We have recounted Pete Ricketts’ struggles with the legislature on this blog over the past seventeen months. For the most part, Ricketts’ agenda of large, budget busting tax cuts has been significantly pared down and the state has maintained a healthy rainy day fund. At the same time, a coalition of Democratic and moderate Republican State Senators have overridden Ricketts’ vetoes on a series of high profile bills including the repeal of the death penalty, a gas tax increase, as well as drivers and professional licenses for young immigrants.
The Governor has responded to these embarrassing defeats by investing a significant sum of his own money into reversing the decisions of the legislature. Ricketts and his billionaire father have spent $300,000 in an effort to restore the failed death penalty program. Moreover, a well informed source at the Unicameral told me on background that Ricketts and the Nebraska GOP invested another $300,000 into five legislative primary races this spring in which they targeted two Democratic incumbents and three Republican incumbent Senators.
What we have here is one very wealthy family trying to subvert the will of the duly elected Unicameral by attempting to replace it with a more pliable legislative branch. This attempt by Ricketts and his wealthy family to buy a new set of Senators is disturbing on a number of levels. No one person or family should have this kind of power in one state. It is simply undemocratic and sets a disturbing precedent.
In spite of Ricketts’ attempt to influence the outcome of elections with lavish spending out of his own pocket, Nebraska Democrats had a good showing on May 10. For the first time since term limits were imposed – in each Legislative District in which a Democrat ran for the unicameral – a Democrat advanced to the general election on November 8. Moreover, several Democrats had strong showings in districts in which Republicans have a significant edge in registered voters.
In LD27, Anna Wishart finished first in a three way race with an impressive 62% of the vote. Wishart’s large margin of victory shows that hard work wins. Moreover, Sara Howard, Mike McDonnell, and Kate Bolz dominated in their districts – as expected. In Republican leaning Grand Island, Dan Quick finished first in a three man race.
Sue Crawford, Ardel Bengston, Lynne Walz, Carol Blood, Jim Gordon, Larry Scherer and Bill Armbrust all had good showings in tough districts and are all within striking distance of winning the general election – especially with Trump on the top of the ticket. We can also expect a higher Democratic voter turnout in November.
In two races, strong allies of Ricketts were eliminated or are on the brink of defeat. Pat Borchers finished third in west Omaha’s LD37. In south Omaha’s LD7, it appears as though Democrats Tony Vargas and John Synowiecki will advance to the general election. Ricketts appointee Nicole Fox is most likely on the brink of elimination after finishing third by a mere fourteen votes. The provisional ballots still have to be counted but those ballots should favor the Democratic candidates.
Even though we made a good showing in the primary election cycle, we can take nothing for granted this fall. I fully expect Ricketts and his billionaire allies to spend vast amounts of money in the general election to move the legislature to the right. The Governor wants to break the Democratic-moderate Republican coalition that has thwarted his ambitions.
What Rickett is trying to do is reminiscent of Kansas Governor Brownback’s intervention in the Kansas legislative elections in the 2012 election cycle. Brownback and the Koch brothers poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into legislative races to replace Democrats and moderate Republicans with radical Tea Party Republicans who would enact his extreme agenda.
After Brownback’s 2012 purge, the Kansas legislature enacted a series of huge tax cuts for the wealthy that blew up the Kansas budget and credit rating. Earlier this month, Moody’s downgraded Kansas’ credit rating from “stable” to “negative.” Currently, the Sunflower State suffers from a $228 million budget deficit and the worst job growth in the region.
Ricketts wants to do to Nebraska what Brownback did to Kansas. I have it on background from a prominent Republican that the Governor is a “true believer conservative.” What that means is that Ricketts actually believes in the long discredited notion that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves and create jobs.
Nebraska still has a positive economic outlook and $687 million in our rainy day fund. However, there are some possible storm clouds on the horizon. The agricultural economy is slowing and the Department of Revenue released a report that indicates that the state is $71 million behind what was projected for the current fiscal year. Renee Fry of the OpenSky Policy Institute says that Nebraska’s projected $234 million shortfall is likely to increase if tax receipts remain below what was expected.
This would be the worst possible time to embark upon some radical and risky tax scheme like the one that ruined Kansas. As Nebraska Democrats, we must have a successful election cycle. We need to preserve the good life in our great state. I’m confident that we will have a strong showing in November but we can’t take anything for granted. Now let’s get it done!