Q-and-A in Nebraska governor’s race: Pillen, Blood discuss affordable housing, mental health care

OMAHA — Affordable housing and mental health care are the key topics in the last of three installments from interviews the Nebraska Examiner held with the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor.

The candidates — University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, the Republican, and State Sen. Carol Blood, the Democrat — also discussed how their administrations would reflect the state.

Pillen and Blood agreed that Nebraska needs to build more affordable housing and improve how it delivers mental health care. They disagreed on how they’d pursue change. Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity: 

Q: What steps, if any, should the state take to help communities tackle an affordable housing crunch in rural and urban Nebraska?

Pillen: There could be exceptions to it, but my plan would be to inspire the communities to come together and solve problems. The governor’s seat can certainly help really large organizations understand (that) they need to play a role in helping get those infrastructure costs and invest. And that’s taking place in the City of Lexington. 

There were 88 acres purchased and deeded to the City of Lexington. There’s three or four blocks of housing being built to solve the problem. So some of the problems that come with growth and multiple languages, we will work hard to inspire the companies to play their role in the social responsibility role that they have. 

I think that we all work together for the greater good of Nebraska. I certainly want to. I’ll come to the table and try to be part of solving problems. But nobody needs the governor to tell them what they have to do.

Blood: First we have to clarify that there’s a difference between workforce housing and affordable housing. Affordable housing is 30% of your income. We throw a lot of money at the housing issue, but what we end up with is workforce housing. Workforce housing is when you build houses in areas where people need to work, and they just have to buck up and accept the fact that they’re going to pay more. It’s not meant to be affordable housing, and the people that built those houses made money. There’s people making money off of these people’s lack of ability to find housing, and I’m not OK with that. I’m OK with people making profits, but I think that we should have done better metrics and said “Here’s our expectations. Here’s what we need.”

That’s another thing Nebraska’s not very good at all the time. When we spend money, we forget to put in metrics. It always comes back to us, like it’s not working. And it’s like, “Oh, let’s throw more money at it, but we need to do metrics.” We need to start working more with public-private partnerships. I’ve worked with a couple in Central City. They have … proved that you can do affordable housing. 

You can also do it with public-private partnerships in the way that if you’re a big company, you’re coming in, can you work with us on having a child care facility? If you look at the cost of how much it costs to constantly be replacing employees or hiring employees, the same amount of money can go toward helping people with housing and child care, but we don’t ask.

We have to work with local government. There are, especially in our more rural areas, a lot of older buildings that have been zoned for commercial that we could retrofit to make into housing. … If we started working with local government and said, “OK, we toured your city with some experts. We found these buildings. We think that if maybe you changed your zoning, we can maybe bring in some partners. And if you let people know you are doing this, you know investors would come at it. Then there’s other things we can do. … You can bring people in and they pay rent to live. … and after like a 10-year period, part of that rent is put into a bucket. … and then after you’ve lived in this apartment complex or community complex, you have like $10,000 that you can use as a down-payment for a house. It doesn’t have anything to do with taxes. It’s all about partnerships. 

Q: Access to mental health care remains a problem in Nebraska. What are the next steps needed?

Pillen: I think that there’s a couple things that we’ve learned really the hard way in the last couple to three years from the pandemic. Now with anxiety and mental health stress, I don’t have the solutions. What I do know is it’s a problem, it’s a big problem. If you talk to the sheriffs like I have and if you talk to lots of policemen, gobs of their work is related around either mental health or drugs. And you know … we have to come together and get that solved. I don’t have the solutions, but I do believe together we can. 

We need more people, we need more young people to be incentivized and see the calling and have the help of the calling to be trained to be mental health specialists, because there are not enough people. Second would certainly be the mandates around the delivery of care. They’ve got to be lifted. And, hey, telehealth is an absolute no-brainer. And in that field, it’s really non-invasive, and people can help way more people by utilizing that technology. So we ought to learn something from the pandemic. We know people need more help, and that’s an incredible vehicle. Yet we have reimbursements and we have silly things going on in government that keep it from getting solved. That’s going to get cleared out. We need to get a snowplow in and plow that out so a kid can be helped.

Blood: The mental health issue that’s going on in Nebraska has been one that we allowed to fester, how we shifted our funds and where we shifted our funds. Then the Medicaid reimbursement was really another good example. We have to address mental health like we would if we had a fire or a flood. It’s a crisis. We bring people to the table and we ask them what’s wrong, but we don’t take it and make a strategy out of it.

This cut-cut-cutting that we’ve done with our budgeting forever, this is collateral damage, where we aren’t funding and addressing something that we knew was going to happen. … Now we’re rushing to figure out how to do it. I do think what Sarpy County is doing (makes sense). We’ve had to build our own mental health facility, because it’s dangerous to the community, it’s dangerous to our law enforcement and we don’t want people to get injured, be hurt or get stuck in the prison system because we can’t get them proper care. 

We can get certifications for health care workers that can help in that area. We can get people trained in counseling. We have got to get more psychologists. That’s why the telemedicine is so important and the broadband is important. We know that it’s not going to go away. We can’t throw money at it. What we have to do is we have to plan for it, which we should have done two decades ago. 

We also need more interim programs … where they can come and they can do activities all day together, they can eat together and they go home at night. It can be counseling, then be support groups. It can be job training. It can be transitioning back into the community. It can be finding a way on homelessness. Public-private partnerships can help with infrastructure.

Q: What would you do to ensure that your administration represents diverse points of view and different populations and parts of Nebraska?

Pillen: I’ve traveled the state. I’ll be over 100,000 miles in the next few weeks, so I’ve been everywhere. And I would tell you the problems are the same. And that’s why the whole state … a lot of us lifetimers want to think that our community is Chamber of Commerce perfect. Guess what? North Omaha is not the only place that has poverty. Unfortunately, we have incredible poverty in Columbus, Nebraska. Every community has it. We have drug problems in every community. We have problems in every community. The first step is recognizing it and accepting that we have it, and then we can bring people together to solve it. … It’s reality, and I’ve learned let’s just deal with reality and solve our problems.

To run the state, we’ll do it the same way that we won our campaign in the primary. That’s having incredible support across the state. We crossed a major milestone a month or so ago of having over 4,000 people involved in our campaign that have made an investment. In the past, most people think it’s over when they just help somebody win. For the Pillen team … we’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of innings of ball to play. We’ll have a great team of people representing us from the river out to Harrison.

Blood: Like I always say, you extend grace. You listen first to understand. We have to make sure that whoever works for the executive branch is the same way. We work for all Nebraskans, no matter who they are, where they live, what they look like, where they come from or how they identify. We also have to be careful with the language that we use in press releases. We don’t get to pick and choose what media we want to talk to because Nebraskans get their media from all kinds of sources. If you choose winners and losers, you are not doing your job as an elected official. 

When it comes to diversity, you have to show it in your administration, which I don’t feel like we’ve really done a very good job of in Nebraska. Of course, that’s based on qualifications. We help keep people separated in this state, we really do, and we are all Nebraskans. We’ve got to start celebrating what makes Nebraskans awesome. … We celebrate them when it’s a month or a day. … We have to show that we see everybody … and when it’s time to be political, that we don’t take a category of people and demonize them. I hate that.

We have got to lead by example. We’ve got to change the pace, change the tone, because if we don’t, I don’t think people are going to like how Nebraska looks in the next few years. We’ve got to stop this partisan stuff. 

Q: What else do you think voters need to know about you as they make their decision over the next weeks?

Pillen: I think that maybe what Nebraskans need to know about Jim Pillen is I am who I am because of my family and because of the people in Nebraska. I’ve had a lifetime of incredible opportunities to grow because of all the people of Nebraska that I have interacted with in my lifetime. I’ve been touched by so many people. I’d be crazy to even try to start naming them. 

Nebraskans are extraordinary.

Blood: The strategic plan. We talk about how we want to get things done in Nebraska, but we never plan for it. I am going to travel across Nebraska, just like I’m doing now. And we’re going to ask people, What are your priorities in your community? Is it roads? Is it bridges? Is it broadband? Is it health care? Is it mental health? Because we have to have a really comprehensive picture from Nebraskans, not from special interest groups. 

Then we’re going to put together this plan, a living, breathing document that’s going to be our road map to our success. Then we’re going to mirror our budget to match that plan because this cut-cutting isn’t working. We keep having failure after failure. We have to have a plan, because if we don’t, what happens is the Saint Francis contract (for child welfare in the Omaha area).

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