Nebraska Legislative Session Gets A Grade of Incomplete

Dennis Crawford
6 min readApr 22, 2024
Trump wants to end Nebraska’s electoral vote law because he knows he can’t carry CD02.

The 2023 Nebraska legislative session was marked by significant legislative victories for Governor Jim Pillen and the Nebraska GOP. They passed a huge tax cut for the rich that may bankrupt the state, a near total abortion ban and restrictions on medical care for transgender children. The GOP overreached and this may back fire on them in the 2024 elections.

At the same time, the 2023 session was marked by polarization and bitter partisan rancor. This was the result of Pete Ricketts using his immense wealth to purge moderate Republican senators and replace them with MAGA Republicans. Ricketts ruined the past collegiality of the body.

This year’s session was better than 2023. Now that may just be the soft bigotry of lowered expectations. Senator Danielle Conrad contended that the unicameral’s reduced animosity ranks as one of the “most significant turnaround stories in American politics.” The senators did get along better in 2024 but they may be due to the fact that fewer GOP culture war bills were debated.

The Democratic senators did a pretty good job in playing defense this year. They don’t get enough credit for stopping bad bills.

Jim Pillen’s top legislative priority this year was to fund a 40% property tax cut that would favor the wealthy by raising Nebraska’s sales tax by two percentage points. It would have shifted the tax burden from the wealthy to the poor and the middle class. This regressive bill would have have saddled Nebraska with the highest sales tax rate in the region and devastated our economy.

This extreme plan was opposed by a hybrid coalition of Democrats, progressive groups, Pete Ricketts, the chambers of commerce and small businesses. The sheer radicalism of Pillen’s plan united one of the most disparate alliances in Nebraska political history. They say that politics makes strange bed fellows.

Towards the end of the session, Pillen retreated and proposed a 22% property tax reduction that was to be funded by a sales taxes on pop and candy, veterinary care and other services for pets, lottery tickets, storage services and dry cleaning. It would have put a 20% tax on vaping products, a 25% tax on CBD and hemp products, a 7.5% tax on digital advertising services offered by businesses with gross revenues of more than $1 billion and an additional 36 cents on a pack of cigarettes.

This new, amended tax bill was only crafted in the waning days of the session. It was drafted in secret behind closed doors and there were no hearings. It was a rushed and radical product. Conrad argued that there were “smarter” ways to reduce property taxes. “We shouldn’t rush forward and jump off the cliff together. We should hit pause.” Conrad said.

The bi-partisan coalition of senators who opposed Pillen’s tax plan correctly contended that it was one of the biggest tax increases in Nebraska history. Conrad said the senators had little idea of what they were voting on since the bill went through numerous significant modifications before the final version was introduced very late in the session.

Pillen and his allies were unable to cobble together the 33 votes necessary to break the filibuster on the last day of the session and Pillen’s top legislative priority went down in flames. It was a stunning defeat for a governor who has dominated the legislature during his first two sessions.

“The Legislature stood up for ALL Nebraskans by rejecting a property tax bill that benefited some while raising taxes for others. It’s time to roll up our sleeves & get a tax package passed that supports Nebraskans — rural, urban & everywhere in between.” Senator John Fredrickson.

Pillen didn’t take his stinging defeat very well. The governor maintained that it’s “unacceptable” that the unicameral did not pass his bill to shift taxes this year. He told the senators he planned to call a special session to revisit the tax issue. “This Legislature failed to act. I will call as many sessions as it takes to lower property taxes. We’re behind at the end of the first half, but we still got a second half to go. Enjoy halftime. We’ll see you again here soon.”

Senator Conrad tried to look at the bright side of a special session on taxes. “We should roll up our sleeves, put all ideas and solutions on the table and find the right path forward to fund our schools and deliver property tax relief without raising taxes on Nebraska families and businesses. I’m confident we can do it together,” she said.

Pillen and the Republicans also got a grade of incomplete on proposed changes to Nebraska’s electoral vote law. Since 1994, Nebraska has awarded some of its electoral votes by Congressional district. Obama carried the one electoral vote in the Omaha based CD02 in 2008. Biden repeated that feat by carrying CD02 by 7 points in 2020.

With just two weeks left in the session, former President Donald Trump demanded that Nebraska return its electoral vote law to a winner take all format. Apparently, Trump lacks confidence that he can carry CD02 in November. Trump has kept a light campaign schedule due to his dementia and his campaign is broke. Consequently, Trump wants to change the rules in the middle of the game.

The bill to change the electoral vote law was never voted out of committee. Nonetheless, Pillen called for a change to the law and his allies made one last effort to pass the bill. The attempt to pull the electoral vote law out of committee at the eleventh hour failed by an overwhelming margin of 36–9.

Pillen was undeterred by this humiliating defeat. He has called for a special session to return Nebraska’s electoral vote law to a winner take all format. The governor admitted that Trump’s followers lacked the 33 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Pillen said he would only call a special session if he has 33 votes. “That’s the key,” Pillen said.

The Democrats and the voters of Nebraska suffered a bitter defeat on the last day of the session. In 2023, the Republicans passed a massive private school bailout that they falsely labeled “school choice.” This bill would have given the wealthy huge tax breaks if they contributed to a scholarship slush fund for private schools. The aim of the legislation was to fund right wing Christian schools and defund the public schools.

In response to that legislation, teachers spearheaded a petition campaign to put the repeal of the private school bailout on the ballot in November 2024. The petition campaign proved to be highly successful and the teachers got substantially more signatures than they needed. The private school bailout looked like it was headed for defeat this fall.

On the last day of the session, Nebraska Republicans jammed through a controversial “end run” bill (LB 1402) to spend $10 million per year on private school scholarships. Under the bill, the 2023 private school bailout would be repealed, thus cancelling the referendum.

In passing LB 1402, the Nebraska Republicans voted to silence the voters. For the first time in Nebraska history, the legislature passed a bill to deny citizens their right to vote on an issue that was put on the ballot through a successful referendum petition by the people.

The teachers were defiant. They promised that the battle over the private school bailout isn’t over. They are considering another petition drive and referendum. In addition, they are considering a legal challenge. The Nebraska Constitution prohibits taxpayer funding of private schools.

Democratic senators did form up bi-partisan coalitions to score some small but important wins at the end of the session. A bill to expand Medicaid reimbursements for prenatal care to include nutrition counseling and targeted case management passed by a unanimous vote. “They may seem small, but to the moms who actually take advantage of those programs, they will be huge and they will have a massive impact both on their health and the health of their baby,” Senator George Dungan said.

Legislation to immediately restore voting rights to Nebraskans convicted of a felony passed by a wide margin and went into law without Pillen’s signature. This bill will take effect in time for the November election. This will allow 7,000 additional Nebraskans to vote. However, Pillen has promised a legal challenge to this new law.

Numerous Democrats and independents have announced runs for the legislature around the state. I would urge you to invest your time and money in some of the legislative races. The composition of the legislature makes a big difference. Many voters don’t realize how powerful and important the state senators are. A successful election cycle can put a check and balance on the ambitions of the extreme Nebraska GOP.

“Don’t agonize; organize. No whining; just winning.” Nancy Pelosi. Now let’s get it done!



Dennis Crawford

I’m an aspiring historian, defender of democracy and a sports fan.