University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, the Republican nominee for governor, speaks during a post-primary interview in Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen has passed tougher tests than winning the GOP primary for governor.
He made it into veterinary school while playing defensive back for Tom Osborne at Nebraska, he told two teachers in April.
“I learned about hard work from my family,” he said in front of a reporter. “But nothing about those days was easy.”
A different game
Today, Pillen is playing a different game for Nebraska. He won something his coach did not, the GOP nomination for governor.
This May, Pillen beat agribusinessman Charles Herbster by nearly 11,000 votes and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom by 21,000 votes.
He is heavily favored to beat Democratic State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue and succeed his top supporter, Gov. Pete Ricketts.
National political pundits who score races based on potential competitiveness predict that Nebraska’s governor’s race will finish Big Red.
But the top GOP campaigns spent more time during the primary answering allegations than discussing their political goals.
Pillen, in his first in-depth interview with the Nebraska Examiner, sat down last month to share what he said got lost in the noise, his vision for the state. His campaign calls the written version “The Pillen Playbook.” He calls it a prescription to “grow Nebraska with our kids.”
Keeping kids home
He aims to leverage private dollars to offset the costs of post-high school education and training for Nebraska kids. He wants kids to sign on to stay in Nebraska and work a set number of years after graduation in exchange for a paid-for education.
His thought: Farmers, ranchers and businesses could sponsor kids at the local community college and have them work while there.
The value to Nebraskans, he said, is making sure communities have the doctors, nurses, plumbers and electricians they need.
“We need to stop the out-migration of the brain drain,” Pillen said. “There’s a reason why that happened 40 years ago.
“Almost everybody was told to get out of here. … Today we have the greatest opportunity, so we have to sell that.”
He said he would work with donors to scale up efforts like the Nebraska Promise, which covers college costs for students whose families make $65,000 or less. He said he would like to grow similar efforts to cover community college costs.
Local efforts to cover the costs of education and training in Scottsbluff and Norfolk are also worth considering, he said. They help companies find workers with local ties, he said.
“It’s not always about state funding,” he said.
Keeping young people around is only one part of the workforce challenge facing the State of Nebraska. Another is housing.
The state made some progress under Ricketts toward incentivizing developers to build more affordable housing, Pillen said.
He said he brings a perspective informed by years of growing a business in a Nebraska city outside of Omaha and Lincoln.
Pillen said he would work with developers, mayors and county commissioners in all 93 counties to address housing shortages.
Towns will not grow if they don’t build housing, Pillen said. And workforce housing needs to get better in every community.
Nebraska, he said, should worry less about luring new companies until it can produce and house the workers its own businesses need.
Who Pillen is
Many Nebraskans know Pillen because he recovered a fumble to help beat Oklahoma in 1978, his old coach said in May.
But Pillen used smarts and grit to become a veterinarian and grow a top-10 national hog operation in Columbus, Osborne said.
Osborne remembers the kid who pressed so hard during spring practice that he needed an ice bath to cool down his body.
“He’s the kind of guy who will push himself to the limit,” Osborne said. “A very bright guy, someone who is multifaceted.”
On K-12 education, Pillen said Nebraska needs to stop resisting school choice and introduce more competition into the system. He did not specify a preference for tax credits, vouchers or charter schools.
Pillen said whether a parent chooses a public, parochial or other form of private school, it should be their decision.
Democrats have argued against school choice, saying changes risk siphoning scarce state funds from needy students and schools.
They’ve argued Nebraska’s public schools are strong, and Pillen agrees. But he said schools shouldn’t rest on their laurels.
Pillen highlighted how Columbus Catholic schools work with local donors to subsidize tuition for those who need help.
“It’s really, really important that we have options for parents from all economic walks of life,” he said.
Ag is back in charge
On agriculture, Pillen acknowledges the potential value of having a livestock producer and farmer in the governor’s mansion for the first time in nearly a century.
Pillen said he would prioritize protecting Nebraska’s water supplies in its dispute with Colorado over the Perkins County Canal and flows in the South Platte River, calling it vital.
He will press the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to help farmers and ranchers use and sell more of what they produce closer to home and boost investments in value-added agriculture.
His proposal on property taxes for ag land would flip the system from taxing ag land’s assessed value to taxing it based on the five-year average of how much income it generates each year.
But, he said, that will only work if local governments and school districts can get spending under control. He has said he is open to discussing caps on local spending growth.
Pillen said he will work with producers to make sure they are heard by regulatory agencies who don’t understand why what they’re asking might not work or might need more time.
He said he understands some Nebraskans worry about having a hog operator overseeing the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality but said he would be fair.
His goal is to make sure government is enhancing agriculture and not making business more expensive.
“Hopefully everybody can have confidence that we will work hard to make sure that we all believe in accountability,” he said. “We want to leave the state better than we found it.”
Abortion and guns
Abortion is likely the brightest line between the candidates for governor this November. Pillen said he looks forward to the day when the Legislature bans abortions in Nebraska.
He discounted polling by Bold Nebraska that found a majority of Nebraskans supported keeping abortion safe and legal. He said Nebraska “is a very, very large pro-life state.”
“I believe life starts at conception 100%, a gift of grace from God,” he said. “That’s really, really important to me. It’s really, really important to a large number of Nebraskans.”
Blood described herself as pro-life, but her record is mixed. She supported a bill to ban dismemberment abortions but backed off when she couldn’t clarify some of the bill’s language.
She also voted for the filibuster of a so-called “trigger bill” that would have banned abortions in Nebraska after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. That bill fell two votes short.
She has said she is personally pro-life but wants 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, and Blood has said she would not seek additional legislative restrictions.
On guns and gun control, Pillen said he will not infringe on the 2nd Amendment rights of Nebraska’s gun owners. He will focus instead on securing schools and improving mental health care.
He said he wants to work with Nebraska’s educators and education leaders to make sure the state is studying and implementing best practices from other states.
He also said people need to be realistic about what it will take to stop a determined attacker with a gun, and that’s likely another person or people with a gun.
Prison reform and new prison
On prison reform, Pillen said he would like to see the state place greater emphasis on helping people prepare and train for life when they get out from behind bars.
Nebraskans want people punished, he said, but they also want people who know how to get up and hold a job when they get out. They want people prepared to provide for their families.
“It’s really important that programs are put in place so that people, once they’ve paid their debt to society, they can become a contributing member of society,” he said.
He said he’d lean on his running mate, former Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly, to help on criminal justice. Kelly now heads the criminal division for Attorney General Doug Peterson.
But he has heard from Ricketts and others that there may be no way to avoid building another prison in Nebraska, given the disrepair at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
Roads and broadband
On infrastructure, Pillen departed from Ricketts and his GOP predecessors, saying the state should go into debt and issue bonds to complete Nebraska’s four-lane highway system.
Republican and Democratic governors alike have resisted calls to bond for road-building in Nebraska, including former Gov. Kay Orr, a supporter of Pillen’s.
“There’s times when you need to take debt to grow your business and take advantage of opportunities today,” Pillen said. “We’ve been trying to do that out of our operating cash, and we’re not going to grow Nebraska with that approach today.”
Broadband deployment, too, is another area where he sees room for improvement by the state. He, like Blood, said he would like to see more accountability in state contracts for deployment.
Taxpayer money for rural broadband contracts got unwieldy and the contracts got too big, he said. Fiber deployment also may have fallen behind advances in wireless and satellite technology.
He said he wants to set a four-year goal of getting broadband access for every rural and urban Nebraskan. Part of that could involve incentivizing wireless carriers to boost coverage.
For Pillen, the key to growing Nebraska is bringing Nebraskans together. He frames his campaign around a single question, one he asks in North Platte and Omaha, Gering and Lincoln.
The question: What’s more important to you, your town or Nebraska? He said he wants more parts of the state to think about the rest of the state and not just their little corner of it.
“I’m a big-time believer in … if we focus on what’s best for Nebraska, then all of our communities long-term are really going to thrive,” Pillen said. “And that’s the goal.”
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