How Ricketts And The State Chamber Of Commerce Wrecked The Legislative Session
When the Unicameral convened in January there was hope in some circles that they might actually accomplish something significant since there is a coalition of 27 to 28 Democrats and moderate Republicans who are willing to compromise. There was certainly a whole host of problems that needed to be addressed — soaring property taxes, rising tuition rates at the state colleges, an expensive and ineffectual corporate incentive program and persistently low wages. Unfortunately, Governor Pete Ricketts and his allies at the State Chamber of Commerce had other ideas.
In the relatively early portion of the session, the billionaire governor and his corporate allies killed all progressive and family friendly initiatives offered up by Democratic and moderate Republican senators. After passionate debates, the Ricketts-corporate coalition killed a ban on LGBT job discrimination, a bill calling for limited and highly regulated medical marijuana, paid family and medical leave, higher taxes on millionaires and a higher minimum wage for tipped workers. At the same time (with the acquiescence of the corporate community), Ricketts slow walked the voter approved Medicaid expansion and delayed its implementation until 2020.
While these debates were unfolding, Senator Lou Ann Linehan and the Revenue Committee made a bi-partisan and good faith effort to solve the property tax crisis faced by the farmers through a revenue neutral solution of funding property tax cuts by raising some sales taxes. The bill went through various iterations in the hopes of getting thirty three votes to break a conservative filibuster. The bill was flawed because the sales tax increases were regressive — those increases would have been largely borne by the middle class and the poor. However, there was talk of softening the blow on working families by increasing the earned income tax credit for low-income Nebraskans.
Once again, Ricketts and the corporations rejected any kind of compromise on this complex bill due to their blind adherence to the radical right’s no new taxes orthodoxy. Even though the various bills were revenue neutral, Ricketts repeatedly put out the false talking point that it was the largest tax increase in Nebraska history.
A state senator speaking on background informed me that Ricketts never engaged the senators on the property tax issue. Instead, all the billionaire governor did was put on public relations events that took pot shots at the efforts to pass some kind of property tax relief for Nebraska homeowners and farmers. This senator told me that Ricketts hasn’t talked to him for three years!
After the corporate lobby destroyed all progress in the session, it still demanded that the failed Nebraska Advantage Act needed to be fixed to its satisfaction. The Nebraska Advantage Act is a program which annually doles out $300 million in corporate subsidies. The Nebraska Department of Revenue reported in 2012 that the jobs that were supposedly created as a result of these tax breaks would have probably been created in the absence of these payments. If you give this program the benefit of the doubt and buy into the assumption that it creates new jobs, the cost of jobs created was estimated to range between $5,159 and $208,559 per full-time employee.
The State Chamber’s top priority for the session was to replace the Nebraska Advantage Act with the so-called ImagiNE Act. However, the bill was killed by an unlikely coalition of rural and urban progressive senators. State Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, who spearheaded the rural opposition, correctly pointed out that Nebraska’s corporate welfare program is expensive and over budget. Friesen said: “We’re handing out money like candy.” The rural senators wanted the Chamber’s support for property tax relief before they would vote for more corporate welfare.
The progressive urban senators were led by Lincoln State Sen. Adam Morfeld. After the corporations suffered their stunning (and rare) defeat, Morfeld tweeted: “Myself and three other progressive senators opposed the new business incentives package because it failed to include LGBT non-discrimination protections, paid family leave, and other protections for workers. We hope next year they take us seriously. The days of progressive senators supporting chamber of commerce initiatives that provide government assistance to businesses while they stand by idly by or in open hostility to similar assistance to individuals is over. Further, the chambers of commerce either were silent or in the case of the State Chamber — demonstrated open hostility behind the scenes to Medicaid Expansion — which will have a $2 Billion economic impact and cover working Nebraskans.”
It’s pretty obvious that the ineptitude of Ricketts and the overweening arrogance of the State Chamber of Commerce destroyed this session and and blocked any chance for progress on other critical issues. After the representatives of special privilege killed everybody else’s priorities, they still expected the Unicameral to do their bidding. The key to the corporate special interests’ shocking defeat was that the conservative, rural senators came to the realization that they’ve been played for chumps by the Chamber. Those pricey corporate subsidies have come at the expense of property tax relief for farmers — as well as other priorities like education and health care.
The only way there will be progress in a future session is if the State Chamber drops its my way or the highway attitude and strikes a compromise with the urban progressives and rural conservative senators. Governor Ricketts is an obstacle to progress due to his rigid adherence to the low tax orthodoxy (for the wealthy) of the far right. That means it will take at least thirty three votes to get past a filibuster led by Ricketts’ crickets. Hopefully, these rural senators have learned their lesson and will no longer take direction from the billionaire governor and his corporate allies. That is the only path forward in the Unicameral.