LINCOLN — The mayor of Wahoo and a retired university professor are squaring off to represent east-central Nebraska's District 23 in the Legislature. Each is touting his experience in seeking the post.
Jerry Johnson, a retired farm co-op manager and Wahoo mayor for the past three years, said his background in solving problems and building consensus as a business manager and elected official should persuade voters to send him to the State Capitol.
“I label myself as an experienced leader who's been out in the real world,” said Johnson, a 69-year-old Republican.
Vern Barrett, a retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor, said that he's spent his career teaching people how to come together and solve problems and that his leadership background is much different from his opponent's management background.
“Good managers get employees to give 100 percent. A leader looks beyond that, to greater achievement,” said Barrett, a 73-year-old Democrat from rural Ceresco.
The two are seeking the seat being vacated by State Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler, who is leaving office because of term limits.
Langemeier, who served as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, is a conservative Republican best known for riding herd on laws that govern state water rights and development of wind energy.
District 23 covers all of Saunders and Butler Counties, west of Omaha, as well as portions of eastern Colfax County, including Schuyler. Center-pivot irrigation wells are common throughout the rural district, which is transected by the Platte River.
Langemeier, along with another former legislator from the district, Curt Bromm of Wahoo, have both endorsed Johnson, who out-polled Barrett in a three-way primary race.
Barrett, leader of a local watchdog group called Saunders County Citizens for Responsible Government, has been going door to door in an attempt to reverse that deficit.
He said his top issue is seeking more funds to help senior citizens remain at home instead of entering nursing homes — care that is more expensive for the state to subsidize.
“The research is clear that they're healthier and happier, and it's much cheaper for the state,” he said.
Barrett, whose top financial contributors are teacher and labor unions, said Nebraska needs to invest more in early childhood education programs as well as state aid to K-12 schools.
He said it was a “terrible mistake” to earmark a quarter-cent of the state's sales tax to highway construction because it diverts money from education and other priorities.
“We're willing to sacrifice children for highways. There's something wrong with that priority,” he said.
Johnson, meanwhile, has testified in favor of the road-construction law and said that with state sales tax receipts rising it doesn't necessarily mean less money for education.
Plus, he said, the extra funding will help complete two long-delayed projects in the district: a four-lane bypass around Wahoo and a four-lane U.S. Highway 30 expressway between Fremont and Schuyler.
“I know the value of good roads out in rural areas,” said Johnson, a native of Holdrege, Neb., who has managed co-ops in five communities across the state. “I've seen what makes small towns and small businesses work.”
Johnson raised $37,512 for his campaign through mid-June, about twice what Barrett raised. Johnson's main contributors are the Nebraska Bankers Association and Nebraska Farm Bureau, as well as highway construction interests.
He said that as mayor, he resolved a couple of thorny problems for Wahoo. One was convincing 90 homeowners outside the town to be annexed. Another was negotiating the purchase of an eyesore junkyard adjacent to a ballfield complex.
“We've got it cleaned up. Now we're pushing for more ballfields,” Johnson said.
Wahoo recently scored an impressive economic development coup, persuading Omaha Steel Castings to build a $13.5 million facility there instead of in Omaha. The town has a new library and aquatics center, as well as newly dedicated Lake Wanahoo, a project that took decades to complete.
“I've always had a passion to be involved in service to people and community,” Johnson said.
But Barrett said some Wahoo residents are now questioning the wisdom, and potential pollution, of a steel plant in the area.
“It was a jump,” Barrett said. “When you don't have a long-term vision, you jump at opportunity.”
He added that he objected to the construction of a new landfill in the district near Mead, unlike his opponent.
Johnson said he has been wrongly branded as a supporter of the project because he didn't speak out against it.
He said he's not a supporter, but he did say that building a landfill in Mead would reduce garbage-truck traffic through Wahoo, where about 40 trucks a day pass through en route to an existing landfill near David City.
The candidates differ slightly on abortion: Johnson opposes abortion under all circumstances, while Barrett makes exceptions when a woman's life is endangered, or in cases of rape and incest.
Both men said that the state needs to review its taxation system and that property taxes are too high.
Barrett said Nebraska may give away too many tax exemptions to businesses. Johnson said the state should look at expanding its sales tax base to tax more services or items such as soft drinks.
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