COLUMBUS — Pete Ricketts is focusing his campaign on the state’s largest industry with hopes that a plan to grow agriculture and strengthen the rural economy will separate him from a crowded GOP field.
The Republican candidate for governor unveiled his blueprint to reduce property taxes, protect the state’s water resources and address other top priorities during a debate March 23 in Broken Bow.
On Friday, Ricketts stopped in Columbus to talk agriculture as part of a statewide tour to promote the plan.
“Agriculture is the heart and soul of what we do here in Nebraska,” Ricketts said. “It’s what drives our economy and 25 percent of the folks in Nebraska are employed in agriculture. It’s the most important industry that we have.”
That’s why the 49-year-old Omaha businessman is putting such an emphasis on his plan, which was crafted with the help of an advisory council consisting of agriculture and business leaders from across the state.
Ricketts said property taxes are the top issue for Nebraska’s farmers, ranchers and livestock producers.
Agricultural land valuations rose 23 percent last year, according to Ricketts, who said the additional property taxes put “a huge squeeze” on producers.
His plan includes lowering the taxable valuation of agricultural land from 75 percent to 65 percent of market value, placing a cap on valuation increases and putting more money in the Property Tax Credit Fund to provide additional tax cuts.
The Legislature has agreed to add $25 million to the fund, but efforts to increase that amount in the 2013-15 budget have failed to gain enough support among senators thus far.
Gov. Dave Heineman announced vetoes of $65.3 million from the nearly $8 billion budget on Saturday and called on lawmakers to double the amount of money proposed for property tax relief using this funding.
Ricketts said he’s confident state lawmakers will agree on a larger property tax relief package either this session or the next one.
He said Heineman has done a good job of keeping a lid on state spending and taxes, but his plan would take the current governor’s efforts to the “next level.”
If elected, Ricketts said he will reduce the overall cost of state government by delivering services more efficiently. The state also must address unfunded mandates passed down to counties and school districts, which set local property tax levies, and make it easier for these officials to manage their budgets so a potential loss of tax revenue doesn’t have a negative impact, he said.
The former chief operating officer of Ameritrade and self-proclaimed “real-world Conservative” said his success in the private sector and business experience make him the best candidate to take on this issue.
His rural agenda also focuses on sustaining the state’s water resources and programs to boost value-added agriculture such as ethanol and livestock production.
Ricketts said a report completed last year by a state task force may be part of the long-term solution. But, he added, the governor must play a crucial role in developing a statewide water plan that benefits all users, from irrigators and municipalities to fishermen and electric utilities.
“It really does take the governor pulling all these diverse interests together to craft that strategy,” said Ricketts.
He also wants to promote agricultural exports, particularly in the expanding Asian markets, and push for “common-sense” regulations that allow Nebraska businesses to thrive.
Ricketts believes the state’s growing manufacturing sector represents another industry that can strengthen the rural economy.
“If we want our small towns and rural communities to stay vibrant, we need other industries there, other people creating jobs,” he said.
Ricketts said vocational and technical training must be offered in more schools along with other work force development initiatives needed to address a labor shortage that’s preventing some manufacturers from expanding in Nebraska.
“We’ve got to start by training the right work force here,” said Ricketts, who believes these jobs will support retail businesses, restaurants and other quality of life items that can attract more people to Nebraska communities.
Ricketts also wants to see an emphasis placed on improving the state roads system to spur economic development, but doesn’t support a plan to borrow money for the work.
A bill pending in the Legislature would authorize up to $200 million in bond financing for roads projects until June 30, 2017, at an interest rate not to exceed 5 percent.
Ricketts said the state shouldn’t take on debt for road construction, particularly when there’s approximately $700 million in the cash reserve.
“Let’s just budget it like adults and pay for it as we go,” he said.