Nebraska allows sales tax to pay off 'Beatrice Six' judgment

Nebraska lawmakers have cleared the way for a rural county to impose a half-cent sales tax to pay a $28.1 million legal debt to six people wrongfully convicted of murder

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska lawmakers cleared the way Tuesday for a rural county to impose a half-cent sales tax to pay a $28.1 million legal debt to six people wrongfully convicted of murder, despite objections from the state's Republican governor.

Senators voted 41-8 to override the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts, who opposed the measure because it would allow the tax without approval from voters. Overriding the governor requires 30 votes.

The new law will allow Gage County's board of supervisors to impose the tax to pay the federal judgment awarded to the wrongfully convicted people, known as the Beatrice Six.

The six collectively spent more than 70 years in prison for a 1985 murder in Beatrice but were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008. The county wasn't properly insured at the time and has exhausted all of its appeals in the lawsuit filed by the six, leaving officials with no options other than paying the judgment.

The override received support from even some of the Legislature's staunchest conservatives, who generally oppose tax increases.

"I find myself between a rock and a hard place, and I'm going to make an exception to my rule," said Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte. "This is a time when campaign promises become meaningless and situations must be solved."

The law is designed to ease the burden on property tax payers who will otherwise shoulder the entire cost and help the county pay its debt in roughly six years instead of eight, said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, whose district includes Gage County. With attorney fees and interest, the county owes about $31 million.

County supervisors have already raised their property tax levy to the maximum allowed under state law to cover the judgment, but sales tax increases typically require voter approval. A large share of the county's property tax burden is covered by farmers who own lots of land but whose incomes have fallen because of low commodity prices. They're also outnumbered by Beatrice residents, who typically don't pay as much in property taxes.

Supporters of the law contend voters would almost certainly reject a sales tax increase because many didn't live in the county when authorities were investigating the murder, and some residents still believe the six people were involved even though state officials have declared them innocent. Some of the six have been diagnosed with mental health problems and were coerced into confessing with threats of capital punishment.

Ricketts and lawmakers who opposed the measure said it sets a bad precedent and is based on the assumption that voters wouldn't make the best decision.

"We ought to believe the people of Gage County will do the right thing if given the opportunity to vote," said Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln. "By passing this bill, we are overriding that principle."

Sen. John Lowe of Kearney said he remained opposed because he believes Beatrice residents "don't want to hurt the outlying farm people. I believe they will help their neighbors."

Both the sales and property taxes will expire once the judgment is paid in full.

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