Bill to help Gage County pay federal civil rights judgment, clears first round

BEATRICE – A bill that would allocate funding to help Gage County pay off a massive federal civil rights judgment of over $30 million, has advanced to second round in the Nebraska Legislature.

Senator Myron Dorn amended the bill to allocate $4 million over two budget years in state funding…a reduction from the $10 million that was proposed in a committee amendment offered by Senator Steve Erdman when the bill was heard in committee.  LB 103 then advanced on a 35-3 vote. Dorn thanked Erdman for proposing the higher level of state funding, but chose to reduce the amount.

"In the end I had to make up my mind and decide what is something that, for the State of Nebraska, for the appropriations issues we all have this year...what is going to have the best chance of helping fund some of the situation that Gage County is in."

The vote followed lengthy debate on an amendment filed by Senator Mike Groene, who argued the state should also provide funding support to help solve a Republican River Compact settlement that has been costing irrigators through a $10 per acre fee. Groene introduced the amendment to make a point, but then pulled it from consideration.

Gage County has so far, paid a total of about $14.2 million dollars to six people wrongfully convicted in the 1985 murder and rape of Helen Wilson. The county has about $16.77 million remaining to be paid, using a combination of property tax funding and revenue from a half-cent countywide sales tax that was authorized in a Dorn legislative bill that became law.

"Gage County maxed out the property tax levy as required in the judgment. They have added an additional half-cent sales tax. They have settled with the insurance carriers. The county and its residents have done everything fiscally possible to pay this federal judgment. Now, the county and its people are out of options. They are also at the end of the financial rope. Today with LB 103, I'm asking for assistance from the State of Nebraska to help pay this federal judgment. If any political subdivision found themselves facing a federal judgment that is more than three times their annual property tax collection, it would bring the entity to a breaking point."

Dorn received ample support from colleagues for the bill, many who concluded the state contribution would in effect, provide property tax relief. Among those in support was the Chairperson of the Revenue Committee, Senator Lou Ann Linehan.

"When I was growing up, we went to Beatrice....if we went out to eat. We went to Beatrice when we went to the movies, I grew up there. This has been a tragedy that hit Gage County really hard. I think this is a situation where the state should step in. And, I definitely this this is a situation where we need to remember we're the upper house....and we're not supposed to look at things just from our district's point-of-view. I think that's really important on this issue....because any of us could be in this boat."

The amendment to reduce the amount of state funding to a total of $2 million over each of the next two fiscal years was approved on a 37-2 vote, before LB 103 was advanced to second-round consideration.