Republican Candidates for Governor Discuss Canal, Ashland Lake, Prison Projects in Debate

March 24, 2022, 9 p.m. ·

Five people stand behind podiums on a stage.
Four candidates running to be Nebraska's next governor debated the issues and projects facing the state in a debate. (Photo by Chris Holtmeier for Nebraska Public Media)

Four Republicans running to be Nebraska’s next governor gave their thoughts on the biggest projects they could inherit as the state’s next leader in a Thursday night debate hosted by Nebraska Public Media.

Jim Pillen, considered a front-runner in the race, declined the debate invitation and instead hosted a call-in town hall at the same time.

Senator Brett Lindstrom, Charles Herbster, Theresa Thibodeau and Breland Ridenour all said the Perkins County Canal project – which would carry water from northeast Colorado across the border for a $500 million price tag – would be an important step to protect Nebraska water, which businessman Herbster said would be the “number one topic for the state.”

Ridenour supports the idea, but said he wants to make sure the proposal is a sustainable solution to Nebraska’s concerns about water shortages.

“We don’t want to find out later that it’s going to cost even more money,” the IT manager at Omaha-based Skarda Equipment Company said. “We need to have responsibility, we need to have accountability.”

The candidates also weighed in on the proposal to build a 4,000-acre, seven-mile long lake near the Platte River between Lincoln and Omaha. Sen. Lindstrom, who represents Omaha in the unicameral, said the lake could pay back dividends by keeping Nebraskans in the state for their vacations.

“We have a lot of people in the state that travel on the weekends to Okoboji and the Ozarks,” he said. “I think it’s a good investment to keep people here, have an outlet for recreation without having to leave.”

Thibodeau, a former state senator who founded a small business in Omaha, has concerns about a new lake taking tourism dollars away from other parts of the state, like Lake McConaughey in western Nebraska.

“We do have a beautiful lake that’s not in Iowa,” she said. “And are we going to end up taking money and putting it to one state instead of the other? Let’s see how we can grow our entire state.”

The elected governor would also inherit plans to spend $270 million on replacing the state’s main prison. Last September, Nebraska’s prisons were handling nearly 150% more inmates than what’s recommended for the facilities.

Candidates agreed that relieving overcrowding means more than just a new building. Training for nonviolent offenders and resources for mental health and addiction struggles are also a part of a solution, they said.

Sen. Lindstrom leaned on his real-time experience debating the issues at the state capitol, as well as his history of cutting taxes.

“What distinguishes me in this race is that I’m a tax cutter. I’ve slashed taxes in my eight years as a state senator,” he said. “I’m currently slashing taxes and will continue to do so as governor.”

Thibodeau said her own experience would serve her as Nebraska’s next governor. As the only woman in the Republican primary, she said she’s well-positioned to represent diverse Nebraskans.

Since she declared her candidacy, Thibodeau said leaders have praised her ideas and her connections with everyday Nebraskans before asking: “So why don’t you take all of that knowledge and get behind one of the men?”

Candidates also stressed cutting property taxes, installing a no-tolerance policy for health mandates from all levels of government and developing the state’s workforce.

Voters registered as Republicans will choose between the hopefuls in the primary election on May 10.

Watch the hour-long Nebraska Republican Gubernatorial Primary Debate as seen on Nebraska Public Media Thursday, March 24, 2022: