threatened to call special sessions “til Christmas” if needed to do so.

A formal plan has not materialized yet. Instead, Pillen has pitched various ideas that he said are “concrete,” such as eliminating some of the state’s 120 sales tax exemptions and accepting more federal dollars.

Pillen needs 33 votes for his ideas to succeed in a special session, but he has stated he will call a special session regardless of how much support he has leading into one. 

Next town halls scheduled

Gov. Jim Pillen’s office has scheduled five property tax town halls for this week:

Tuesday, June 18:

  • 8 a.m. at Fire Hall, 201 W. 16th St., South Sioux City.
  • 10:30 a.m. at Wayne Country Club, 302 E. 21st St., Wayne.
  • 1 p.m. at Handlebend, 215 E. Douglas St., O’Neill.
  • 3:30 p.m. at Ainsworth City Office, 606 E. Fourth St., Ainsworth.

Friday, June 21, 2:30 p.m., Lochland Country Club, 601 W. Lochland Road, Hastings.

In successive town halls over the last several weeks, the governor has moved away from removing certain state sales tax exemptions, such as those on items that are also taxed as personal property after purchase. As of Friday, Pillen spoke of taking three other tax exemptions off the table: groceries, medicine and church transactions. 

The carveouts determine which products or services are or aren’t taxed, with taxpayers retaining an estimated $6.5 billion in what could be collected in sales tax revenue each year. Once approved, it’s often difficult to take such tax exemptions away.

Pillen previously said “everybody’s got to play in the game” when it comes to sales taxes.

‘The courage to call’

The governor has encouraged residents to pick up the phone and press their state senator to support PIllen. Yet, according to Slama, he has not picked up the phone to return her calls seeking to help solve the issue of high taxes.

Pillen has told those attending his town halls that they should call the other 48 state senators if their representative was not interested in supporting his proposals. He has said that if constituents don’t actively support him, they shouldn’t complain about state taxes in the future.

“If you don’t want to call, then don’t (expletive deleted) to me next year about it. If you don’t want to help, (expletive deleted), I can’t do it all myself. I need everybody’s help. … I’m working day and night,” Pillen said at a town hall in Fremont.

“We have to come to a consensus to fix it,” he continued.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, Pillen’s former Democratic opponent for governor, is another senator who has not heard from him. She said Friday that he “sounds like a child that is not getting his way.”

“Perhaps if he would quit being so exclusive on who he actually communicates with, he might have a lot of really good ideas for us to go into a special session with,” Blood said. “It’s really inappropriate to talk about my peers and the residents of Nebraska in that fashion.”

Slama said she takes her orders from her constituents, not from the governor, and said the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches is pretty clear.

“Governor Pillen ought to spend more time working towards a fiscally conservative compromise and less time taking potshots at Republican senators he can’t even muster the courage to call,” Slama said.

EPIC tax opposition

A competing tax proposal is being promoted through a petition drive, which has a July 3 signature deadline to appear on the general election ballot. The “EPIC Option” would eliminate all property, income and corporate taxes and replace them with consumption, or excise, taxes.

Nebraska Gov. Pillen taking ‘potshots’ at state senators while seeking tax relief support
State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard leads a news conference at the Nebraska State Capitol on his EPIC Option tax proposals at the Nebraska State Capitol. May 21, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Pillen said he appreciates that the EPIC Option would remove sales tax exemptions except for those on groceries, but if it gets on the ballot, he said, he would work “day and night” to defeat it. He said Friday he hasn’t given the petition drive much thought or decided how he would work to defeat it.

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said Friday that for nearly six decades, the Legislature has tried and failed to fix the state’s tax system, which he calls broken. He’s a lead sponsor behind EPIC and described anyone who opposes it as being in favor of the tax collector and against taxpayers.

“The governor speaks about reformative tax reform. EPIC is a reformative solution,” Erdman said in a text. “Nothing the governor has offered is reformative. I’m not surprised by his opposition.”

Erdman said Pillen has already failed to pass a “so-called tax relief plan” this year and that losing again, in the same year, would be “unprecedented.”

“He will need 33 votes for his plan, or stay on the porch,” Erdman said. “Thirty-three will be very difficult to get.”