Gov. Pete Ricketts, Sen. Bob Krist tussle on Medicaid, death penalty, prisons, taxes and more

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Property taxes took center stage at a debate between Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his Democratic challenger, State Sen. Bob Krist, here Thursday.

The two sparred in front of a Nebraska State Fair crowd of some 435 people, many sporting red Ricketts T-shirts, at The World-Herald/KMTV debate.

The candidates answered questions about, among other issues, Medicaid expansion, the death penalty, prisons, medical marijuana, leadership and trade. Both took shots at the other at times, but the tone remained civil throughout.

The first two questions concerned the issue almost every public opinion poll shows atop Nebraskans’ lists — property taxes. They were asked their ideas and why more progress hadn’t been made.

Krist, of Omaha, said he would support using more of sales and income taxes to offset property taxes, saying that the state’s three-legged stool of taxation was off-balance and that the state needed to get back to investing more in education.

“Not funding education causes a further burden on the property taxpayers,” he said.

Ricketts defended his record, citing investments in the state’s property tax credit fund during his first two years in office. The fund uses state tax dollars to offset a portion of property tax bills. He blamed legislators, including Krist, for obstructing his more recent tax proposals.

“What we had on the table was something that would have delivered significant property tax relief,” he said. “It was significant, but it got stalled in the Legislature.”

Krist shot back, arguing that the governor had not worked to build consensus and had resorted instead to bullying lawmakers to get the bill out of committee.

The two returned to the property tax theme several times during the hourlong debate.

Ricketts brought it up in his closing statement, during which he characterized the election as one about “choices and contrasts.”

Along with highlighting differences on issues such as the death penalty, the governor touted his record on growth in Nebraska. He said his approach to lowering taxes, controlling state spending and cutting regulation have made Nebraska a more attractive place to build, expand or relocate a business.

Krist used his closing to emphasize his lifetime of service, including 21 years in the Air Force and 10 in the Nebraska Legislature. He pointed out several problem areas in state government, including the state prison system, child welfare and recent nursing home closures.

“I am running for governor because the state of the state is not as good as I think it should be,” he said.

Krist called the handling of state prisons a “debacle” and pointed to the riots, inmate deaths, assaults on staff and staff turnover as evidence that the governor has fallen short. He particularly faulted Scott Frakes, the corrections director appointed by Ricketts.

Ricketts countered by saying that the Corrections Department has made a “tremendous amount” of progress under his watch. He said his administration had put more money into the agency and increased programs that have reduced assaults on staff.

Krist, when it was his turn to ask a question of his opponent, asked Ricketts about his ties to a donor who some critics say steered the sale of Cabela’s from Nebraska owners to Missouri-based Bass Pro Shop.

Ricketts said he had no prior knowledge of the sale and stressed efforts to lure new businesses to Sidney. He said the state moved an office of the Nebraska Department of Labor there to help Cabela’s employees find work.