For an hour Wednesday in Sutherland, Sen. Mike Groene and challenger Judy Pederson answered questions in the race for the state legislature.
Groene emphasized his experience. He said he was “about 60%” finished with efforts to reform property taxes and school funding and added, “If you don’t send me back, you’ll start over.”
Pederson emphasized her willingness to work with others to find common ground.
“We have to have everyone at the table,” she said at one point.
The candidates fielded questions about property taxes, internet sales taxes, school funding and Medicaid expansion. They talked about the NCORPE project, the loss of the boys and girls home in North Platte, and their campaign methods.
In the campaign, Pederson said she’s already knocked on nearly 4,000 doors. She said the top concern on people’s minds is the stagnant population and the lack of retail and business opportunities.
She strongly supports the use of tax increment financing to address the housing shortage.
Groene has repeatedly said tax increment financing should be used for its original intention, to fix up older, impoverished parts of towns and cities.
He said he hasn’t been able to knock on as many doors yet in the campaign as he did when he ran for office four years ago, because he spends time on legislative tasks, even during this time of year. He is leading a group of senators who are trying to find a way to continue to adequately fund schools without overtaxing property owners.
Groene warned that Medicaid expansion would consume all the state’s cash reserves and then some. Estimates put the state’s share of the cost at $100 million. He said there is about $70 million in the state’s reserves, which is already committed for a budgeted increase in state aid to education.
Property taxpayers get a little break through the state’s “property tax relief fund,” and when the candidates were asked if that fund could be raided, Groene said the fund would be raided if voters pass Medicaid expansion.
Pederson’s reply was similar: “I hope it will be (safe,)” she said of the fund. “I hope we have enough money.”
Groene said he’s been painted as a senator that is hard to get along with, and during the debate, he said his willingness to stop bills by filibuster is a strength. He also said criticism of him has been exaggerated by Planned Parenthood supporters, who didn’t like his vote for a bill that keeps federal funds for Planned Parenthood from being used for abortions.
Groene said he talks to people in all walks of life, jobs and positions. He specifically mentioned school superintendents and county judges.
When Pederson was asked how she would keep in touch with constituents, she said she calls people, writes emails and loves going door-to-door, meeting people and their pets, and seeing their yards, as well as learning about what’s important to them.
She also referred to her past work on committees that help at the schools and hospital.
Groene said many politicians are “gladhanders” who “will agree with you that the world’s going to hell.” He said he writes columns that gives constituents answers to problems.
He said he’s not afraid to talk frankly about the most important things. A sign at his kitchen table says, “we only talk politics and religion here. Keep your personal stuff to yourself.”
That drew chuckles from the crowd.
Groene said he is a legislative leader in tax reform and described his work in some detail.
He was one of six senators appointed by the speaker at the end of the last legislative session to try to work out a tax reform compromise. Although they couldn’t agree on a compromise, he was at the table.
Groene said we all pay income and sales taxes to the state, and traditionally, about 20% of that money came back to the local area in state aid to education. But that’s changed over the years. Now, most rural schools don’t get any state aid, but depend on property taxes for income.
Consequently, rural property taxes have become burdensome, threatening the livelihood of farmers and ranchers especially. He said some farmers pay the equivalent of $100 an acre a year in property taxes — 20-30% more than surrounding states.
Groene said the state should provide a certain amount of money to each student, equivalent to 20% of state income and sales tax receipts. That way, every school would get some state aid.
He said school districts could also get additional funds from property taxes, plus more state aid for districts that qualify.
In contrast, Pederson said her plan is to look at all the taxes that state residents pay, and work with all the other senators on reform.
She said senators have to be honest and find some common ground. “We have to have everyone at the table,” she said.
Pederson also said a number of items are sales tax exempt. The number of exemptions should be reduced, using a “first on, first off” method, to give the state more income.
Pederson also stressed the importance of economic growth — adding more houses, more industry and more businesses. She said growth helps lower taxes for everyone.
Internet sales taxes
The candidates agreed that collecting taxes on online sales is the fair thing to do.
Groene is opposed to Medicaid expansion for fiscal reasons, but would like more affordable health care, and if a person is willing to work, he looks for ways to help them afford health insurance. He believes everyone should pay a little for their health insurance, even a few dollars a month, rather than get healthcare for free.
Pederson favors expanding Medicaid, because it would help people “caught in the gap” — who don’t make enough money to qualify for Obamacare discounts, but aren’t poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. She also said some studies indicate states with expanded Medicaid have healthier people and healthier health care providers.
“We have working people who can’t afford health care,” Pederson said.
Groene said the closure of the Boys and Girls Home in North Platte, where juvenile criminals were kept for short terms, was a loss, because it provided structure that helped keep juveniles out of the penitentiary in the long run.
“I would love to see it come back,” he said.
Pederson said she needed to know more about the topic.
Groene said he successfully helped filibuster a bill that would have made an attorney mandatory for juveniles in legal trouble. He said that would be costly, and parents wouldn’t be able to make that critical decision for their children.
He said it is more important to allow teachers to use discipline in the classroom, so by second or third grades, children understand good behavior and the difference between right and wrong.
He also said more social workers in the schools is not necessary, but represents the mental health profession trying to get some education dollars.
He favors allowing Health and Human Services counselors to help in schools.
Pederson favors selling NCORPE land “if all the stars align.”
Groene said the land will be sold if he is elected, and there will be more demands on Lincoln County’s taxpayers for water for the Platte River.