Tommy Garrett, Bellevue’s freshly minted state senator, said he is not rushing to draw up legislation.
Appointed to the Legislature Dec. 11 by Gov. Dave Heineman, Garrett said he needs to learn the procedures of state government before adding to the approximately 600 bills already filed for 2014.
He has no doubt, however, about his priority for the session that begins today, Wednesday.
“It’s all about jobs,” he said. “It’s not a panacea for everything, but jobs cure a lot of ills. With more jobs, you have more people paying taxes, more people purchasing products and services. Jobs, jobs, jobs. So, whatever we can do from an economic development perspective, I think we need to do.”
Garrett, 59, a Republican who was appointed to the District 3 seat after the resignation of state Sen. Scott Price, speaks from personal experience.
In 2010, after serving 26 years in the U.S. Air Force and retiring as a full colonel, he created The Garrett Group, a consulting firm that contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and several foreign governments in matters of intelligence.
The business, now flourishing in the former Rumors Restaurant and Lounge building on Fort Crook Road, was a roll of the dice for Garrett and his wife, Julie, but the experience of risking his life’s savings and seeing it create well-paying jobs spurred his desire to get involved on a wider scale.
“My small business keeps me very busy,” he said. “But I feel very passionately about so many issues, and I thought I’d be the world’s biggest hypocrite if I criticized all that’s going on and then didn’t at least throw my hat in the ring and volunteer to try to do something about it.”
Intelligence work comes naturally to Garrett, who retains top secret security clearance and whose military career revolved around the issue.
Garrett said no cause in the Bellevue area is greater than securing the future of Offutt Air Force Base. But his other priorities reflect major targets of the Legislature in this upcoming session.
“My big issues are taxes, just as Gov. Heineman’s issue is taxes,” he said. “Taxes are too darn high, and I’ll be finely attuned to that. Education is another huge thing, public safety is a huge thing. And for me, and for District 3, where we have so many veterans, Offutt Air Force Base is a very huge thing.”
He said he has already had discussions with Sue Crawford, Bellevue’s other state senator, and with Bellevue Mayor Rita Sanders concerning the need to keep Offutt off the radar screen of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
“We’ve been talking about keeping Offutt a viable entity,” he said. “Its economic impact on Nebraska is just huge.”
Garrett said a prime obstacle to building prosperity in Nebraska is its tax rates, which he believes are too high. He said he is willing to work with Heineman, who wishes to reduce income taxes, and with senators who prefer to target property taxes.
“I don’t see them as diametrically opposed issues,” he said. “Clearly, Nebraska is one of the worst states for taxes, period. Corporate taxes, property taxes, income taxes.”
Taxes on veterans and retirees are specific targets of Garrett.
“Veterans don’t want their pensions taxed, and I agree,” he said. “Social Security income shouldn’t be taxed. Why, during that period of your life when you can least afford to pay taxes should you have to pay on Social Security benefits?”
And property taxes, he said, hurt the elderly most.
“Elderly people on fixed incomes ought not to have to sell their properties to pay taxes,” he said.
Garrett said he brings to his business affairs a philosophy of partnership that seeks to treat employees well.
As a consequence, he said, his company provides health benefits so generous that they will be subject to a special surtax imposed by the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The Garrett Group provides a 401(k) with a 4 percent match, he said, as well as a tuition assistance program along with other benefits.
The key to providing that level of compensation is a vibrant economy, he said, and he will work to promote policies that promote economic health.
He will also, he said, run for election this fall to earn the right to serve the two years remaining in Price’s term.
Garrett said he will work with Democrats or Republicans, who he believes share a common goal of making life better for everyday people, even if their methods differ. He promised that he will not be outworked.
“I’m going to work my butt off,” he said. “That’s typically what I do. I’m passionate about everything I do. There are a lot of people who are smarter than me, but I have to find anyone who will outwork me.
“I’m very tenacious. I work 7 days a week. I’m a four-hour-a-night sleeper; it’s just the way I’ve always been.”