Slone: Blueprint Nebraska may aid 3rd District most

Former state Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, executive director of Blueprint Nebraska, explains the statewide economic planning program’s priorities Thursday morning during the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s annual Fall Forum at Best Western Plus in North Platte.

North Platte leaders Thursday applauded Blueprint Nebraska’s vision for better economic health — as long as the Lincoln and Omaha areas aren’t the only beneficiaries.

They also told Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry executives that while new state business incentives are important, property tax relief should be their top priority.

“The 3rd (Congressional) District is dying because of property taxes,” North Platte banker Mike Jacobson told executive directors Byron Slone of the state chamber and former state Sen. Jim Smith of Blueprint Nebraska.

Jacobson, a member of Blueprint Nebraska’s Banking & Finance Industry Council, also said it’s vital that the one-year-old planning process and overall state policy focus on revitalizing regional trade centers like North Platte.

Incentive programs since the late 1980s “seemed to focus on Lincoln and Omaha, and it worked,” he said during the state chamber’s morning Fall Forum breakfast. “You’ve got people from the 3rd District moving to the 1st and 2nd Districts, and they continue to grow and we continue to sink.”

About two dozen community leaders came to North Platte’s Best Western Plus to hear Blueprint Nebraska’s ideas for boosting the state’s population, workforce and economy over the next decade.

Though state chamber leaders offered their annual views and review of Unicameral issues, Slone — a 1975 Gering High School graduate — stressed that the organization has adopted Blueprint Nebraska’s program as its own for the next four years.

When he looks at Blueprint Nebraska’s 15-point list of top initiatives, “I really believe the 3rd District has the potential for the biggest statewide gains,” said Slone, a longtime Omaha tax lawyer and a 1980s U.S. House Ways and Means Committee staff member under former 2nd District Rep. Hal Daub.

Slone and Kristen Hassebrook, the state chamber’s executive vice president of legislation and policy, reiterated the group’s legislative priority of passing a new income-tax-oriented incentive program to replace the expiring Nebraska Advantage Act.

Legislative Bill 720, which proposes the ImagiNE Nebraska Act, stalled late in the 2019 session after rural senators frustrated by the sidetracking of a property tax relief package withheld their votes.

Jacobson said he agrees that Nebraska needs a new incentive program but property tax relief — featuring a broader sales tax base with lower rates — needs to come first.

Without it, “if you lower income taxes, it comes back to property taxes,” he said.

“I would say that the Legislature has some tough decisions to make in the very near term,” replied Smith, a former chairman of the Unicameral’s Revenue Committee.

Union Pacific Railroad chief Lance Fritz and Scottsbluff businessman Owen Palm co-chair Blueprint Nebraska, initiated in May 2018 by Gov. Pete Ricketts and then-University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds. Bounds officially left his NU post Thursday.

Blueprint Nebraska’s 19-member steering committee includes North Platte businessman Pat Keenan, Paxton farmer Jon Holzfaster, Broken Bow rancher Jerry Adams and Scottsbluff banker Hod Kosman. Great Plains Health CEO Mel McNea sits on the group’s health care advisory council.

Smith, who represented Papillion in the Legislature, touted Nebraska’s strengths in natural resources, centralized location, agriculture and transportation infrastructure. The strong work ethic of Nebraskans tops them all, he said.

“The Midwest of the United States is the envy of the entire world in terms of workforce,” he said. “But I believe Nebraska is the envy of the Midwest when it comes to workforce. We are the best.”

But Smith said Nebraska continues to lose young people to other states and ranks low among similarly-sized states in economic growth and investment in research and development.

Both have to change for Nebraskans to thrive in all parts of the state, Smith said.

“The 18- to 34-year-old population is hugely important to the lifeblood of Nebraska,” he said. “We have to hold onto the things that make our state strong. But we also have to look to the future.”

Slone said Nebraska can grow its overall employment even as it invests more in the latest technology. He remarked on a recent visit to Hebron in south central Nebraska, where a manufacturing plant deployed robots throughout its assembly lines eight years ago.

But “the number of employees is five times larger than when they started this process,” he said. “With help from their community college, they have staffed all this growth.”

Gary Person, president and CEO of North Platte Area Chamber & Development, said Blueprint Nebraska echoes local efforts to recruit talented people while stepping up workforce training and housing for a new generation.

“We talk about our (low) unemployment rate, but we have a lot of people who could be employed but aren’t,” Person said.

When asked about reversing Nebraska’s brain drain by reaching out to former residents, Slone noted a successful effort by Pender in northeast Nebraska to invite its high school alumni back home for a three-day reunion.

“They came, and they came in big droves,” he said, adding that the reunion generated more than $7 million in donations for a new community center.

Slone, who said he still loves his native Panhandle, also cited his own return to Nebraska 20 years ago from Washington, D.C.

“I always knew I was going to come back (to Nebraska), but I didn’t come back until somebody asked,” he said.

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