Former State Sen. Steve Lathrop faces incumbent Merv Riepe in high-profile Legislature race
LINCOLN — A prominent Democrat and an ally of Gov. Pete Ricketts are going head-to-head in a high-profile election battle over the Millard- and Ralston-area legislative seat.
Former State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the Democrat, won the primary election. But Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston, the Republican, believes he can turn the vote around in November.
Lathrop held the District 12 seat for eight years, until being forced out by term limits. Now he’s hoping to regain the seat after sitting out for four years.
He said he decided to run again because he enjoys public service and believes he can work across party lines to address problems.
“We need somebody who is independent, who has demonstrated some leadership skills and who has demonstrated the ability to get things done,” he said.
While in the Legislature, Lathrop chaired two special legislative committees, one that delved into the multiple problems facing the state prison system and another looking into the troubled state institution for people with developmental disabilities. The problems he uncovered often put him at odds with then-Gov. Dave Heineman.
An attorney, he was instrumental in helping negotiate and pass state policies on several major issues, including unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, embryonic stem cell research, wind energy and water use. He also chaired the Business and Labor Committee.
Riepe is the incumbent. With Ricketts’ support, he handily won election when the seat came open in 2014. Now he is seeking a second four-year term in office.
He said he wants another term because he believes there is more to be done on priorities like health care and property taxes.
“I’m a former farm boy,” he said. “I like to work.”
A retired hospital administrator, Riepe was elected chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee two years ago. In that position, he has provided oversight of the revamped Medicaid-managed care system called Heritage Health.
He said he takes a low-key approach to oversight and largely avoids criticizing the program or state officials publicly. “I don’t go into committee and pound the gavel,” he said.
He also has pushed legislation allowing a new model of paying for primary health care and streamlining regulations for before- and after-school programs.
If re-elected, Riepe said he would continue working to make health care more affordable and accessible. He wants to make health care costs more transparent. He opposes the proposal to expand Medicaid to more low-income Nebraskans, saying he has concerns about its cost and its potential to take resources away from existing Medicaid patients.
Riepe lists property taxes as another priority, saying constituents have made their unhappiness about those taxes clear. He said lawmakers can set the ground rules that determine tax levies and valuations. He would provide property tax relief using the taxes on Internet sales and the savings from state government efficiencies.
Lathrop said he would work, if returned to the Legislature, to ensure adequate state aid for the Millard and Ralston schools to support quality education and provide relief to property taxpayers. Legislation passed in recent years has reduced state support for the two districts, leading to cuts and property tax increases.
He also promised that he would work for affordable health care for Nebraskans. He advocated for Medicaid expansion during his previous time in the Legislature. Expansion backers this year undertook a petition drive that appears to have succeeded in putting the issue before voters in November.
Fixing the state’s prison system is another area that he said needs renewed attention.
Given its high-profile nature, the race promises to be one of the top spending legislative races of the year. It was the second-most-expensive race in the primary, with Lathrop raising and spending more than $96,000 for his effort and Riepe raising and spending more than $71,000.
Ricketts was the top donor to Riepe’s campaign, giving him $10,000 between this year and last year. Ricketts also supported Riepe’s 2014 campaign.
Lathrop’s top donor is the Nebraska State Education Association, which donated $9,042 over this year and last year.