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Woodmen tax break scrapes by on way to final passage

Woodmen tax break scrapes by on way to final passage

NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

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LINCOLN — By the slimmest of margins, state lawmakers staved off a filibuster and advanced a bill designed to keep Woodmen of the World from moving its headquarters out of Nebraska.

A filibuster against the bill was defeated Wednesday with the minimum number of votes necessary, 33, and only after State Sen. John Murante of Gretna changed his vote to provide the 33rd vote.

Then, lawmakers advanced Legislative Bill 414 to final-round consideration on a 29-13 vote.

Had the filibuster not been overcome on a 33-12 vote, the bill would have been dropped from the agenda and likely would have been dead for the year.

LB 414 would make Woodmen of the World and 31 other "fraternal benefit organizations" exempt from local property taxes.

Larry King, the firm's president and CEO, has said granting the exemption would ensure that Woodmen, and its 550 jobs, remain in Nebraska — its home for a century.

When asked Wednesday what would happen if the company didn't get the tax break, King said, "I don't have a good answer to that."

The bill would provide about $1.2 million a year in exemptions on personal and real property used by Woodmen, according to a calculation by Douglas County. LB 414 would make about 70 percent of the company's iconic skyscraper in downtown Omaha — the portion occupied by Woodmen — tax exempt.

Douglas County, which rejected Woodmen's request for a tax exemption, mounted a last-minute bid to defeat LB 414 to no avail.

Critics of the bill said it was bad tax policy to provide a property tax exemption to one big corporation simply because it has threatened to move. LB 414, they also said, would unfairly shift the tax load onto other taxpayers.

"It's no different than any other insurance company in the state," said Hyannis Sen. Al Davis.

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene said his constituents wonder why the Legislature is providing a tax break for one company and not one for everyone.

Opponents said the Legislature should wait until next year to consider LB 414 to allow a state tax court to rule on Woodmen's appeal that it is tax exempt under current law.

The sponsor of LB 414, Omaha Sen. Burke Harr, opposed that idea. He said the company provides jobs that pay an average of $62,000 a year, which are the kinds of jobs Nebraska should "incentivize" and not "demonize or beat up."

If the bill wins final approval, it would require approval by Gov. Pete Ricketts to become law. His spokesman said Wednesday that the governor has not issued a stance on the proposal.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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