When Pete Ricketts ran for Governor last year, he promised to “Grow Nebraska.” That was the central theme of his election campaign. Ricketts proposed the usual tired conservative platform of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and fewer regulations for big business as the magic elixir that would make our state more prosperous. (What he didn’t mention was that a similar platform has been implemented with disastrous results in states like Kansas and Wisconsin.) Since Ricketts has been inaugurated as Governor, his economic development program has hit a series of road blocks and setbacks.
One of Ricketts’ most embarrassing setbacks has to be the sudden and unexpected termination of Brenda-Hicks Sorenson as the Director of the Department of Economic Development. Hicks-Sorenson was selected by the search firm Ricketts hired with special interest money provided by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. As it turns out, Hicks-Sorenson turned out to be grossly incompetent and was ousted at the instigation of the State, Omaha and Lincoln Chambers of Commerce. The Omaha Chamber should demand a refund of the money they paid to the private search firm!
What was little discussed by the Nebraska press was that Hicks-Sorenson was under fire in Wisconsin, where as deputy director of that state’s economic development department, she authorized a loan without the proper vetting process to a prominent Scott Walker supporter. That loan has since gone in default – costing the Wisconsin taxpayers $500,000.00. There has been speculation that there may be legal repercussions for this failed loan.
Nebraska’s Governor suffered yet another setback last week when Conagra announced it was moving it’s headquarters from Omaha to Chicago and laying off over 1,000 employees. This was a serious blow to Omaha and Nebraska since Conagra had stationed it’s headquarters in Omaha since 1922. Moreover, the State’s taxpayers have spent $160 million on economic and tax incentives on Conagra since that company demanded tax breaks back in 1987 as the price to stay in Omaha. Yet we heard nothing from Ricketts about the brewing crisis in Omaha and he spent most of his time this last summer on foreign junkets and trying to bring back a death penalty law that hasn’t been used in this century. Nebraskans would be much better off with a governor who fought for jobs rather than a largely symbolic law that has proven to be a failure.
Even though Conagra has announced it will soon be leaving Omaha, the overall Nebraska economy is still doing well. Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate in the country and there is approximately $700 million in the State’s rainy day fund. Our state has experienced this success in spite of Heineman and Ricketts – not due to their actions.
In his last two years as Governor, Heineman proposed large, budget busting tax cuts that would have drained the State’s hard earned surplus. Moreover, Heineman proposed a radical tax scheme that would have abolished state income taxes and financed a tax cut that largely benefited the wealthy by raising taxes on farmers, students, senior citizens and the sick. Fortunately, both of these radical tax schemes never were even voted out of committee.
Ricketts followed the path that Heineman blazed and proposed a large property tax cut that – like Heineman’s tax cut bills – didn’t even get out of the Revenue Committee. This regressive tax cut would’ve caused cuts in school funding and increases in other taxes.
Nebraska has prospered since the end of the 2008-09 recession – in part due – to a moderate majority in the Unicameral that has prevented the last two Governors from blowing up the State’s budget with ill considered tax schemes that favor the wealthy. Nebraska Democratic Senators have led the way in this effort. For example, Heath Mello has shown outstanding leadership as Chair of the Appropriations Committee in crafting responsible budgets that drew nearly unanimous support from the Unicameral.
There were never any guarantees that Nebraska would avoid the fates suffered by Kansas and Wisconsin. In both of those states, right wing governors passed huge tax cuts for the wealthy and hoped (against historical experience) that they would pay for themselves. What occurred was that Kansas and Wisconsin had to cut funding for universities, schools and roads to balance their budgets. Moreover, both of those states have experienced sub-par economic growth due to these wrong headed policies.
Nebraska has avoided the kind of terrible outcome experienced by Kansas and Wisconsin thanks to our great State Senators and the hard work of Nebraska Democrats. Once again in 2016, we will have to go back to work to elect more Democrats to the Unicameral and preserve the moderate majority that has protected the state from the radical right.
We can take nothing for granted. Ricketts and some of his aides are already hard at work recruiting Tea Party Republicans to run for the legislature. Furthermore, we can expect these Tea Party candidates to be lavishly financed by Ricketts and his billionaire friends and allies.
It is up to us to prevent Nebraska from going the way of Kansas and Wisconsin. We Nebraska Democrats will have to be every bit as relentless as the right wing Republicans and the billionaires who finance them. We must never give up and never get discouraged. I’m confident that we will have a good election cycle in 2016 if everybody does their job. Thank you for all that you do!