The conventional wisdom in January was that – due to Ricketts’ election and GOP gains in the unicameral – right wing Republicans were going to dominate the 2015 legislative session and do to Nebraska what they did to Kansas. However, in that very same month, a well placed source at the Capitol told me that some of the Republicans elected in 2014 were more moderate than expected and we might be in for a pleasant surprise in the Unicameral.
As it turned out, my source was correct and the 2015 legislative session proved to be one of the more remarkable and historic legislative sessions in recent years. Time and again, measures advanced by the conservative wing of the GOP wing were rejected by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. Partisan legislation aimed at further cementing the GOP advantage in Nebraska – like the electoral vote and the voter I.D. bills – were rejected early in the session. Moreover, Governor Ricketts’ signature property tax cut measure didn’t even advance out of the Revenue Committee.
What made this session especially remarkable was that Progressive changes were enacted into law over the objections of the legislative chamber’s most conservative members and the vetoes of Governor Ricketts. It was the triumph of moderate, bi-partisan ideas over rigid ideology.
The first setback for Ricketts and the radical right was the override of the Governor’s veto of a gas tax increase that would annually fund $75 million worth of infrastructure repairs and maintenance. This is pro-business and pro-agriculture legislation because small business owners and farmers need good roads. That’s why several senators from small towns and rural areas rejected the no new taxes orthodoxy of billionaire front groups like Americans For Prosperity.
Perhaps the most visible victory for the coalition of Democrats and enlightened Republicans was the repeal of the death penalty which was enacted over Ricketts’ veto after the Governor put on a full court press to maintain the current law. Nebraska became the first conservative or red state in over 40 years to repeal it’s death penalty. It is clearly an historic accomplishment.
The death penalty repeal is a victory for fiscal conservatism. Nebraska taxpayers squander millions of dollars on fruitless litigation every year aimed at the execution of the prisoners on death row. This litigation is wasteful and futile because the State hasn’t executed anybody since 1997 and it is doubtful anybody else would ever be executed again if the law is restored.
The session ended with the override of Ricketts’ veto of legislation that would authorize drivers licenses for the “Dreamers” – young people brought to this country illegally when they were children. The Governor vetoed this legislation even though it was supported by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce.
One can explain Ricketts’ setbacks in the legislature by his unbending adherence to the orthodoxy of the Tea Party. A highly placed and reliable Republican insider once told me that Ricketts is no moderate and is a “true believer”conservative As Dave Domina aptly said: “Nebraska’s new Governor marginalized himself with extreme positions this week. Governing requires consensus forming, not stubbornness.”
Ricketts’ surprising losses can also be chalked up to just inexperience and simple incompetence. Ricketts and his team have no prior governmental experience. Running a government is entirely different than running a business – it is a different breed of cat altogether.
The new Governor’s struggles didn’t go unnoticed among members of his own party. The right wing Leavenworth Street blog took several potshots at Ricketts’ ineptitude and inexperience. Moreover, the GOP friendly Omaha World Herald reported that: “Several Republicans who have been around the State Capitol for years privately described it as an “embarrassing” start for the governor.”
The results from the 2015 session of the Nebraska legislature clearly reflect Democratic values. However, as I’ve said before, no victory over the radical right is ever final in nature. These people are relentless and never give up.
Already, Ricketts and his band of supporters in the legislature are talking about financing a campaign to put the restoration of the death penalty on the ballot for a vote in 2016. Moreover, sources have been telling me for months that Ricketts plans to invest heavily in the 2016 legislative races in the hopes of creating a Tea Party legislature that would finance tax cuts for the wealthy by cutting education and assistance for the most vulnerable in our state.
My message to you my Democratic friends is to enjoy these victories while you can but be prepared to get back to work no later than the fall to elect more Democrats to the Unicameral in 2016. If we are to avoid the fiscal train wreck that occurred in Kansas, we will all need to work hard for our slate of legislative candidates. The future of our great state depends upon us.