Will A Rookie Legislature Enable Ricketts’ Reign Of Error?
Nebraska Democrats gained three seats in the 2016 election cycle and we now have 15 seats in the Unicameral. With the support of three additional Senators, we are in a good position to block the agenda of Ricketts and the radical right. The wild card in the deck is that 34 state senators (out of 49) are either new to the legislature or only have two years of experience in that body.
I recently talked to two Democratic state senators and they told me that the outcome of the next legislative session is a bit of a mystery since the Unicameral has so many inexperienced members. Anymore, a senator with four years of experience is considered to be a grizzled veteran. That is the far reaching impact of Nebraska’s term limits law.
The first order of business for the Ricketts’ right wing allies in the Unicameral will be an attempt to change long standing rules that allows for the election of leaders and committee chairs by a secret ballot. This rule is aimed at preserving the non-partisan feature of the legislature and limiting the power of party bosses. That non-partisan feature has prevented the Unicameral from being poisoned by the toxic dysfunction seen in Washington and squandering our hard earned rainy day fund on a huge tax cut for the wealthy.
The secret ballot reduces partisanship because it allows the best person to be elected as legislative leaders and committee chairs. Having members of both parties serving in these positions facilitates bi-partisan legislation. Changing this venerable rule would allow the likes of Ricketts and GOP party bosses to manipulate this process and elect what Ricketts has termed “platform Republicans” to key leadership positions.
The pious and self-righteous appeal for transparency by the radical right rings hollow in light of their support for secrecy surrounding the implementation of Nebraska’s failed death penalty system. The radical right wants to shroud the actual execution process itself behind a wall of secrecy. Under the new proposed execution protocol, Ricketts would be able to purchase the execution drugs behind closed doors. We could very well see a repeat of the fiasco where Ricketts squandered $54,000 in taxpayer money in a failed attempt to purchase execution drugs from a shady middleman in India.
The highest priority for Ricketts and his allies is a large tax cut for the wealthy. State Senator Jim Smith of Papillion, the incoming Revenue Committee chairman, has come out for an income tax cut for the wealthy coupled with a regressive sales tax increase to finance it. This kind of scheme isn’t really tax cut — it is a tax shift where the tax burden is redistributed from the wealthy to the middle class and the poor. That is precisely what happened in Kansas and the results were disastrous.
Ricketts would simply like to cut income and property taxes for the wealthy and fund those cuts with spending cuts and money from the rainy day fund. The Governor’s plan is irresponsible since the state is currently facing a $900 million shortfall due to a decline in commodity prices. The rainy day fund was set up to help Nebraska withstand revenue declines rather than funding unnecessary tax cuts. As State Senator Adam Morfeld said: “The Governor’s plan to reduce revenue during a massive revenue shortfall will plunge Nebraska into a Kansas style decline. We must stop it.”
A risky tax scheme won’t be the only extreme measure the Unicameral will be considering. Senator Laura Ebke will be offering up a proposal in which Nebraska would join a call for the first Constitutional Convention since the original one in Philadelphia in 1787. The purpose of this new convention would be to place extreme limits on federal spending and power.
In a failed effort to somehow reassure voters that a new Constitutional Convention wouldn’t be a runaway convention, delegates at a recent simulated convention voted to end the federal income tax and require a Congressional super majority to authorize deficit spending. If these kinds of radical proposals ever became part of the Constitution, there would be huge cuts in programs like Social Security and Medicare. In addition, the federal government would unable to take measures to end a recession or deal with a national emergency.
Like Washington, the stakes in Lincoln will be high this year and we will be on the defensive. In any event, we probably have the numbers in the Unicameral to prevent Ricketts and the radical right from wrecking our budget and economy. We will need to engage our state senators on a regular basis. Our task won’t be easy but this is a fight we can and must win! We can do it! Let’s get it done!