Pillen crosses political aisle to support mental health bill from Lincoln Democrat

By: - February 27, 2023 5:15 am

Gov. Jim Pillen testifies Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, at the State Capitol in favor of his state income tax cut proposals. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Republican Gov. Jim Pillen stepped across the political aisle Thursday to provide surprise personal testimony in support of a bill to bolster mental health care.

The bill was introduced by State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan State Legislature. She is also chief sponsor of a bill to legalize medical marijuana, a bill opposed by Pillen.

Political observers said they could not recall a time when former Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, had personally testified for a measure introduced by a Democrat. Though it happened at least once, according to his long-time press aide, Taylor Gage — in 2016, Ricketts testified in favor of a proposal from Democrat Sen. Kate Sullivan concerning school funding.

Pillen’s testimony, observers said, is illustrative of his willingness to meet with political opponents, and work out differences, on some issues — though one lobbyist said some “weird alliances” are forming this year in the Unicameral.

Anna Wishart
State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

Wishart said she was grateful for the support from the governor. She said “bipartisan support” will be “critical” in tackling the state’s problems with providing mental and behavioral health care.

Her Legislative Bill 276 would enable the creation of the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic model in Nebraska through the Medicaid program. The bill has been touted as “transformational” in improving quality and access to care. It would create centers in six communities across the state.

Wishart said she looked forward to working with the governor, and her legislative colleagues, to get LB 276 passed this year.

A spokesman for Pillen said he testified for the bill before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee “because he supported it.”

Governors often testify in support of bills they ask to be introduced by state senators, but it is rare for them to appear at committee hearings on bills they didn’t request.

In his written testimony on LB 276, Pillen stated that Nebraskans “must come together to solve tough problems.”

“Mental health and substance abuse are tough problems. We also need more mental health specialists,” Pillen said.

Officials with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services also testified in favor of LB 276.

Prior to the 2023 session, Pillen assembled a group of educators, of all political stripes, to recommend changes in the state’s system of providing aid to K-12 schools.

Observers said the changes, which would significantly increase state funding of local schools, has helped bring more support for the governor’s proposal.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.