State Sen. Carol Blood, the Democratic Party nominee for Nebraska governor, speaks with vendors at the Bellevue farmer’s market she runs on Saturdays at Washington Park. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
BELLEVUE — State Sen. Carol Blood is running more than a race for governor this summer. Between events, she runs the dog-friendly farmer’s market in Nebraska’s oldest city.
She’s at Washington Park Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. to noon, strolling past the booths of vendors selling small-batch steaks, homemade pastries, fresh vegetables and hand-painted art.
The day a reporter came to talk about her run for governor, her favorite spot to sit was under construction, the gazebo in the heart of the park, so she found a bench near the entrance.
Questions for Blood
Blood’s hat fought the rain as she discussed her four priorities if elected governor. She detailed these campaign “pillars” while people stopped by to say hello and ask about the market.
A few who said hi sought help. One asked about a city issue. She sent him to the city council member down the sidewalk. Two asked for help navigating state government. They got her office number.
Two Republicans asked about her bid for governor. She pressed both to look beyond political party labels. She talked about her legislative work on property taxes and help for veterans.
Blood laughs when people question her record on spending and taxes. She tells them she spends carefully and voted for the biggest property tax relief bill in state history.
Her GOP critics say she opposed expanding the property tax credit relief fund. She argues she did so because she supported other proposals that would have done more.
“Most of these issues are not Democrat or Republican,” she told them separately. “They’re Nebraskan.”
One was persuaded. He said he would consider voting for her. The other said he couldn’t. He said he’s likely voting for her opponent, Republican Jim Pillen, whose party he likes.
“I like what you’re saying,” he told Blood. “I just can’t.”
Running in red places
This fall isn’t the first time Blood has run in a race where she has to persuade Republicans to win. The Democrat serves part of Sarpy County that hosts Offutt Air Force Base.
She said she will outwork her opponent in the governor’s race the same way she said she has when running and winning seats on the Bellevue City Council and in the Legislature.
Blood acknowledges the stiffer challenge statewide, where registered GOP voters outnumber Democrats by more than 257,000. Her district leans pink. Nebraska is blood red.
The state last elected a Democratic governor in 1994, Ben Nelson.
She faces a Pillen campaign that raised and spent more than $9 million on a primary election win, in addition to millions in dark money. Hers raised $191,000 and listed $39,000 in cash on hand.
“I know how to run a campaign,” she said. “This is a chance for real change.”
Abortion rises as issue
Blood has said she doesn’t want to dwell on divisive issues, but one has inserted itself into the campaign after the Supreme Court reversed its decision on Roe v. Wade.
She has described herself on the floor of the Legislature as “pro-life.” Her record is mixed.
She initially supported a bill aimed at outlawing dismemberment abortions, but backed off in the end, expressing concerns that the bill was poorly worded and wouldn’t accomplish its aim.
Last session, Blood helped support a filibuster of a so-called “trigger bill” that would have banned abortions in Nebraska after the Supreme Court sent decisions on abortion restrictions back to the states.
She argued at the time that she can be personally pro-life and want to protect the ability of victims or rape and incest and people seeking fertility treatments to get the care they need.
Nebraska outlaws abortions after 20 weeks. Blood has said she would not seek additional legislative restrictions on abortion. Her opponent, Pillen, supports a full ban.
Blood’s first priority is helping Nebraskans “be well and feel safe.” She wants to make sure local law enforcement agencies and rescue squads get what they need from the state.
Too many law enforcement agencies are struggling to hire after retirements and officer burnout, she said. That leaves some rural departments with no one to answer a 911 call.
She criticizes Gov. Pete Ricketts for failing to fully fund the needs of the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island until he had federal funds for coronavirus relief.
“They had waiting lists for training,” Blood said. “So Sarpy County, the fastest-growing county in Nebraska, had to create its own training center at our own expense.”
That’s part of what Blood describes as a pattern by the State of Nebraska pushing down costs for services that should be funded and handled better at the state level, including mental health.
Sarpy County, like others, has had to add mental health bed capacity and programs using funds from property taxpayers because the state hasn’t done enough to help, she said.
She described a growing number of unfunded or inadequately funded mandates from the state that too many state lawmakers pass without considering the property tax consequences.
One example: Johnson County, home to Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, pays the costs of any autopsy and grand jury the state convenes after in-custody deaths at the state prison.
She said she is pleased Nebraska is using federal funds to incentivize doctors, dentists and clinics in more parts of the state, but it should have done so with state funds sooner.
Blood’s second priority is bringing to light unfunded and underfunded state mandates on local governments and schools, so lawmakers can address the costs on property taxpayers.
She wants the Legislature to require every bill proposed with a state mandate on local governments to show the impact on local governments in the fiscal note before the bill passes. She pressed for a constitutional amendment requiring the change.
She said she hopes to work with lawmakers to decide which ones are worth funding at the state level and which mandates are worth getting rid of to help relieve property taxpayers.
Nebraska has been studying how to address property taxes for years, she said. The state needs to do its part.
“We need to make sure that we provide the funding needed, that we provide the facilities needed and that we fully fund our reimbursements, because that is unacceptable,” she said.
She said she understands the impact on local governments because she served on the Bellevue City Council before the Legislature. She has helped a city pay the costs.
“When we dump tens of millions of dollars unfunded mandates on them, they only have really one tool left that they can pay for things, and that’s to raise our property taxes,” she said.
Her goal is to get Nebraska to work like the best local governments do and build a strategic plan for spending and tax policy that sets a vision for the state and its people.
Ties that bind
Infrastructure is a third priority of hers, with particular emphasis on the need for state investments to improve roads, bridges and broadband deployment across Nebraska.
Nebraska’s connections between manufacturers, agricultural producers and communities need work. She scoffed at Pillen saying during a GOP forum that Nebraska’s roads “are not bad.”
On rural broadband, she said Nebraska awarded telecommunications companies too much money and not enough accountability or oversight. That won’t happen under her, she said.
One theme of her interview was saying that Nebraska’s recent governors have spent too much time blaming the administrative state for their own failures, including Ricketts.
Contracting problems at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, staffing problems at the Department of Correctional Services — those belong to the governor, she said.
Blood supported reducing some criminal sentences to ease prison crowding and has been criticized by Republicans as being soft on crime, which she dismisses as wrong.
“Being smart on crime is not being soft,” she said.
She said she wants Nebraska’s regulatory agencies to do what they should under the law and act sooner to avoid another AltEn situation and prevent more chemical fires like the one in South Omaha.
“The buck is supposed to stop somewhere,” she said. “It will with me. We need to stop making Nebraskans collateral damage.”
Blood’s final priority is education, where she said the state fails to meet its own lawmaker-designed K-12 funding formulas and tweaks them to match how much the state wants to spend.
She prefers an approach that understands and funds education through two more years beyond high school graduation?, pressing the state to help cover more costs of a community college or trade school education.
Asked how she would pay for this without raising property taxes, which fund a significant portion of community college costs, she said the state would have to cut spending and find revenue.
One target: She wants to reexamine the effectiveness of state tax incentive programs for big business, which she said need to show more about what the state got for taxpayers’ money.
“We need accountability,” she said. “We don’t have accountability.”
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