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Ricketts’ Power Grab Largely Thwarted

Governor Pete Ricketts’ first two years in office were widely deemed to be a failure. The right wing Governor’s legislative agenda was largely rejected and several high profile measures — most notably the repeal of the death penalty — were passed over his vetoes. In response to these setbacks, Ricketts and his billionaire allies dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the 2016 legislative elections aimed at creating a more pliable Unicameral.

The efforts of our billionaire Governor and his super wealthy allies to purge his opponents in both parties did create a more polarized and less civil legislature. While Ricketts managed to purge three moderate Republicans who stood up to him, the Democrats picked up three seats in the 2016 cycle. That pickup made a huge difference in the 2017 legislative session.

Whenever the Republicans gain power at the state level, their highest priorities are to cut taxes for the wealthy, shred the safety net and change the rules to make it harder for the Democrats to win elections in the future. This was the game plan pursued by the likes of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Sam Brownback in Kansas and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana. The end result of these right wing experiments was invariably a large budget deficit and a more polarized state.

The top priority for Ricketts and his right wing allies this year was the passage of a tax cut that largely favored the wealthy — even though the state is going through its most serious budget crisis since the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. These tax cuts would give 74% of the benefits to the top 20% of income earners. A single taxpayer making $30,000.00 or less would get nothing. Similarly, a married couple filing jointly earning $65,000.00 or less would get nothing.

The Governor’s top legislative priority was stopped by a filibuster conducted by a coalition of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans. The regressive tax cut package only garnered 27 votes — which fell six votes short of breaking the filibuster. Ricketts and his radical right wing allies aren’t giving up on tax cuts for the rich. The Governor said he would continue to pursue tax cuts next year. A representative from the billionaire front group Americans for Prosperity said his group would remember this vote and promised to get involved (again) in Nebraska’s legislative elections.

In addition to thwarting an effort to cut taxes for the wealthy when the state is $900 million in the hole, another filibuster stopped Senator John Murante’s voter identification bill. This partisan bill was a “problem” in search of a solution. The reality is that voter fraud is virtually non-existent. The Bush Administration conducted a five year investigation of alleged voter fraud and found virtually no evidence of any efforts to influence elections. A 2014 study by Loyola Law School found only 31 incidents of in-person voter fraud since 2000 out of 1 billion ballots cast. In the 2016 election cycle, there were only four reported cases of in-person voter fraud out of 135 million ballots cast.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that voter fraud isn’t a problem, Murante isn’t giving up on this big government program that would make it harder for African-Americans, senior citizens and students to vote. Instead, Murante promised to: “(S)pend the next eight months working on a new bill or another proposed constitutional amendment to enact voter ID next year. “

The voter identification bill wasn’t the only bill that Murante sponsored that was aimed at changing the rules to help Republicans win elections. The right wing Senator from Gretna also sponsored a bill to end Nebraska’s virtually unique electoral vote split system. This is what I would call the “sore loser” bill. Apparently, the Nebraska GOP still hasn’t gotten over the fact that Barack Obama in 2008 picked up the first (and only) electoral vote for a Democrat in Nebraska since 1964.

Nebraska’s electoral vote law has made the state relevant in recent presidential election cycles. In 2008, both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin campaigned in Omaha after the party conventions. In last year’s presidential election, Clinton was the first major party nominee to campaign in Nebraska since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Omaha also received a visit from Mike Pence. If the radical right gets their way, Nebraska once again won’t matter and will simply be fly over country.

Despite these successes in stopping bad legislation, the session ended on a sour note when 21 senators voted to sustain Ricketts’ vetoes of funding for low-income and disabled Nebraskans. The veto overrides nearly succeeded and only fell three votes short. At the same time, 16 of the 21 senators who voted with Ricketts to sustain these vetoes received campaign cash from the Governor during the 2016 cycle.

We were largely successful in thwarting the agenda of Ricketts and the radical right in the 2017 session. However, we didn’t have enough votes to prevail on the budget. We were only three votes away from completely defeating the billionaire Governor and his allies. That means we have more work to do.

There will be five open seats in the Unicameral in the 2018 election cycle. That means we have to do whatever we can to pick up three or more seats. This is a very doable goal. All of you out there, I would request that you make financial contributions to legislative candidates. This will be especially important since Ricketts and the Koch brothers will be spending whatever it takes to buy a radical right wing majority in the legislature.

I would also ask you to canvas and man phone banks for our slate of legislative candidates in 2018. It will be all hands on deck. We must be as relentless as the Republicans. The likes of Ricketts and Murante have told us that they are not giving up. We must be equally relentless. Thank you for all that you do!

I’m a trial lawyer, a Democratic activist and a sports fan.

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