Contrasts significant in Governor’s race

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October 26th, 2010

Lincoln, NE – In the governor’s race, incumbent Republican Dave Heineman and Democratic challenger Mike Meister take very different stances on issues ranging from education to roads, and abortion to immigration.

It’s been a strange governor’s race in Nebraska this year. On the Republican side, Governor Dave Heineman easily brushed aside two little-known challengers in the May primary, with 90% of the vote. Democrats nominated Omaha businessman Mark Lakers, but Lakers withdrew in July, after filing a faulty campaign finance report. Party officials then gave the Democratic nomination to Scottsbluff lawyer Mike Meister. Despite a huge disadvantage in money available for advertising, Meister’s been waging an energetic campaign, while Heineman’s largely stuck to his gubernatorial schedule. There have also been no debates, limiting voters’ chances to compare the two candidates. But in recent interviews with NET News, sharp contrasts emerged between Heineman and Meister on a range of issues. Take, for example, the state budget, projected by the legislative fiscal office to have a gap of about $750 million after the next two-year cycle. Meister said that suggests mismanagement:

“We’ve got this huge budget deficit,” he said. “Other states with low unemployment don’t have big budget deficits. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Heineman disputed the projection, pointing out that it assumes double digit spending growth over each of the next two years. “Take that 10.5% growth, which is a huge number, larger than even the revenue estimate coming in,” he said, “take that back down to zero, flatline the budget in essence, then, using the cash reserve, virtually the projected shortfall disappears.”

Part of the big spending increase projections comes from assuming the state will make up for the loss of federal stimulus funds for education – something Heineman has said is highly unlikely. Meister has floated his own proposal for cutting state education spending:

Mike Meister, D, is running a longshot campaign against Gov. Heineman, after a tumultuous election lead-up for the Democrats (Photo courtesy Meister Campaign)

“The state would kind of take over the maintenance of buildings, maintenance of tracks, all those high dollar cost items that aren’t directly related to educating kids.” Meister said “Several superintendents I’ve talked to in the past have told me that if they didn’t have to worry about the capital issue, they could educate the kids for their existing property tax levy.”

Meister said that could save the state about $800 million a year in aid it currently provides to schools. But Heineman isn’t buying it.

“I think my opponent’s idea to eliminate state aid to education is a very bad idea,” he said. “I don’t know of any superintendent in this state who supports it. We should have a partnership to fund the education of our children, and that partnership is state aid to education, local property taxes, finding the appropriate balance so we maintain local control.”

Another issue splitting the candidates is roads funding. Citing the lack of progress on the Heartland Expressway through the panhandle and other roads projects, Meister talked about rebuilding the highway trust fund.

“I have floated an idea that we do a one-time, one-year road use fee. And the idea being that it would be based on the weight of your vehicle,” he said. “If you open your driver’s side door there’s a little tag and it tells you how much your car …weighs. So in that respect, my vehicle would cost me $53.32 for one year…that would be a penny a pound.”

Meister said that could raise up to $200 million from passenger vehicles alone. But Heineman doesn’t like the idea.

“I haven’t heard anybody suggest it; I think he’s out on a limb. I can’t imagine I would support that.”

Heineman said there are challenges on roads funding, and promised to work with Sen. Deb Fisher, chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, on solutions. But he doesn’t sound enthusiastic about a number of possibilities that have been suggested.

“Most citizens I talk to don’t want a gas tax increase, they don’t want to go to toll roads, they don’t necessarily want to be taxed per mile.”

Asked about the possibility of issuing bonds, Heineman said “It’s a possibility. I don’t hear a lot of support in Nebraska for mortgaging our future.”

Illegal immigration is another subject on which Heineman and Meister disagree. The governor has indicated he’s open to a law similar to Arizona’s requiring police check the immigration status of people they stop. Meister says that would be a shortsighted waste of taxpayer money.

“You’re sticking your thumb in the eye of the federal government, which has a constitutional duty to take care of immigration. Article 1, section 8, clauses 3 and 4 of the Constitution are very clear about who’s responsible for immigration, and that’s a federal issue.”

Heineman said the state shouldn’t base its actions on the threat of a lawsuit.

“The idea that every time you sign a law someone’s going to sue you, I’d never get anything in this state. We have lawyers threaten us all the time that if you sign this law, we’re going to sue you.” He said the legislation being discussed would simply extend existing practices.

“When you show your driver’s license, any time any of us are caught speeding, they then check for outstanding warrants, whatever else may be on your record. That’s what we’re talking about. I am adamantly opposed to any kind of discrimination where it would allow law enforcement to just walk down the streets of any Nebraska community and say “prove you’re an American citizen. Prove you’re a Nebraskan. We don’t do that in America. It’s only with reasonable cause, reasonable suspicion.”

Another issue that involves the intersection of state and federal laws is abortion. Asked about Nebraska’s attempts to tighten restrictions on abortion, Meister suggested the efforts are misdirected.

“I think the first thing that people have to keep in mind is choice has been the law since 1973,” he said. “Whether you agree or not, that’s the law… I think what we need to do is focus on those programs that reduce the number of abortions. We need to focus on education efforts to eliminate unwanted pregnancies…I don’t subscribe to the theory that if you teach it, they will do it. I just don’t buy it.”

Heineman rejected Meister’s suggestion. “This is an issue where we disagree. I’m pro-life, my opponent’s pro-abortion.”  Heineman supports legislative attempts to tighten restrictions, even though one bill passed this year has already been declared unconstitutional, and the second is a direct challenge to existing court precedents.

“The overwhelming support in our state is pro-life. These restrictions were appropriate. This is evolving law all the time.”

Voters will have their say on these and other differences when they cast their votes for governor on November 2nd.

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