Chris Beutler: The NNN Interview - Part IIby Kyle Michaelis
For readers outside Nebraska's capital city, Beutler here proves ready and willing to look beyond Lincoln's borders - speaking about his vision for a greater Omaha-Lincoln metropolitan area, as well as his two decades of leadership in the state legislature.
Michaelis: On the economic development front, Lincoln has been pretty slow in developing towards Omaha along the I-80 corridor even though so much untapped potential for this community and for the entire state seems to lie in that 45 to 55 mile expanse. Instead, most residential and economic development has been to the south, as if Lincoln were almost scared of the future and of losing its individual identity. In your vision, how closely tied are the futures of Lincoln and Omaha?
Beutler: Well, I think we need to be logical about what’s happening. And, the fact of the matter is that Lincoln and Omaha in that corridor with Council Bluffs are all developing into one large, metropolitan area. That’s the way the future will be. And, the question is do we acknowledge that and do those things that create the best environment and the best relationships and the best planning? Or, do we assume that we’re not all together in this but going our separate ways? That’s kind of a fundamentally different way of looking at the area.Do you foresee that relationship - if you were mayor, with the city of Omaha – as one of competition, cooperation, or kind of a friendly mix of both?
But, I believe [in] developing the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, developing the University of Nebraska at Omaha, working together with Omaha. Not becoming like Omaha - we can still be very different on this west end of what will be in the future the metropolitan area - but it’s to our best interests to figure out how we can best work together with Omaha.
I kind of like your terminology – a “friendly mix of both.” Again, I don’t personally want Lincoln to become like Omaha, and I don’t think most people in Lincoln want to become just like Omaha. We want to develop our own destiny and have our own unique sense of place that’s separate and apart from Omaha. But…there are just so many kinds of cooperative relationships that can develop that we should look to because they’re to our economic best interests and our best interests altogether.Now, I hope you don’t mind, I’d love to change gears just a little and talk about your experience in the Nebraska legislature and – hopefully - get your views on some of the major issues being faced this session. Having stepped away from state government after so many years of being right there at the heart of it all, how difficult has that been for you?
So, I would like us to develop a more flexible attitude with regard to Omaha and be more accepting of the possibilities of cooperation. And be a little less suspicious. Learn what we can from Omaha and teach them what they need to learn.
Well, I have to say, every once in a while, when I pick up the paper, there’s certainly something I’d like to get my two cents worth in on. But, I’ve turned my mind so completely to the future and to the problems at the local level that – honestly – I haven’t paid nearly as much attention to things as in prior days.And, of course, right now you have a campaign to win.
But, leadership in the city of Lincoln – good leadership in the city of Lincoln – requires that I need to pay attention to a number of the issues at the state level. So, I continue to do that – the issues that are most relevant to Lincoln and to municipal government. But, I’m trying to focus on the state issues that relate to local government and the local issues – and not get too far a field and misspend my time on things that I can no longer change.
Right.While running for mayor…you have been quite vocal with promises that you will NOT raise property taxes to balance the city’s budget. Do you believe the state should play any substantial role in providing property tax relief even though they are collected at the local level?
The state does need to play a very strong role in diminishing the burden of property taxes. I might start out by pointing out that has been the history of state government – in terms of shifting the overall state and local tax burden away from property taxes and more onto sales and income tax. If you look at the history of this state from the beginning of the modern tax system in the late 1960s when the sales and income and property tax all came into existence together for the first time, at that point in time about 60% of the total taxes spent were property taxes. Now, it’s down to a little over 40%.The tax plan Gov. Dave Heineman has put forward – LB331 – would eliminate the estate tax and cut income taxes, targeting a majority of its benefits to those currently in Nebraska’s highest tax bracket. Do you feel very strongly one way or another as to how well Heineman’s plan would serve our state – let alone the city of Lincoln?
So, over time – mainly through the vehicle of state aid to education but through other state aid programs and through budget limitations and tax levy limitations - even though people still find the property tax the most burdensome and even though we still have a ways to go, the legislature has been and must continue to help us shift away from property taxes.
At the legislative level, I think I voted – it’s hard to remember over 23 years – but I know that I voted almost 100% in favor of homestead exemptions, state aid to education, all those programs that go out to the reduction of property taxes.
I don’t want to get involved because I don’t currently, now, have inside information – all the budget details and revenue details that were once available to me. But, I would just say this – I think, in the minds of most people, the property tax is still considered the most burdensome tax, and tax relief should continue to be focused towards property tax relief.Sen. Beutler - as a life-long Nebraskan - I want to thank you for the 15 years of leadership and dedication you showed in the legislature on the issue of campaign finance reform. In particular, thank you for the important role you played in holding former Regent David Hergert accountable and eventually even seeing his impeachment for his intentional violation of the state’s laws last year. Also, last session you were finally able to overcome years of quite vigorous opposition to get some long overdue reforms to the campaign finance system enacted. Tell me - how confident are you in the system and its disclosure requirements as they currently stand?
Well, you’re asking very complex questions and good questions. The campaign finance situation is another one of those complex and tough situations that I’ve taken on because it was an area that needed leadership.Would you feel comfortable claiming campaign finance reform as your greatest legacy as a State Senator?
I think Nebraska has the best campaign finance law in the country. Now, having said that, you also have to acknowledge immediately that the United States Supreme Court has not yet loosened its views on free speech to the extent that would be required in order to get your arms all the way around the subject of campaigns. Right now, independent expenditures are allowed under the law and can not be prohibited by state law. So, even though our mechanism works well for campaign committees, it doesn’t preclude such things as independent committees doing their own thing independently and once again making the influence of money such that a fair fight doesn’t occur.
What we’re seeing in Nebraska is a ballooning of independent expenditures, and we’ll just have to wait and see whether the court allows us to deal with that.
I don’t know if I would call it my greatest legacy, but I would say that I think it’s one of the most creative things I’ve done. It’s a unique system that’s looked at all the time nationally. Elements of it I think are being picked-up elsewhere. That we managed to politically get it in place somehow – I’m not sure how we were able to do that actually. [laughter]Getting back to your campaign for mayor in the time that we have left, longtime legislators often learn that their voting records prove quite the liability in seeking higher office. You’ve had to make choices that are easily taken out of context and spun for whatever purposes an opponent might imagine. How do you overcome these attacks?
But, it’s a unique system and it’s a very good system if we could just be allowed to get our arms around independent expenditures.
I think – how can I put this – over a period of 23 years in the legislature, I’ve made the tough decisions. And, the tough decisions are not necessarily [on] the same side of the ideological divide in each instance. There have been times when I thought the University of Nebraska was being too destructively cut - when state employees were being treated unfairly. In those instances, with two very important groups to the economy of the state and the city of Lincoln, sometimes you have to do things that involve increasing revenues.Finally, on the same day you announced your intentions to run for Mayor last September, the Lancaster County Republican Party already issued a press release attacking you as “another recycled liberal” who would be “the most liberal mayor in the history of the city.” Now, with many of my readers, you probably just scored a lot of points, but what do you say to ease the concerns of the average voter who just wants good government, not a government serving first and foremost as an ideological battleground?
I will make that tough decision if that’s what’s the most intelligent thing to do. And that will create a problem for me in terms of campaign rhetoric. But, I think the people want to know that you’re thoughtfully looking at things and doing what is - in a common sense way - the best thing to do.
I’m proud of all the decisions I’ve made in the legislature. I don’t have any regrets. I think I’ve been very balanced and very protective of Lincoln’s interests. So, I look forward to that discussion.
First of all, the release was most interesting because it assumed that they had researched every mayor back to the beginning of Lincoln to determine that I was the most liberal. Obviously, they had not done that. But, people who know me know that I’m very pragmatic and not ideological. That I’m interested in a broad and strong middle-class. That I’m interested in fairness - a reasonable and fair distribution in the economic system because I think that’s what has made a strong America and will continue to make a strong America....The headline of that first press release was, “If you liked Terry Werner, you’ll love Chris Beutler” – referring to a former Councilman who local Republicans smeared in rather unprecedented fashion during the last city elections. That year, the GOP County chair even went so far as bragging about hiring a private investigator to follow and to intimidate Werner. The Lincoln Journal-Star then said of the Republican Party, “They're not focused on finding the best way to deal with the challenges facing the city. All they care about [is] scoring an election victory.” The Journal-Star also warned, “If the attack ads succeed, they'll multiply in the next election.”
Basically, that’s where I stand.
Well, here we are. Considering that Werner was defeated, do you expect and is your campaign prepared for a repeat of these same sorts of ugly and quite vicious attacks?
I think the campaign is prepared for anything and everything. We’re trying to anticipate all eventualities. I’m not sure my wife is so entirely prepared, but we’ll see.Have you seen any black cars following you around?
No. [humoring his interviewer with a hearty laugh]Anyone going through your trash?
No. So far, I don’t think they’ve gone to that extent. But, hopefully it won’t devolve down to that level because I do think the people of this city really are interested in ideas – real ideas - about the future of Lincoln. And I think we’ve done very well in that regard, in supplying those ideas.
The New Nebraska Network thanks Sen. Beutler for his time and wishes him well in both the April 3rd primary and the May 1st general election. We hope readers enjoyed this peek into the mind and the vision of a true Nebraska progressive who's been paving the way for better government and a brighter future throughout his impressive but unfinished career in public service.
Again, this is THE election of 2007 in Nebraska politics. To learn more about Chris Beutler and his campaign to become Lincoln's next Mayor, please see www.ChrisBeutler.com and consider contributing in any way possible.