By Russ Pankonin
The Imperial Republican
Senator Mark Christensen of Imperial and former senator Tom Baker of Trenton fielded questions during a 44th District candidate forum held in Grant last Wednesday.
Less than 20 people attended the event, which was also streamed live over the Internet by Perkins County Schools.
The format included opening statements by the candidates, a question & answer session and closing statements.
By the flip of a coin, Christensen won the opportunity to open the forum.
Christensen said the race for the 44th District is unique in that each candidate has experience in the Legislature, along with a voting record.
He urged voters to look at what each has stood for during their tenure.
Christensen touted his stands for pro-life issues, second amendment gun rights and water issues affecting the Republican Basin. “I have introduced and passed bills in all three areas,” he noted.
He said it’s the water issue that leads and drives the economy of southwest Nebraska. It would be an economic disaster without the ability to have water, he added.
He said he recognizes how valuable irrigation, grain and livestock production are to the district and its survival.
That’s why he tackled the difficult issue of water—to keep local control and allow natural resources districts to have input on rules and regulations.
“It’s important to have someone who understands water, leads us quickly and firmly in the direction we need to keep control locally,” he concluded.
Baker said he’s running “to provide an effective and experienced voice for the 44th District. That’s important.”
He noted his experience as a farmer and store owner, along with his degree in agronomy provide a great base of experience to effectively serve as a senator.
Baker served two four-year terms in the Legislature. He was ineligible to run again in 2006 due to term limits.
In addition to this experience, Baker noted he’s served on a number of statewide organizations which provide a far-reaching perspective.
Some of those he noted included serving as president of the Nebraska Leadership Council, which runs the LEAD program; 12 years on his local school board, which provided insight on state aid; the Nebraska Gas and Oil Commission; the Commission of Industrial Relations; the Board of Educational Lands and Funds; and 36 years as a trustee of the St. James Catholic Church in Trenton.
When it comes to pro-life and abortion issues, Baker said that’s something he can talk a great deal about.
During his time in the Legislature, he said he helped lead an effort to stop the use of aborted fetal stem cells at the University of Nebraska.
He noted he co-sponsored the fetal homicide bill, which stood up to a constitutional test.
He said he has experience dealing with water issues, noting he worked hard on the passage of LB 962, a comprehensive state water plan.
He said he also sat in on negotiations between Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado in trying to settle the compact issue in 2002.
Most important bills passed
The first question asked the senators what their most important bill that passed the Legislature was and its impact.
Baker said LB 962, which gave local authority to NRDs to manage water, was an important bill.
His first bill passed, LB 410, provided for child safety seat belt legislation that closed a loophole. It stopped people who had been ticketed for not having a child seat to go out and buy one, show the judge the receipt, get the fine waived and then take the seat back for a refund.
He said his role in two special sessions, including the 2003 budget crisis and the death penalty, were also key.
He served on the Revenue Committee during the 2003 budget crisis in which the Legislature trimmed the budget to keep it balanced.
While Christensen said his bills on pro-life and Second Amendment issues were significant, he said passage of his water bill, LB 701, in 2007 has had the biggest impact on the district.
He said the bill insured local control over water issues. Without it, he feared the state may have taken control of water issues.
The bill provided for a tax levy and an occupation tax to help retire bonds to pay for water purchases and leases to keep the state in compliance.
It also provided for the removal of trees and other invasive species from streams and rivers and funding for the purchase of surface water, the retirement of irrigated acres and for stream augmentation or transfer of water.
He said the bill has also stabilized the local economies reliant on agriculture and irrigation.
Baker rebutted, noting that the property tax in LB 701 was found unconstitutional and that the occupation tax is also being challenged.
“That’s the main reason I’m running,” he said.
He said he couldn’t fathom carrying a bill that created a closed class and included an illegal tax assessed against his district. It then forced constituents to take the issue to court to get it declared illegal.
Christensen countered, noting the bill, which had the property tax in it, was reviewed by the attorney general’s office. They said it was a legal bill and was constitutional.
Christensen said he opposed the property tax but it was needed to develop the credibility of the occupation tax to be used for the repayment of bonds.
Stands on abortion
Both candidates agreed they differed very little from their opponent on pro-life and abortion issues.
Both indicated they heavily support these issues and will continue to protect these interests.
Rights, wrongs with water
Baker believed the Middle Republican’s integrated management plan to be able to treat wells drilled after 1998 differently showed great foresight.
He said passage of LB 108, which established conjunctive use between surface and groundwater was an important step.
This was later followed up with LB 962.
He noted the additional tax levy in LB 962 went away after a three-year period.
He also credited surface water irrigators, such as those in the Frenchman-Cambridge district, for burying laterals to reduce loss of water.
Christensen said the biggest shortfall of LB 962 was the absence of ongoing funding from the state.
He said the occupation tax in LB 701 will allow irrigators to keep their allocations and sustain economic viability of the region.
While it is a tax on themselves, Christensen noted that he hasn’t talked to one farmer who would rather reduce their allocation versus paying the tax, which can be up to $10 per irrigated acre.
Baker said he has some ideas for gaining state funding for water issues, but declined to elaborate. He said he believes a consensus can be built to fund water issues because it’s an issue that also affects Lincoln and Omaha.
Christensen noted he tried to create a water resources fund this year but it was not successful. He doubts that any statewide funding can be created when the budget has to be cut and state aid to schools is likely facing cuts as well.
Water allocation cuts?
Christensen noted plans to shut off wells in Rapid Response Area in water-short years will keep the state in compliance.
He said more water-short years will likely occur in the future but applauded the NRDs for planning in advance on how to deal with those issues.
He said the occupation tax in LB 701 is key to allow for the purchase of surface water and other projects to help keep the state in compliance.
Without purchasing surface water, the state would not have been in compliance in 2007.
Baker said he cannot support a plan that would shut down alluvial wells in water-short years. He said the state should operate under “share and share alike” in water short periods, noting that language already exists in statutes.
The Lower Republican NRD has yet to adopt an IMP, adding there’s lots of discord among the NRDs.
He said surface water issues do not impact the Upper Republican much, but that’s far different in the Lower Republican.
Christensen said the biggest rub between the Upper and Lower Republican NRDs rest with alluvial wells.
He said the Lower has about 35-40 percent of the alluvial wells that would be shut down in water-short years. However, the Lower is only responsible for 26 percent of the depletion in the basin.
Baker said if he had his way, he’d put all parties in one room to hammer out a compromise.
Baker said his experience in dealing with the 2003 budget crisis and his experience on the Revenue Committee would serve him well.
He said he would not vote for any tax increases to handle budget woes. Instead, spending must be cut. He doubts when all figures are in, the shortfall will be less than the $750 million projected.
Christensen said there won’t be any increase in the state budget. As a member of the Executive Committee, he’s proposed some budget cutting ideas within the Legislature.
He proposed to the committee to eliminate the senator’s library, which is redundant. That would save about $200,000. He noted the Legislature must set an example themselves.
He also proposed cutting down the number of secretaries and aides used by the senators, along with possible elimination of the Legislative Research Department.
Baker said the Legislative Research Department will be key in the redistricting process upcoming after the completion of the census. Baker noted he’d be one of two senators who have gone through the redistricting process.
Christensen said the Exec Committee is already working on it. Plus, he said the department wouldn’t be eliminated for another year, which would allow the senators to use them during the redistricting process.
Champion Lake project
Candidates were asked about the requirements for a berm on the Champion Lake project.
Christensen said there were political games played with the project.
He said the state needed to include the Champion project in their request to meet the necessary amount to request federal emergency aid.
He said he’s tried to work with the Department of Natural Resources, who won’t sign off on the existing gates unless they can be raised without manpower.
However, they have yet to review such a plan proposed by the Champion supporters.
Christensen said what is happening there is not right.
Baker said engineering guidelines and rules can’t be arbitrarily bypassed just for the Champion project.
Unfortunately, he said federal mandates get handed down to the state that they have to follow but noted the feds’ one size fits all approach doesn’t work out here.
More vegetation control
Candidates fielded a question from the audience on further control of vegetation and invasive species throughout the state, including the Platte.
Baker said the Platte Basin faces many more issues than the Republican Basin because of endangered species.
He said control is an annual battle and there’s no easy answer.
He said some type of permanent funding is needed to sustain the control program.
Christensen said he will go after more funds from the Environmental Trust Fund and the tobacco fund to continue the control effort.
He said there needs to be uniformity in the control program by starting upstream and working downstream.
Baker noted that Environmental Trust Funds get their funding from lottery proceeds, which have been declining. He also noted the tobacco trust funds cannot be used for such purposes.
Christensen acknowledged that Baker was correct that tobacco trust funds could not be used for the project.
Change the compact
Candidates were asked why the state doesn’t try to change the compact and fight Kansas on compliance issues.
Both agreed that Kansas would never agree to a change in the 1943 compact.
Christensen said a study on the effect of terraces, dams and vegetation has yet to be completed.
With more vegetation along streams, more use of terraces and dams, and no-till farming, the runoff is far less than when the compact was signed.
He believes this needs to be taken into account.
Baker said those same conditions exist in all three states so it wasn’t addressed during the compact negotiations.
Baker feared if it’s pursued further, the issue could end up back before the U.S. Supreme court, putting the state at its mercy.
He also said the attorney general’s office needs to work on making Colorado comply with Nebraska on 10,000 acre-feet of water due from them.
Both candidates agreed that commodity check-off funds should not be diverted to the general budget.
Baker noted legislation to prohibit this could still be changed by a future Legislature, so ag groups must remain vigilant on the issue.
Christensen said he joined in the fight this past session to prohibit the transfer of check-off funds and will continue to do so in the future.
Baker offered his closing remarks first.
He said it’s obvious there’s a difference between the two of them.
He said his leadership skills will come into play on key issues in the Legislature.
He noted he’s been involved in the budget-cutting process before as a member of the Revenue Committee. That experience will also be key in dealing with aid to schools.
Water issues will not be going away, he said. He said he has a long-term funding solution and will work with the AG on the Colorado compliance issue.
“I will address issues through my leadership and experience. I believe I can get the job done,” he said.
Christensen said his endorsements speak for themselves. He said not all the legislative candidates received them.
Some of the endorsements included the Nebraska Republican Party, Right to Life, National Rife Association, Farm Bureau, Nebraska Co-op Council, Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, along with 34 other state senators.
He said these endorsements are evidence of his ability to work with others and build coalitions.
He urged voters to look at the bills introduced and passed to see where each candidate’s priorities are. He said most of his time has been focused on water, Second Amendment issues and pro-life issues.
He also said it was important not to get caught up in the campaign rhetoric of the race.
“I look forward to continuing to serve you again and ask for your vote Nov. 2,” he said in closing.