Nebraska governor candidates clash in debate

Farm Forum

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Nebraska’s candidates for governor on Oct. 2 tried to tie one another to proposals that could hurt farmers in possibly their last debate before the Nov. 4 election.

Republican Pete Ricketts and Democrat Chuck Hassebrook touched on Nebraska’s scandal-plagued prison system, school funding, the use of tax-increment financing by local governments and the state’s record-high cash reserve. The two are vying to replace Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who is leaving office in January because of term limits.

Ricketts accused Hassebrook of supporting restrictions on farm exports, pointing to a 1990 paper that Hassebrook co-authored, “Biotechnology’s Bitter Harvest,” which argues against genetically modified crops.

“Given that agriculture is our largest industry and your policies would have cost Nebraska farmers over $17 billion … in lost productivity, how do you explain that to Nebraska farmers?” he said.

Hassebrook said he only wrote a few paragraphs of the report and never approved its recommendations. Hassebrook said he has advocated for years for biotechnological research that helps family farms and ranches, but he opposes policies that only benefit large out-of-state corporations.

Hassebrook pointed to Ricketts’ ties to the Platte Institute, a conservative think tank that advocated for Heineman’s 2013 plan to cut income taxes while eliminating sales tax exemptions. The plan died in the Legislature amid criticism that it could lead to the elimination of tax exemptions for farm seed, fertilizers and equipment, as well as non-farm items.

“How can middle-class Nebraskans trust you to work for them when you have a track record of working against them?” Hassebrook said.

Ricketts, the Platte Institute’s founder, said he doesn’t agree with all of the group’s recommendations and he never supported the legislation.

“That bill had some critical flaws. It taxed the inputs of farmers and ranchers, and that would have been devastating to our two biggest industries,” Ricketts said.

Both candidates promised to reform Nebraska’s prison system, which came under fire last year after state officials acknowledged they had miscalculated sentences for hundreds of inmates. The prisons are overcrowded, and officials were criticized for their handling of Nikko Jenkins, a mentally ill inmate who killed four people in Omaha after his release.

Hassebrook said he would promote an expansion of drug and veterans’ courts to help treat people accused of crimes, instead of incarcerating them. He promised to take away “good time” credit for violent offenders, and to closely monitor the operations of state government.

“I’ll be an active, engaged, hands-on governor,” he said.

Ricketts said he would conduct a national job search for a new head of corrections and set a tone so state employees can call out wrongdoing or incompetence in government.

“We had a culture where people were afraid to talk,” he said.

The candidates differed in what to do with the state’s record-high cash reserve, which is projected to reach nearly $700 million at the end of the fiscal year.

Hassebrook said he would only tap the cash reserve for one-time and emergency expenses, such as adding prison space to reduce crowding. He said the state needs to keep a sizeable reserve for events such as the recession, which created a state budget crunch.

“You don’t just blow it all and live for today,” Hassebrook said.

Ricketts said he would work with lawmakers to determine how much money to keep in the reserve.

“We need to return those dollars back to citizens of Nebraska,” he said.

The debate at the Nebraska Educational Telecommunications studio in Lincoln could be the last. Hassebrook has called for a third and final debate later in October, but Ricketts’ campaign so far has declined.