Nebraska State Sen. Rich Pahls, ardent opponent of tax exemptions, has died

Often a swing vote while on Omaha City Council

By: - April 27, 2022 12:27 pm
Rich Pahls

State Sen. Rich Pahls of Omaha (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

LINCOLN — State Sen. Rich Pahls of Omaha, who won re-election to his post after being term-limited in 2012, has died.

Pahls, 78, had missed the last few weeks of the 2022 session of the Nebraska Legislature due to an illness that he had kept private. 

The Nebraska Examiner learned of his passing on Wednesday. His office said he died of complications of cancer, and requested privacy for his family. 

A native of Kansas, Pahls was an educator before becoming an elected official, serving eventually as an administrator in the Millard Public Schools.

Term limited, then returned

A registered Republican, he was first elected to the Legislature in 2004 and was re-elected in 2008. At the end of that term in 2012, he was required to leave the Unicameral due to term limits. 

Pahls served a term on the Omaha City Council before reclaiming a seat in the Legislature in 2020, beating Tim Royers by about 1,000 votes in the Millard-area District 31.

A longtime friend, Bob Borgeson, said Pahls was “an excellent educator, a great friend, a smart guy and a well-rounded guy.”

“I thought he was a great representative for the Millard area,” said Borgeson, who had talked with Pahls a week ago and was arranging and endorsement in Borgeson’s race for the Legislature in District 12.

‘True public servant’

State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who served on the Legislature’s Revenue Committee with Pahls, called him a “great friend and a true public servant” who worked with him to find “common ground” between urban and rural Nebraska.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who chairs the Revenue Committee, said Pahl’s death is a “huge loss.” 

“He dedicated his whole life to public service, as a teacher, a principal and the Legislature,” Linehan said.

Praise for Pahl’s public service and notes of condolences came in from several others, including U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer and Gov. Pete Ricketts, who ordered flags lowered to half staff through Thursday.

Asked ‘unpopular questions’

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said she first worked with Pahls when she served on the Millard School Board and he was an elementary school principal in Millard. Later, she noted, Pahls was her district’s representative on the City Council.

“Rich prioritized learning, communication, advocacy, and open-mindedness,” Stothert said. “He did his homework, and often asked unpopular questions before making decisions and voting.”

On the City Council, he was known as a swing vote, and it was often hard to predict which way he’d vote. He also complained about “tax islands” being created in the city, where sales taxes are slightly higher to aid development in that vicinity.

Maverick on tax issues

In the Legislature, Pahls was somewhat of a maverick on tax issues, known for arguing against Nebraska’s long list of sales tax exemptions. If they could be eliminated, he said, property taxes could be dramatically decreased.

This year, in his absence, state lawmakers passed a Pahls bill that extended the state turnback tax funding that helps finance Omaha’s CHI Health Center arena and Ralston’s Liberty First Credit Union Arena.

Pahls also called for an interim study to examine barriers related to early detection of colorectal cancer in Nebraska.

Nebraska Examiner political re porter Aaron Sanderford contributed to this report.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and was named editor of the Papillion Times in 1982. He later worked as a sports enterprise reporter at the Lincoln Journal-Star. He joined the Omaha World-Herald in 1990, working as a legislative reporter, then roving state reporter and finally Lincoln bureau chief. Paul has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation and secretary of the Nebraska Hop Growers.