Three of the Nebraska GOP gubernatorial candidates, from left, Brett Lindstrom, Theresa Thibodeau and Charles Herbster. They participated in a debate in Holdrege, Nebraska, organized by NTV News. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
HOLDREGE, Nebraska — Three of Nebraska’s top four GOP candidates for governor visited this agricultural hub Monday to debate taxes, water, broadband and more.
State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, former Sen. Theresa Thibodeau and Conklin Co. CEO Charles Herbster debated questions for an hour from reporters based in Kearney, Lexington and Axtell.
University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen held a telephone town hall during Monday’s debate, the last before the May 10 primary election. Pillen has avoided debates with his fellow candidates. Instead, he attended candidate forums.
About 200 people attended the Holdrege debate, hosted by NTV News at the Phelps County Agricultural Center. Each candidate spent significant time talking about plans to address property taxes.
Lindstrom got specific about state aid for schools, saying he wants to make sure every K-12 school district in Nebraska gets equalization aid. Right now, he said, 157 districts don’t.
His idea to change that: Work with the Legislature to redirect a portion of existing sales tax dollars over several years toward a goal of reducing property taxes by 20%.
Thibodeau said she wants to audit and cut spending on ineffective state programs and services so that every child in Nebraska can get the same amount of state aid to schools.
“If we grew food as much as we grow government, heck, nobody would ever go hungry,” Thibodeau said.
Herbster said he wants to rebuild Nebraska’s tax system from the bottom up, hoping to model what South Dakota does, with no income tax, or what Iowa does with a blended approach.
“People are leaving because we have a tax code that is driving business away, driving our young people away,” Herbster said.
Conflict on Perkins County Canal
On water, Lindstrom and Thibodeau backed Gov. Pete Ricketts’ plan to spend up to $500 million on the Perkins County Canal project to help Nebraska sue Colorado and protect water flows into Nebraska from the fast-growing state.
“We’ll see if it continues to be a $500 million project,” Lindstrom said. “But we will continue striving to protect Nebraska’s water rights.”
Herbster expressed skepticism about the cost, saying he didn’t feel he knew enough yet, without going to Colorado, to decide whether the state’s investment would be worthwhile.
Thibodeau criticized Herbster for not putting in the work she said was needed for his campaign, repeating criticism she leveled against Herbster when she quit the campaign as his running mate. She said she had already traveled to Colorado and talked to farmers.
She criticized Lindstrom for approving a six-cent gas tax increase in 2015. Lindstrom said Monday that the increase was an investment in maintaining Nebraska roads and bridges, including Interstate 80.
Lindstrom repeatedly emphasized the importance of investing state dollars to help make broadband more accessible in Nebraska’s rural communities. Herbster and Thibodeau agreed.
Thibodeau and Lindstrom said they want to keep the Nebraska Department of Education accountable to the elected Nebraska Board of Education, rather than place it under the governor’s control.
On the same question, Herbster repeated his criticism about the need for prayer in schools. He said school leaders need to stop treating parents like terrorists. He also said Nebraska has too many unwed mothers.
One of the evening’s exchanges concerned medical marijuana. Lindstrom said he supports efforts to make the drug available, as long as “we can do it responsibly.”
Thibodeau said she would support medical marijuana in pill or liquid form, but not if the law allows people with permits to grow marijuana plants at home for medical use.
Herbster said he’d leave the decision on medical marijuana up to Nebraska voters. If they approved it, he said, he would tax the substance and use the money to offset property taxes.
When a panelist asked about Pillen’s absence from debates, Thibodeau and Herbster repeated their criticisms of Pillen’s leadership. Lindstrom said it was Pillen’s choice not to participate.
Each candidate received a question geared toward them alone at one point during the debate. Lindstrom was asked what makes him conservative beyond his support for tax cuts.
He cited his pro-life stance with no exceptions, his A-rating from the National Rifle Association and his votes for property tax relief during eight years in the Legislature.
Thibodeau was asked why she decided to run for governor instead of remaining as Herbster’s running mate. She said she grew frustrated that Herbster wasn’t transparent or prepared.
Herbster was asked how he planned to work with women in the Legislature after the Nebraska Examiner’s report that eight women, including State Sen. Julie Slama, have alleged that he groped them.
Herbster said political hit jobs happen in political races and said “they” did the same to former President Donald Trump. He said he, as a born-again Christian, can work with anybody, “even those who have attacked me.”
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