COLUMBUS, Nebraska – Voters in Nebraska did not have a chance on the debate stage this year to assess the main candidates to succeed Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Republican candidate Jim Pillen declined debate, describing the process as political theater. His Democratic opponent, Senator Carol Blood, criticized the move.
So last week, the Nebraska Examiner interviewed both candidates on several key questions. We will be presenting these in a question and answer format over the next few days. Today’s topics are K-12 education and property taxes. Your replies have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What, if anything, needs fixing in Nebraska’s K-12 education system, and what would you do to fix it?
Pill: Nebraskans agree that our future is our children. And we can never, ever, ever give up on our children, whether it’s a teacher or a coach, no matter the circumstances. It takes a whole village to raise our children. We can never give up a child. You are our future. And yet, the state of Nebraska has. We have abandoned the children in 158 of the 244 school districts (in the form of federal educational aid intended to offset aid to schools). When Nebraskans understand that, they gasp.
It’s unacceptable. It’s not Nebraska. That’s not fair. That has to be changed. And it must be done so that the money follows the student. Then everything is local. Our schools are controlled locally. Each school district needs to figure out how to adjust or overcome this or have reduced property taxes as a result of this change.
Blood: I believe in education from PK (pre-kindergarten) to 14 (post-secondary). Nebraska can provide universal child care. We know that everything before kindergarten is really important because we make sure that we give children a good start in life when it comes to education. It’s really an opportunity for us to spot red flags when it comes to things like the cycle of violence, the cycle of poverty. It gives us an opportunity to lift up these families and get them help. We’ve poured tens of millions of dollars into our community college infrastructure. We can give all of our high school seniors the opportunity to progress to a two-year degree. … It may be commercially. It can be in ag. It could be the insurance. It can be in IT or healthcare. But the great thing is that they can get out of there with no college debt.
The TEEOSA (State Aid to Schools Formula) is antiquated. It doesn’t work We know that two-thirds of the schools do not receive government support, and that means they are dependent on the wealthiest landowners in their districts. And that’s not fair and just. So if we want to solve the school subsidy problem, the first thing we need to know is that we need to fully fund all of our schools, especially if we want to lower property taxes.
Q: How would you fund these changes?
Pill: TEEOSA has been adding so many special interests for 35 or 40 years, whatever it was, and it’s so complicated you can’t find anyone who even understands it. So it just has to be bone dry, as simple as common sense that Nebraska residents can always understand. I’m not talking about defunding. I’m talking about changing the funding. So let’s stick to simple math. One billion dollars of state funding divided by the number of students, and funding follows student to school district. So this is per student funding, not per district funding.
Blood: It won’t be one thing…it will be multiple things. I think we really missed an opportunity with Senator (Lynne) Walz’s bill, a bill that would have cut everyone’s property taxes, that would have fully funded all of our schools in Nebraska, and it would have been a penny different from yours Value added tax. No one likes being taxed, but when you compare it to the tally of what anyone would have saved in property taxes… I think the public would have been in favor of it. I also looked at our (government) budget and we … have money that we cannot use wisely and reallocate. Then it will be a matter of what we want to agree on.
Q: Where do you feel about charter schools and why?
Pill: I’m a big fan of competition. When there is competition in the free market, it brings out the best in the human spirit. And I don’t think you should be rich to go to school. Public school systems are locked markets. So if you live in a underperforming school and you have no other choice for a child, I think that’s wrong. I believe you should have an option and that is why I support charter schools.
Blood: I invariably believe in public dollars for public schools. If you are interested in school choice, the beauty of Nebraska is that you really do have school choice. If you don’t like the school system you are in, you have the option to transfer to another school system. I find it interesting that some of the same people who are pushing for foundation schools and coupons are the same people who are trying to hollow out our public schools. And I wonder, seeing this, if they’re intentionally trying to gut our public schools and make villains out of our teachers so they can spread their own message.
Q: What role, if any, should the governor play in K-12 education in Nebraska, and how does that fit with the traditional roles of the State Board of Education and local school boards?
Pill: Finding the truth can be difficult. The facts are really simple. If you look at the state laws, the state… Board of Education makes recommendations. They have no legal powers. They may be responsible for distributing some federal funds, but have no statutory authority. So the authority is back to local government with our local school boards. I believe we need to ensure that all of our school boards understand that when a recommendation is made that is not appropriate for your local school board, that is their opinion. They say, “Sorry, condition. We don’t care what you think. This is what is best for our community and our school.”
Blood: I think as a leader in the executive branch as governor, if you want to lead the state, you have to lead by playing a role in education. Well, there’s a difference between playing a part in it and demonizing it. I think the governor has a role to play because we’re a very educated state. We have a role to play, but we have to be careful not to demonize when we don’t agree with something, and I find it really unfortunate that our executive branch has tried to take funds away. It’s in our state constitution… we will provide education for the children of Nebraska.
Q: What is your plan to address property taxes at the state level? How would people pay for local services like education and public safety that are funded by property taxes?
Pill: I think there are a couple or three approaches. One is that we absolutely need to cut spending and run government like a company and make sure that a whole bunch of initiatives that started with a good step forward don’t work and then stop when they don’t case is value creation. We just need to focus on what Nebraska residents need, not things that would be nice. So I think we can certainly make government more efficient. … And then the other thing is that I think our property taxes are too high. … The property tax must be resolved because it is getting out of hand. It affects every Nebrascan whether you own property or not because it affects your rent.
It’s a state problem and it’s a local problem. We need to make sure local governments behave responsibly and become more efficient too. They need to run the county government differently. Not every road has to be gravel. Not everything we used to do is a service that is needed. Stop spending money and streamline county government so we can make a difference. When our community grows and we need another school… our high achievers are wasting their senior year of high school. Let’s get these kids into college early so we don’t keep spending money on more buildings and start doing business differently.
Finally would be how property is valued. It’s just totally wrong. Let’s just pick a district that’s growing. Suddenly someone’s farmland is valued at $30,000 an acre, which isn’t farmland value. Then they’re valued for the property tax that… the land can’t produce, let alone live off of the investment on it. We need to change that and work hard with Unicameral on an income-based approach. This, in turn, forces us all to run government like a business.
Blood: We’ve passed a lot of legislation to lower property taxes, and ultimately, nobody’s property taxes are lower. Until we stop unfunded and underfunded (government) mandates and fully fund our schools, we will never have real property tax breaks. We know that when Ben Nelson was governor, two reports were made – one for schools and one for counties. It says the underlying cause of the high property taxes are these mandates and they need to be stopped.
During the last recession…they had a bill that took away aid to local governments, which is sort of when our property taxes really started to skyrocket. That help had always balanced the property tax issue, sort of balanced the way things worked because they knew we were passing mandates… we made sure it wasn’t a liability. When they took that away, it became a bigger burden. We limit the tools they can use to pay for these things. Check out our smaller counties like Johnson County. When an inmate dies in their state prison (in Tecumseh), they have to pay for the autopsy and grand jury investigation. It’s not that we don’t want these services, it’s that we don’t have a choice about how to pay for them. I had this constitutional amendment.
I really believe voters should have decided if we should be able to pass legislation without first showing how we’re going to pay for it. That’s our job, so to speak. We can make good laws without having to pass on the costs. … We’re charging the counties. Eventually they get to a breaking point where they have to pay for it. They pay for it by raising our property taxes. … We have to start there because no matter what legislation we pass, as long as we pass those mandates on and we don’t allow people to vote on whether we should do it, it’s never going to change.