Q&A with Gov.-elect Jim Pillen: Taxes, school finance top legislative priority list

Pillen says he will decide on Senate appointment after taking office

By: - December 27, 2022 5:45 am

Nebraska Gov.-elect Jim Pillen sat down with the Nebraska Examiner on Dec. 21 to talk about his priorities for his first legislative session. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov.-elect Jim Pillen says he wants to work with the Legislature to knock some sense into the state’s property taxes, income taxes and school finance.

A governor in the mansion?

Pillen, during his interview with the Nebraska Examiner, also discussed his future living arrangements.

Pillen, who takes office Jan. 5, detailed the top priorities for his first legislative session during a Dec. 21 interview with the Nebraska Examiner in his transition office at the Capitol. 

The University of Nebraska regent and Columbus-area hog operator said he has been preparing his first budget proposal since defeating Democrat Carol Blood in November. 

The Examiner asked him about how he plans to approach a number of issues he campaigned on. His responses were edited for brevity and clarity.

Priorities

Q: Which of your priorities that we talked about on the campaign trail do you intend to emphasize during your first legislative session?

Jim Pillen, left, picks Nebraska prosecutor Joe Kelly as his running mate. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Pillen: Kids have been the top focus, and obviously we’re putting a lot of energy into school funding reform. That’s a huge priority. We’ve met with the committee that we put together and listened. We’re not naive, but we’re very, very optimistic that we can have transformative change with school funding. The other piece of that is, that’s a big piece of property tax reform. That’s the first of several steps. 

We have tremendous confidence that we can say no and run the state like all Nebraskans are running their business through this inflation and tightening our belt. We’re going to present that, without compromising service for Nebraskans. I’m jacked up about all the public servants that I’ve met who believe in that vision, that believe that we have to run government the same way we do at home. We can focus on the high value to make sure we provide the value of the services in a better way to Nebraska. 

Q: On education funding changes, how far can you push in year one, when finances are good, but in flux, during all of this inflationary pressure? How far do you think you can go? And are you seeing it as a multi-step process? 

Pillen: Look, it’s probably a little bit early right now. My plan is to get it fixed.

Q: What are the goals you think need to be accomplished, the big picture?

Pillen: We have to make sure the state provides equalization aid to every student. That has to happen. All Nebraskans across the state support that

The new home of the Nebraska Department of Education in east Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

when they understand that we don’t give a penny of state equalization aid to 157 of the 244 school districts. Every Nebraskan is aghast, even in the school districts that are more of a beneficiary of that. That’s just not what we believe. It’s not how we treat each other.

School funding

Q: What kind of pushback are you getting from that effort to make sure that there is some sort of baseline aid for every student?

Pillen: That’s the thing that is really positive about the committee. They come from all perspectives. But guess what? One-hundred percent care more about the interests of the student than the seat they’re sitting in. And that’s been really, really powerful. That’s what the focus is on, the student. We’ve been talking about cleaning out the closets. Every superintendent in the room agrees that there have been state statutes over the years that do

nothing but raise the cost of education and have no impact on educating our children. So there’s a number of different steps to help us get there.

Q: We went through a period in the 2000s, probably the late ‘90s too, where there were some efforts by the school districts that have the most state funding now to sue the state, to force changes to the funding formula. Are you getting closer to how the state addresses legitimate challenges in student populations and still accomplishes this goal you’re after?

Pillen: What’s really important to anybody on Team Pillen is we’re never going to give up on any kid. So we’re not talking about coming in here and whacking everybody. We’re talking about figuring out how to make sure that we have a program that has equalization for every student. And obviously

there’s adjustments, but we’re going to get there.

Taxes and spending

Q: Every governor faces that tug of war between tax relief and the increasing costs of state government. Not many of them walk into an inflationary picture quite like this. You have just negotiated with the State Patrol to kind of catch them up. There are other state employees looking to do that, too. What balance do you aim to strike as governor? 

Pillen: Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember the last time when the government printed a lot of money. I think that all of us agree that it’s not going to be if we have an economic downturn but when. So that puts us in a great opportunity to run the State of Nebraska just like we all are running our households and take a gulp, take a swallow, take a pause and say we’ve got to do what’s best for Nebraska, and the key for us to cut property tax and cut income tax is to make sure we don’t spend more money. Every one of us can do our job a little bit better. We can improve the services to Nebraskans without having to sell the farm.

harvest
A combine harvests a field of soybeans near Denton, Nebraska. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Q: Realistically, though, you’ve got some big-ticket items that you have to address, whether it’s the State Patrol with that 22% raise, whether it’s the mental health workers you and I talked about multiple times. What do you see as a pathway to getting those problems solved in the middle of a time where you’re trying to balance competing needs?

Pillen: We’re trying to make sure we stay focused on the high-value things that create the most value and not get bogged down. So we’re trying to identify the issues that need to be caught up. Every Nebraskan agrees that our State Patrol is a key foundation of keeping us safe. We worked hard to come to an agreement to make improvements on that. We have, and we feel good about that. We can’t do those things across the board. They were trying to make right some things that had fallen behind, and mental health and caregiving, those are some issues that we’re still working on.

New prison

Q: Is a new prison on the year one agenda, or has there been any progress on that? Where might you put it?

State pen leak
A water leak left mud 2 to 2 1/2 feet deep in a utility room at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Department of Corrections)

Pillen: Yeah. My partner, (Lt. Gov.-elect) Joe Kelly, has been in that space his entire life. We have had numerous engagements with folks that are in that entire space, and it’s just really critical. The highest calling of government is keeping Nebraskans safe. And our rate of incarceration is on the low half, not leading the way like some people will say. So it’s really important. There was a great big water main break in the old facility. They’re just waiting for the other one to go. So we’ve got a facility that’s been around almost since the founding of the state. So that tin can can’t get kicked down the road any further. We’re going to be aggressive with the Legislature. We have to get the prison appropriated. We’ve got to get the final ribbon on this session and move forward. It’s a key piece to the search for a new (director of Correctional Services). That person is going to have to be visionary … and make sure that we get a state-of-the-art prison design — not only more capacity, but so we can have reform to reduce recidivism. That’s another key piece of the workforce development for … contributing members of society.

Q: One of the biggest political questions that always get asked: Do you have any idea where you’re siting it yet?

Pillen: If you really think about when somebody goes astray in a family, it’s tough on families. The last thing we want to do is have families have to travel to Timbuktu to visit families. Seems to me that it should be located where most of the people live and where you can get plenty of workforce. You know that mistake was made once. We’re not going to do it twice.

Abortion

Q: Talk to me a little on abortion. How far do you think is reasonable to push for change on the issue (Pillen has said he supports an outright ban), given the lay of the Legislature right now, in year one? What kind of priority are you placing on that?

Jen Day
State Sen. Jen Day of Gretna spoke at a State Capitol rally this spring of opponents of a “trigger” abortion bill proposed in the State Legislature. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Pillen: It’s a very high priority. I’ve not changed from day one. The goal is I’m pro-life, and I believe life starts at conception. But I’m a pragmatic. And so our goal is to work with the Unicameral to be able to stop the murder of as many babies that are grown in moms’ wombs as we possibly can. And we’re going to work hard as heck to make sure we have 33 votes to do that.

Q: What is that end goal? In terms of the way the votes might fall, are you looking at a full ban? Are you looking at how far you can go? Are you still trying to negotiate? Where are you in the process? 

Pillen: I think that process is still underway. I think there’s going to be give and take to get to a point to do the math and do the best we can to save as many babies as possible. 

Business, government and environment

Q: You’ve run a business in Columbus for a long time (Pillen Family Farms). You’ve got family involved. Have you figured out yet how you’re going to handle your business and the people’s business while you are governor? 

Pillen: We’ve been working on that process at home for 10 years. The children have been back home for 17 and 15 years, and we’ve been working on family generational planning. Honestly, I haven’t spent about 1% of my time the last two years in our business, because it’s been full-time-plus to win the election of the people. My involvement with our family businesses: I’m a cheerleader today.

Q: You and I talked about this a little during the campaign, but what

chicken barns
Two complexes of 12 chicken barns each are visible across a farm field in Butler County.  The litter used on the floors of the barns is sold as fertilizer and deposited on farm fields across Nebraska. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

message do you have for the Nebraskans who get nervous or have concerns about someone who used to be regulated by the Nebraska Department of Energy and Environment about having a producer in the governor’s seat? Some worry it might lead to a lack of enforcement of the state’s environmental laws. 

Pillen: What I’m most proud of about Nebraskans in agriculture is we’re leading. I mean, we live here. We drink the water. We care deeply about our environment. And the proof is in the pudding. Our best practices have evolved over the last 50 years. They have all been towards improving our environment, improving our water and protecting our water. There’s things that got learned 60 years ago when there was flood irrigation, and the advent of anhydrous ammonia. Cover crops to enhance our soils and make it more productive. Irrigation systems have been evolved, by the four families in Nebraska, that control the whole globe in terms of surface irrigation instead of flood irrigation. Nebraska producers care deeply about our environment. The department is going to be and has been great innovators to help, but protecting our waters is the highest calling of every producer and certainly this producer as governor.

Q: The Flatwater Free Press wrote about nitrates in some of the rural and urban wells and drinking water. Something similar happened in Iowa and led to changes at the state level. Do you see any state role in trying to dig into that nitrate question for water, given some of the concerns about what the safe levels are and how we get there?

Pillen: I view my role as governor as it’s really important to get the truth out and get the facts out, and so I think that some of that study has come from a

Armed with eye protection, detasselers in southeast Nebraska walk cornrows in summer 2014 to prevent the plants from self pollinating. In the Midwest, local teenagers have historically detasseled a majority of corn acres. (Courtesy of Lynn Leif)

group from far out of state, the coastline, with maybe other agendas. We’ll be able to put together the facts about what the nitrate levels were X years ago and then where they’re at today, and then the improvement that’s already been made. So am I saying there’s no nitrates in our water? No. There were lots of mistakes made 60 years ago, when anhydrous ammonia was invented. Unfortunately flood irrigation took more of that down. Those are things that take time and get better over time. I think the data will show what it was X years ago to where it is today. And if there are a few silly things going on, it’s easy to be able to identify that and granularly fix that.

Higher education

Q: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln saw its chancellor, Ronnie Green,

Ronnie Green
Ronnie Green, the chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for nearly seven years, announced that he would be retiring in a video with his wife. (Courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

announce his retirement. You’re an NU regent. What role do you see for higher ed in your first year, and what role, if any, do you want to play in the selection process of that chancellor?

Pillen: Who becomes next chancellor — that’s the Board of Regents’ and President (Ted) Carter’s responsibility. I’ll be effectively resigning Jan. 3. The State of Nebraska, just so people know, is one of the few states that have an elected body running the university. The people speak, and that’s their job. That’s not the governor’s job.

Q: From your perspective, where do higher ed and NU fit in your overall priorities of your first year? 

Pillen: I think that the University of Nebraska system and higher ed are a key piece in … never giving up on our kids. The most important one is stopping the brain drain. And I’ve failed as a regent. I want to challenge our higher ed. Lots of our neighbors are saying hey, our kids are really, really

University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

valuable. They’re giving them way better scholarships than we are. Our kids, the thousands (of) best and brightest, can’t afford to go to school here because they (other states) have scholarships that are room and board, tuition, research stipend. We have to get in the game. We’re not in the game. And we have to fix that ASAP. It’s really important. The other is we have to do a better job of recruiting. If enrollment falls, there’s only so much money. Enrollment of all higher education, whether it’s university system, whether it’s trade schools, the technical schools, community colleges, we’ve got half of our kids not getting any further skill set development. We’ve all got to get in the game and make that happen. That’s not just higher ed’s responsibility. That’s business and farmers and ranchers as well. We’ve got to do things differently than we have.

Q: Georgia and some other states have done the opportunity scholarship model. Nebraska has done some of this. What do you think the answer for Nebraska is to bring people together to privately and publicly fund this kind of an effort?

Pillen: That’s probably one of the pieces that is exciting about being able to be governor of Nebraska. I’ve been inspired for two years out on the campaign trail. My job is to inspire everybody locally of ideas, and things that you see that we can get scaled. I’m a believer that government doesn’t solve our problems, but us in each of our communities can come together and solve the problems, and then help scale them. 

Immigration and labor

Q: In terms of how the state deals with labor, what efforts this term do you see need to be accomplished at the state level and working with the federal delegation to make sure Dreamers and even those legal immigrants on temporary protected status are able to come and stay?

Pillen: The first step is we have to cut property tax. We have to cut income tax. We have to get ourselves competitive so people don’t say ‘I’m not going to pay 6.5%, and I’m going to South Dakota.’ We have to get ourselves competitive on tax. We have to quit spending money locally. Quit spending money and we have to say no. Number two, working with the federal delegation to make sure that we can have good workforce visas. Those are really important, because from the beginning of time hard jobs is what immigrants have taken. And so we need workforce pieces and we need to work on immigration so that we can have legal immigration and grow our economy where we have the hardest jobs. It’s really important that we remember In immigration reform, there’s no amnesty. There’s no pathway to voting. There’s no pathway to citizenship. And there can’t be use of state funds. It just can’t be done.

Affordable housing and rental conditions

Q: On affordable housing, we talked about the need for that kind of a push, but anything in this first year, you think, that could help with that? 

Pillen: There’s a couple things that are really exciting. We have

Student apartments under construction
The student apartment complex rising at the Creighton University campus is one of the largest residential projects to get building permits in 2021. (CIndy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

extraordinary innovation and entrepreneurship in all 93 counties, which means there’s really good jobs out there. We have to locally get folks inspired to be more aggressive with the workforce housing, partnering with the county, partnering with the cities. So whether they decide to do some local tax-increment financing because they can afford to give up some of that to draw people. All I know is everywhere across the state I’ve been where people are building affordable homes they’re filled before the doors are hot (before construction is finished). We’re going to work and see what role the state can play. I’m a believer that we don’t want the state telling people what to do. But again there’s great public-private partnerships that are taking place across the state. In the communities where leadership is coming together and solving it, they’re going to grow and thrive. That’s really the biggest message: We’ve got to bring leadership in every community together to collaborate and solve the problem.

Q: This is maybe the third time in five years that Omaha has had an entire apartment complex shut down because of poor conditions using a local ordinance. At the state level, there’s been a push for a number of years about whether it’s time to open up and take another look at the Landlord-Tenant Act and see whether or not tenants’ rights are effectively protected in the ways that some say they should be. Do you see any opening there on the act or what do you think could be done to make sure in a tight housing market to make sure that people who are renting and might not have other options aren’t in substandard housing?

Pillen: Again, it takes me right back to the taxes. Property taxes are so out of whack in this state that it’s affecting people that don’t own property. It’s kind of hard to believe. It is. And so I think that if we can run government like a business, clean the closets out, make sure we can decrease our taxes and inspire people to do more workforce affordable housing, I think that solves the problem. More government doesn’t.

Differences with Ricketts

Q: What do you think are the differences that people will see in your first

Nebraska Gov.-elect Jim Pillen was endorsed and financially backed by current Gov. Pete Ricketts. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

year in leadership and the governor that was before you?

Pillen: Oh gosh. I don’t know if I can say there. All I can tell you about is what I’ll do.  I’ll be engaged with people. I’ll be working really hard to build relationships with people. I will work very hard. And those are the two things that people can count on from Team Pillen. I’ll be out and about. I’ll be multiple places in a day, I’ll start early, work late and give it my best. I’ll really spend a lot of time to be eyeball to eyeball with people.

Q: Any update on the Senate appointment? On timing?

Pillen: We’ll get something figured out on a timeline after we get sworn in.

Q: Reporters are wondering whether you’ll continue the trend of weekly press conferences that Gov. Ricketts has held. Will you?

Pillen: I’m probably one that believes in doing the work and people judge that. But, you know, I need to inform the public, and I’ll be before the press as well.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.

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