Hog farmer Jim Pillen takes reins as Nebraska’s governor
Plans to prioritize ‘transformational’ tax relief, ‘outdated’ K-12 school funding formula
Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen speaks to the Legislature after being sworn in on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Nebraska’s first farmer governor in more than a century was sworn in Thursday at the Nebraska State Capitol.
Jim Pillen, a 67-year-old hog operator from Columbus, is the state’s first governor to earn most of his living from farming since George Sheldon left office in 1909. Pillen has put his adult children in charge of the family business while he is in office.
He referenced his background during a brief speech after being sworn in by Chief Justice Mike Heavican, calling Nebraska a “very special place” where the son of a tenant farmer and a seamstress can lead the state.
The Nebraska Farm Bureau was among Pillen’s backers during the contentious Republican primary campaign for governor, which proved the state’s costliest ever, in which he defeated multi-state agribusinessman Charles Herbster.
Taxes and school funding
Pillen focused much of his campaign on issues important to farmers and ranchers, including K-12 school funding and property taxes, issues he said he aims to tackle during his first legislative session.
Pillen is taking office as the most conservative Legislature in years convenes this week, beginning a session flush with taxpayer dollars.
He told the Nebraska Examiner during a pre-session interview that he plans to prioritize tax relief this year, including efforts to address property, income and inheritance taxes.
His speech Thursday hit similar notes, describing Nebraska’s tax code as “burdensome and uncompetitive.” He extolled the need for “transformational tax change now.”
Pillen called again for changes to the state aid formula to provide a baseline of aid to every student in Nebraska, instead of the current system of equalization that leaves the majority of school districts without the aid.
He called the system “outdated” and “unfair to far too many of our students.”
“State aid to education must be modernized so that it is more equitable, meeting the needs of communities across Nebraska,” he said.
He said he hopes to work with the Legislature to make Nebraska more attractive to young people raised in the state and those from other states.
He has also said he expects the Legislature to consider additional restrictions on abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Pillen, after the speech, said nothing could have prepared him for the emotions he felt when he was sworn in. He called it “a humbling experience.”
He said he was pleased to see his friend, Lt. Gov. Joe Kelly, sworn in by Heavican. Heavican hired Kelly as a prosecutor in the Lancaster County Attorney’s Office.
“If anybody would say it’s a normal day, they’re pretty cold-blooded,” he said, chuckling. “All those moments are pretty, pretty cool … something you won’t forget the rest of your life.“
Pillen said he planned to spent the next several days reaching out to state lawmakers and building relationships, face to face.
The Governor’s Office is also putting the finishing touches on his first budget proposal and a handful of legislative proposals, including potential changes to the state school funding formula.
He’s excited to work with leaders in education and mentoring on an attempt to recover reading time and ability Nebraska students lost to the pandemic, he said. He is also scheduling interviews to fill Nebraska’s soon-to-open U.S. Senate seat.
Pillen succeeds Gov. Pete Ricketts, his top political supporter. One of Pillen’s first major decisions could involve appointing Ricketts or another Nebraskan to the Senate.
Ricketts has applied for the seat that Sen. Ben Sasse is vacating Jan. 8 to lead the University of Florida. Ricketts said he has an interview scheduled with Pillen this month.
Pillen said Thursday that he plans to start interviewing finalists for the job next week and expects to make a selection this month.
“We don’t have a definitive, but we need to get that job done,” Pillen said. “Obviously, it’s really, really important.”
Sasse’s replacement will serve through 2024. The position will be up for election that year, as will Nebraska’s other U.S. Senate seat. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., has said she intends to run for re-election.
On Thursday, Pillen spoke to a standing-room-only crowd after being sworn into office.
The core of his message: “We can do big things by working together.”
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