Beatrice 6

The six people convicted and later cleared of killing Helen Wilson in 1985: (from top left) Joseph White, Tom Winslow, JoAnn Taylor, Deb Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez.

The Legislature easily hurdled a Gov. Pete Ricketts veto of a bill allowing Gage County to create a sales tax to help pay a federal judgment in the so-called Beatrice 6 case.

Only two senators who voted for the bill (LB472) introduced by Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams on final reading, where it was passed 43-6, peeled away during the motion to override the governor's veto.

Forty-one senators voted for Dorn's bill allowing the Gage County Board of Supervisors to create a countywide half-cent sales tax for the specific purpose of paying the $28.1 million federal judgment.

It needed just 30 votes to go into law over the governor's objection. Dorn cast the 30th vote.

LB472, which is narrowly tailored to Gage County's legal predicament, makes the sales tax available to counties facing federal judgments in excess of $25 million, but only if their property tax levy is at the maximum allowable under state law. The sales tax will sunset after seven years or when the judgment is paid in full, whichever comes first.

Ricketts issued his first veto of the 106th Legislature last week when he declined to sign LB472 into law, calling the events underlying the so-called Beatrice 6 case and its effects on Gage County "tragic," but adding none should allow "the county to break with the principle of allowing the people to vote on whether to raise sales taxes in their community."

"This bill sets a dangerous precedent for authorizing a sales tax increase," Ricketts wrote in his veto message to the Legislature.

Several lawmakers picked up that point during the hour-long debate over Dorn's motion to enact LB472 into law over Ricketts's objections.

Opponents said, like the governor, they would not budge from their principles that sales tax increases should be approved by the a vote of the people, not created by an elected body.

Dorn said Gage County had no other option than to raise its property tax rate to the maximum allowable under law in order to pay the $28.1 million judgment awarded by the jury, plus nearly $2 million in attorney's fees and an estimated $1 million in interest payments.

Those moneys will be used to compensate Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Sheldon and the state of Joseph White, who spent a combined 75 years in prison after they were wrongfully convicted of a 1985 Beatrice murder.

It was only after a review of DNA evidence in 2008 proved another person -- Bruce Allen Smith -- was responsible for the crime that the six were exonerated. They sued the county in 2009, and in 2016, a federal jury found Gage County and two former sheriff's deputies liable for leading the reckless investigation that put them behind bars.

The county appealed the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the nation's highest court decided not to hear the case earlier this year, finalizing the judgment against Gage County.

Supervisors in Gage County last year raised the property tax levy to the maximum allowed under state law to begin paying the verdict. Dorn said voters were not given the choice to weigh in on that remedy and argued the same principle should apply to the countywide sales tax in this case.

Once in place, the sales tax is expected to generate as much as $1.3 million annually, which when combined with the $3.8 million the county expects to collect in additional property taxes, would allow Gage County to complete its obligation in roughly six years rather than eight, Dorn explained.

It will also mean property owners pay $6 million less in taxes to fund the judgment over the next seven years, he added.

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