Rookie Governor Ricketts Repeatedly Rolled By Legislature

When Ricketts was elected Governor in 2014, many Nebraskans were concerned that he would be able to ram a radical agenda through the legislature that would squander Nebraska’s hard earned rainy day fund and turn our state into a Kansas type budget dystopia. Moreover, there were legitimate fears that Ricketts would destroy the unions like Scott Walker did in Wisconsin.  However, as early as January 2015, a prominent Democratic State Senator told me that many of the newly elected Republican Senators were more moderate than expected and that Ricketts’ agenda might very well be thwarted.

That prediction turned out to be correct in the 2015 session. A plucky band of Democratic State Senators and some moderate Republicans stood up to the rookie Governor and stopped his extreme agenda in it’s tracks.  Ricketts’ fiscally irresponsible property tax cut scheme didn’t even make it out of committee.  Moreover, the Unicameral passed over Ricketts’ veto a bill allowing the Dreamers to obtain drivers licenses and the repeal of the death penalty.

Prominent Republican insiders speaking on background (justifiably) termed Ricketts’ first legislative session an “embarrassing start.”  Two long time Republican lobbyists who spoke to me on background were both highly critical of Ricketts’ handling of his first legislative session.  One lobbyist said the Senators perceived Ricketts’ approach as “heavy handed” and another told me that the Ricketts Administration only got engaged with the Unicameral very late in the session.

The Governor’s second legislative session – which has just been completed –  turned out to be another embarrassment for him.  Once again, Ricketts’ scheme to cut taxes and reduce school funding met determined opposition and largely went nowhere.  Thanks to this opposition from fiscal conservatives in the Unicameral, a $124 million revenue shortfall was plugged and the State still has a $643 million rainy day fund.  It would have been foolish to blow the rainy day fund now since commodity prices are on the decline and the agricultural economy is slowing down.

Ricketts’ most stinging defeat this year was the passage of the professional licenses bill for young immigrants over his veto (LB947).  Before the passage of this vital legislation, the DACA children or Dreamers weren’t allowed to obtain professional licenses.  Over one hundred professions as diverse as hair dressing, plumbing, law, medicine and nursing require a license from the state.  So what we had was a situation where a Dreamer could finish vocational or professional school in Nebraska but couldn’t work in their home state in their chosen profession.

Many of the Dreamers were brought to Nebraska by their parents when they were young children.  It wasn’t their decision to come to Nebraska.  In addition, many of these young people have lived in Nebraska most of their lives, have gone to school here and would like to stay in Nebraska once they complete their studies.  It would be ridiculous to force the Dreamers to leave the state once they complete their education.

The licenses for Dreamers bill enjoyed broad bi-partisan support.  It was backed by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.  Only Ricketts and his extreme right wing allies in the Unicameral opposed this common sense bill.

Both the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World supported LB947.  The Lincoln Journal Star termed Ricketts’ opposition to the bill as “mean spirited” and “anti-business.”  The World Herald editorial asked the obvious question: “(W)hy educate these ambitious young people only to send them out of Nebraska.

The Governors’ irrational opposition to this bill only makes sense if you understand the bizarre world of right wing politics.  A prominent lobbyist told me on background that Ricketts was very impressed by Heineman’s upset victory over Tom Osborne in the 2006 Nebraska gubernatorial primary.  In that campaign, Heineman attacked Coach Osborne for supporting in-state college tuition rates for the Dreamers.  The so-called “lesson” that Ricketts learned from his immediate predecessor is that it pays politically to be “tough” on the poor and immigrants.

During the debate regarding the override of the young immigrants license bill, Senator Heath Mello – who sponsored LB 947 – blasted Ricketts. Mello stated that he was: “utterly disappointed with the governor” for his use of “misinformation, demagoguery and political rhetoric” to attack the bill, including a suggestion that granting work licenses to lawful residents somehow represented “amnesty.” “It’s sad to see what he has chosen to do,” Mello said. “We’re talking about people who are part of the future of our state.”

Fortunately at the end of the day, reason and justice prevailed.  Rickett’s veto of LB947 was overridden by an overwhelming bi-partisan 31-13 margin.  After the vote, NDP Chair Vince Powers released the following statement: “Pete Ricketts remains out of touch with Nebraskans and out of touch with the Nebraska Legislature. All fair-minded Nebraskans thank the Legislature for overriding the Governor’s petty, mean-spirited veto intended to crush the dreams of aspiring citizens to live and work in our great state.”

Even though the 2015-2016 legislative sessions turned out to be better than expected, our work isn’t done.  We have a very important election cycle in 2016 since eleven State Senators – including some real Democratic stalwarts such as Heath Mello and Ken Haar – are termed out.  We must do everything we can to elect more Democrats to the Unicameral.

In an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star, Ricketts said he would continue to pursue his right wing agenda and would seek re-election in 2018.  What that means is that is extremely important that we have a good cycle this year.  We must continue to keep Ricketts in check and prevent him from hurting working families.

I believe that we are facing a historic opportunity this year.  The Republican Party has become very extreme and is in disarray.  Donald Trump will most likely be the GOP Presidential nominee.  The New York billionaire and entertainer will be the most unpopular major party nominee in history.  Many Republicans are fearing a rout up and down their ticket this fall.  We Democrats must take advantage of this rare opportunity and elect as many Democrats as possible to the Unicameral this year.  Let’s get to work!