Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Heineman's "Premature and Inappropriate" Tax Cut

by Kyle Michaelis
The 2006 session of the Nebraska Legislature is right around the corner, which means we're about to get our first real sense of Gov. Heineman as a political force. Last year, he put his name on a significant package of business tax incentives, but these were in the pipeline well before he took office thanks to the heavy hand of the Chamber of Commerce that all but forced Heineman's signature, relegating him to the role of cheerleader in a game that had already been decided. His attempt ever since to portray himself as the the architect of the Nebraska Advantage legislation is simply laughable.

In a better example of his political track record so far, Heineman also dared to veto the legislature's closing of elementary-only school districts last spring, but this gesture was immediately dismissed as the political posturing it was - his veto summarily over-ridden by the state senate. Senators seemed hard-pressed to accept the authority of such a politically-calculated move on the part of a man first appointed as lieutenant governor only to then fall into the governorship - Nebraska's very own version of Gerald Ford (in so far as we can't claim the original one, who was born in Omaha).

Attempting to avoid Ford's place in the history books having never been elected President in his own right, Heineman now sets out to do a better job of winning over the legislature to his tax cut proposal. The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Gov. Dave Heineman said tax cuts will be his priority when lawmakers convene Jan. 4 in Lincoln for a 60-day session. And for the most part, lawmakers seem receptive, though cautious....

Forty-two of the state's 49 lawmakers responded to the tax question in The World-Herald's annual pre-session survey, and 21 said they would support a tax cut, 19 said they might, and only two were opposed.

Heineman said the survey results are consistent with what lawmakers told him as he developed his tax plan, and he is encouraged by their response.

"We know we've got to go out and work this hard, and we intend to," said Heineman, who is seeking election next year. "I think generally, there's fairly strong support for tax relief as the top priority"....

Although state senators generally had a positive response to tax cuts, they parted ways on the best way to go about it.

Of the 21 who favored tax cuts, 11 said they preferred income tax cuts, eight liked reducing sales taxes, in particular the remodeling labor tax, and seven said they wanted to reduce property taxes. A couple took aim at estate taxes....

Some lawmakers said Nebraska needs to set aside money to pay for possible financial damages for exceeding the Republican River water agreement with Kansas. Other budget needs they listed include maintenance of state buildings, jail reimbursement to counties, aid to schools and colleges....

Heineman said his plan sets aside adequate cash reserves. He said it is "premature and inappropriate" to assume that Nebraska will be penalized in the water dispute with Kansas....

Heineman, who faces two opponents in the Republican primary in May, said policy more than politics is driving his call for tax cuts.

"I'm not trying to win votes in that sense," he said. "I'm trying to develop good tax policy that allows this state to grow long term...If I was only motivated about this next election year, I'd propose an even bigger tax cut."

At least, from the sound of it, Heineman admits the cynical and manipulative motivations behind the Republican candidates' competing tax-cutting/ service-chopping proposals. What I'm yet to see is how or why Heineman speaks with such confidence that the legislature will give his particular proposal (still lacking in specifics as to what budget obligations he'd actually like the state to meet) more consideration than any senator's.

Whatever clout Heineman might desire as governor or within the Republican Party is surely called into question by the fact that he hasn't yet earned the vote of the people and faces a still-uphill challenge in his own party's primary. Also, he's going to be so desperate to sign some sort of tax cutting legislation to get on the good side of voters that an actual veto of whatever ultimately comes out of committee and gets through the legislature almost has to be considered an empty threat.

Finally, thanks to term limits, this is the last year of many senators' service, so they seem likely to be even less inclined than usual to take marching orders and dance to Heineman's tune. Of course, many will still be inclined to pass some sort of tax cut to assure their legacy, but there's no reason whatsoever for it to take the shape Heineman has proposed.

Let's face it - if Heineman thinks he's in control of this debate, he's sorely mistaken. Barring some thus far unseen backroom shenanigans - job promises and vote trading the likes of which would put even Tom DeLay to shame - Heineman lacks any substantive pull or political capital. For now, he is a pretender to the throne any which way you look at it.

And, let me say personally, Heineman's status as a "neverwas-to-be" isn't helped by his refusal to exercise foresight and recognize the incredible financial burden taking shape in Nebraska's water dispute with Kansas. To call talk of this burden "premature and inappropriate" is absolutely preposterous.

My God, only two days earlier the World-Herald reported that the Nebraska Water Policy Task Force Heineman is responsible for appointing held an 11th-hour meeting about how to cover this very expense, ultimately proposing a raise in the state sales tax - the most regressive tax of all. With a plan such as that on the table, he actually has the audacity to dismiss the issue and the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in an attempt to protect his precious tax cut and the votes it might buy. How disgusting!

For behavior like this, so lacking in integrity and leadership, any comparisons between Heineman and Gerald Ford are just too unkind to the 38th president, even though Heineman seems most deserving of a similar fate at the ballot box.


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