UTICA – Nebraska State Senator Mark Kolterman and challenger Stephanie Nantkes addressed residents from District 24 this week, during a public forum sponsored by the York News-Times and the Seward County Independent.
This was an opportunity for the candidates seeking to represent the district (which involves York, Seward and Polk Counties) to answer questions about their intentions, their views and their hopes for this area and the state as a whole.
Sen. Kolterman was elected to the position in 2014. Prior to his election, his career has been in the insurance field.
Nantkes has had a long career in the area of education.
Both Seward residents, they expressed mutual respect as they have known each other for many years and have been involved in many of the same community and civic efforts.
Questions were collected from the public by both newspapers and then consolidated. The questions were randomly drawn and candidates took turns being the first to answer each question drawn. The questions were asked by the moderators – Jill Martin, managing editor of the Seward County Independent, and Melanie Wilkinson, managing editor of the York News-Times.
The candidates were first asked what they feel is the single, biggest concern facing the state of Nebraska at this time.
Nantkes was the first to answer, saying the single biggest concern is “our Nebraska taxes. How we take them in, who we take them from and how we pay them out.” She noted that the revenue in the state “needs to go to a lot of different places and one, of course, I think about, is education. How we choose to have this money come down to the schools . . . how we get education money in Seward is much different than how others can get their education money. I think that the formula needs to be overhauled.” She noted that besides property tax, there are other sources of revenue, including state individual tax, sales tax, petroleum taxes and corporate income taxes. “We have ways to bring it in, maybe we need to start to think how we can make these changes so it’s positive, and nothing gets hurt in the way.”
“I think the biggest issue is our property tax problem, particularly as it pertains to agriculture,” Kolterman said. “We had four bills that were locked up in committee and very few got out. One came through to the education committee and I was supportive of that bill, as well as the governor’s bill. In my opinion, state aid to schools is not being done in the right manner. The formula we use to pass out money to the districts is out of balance. It’s tremendously out of balance. As an example, the Omaha school district – 56 percent of their budget comes from state aid. You look at the largest school district in the state, compared to York, Seward, McCool Junction, Milford districts, where they don’t get anywhere near that money. It’s not equal. We have worked on ideas on how to fix that, one idea is foundation aid so every school district gets an equal percent of aid (based on student numbers), which is a way I think is a fair way to start out, balance it out. We get very little money from state aid in this area, and that concerns me. We have also doled out a tremendous amount of tax exemptions, which we probably need to look at on the revenue side. I think the body will tell you, as we left, that this is a big concern and we know it’s something that we will have to take a hard look at when we come back next year. It will be the number one issue when we come back next year.
The next question was related to their earlier responses. “A special session is not being held to address the state’s property tax issue, as only 14 senators signed on for such a session. Do you feel a special session should have been held, rather than holding off the matter until next year?”
Kolterman was the first to answer, saying it was an interesting question, adding that “I’m not sure we won’t have a special session this year, the possibility still exists. The problem with this special session that was proposed was that there was no bill. The first that happens in a special session is that you have to have a bill introduced and there were four bills introduced and it can’t be that broad. You need to have one bill to discuss when you have a special session, you have to address that one issue. The idea that property taxes need to be addressed is very accurate. I know we have some senators, including myself, who are meeting this summer on this matter, and if we present a bill, we will invite senators to talk about a special session later in the year. If there had been traction for a special session right now, we’d be in the middle of that now, that would have happened. With only 14 senators signing on, that’s a far ways from what we needed. The governor can call a special session, as well. I don’t think he will do that. And most people don’t know that every day of a special session costs $10,000, so it’s not cheap to have a special session. I don’t think the body wanted to spend money we didn’t have.”
“And I want to point out that the $10,000 a day – none of that money goes to the senators. That’s just so the building can be open and all that goes with it. None of that goes to the senators. And a special session without a primary bill is not a good way to go, I agree. We have a scale that’s not quite even right now with property tax and education. If we figure out how to do education, will it help property tax? And if we figure out how to do property tax, will that help education? I don’t know if everyone is aware, but we have a two-year budget, and they are trying to weigh this out.” She also noted that she is concerned about cuts that were made to the university system which resulted in student programs being cut as a result.
The candidates were then asked the following question: “In York and Seward Counties, as well as other counties along the interstate, the number of seizures of illegal drugs during traffic stops has been increasing. Many times, the seizures and arrests were the work of county sheriff’s departments and all the people arrested are housed in county jails. Do you feel the state should provide funds to counties to assist in the ongoing battle against illegal drugs?
“Well, first of all, I want to thank all in law enforcement,” Nantkes responded. “If we look at the counties involved, we have Polk County that has a sheriff’s department and they work with the state troopers. York has the state patrol, the sheriff’s department and a police department. Seward has the same. And there is a Milford police department. For Seward and York Counties, they both have the interstate as part of their property. One of the best things they did was bring in the dogs. I know it sounds kind of funny. But dogs help them tremendously in finding things that should be in those vehicles and shouldn’t be transported. One big thing is the amount of guns going across the interstate, also. We have the dogs, the dogs are helping us, and also it seems people moving the drugs seem to have cash with them in high amounts. The agency that does the bust then gets the cash and they can share throughout. In Seward County, they use it get equipment and to train and I’ve been told it is pretty much the same thing in York County. The drug money that they are finding, they are able to use. They dispose of the drugs, thank goodness, and the money comes in another way. It actually happens to be beneficial to the taxpayer so then if a sheriff’s department wants to buy a new car or send someone to training, it doesn’t have to come out of the budget. It’s a good thing that we have the interstate.”
“The drug issue on Interstate 80 is an interesting challenge we have,” Kolterman said. “First, the state legislature does not control the state patrol, sheriff’s departments and the police, that falls under other branches. I believe the spirit of cooperation is very strong between the counties we represent, and with the state patrol. We noticed a significant increase in the amount of drug trafficking when Colorado first allowed medical marijuana and then they went to allowing recreational marijuana. I talked with people from wester Nebraska who say it is very difficult to patrol that. Yes, it is a pipeline for drugs and we do have dogs and very capable groups of law enforcement people. The other thing, though, is that it’s not only drugs that they find. We have done a lot of work in recent years about the issue that it is also a pipeline for human trafficking. It is a number one concern for our attorney general, he wants to stop human trafficking as we all do. We have been able to reach across the aisle and work together. And with the money laundering, the state patrol and the counties have been finding a lot of money and we need to capitalize on that.”