Lincoln -- Senator Deb Fischer, first term Republican Senator from Nebraska, will have to tiptoe carefully around several potential problems in her 2018 re-election bid. Although she has some advantages going into the election – name recognition, reflexive tendencies of Nebraskans to vote along party lines, new membership on the Senate Agriculture Committee – she has vulnerabilities that could be exploited by her challenger, Democratic businesswoman Jane Raybould of Lincoln.
One vulnerability is the high property tax level across the state, which results in large part from the inability of state government to use its sales and income tax base to provide property tax relief.* When Senator Fischer was a state senator, she exacerbated this problem by diverting a share of the sales tax base not to property tax relief, but to highway construction, traditionally funded by user taxes. Nebraska now has comparatively low fuel taxes but very high property taxes. Governor Ricketts' latest state budget proposal can only shuffle existing property tax credits around and hope for future state revenue growth, to make it appear as if property tax relief is on the way.
But real relief is not in sight, which is in part a legacy of Senator Fischer's time in the state legislature. Her tax bill never made good public policy, but when it was passed at least the agricultural economy was in much better shape – crop prices were high and land values had not yet escalated. When land prices went up and crop prices fell, farmers were caught in a high property tax squeeze from which many will not recover. When this became apparent, Senator Fischer was already gone from the Nebraska legislature, to leave it to others to try to deal with the aftermath, now a nearly $90 million annual hole in the state budget and growing.
A statewide initiative petition is circulating to put the issue of property tax relief directly on the Nebraska ballot in 2018 and let the people vote. Those who vote for the relief might well take out their displeasure on Senator Fischer at the ballot box, unless memories are short. The Fischer raid on the state sales tax has also hampered state government investments in areas that might help the state's economy, such as education. This is another Fischer vulnerability; on the other hand, Senator Fischer's campaign will be well-funded by the highway lobby.
Although Deb Fischer's membership on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee has been met with approbation from some Nebraskans with ties to agriculture, it remains to be seen what it means in terms of actual policies she will push for. Her record in agriculture to date is not impressive.
She touts a meeting with the President at which time she told him of the importance of international markets for Nebraska crops, but that has had no results. Mexico, one of our largest markets, is turning elsewhere as a result of the President's policies, which are not informed in the least by Senator Fischer, on whom the President can rely for any and all votes because of party loyalty, regardless of the impact on Nebraskans.
In her press release about joining the Ag Committee, Senator Fischer indicated she would be working for causes that actually are not well-aligned with Nebraska family farm interests. She indicated she would be "safeguarding crop insurance," which is shorthand for opposing crop insurance reform. The Congressional Budget Office has scored a $3.4 billion savings that could be achieved by capping subsidies for the wealthiest agribusiness corporations, and has found no merit in Senator Fischer's argument that the wealthiest must remain in the program for it to work properly. Crop insurance reform, which has bipartisan support in the Senate, is shaping up to be the only realistic source of money to pay for worthier programs in the Farm Bill, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Without crop insurance reform it is also more difficult for young people to get established in farming.
Senator Fischer is also claiming credit for the dubious "biotechnology labeling compromise," a euphemism for preventing meaningful food labeling. Consumers want to know what is in their food and where it comes from. The legislation abruptly cut off farmers who were proud of their products and were working with states to require fully informative labeling. Instead, with the help of Senator Fischer, the federal government encroached on states' efforts to provide food product information and to develop new, healthy food markets. This is ironic because it was a Nebraskan, the estimable NU professor Ruth Leverton, who contributed so much to the concept of food labeling.
One area where Senator Fischer can claim a success pertains to on-farm fuel storage. Senator Fischer was part of a bipartisan effort to provide relief from certain EPA regulations. The relief was likely anyway, but at least her effort, unlike those above, was not detrimental to Nebraska's interests.
Another EPA issue, with a higher profile, is the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Senator Fischer claims to have drawn "attention to the negative effects this rule would have on all Nebraskans." Indeed she has, using the issue over and over as an example of the federal government's overreach on clean water regulations, even to the extent of claiming that the EPA would be taking over control of every farmstead mud-puddle. What is lost in this is that Nebraska has a real water quality problem when it comes to nitrates and pesticides, which not only affect those who drink the water but also those who must pay for expensive new municipal water facilities. What is needed here is a solution, not perpetual talk about federal overreach, inasmuch as Senator Fischer herself is only too eager to engage in federal overreach when it suits her own purposes (see above on food labeling).
All of which leads to the question of whether her Democratic opponent, the local elected official, businesswoman, and former candidate for lieutenant governor, Jane Raybould, can make anything of these vulnerabilities. Jane Raybould can surely make a decent showing in Nebraska's urban counties, but she will need to take on Deb Fischer in the rural counties in order to win. And that means confronting her on agriculture.
Jane Raybould will have her own vulnerabilities if she is not able to deal with WOTUS. Deb Fischer's campaign will, figuratively if not literally, feature a horse named WOTUS on which she plans to ride to victory for a second Senate term. Fischer must be un-horsed from WOTUS with a believeable Raybould plan to deal with Nebraska water quality.
Jane Raybould will also be challenged to establish herself as the real expert on agriculture, food, and nutrition, which she may be able do from her experience as a grocer.** This is hazardous territory, however, given the grocery industry's traditional alignment with corporate agriculture and agribusiness, not with farmers and nutrition-minded consumers. This could be a vulnerability if Jane Raybould is seen as having few or no policy differences with Deb Fischer on issues before the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Jane Raybould needs to separate herself from Deb Fischer on agriculture issues where she can likely prevail: crop insurance reform and the GIPSA rule protecting family farmers from unfair international (mostly Chinese) interference in livestock production. These are issues where Deb Fischer and her committee chairman, Senator Pat Roberts, have big challenges even within their own Senate Republican caucus.
Jane Raybould could also benefit from advancing a bold vision of what the 2018 Farm Bill should include: considering topsoil-as-infrastructure; attacking rural America's epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and opioid addiction; creating jobs and markets with support for the healthy food revolution that is upon us; opening up opportunity for new farmers; providing funding for ag research and extension that will offer hope for Nebraska's agricultural economy.
One thing is quite certain at this point in the race. No Democrat will win in Nebraska with purely an anti-Trump campaign. Democrats, if they want to win, will have to offer something positive that resonates with voters as something to be FOR, not AGAINST. That's where a visionary 2018 Farm Bill comes in.
Jane Raybould will also offer business credentials that Deb Fischer will never be able to match. Nebraskans like to know if candidates have ever run a business and met a payroll.
But the key to a Jane Raybould victory surely lies in making the most of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of Deb Fischer, who is vulnerable on property taxes, on the poor state of the Nebraska agricultural economy, and for having no vision about what needs to be done in the 2018 Farm Bill to help Nebraska.
* High levels of state and local government spending are generally not the culprit. Nebraska ranks 35th on state and local government spending as a share of personal income.
**She has a lot of goodwill from her father Russ's remarkable record as an innovative grocer. I knew Russ back when he started out at 17th and Washington Streets in Lincoln, in the early 1970s. I'd walk over from my place at 19th and B. I still see him in his apron, busy but with a smile and always ready to talk about big plans to improve his store.