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YORK – The Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce brings annual legislative forums to communities in the state and Thursday was York’s turn.
The presentations and discussions took place over lunch at York Country Club. Speakers were State Chamber officials Joseph Young and Jamie Karl, and Nebraska State Senator Mark Kolterman from Seward.
Young began with a nod to Kolterman.
“We’re trying to make Nebraska the best place to do business,” a task that requires State Chamber staff “to track 350-400 bills” per legislative session.
Why so many? The diversity of members and the issues of concern to them, he explained, account for that number.
Flagship issues to the Chamber, he said, include: Taxes, the cost of doing business, job creation and work force, including affordable housing for families so they can take all those jobs. The latter, he said, “Is probably the biggest issue” over the past four or five years.
Chamber attention does not, he stressed, fall upon the bills that passed exclusively.
“The bills we stop from passing are important, too,” he noted.
Karl went through slides divided into The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of how business-friendly the state is as rated by outside entities.
The Good – No. 1 for regulatory climate, No. 5 for unemployment tax costs, No. 3 for legal climate and No. 6 in the fiscal solvency category.
He said the lofty solvency ranking is driven by the fact per-capita debt in Nebraska is only $8.
The Bad – No. 27 for current economic health, No. 26 for growth prospects, No. 33 for technology and innovation, No. 20 for available workforce.
Karl said the state’s workforce ranking has fallen nine spots in two years because not many workers are available in a state with 2.5 percent unemployment.
“Basically anyone who wants a job in Nebraska has a job,” he said. “You don’t want that (unemployed) 2 ½ percent working at your business.”
“We pay a lot of taxes, $9.8 billion last year” at the state and local levels, he said with a sigh.
The point is made in the fact the average individual income tax rate in states that share borders with Nebraska is 2.03 percent. Here, he said, it’s 6.84 percent.
Obviously that discrepancy builds a fence between Nebraska and those other states when businesses go shopping for place in which to expand or relocate.
Nebraska taxpayers, he said, now face a combined, all-inclusive tax rate of 50 percent.
He also pointed out that 60 percent of property tax dollars statewide go to fund K-12 education.
The state, he stressed, does not collect a single dime of property tax money. That authority exists at the local level exclusively.
To the question of the state returning money to the county and local levels he noted, “One-third of the state budget is going to local governments already.
“Everyone in this room would probably come up with a different plan for tax reform,” he said, based upon “the taxes they pay” personally.
When his turn at microphone came Kolterman began by pointing out the session just ended as his third since being elected to the body.
“The next session is probably going to be one of the toughest” to get through, he predicted. The Unicameral, he said giving fair warning, “is looking at probably more cuts come January.”
A big challenge on the horizon, he said, is how to stock outstate Nebraska with adequate numbers of doctors, allied health professionals and hospitals.
One answer he mentioned: Tele-medicine.
Told via a note from the audience of a mother who was forced to travel from Broken Bow to Kearney so she could give birth by C-section, Kolterman laughed and said, “Well, I guess we can’t do that by tele-medicine.”
All joking aside, Kolterman said that mother’s quandary perfectly illustrates the point.
One recurring obstacle in the body – term limits – is an enormous limiting factor.
“To turn it (legislative body) over like we’re turning it over is a big problem. With all that retirement (of senators)” the constant flood of newbies “has to rely on the institutional knowledge of the (legislative) staff” because they have none of their own. By the time they get it, they term limit out.
As to specific issues, he said, “Property taxes and how we fund education go hand-in-hand so we’ve really got to pay attention to that.”
Also, he said 53 percent of nursing home occupants today “are paid for by the state” on average.
Some in their elderly years are known to abuse the system by “giving their land away and then expecting the state to pay for them.”
Look for the legislature to tighten the screws on that and similar loopholes.
“I like to think we’re trying to listen to our constituents,” he said. “In our office we track every bill. Reality is we are nonpartisan” and thus should leave both colors – Red and Blue – at the door.
“I didn’t go down there to change the world. I went down there with the idea to help Nebraskans.”