Republican Candidates Talk Rural Issues at Governor's Forum

Dec. 6, 2021, 2 p.m. ·

Six Republican candidates for governor sit on stage during the Nebraska Farm Bureau's forum with the audience in front of the stage and candidates.
The field of six Republicans takes the stage on Sunday at the Younes Conference Center in Kearney. (Photo via Nebraska Public Media livestream)

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All six Republican candidates for governor took the stage together for the first time on Sunday afternoon, where the field largely addressed issues facing rural Nebraskans in the Nebraska Farm Bureau's Gubernatorial Forum.

A few hundred people packed into a Younes Conference Center in Kearney to listen. What those attending heard was, for the most part, standard conservative answers on policy issues – ranging from rural broadband to reworking the state’s tax system.

The first question posed by a panel of media members was one about Nebraska being more proactive on immigration because of workforce shortages. Candidates agreed Nebraska needs to solve its brain drain problem and retain its younger population.

Michael Connely, a veteran from Lincoln, said, during his service and career, he's lived in other countries.

“I've gone through all the procedures to become a legal worker in these other countries," Connely said. "Ours is a little bit more complicated than a lot of the other countries are.”

Connely made himself clear: He doesn’t support entering the country illegally, but he said the U.S. could help those coming in legally more. Regardless of who replaces Gov. Pete Ricketts, Nebraska's governor does not have the authority to control immigration on the southern border. As far as Nebraska’s labor shortage, Connely said he expects that to wane in the coming months.

Other candidates said the state developing more rural broadband and making Nebraska more livable will be key factors in retaining young Nebraskans and solving the state's workforce shortage.

The second question centered around how Nebraska’s schools are funded through the tax system.

The newest entrant in the race, Theresa Thibodeau, who’s a former Nebraska state senator and current small business owner in Omaha, said the state’s entire tax system isn’t working for Nebraskans – and changing it can’t just be a priority in Lincoln.

“It has to happen on the local level as well," Thibodeau said. "The governor is going to have to be a leader in getting the legislature, the cities, the counties, and the school board at the table and making sure we get people elected to those positions in which their priority is redoing our school funding and redoing our tax system.”

There are expected to be multiple efforts to revamp property taxes and school funding in the Legislature's coming session.

The third question focused on rural broadband and how candidates would work to increase internet access across the state.

Breland Ridenour, an Omaha IT manager, said his key for broadband development is accountability. He said it’s a problem that some broadband legislation just simply requires initial higher internet speeds.

“And then there's nothing after that," Ridenour said. "We can't verify that people are actually getting the speeds out of broadband that weren't initially advertised that they should be expecting."

Regardless of how candidates want to execute their plans to increase broadband access, all candidates agreed that it's an essential issue facing rural Nebraska.

The fourth question posed by the media panel concentrated on if and how candidates would create incentives for new agricultural commodities. The popular answer among candidates centered on ethanol.

Falls City businessman Charles Herbster agreed but said he’s open to other ideas as well.

“I'm going to be open minded to anyone that has the availability and the return on investment and can show that if we can add this to the state, it'll add jobs, it'll add benefits and it will pay itself over a period of time," Herbster said.

Candidates, for the most part, said they were open to incentives that could bring more money to the Nebraska economy. Some specifically pointed to the proposed meatpacking plant in North Platte and hemp production.

The fifth question circled back to taxes. The candidates were asked about the proper balance between state sales income and property tax. Again, candidates agreed and said the system is flawed and should be redrawn.

Jim Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent from Columbus, said on Sunday that it’s time for transformative change to the tax system sooner rather than later.

"Business would say it makes total sense to do like we do in business and have an income-based approach because then we're in business and we can pay taxes," Pillen said.

The sixth and final question was one about the environment and climate. Candidates were asked how they would support sustainable and conservation efforts in farming and ranching. The field agreed that farmers and ranchers often do what’s best for their land. Some candidates said Nebraska and the U.S. need less conservation regulation.

State Sen. Brett Lindstrom said water will be a big key for him if he were elected governor. He pointed out his work on a proposed tax credit for farmers using new technologies to track how much water they use, among other things. It’s called precision agriculture.

"I think there's a good way of balancing that and making sure that we move toward precision ag using, again, going back to the broadband and how we expand upon that throughout rural Nebraska," Lindstrom said.

Former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman is still considering a bid for the state’s highest office. Heineman, who’s the longest serving governor in state history, is expected to make a decision early in 2022. A single Democrat, State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, is running on the opposing ticket.

Voters will have their chance to voice their opinions during the May primaries next year.