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Burke Harr campaign

Burke Harr was leading John Comstock in a close race for District 8 representative in the statehouse as The Reader went to press.

Ideological Battle

Government’s role the issue in District 8

Two very different candidates are vying to represent Omaha’s Benson and Dundee neighborhoods in the Nebraska Legislature next year. It’s an ideological battle of the role of government from two candidates who have never run for political office. Holding a clipboard with a list of likely voters in his arms, Burke Harr walked the neighborhoods of Benson on a recent fall afternoon, knocking on doors, and presenting his pitch to potential voters. “My number one priority is the budget,” Harr tells one resident. “Number two would be education.” A former criminal prosecutor, Harr, a Democrat, says he decided to run for office because he saw the legislature spend too much time on, what he called, “city council issues.” Roadside traps and motorcycle laws took five days to debate at the Capitol, he says, while the state budget was decided in a day. Harr says far more time needs to be spent setting priorities for the state budget. And he opposes the 10-percent across-the-board cuts currently on the table to balance a projected budget shortfall that has just climbed past $1 billion. “I think that’s just the easy way out,” he says. “There are certain programs that are important, that we have to continue to fund, that we just can’t cut 10 percent from. And then there are other programs that are wanna haves, and we want to have them, but unfortunately in these times, we just can’t have them.” Harr did not give specifics for what programs he would cut, but emphasized what he sees as the primary role of government. “Specific programs? No, maybe the Admiral’s ship in the Governor’s navy,” he joked. “But what we have to do is really look at what are our priorities are as a state, and that’s … taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves, that’s probably our number one priority.” Harr says that means education is very important, as well as caring for senior citizens and the mentally handicapped. Those priorities are followed by growing our economy through job creation, he says. Harr’s opponent sees government's role very differently. Republican John Comstock is a property manager and graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. On his campaign’s Facebook page, Comstock criticizes Washington’s “insatiable appetite for causing dependency through giving away other people’s money.” Comstock says government welfare programs are structured to provide no incentive to succeed for those receiving assistance. And just because there may be a lot of need, he says, and a program sees a lot of money changing hands, that does not mean it’s successful. That incentive is reversed, he says, when the family or church steps in to help someone in need. “One of government’s main goals, historically,” he says, “has been to grow and to get more authority. “There’s a lot of well-meaning people that serve in these different government welfare groups, but if they did something that actually cured people and turned their lives around, they would be out of a job.” When asked how that idea might play out in a practical example, such as the state’s current efforts to privatize the foster care system, Comstock said business has the same reverse incentive as government — to turn a profit, rather than say, improve a foster child’s life. So how would he go about changing the structure of government services? “It could be a long process,” he says. “We in Nebraska offer benefits that are very generous with taxpayer’s money. I think we have to take a look at everything government does … with benevolent ideas and see historically what has happened, if those people are better off, if those programs have worked.” Comstock wants to eliminate state income tax. He says we need to get away from the idea that government needs the money. Comstock and Harr find some common ground on an unlikely issue — illegal immigration. They are both cold to the idea of an Arizona-style immigration bill, likely to be introduced at the Capitol next session, but for different reasons. Harr says he couldn’t support a bill that would potentially land Nebraska in court, until he sees how Arizona’s legal battle plays out. While Comstock says he couldn’t support the bill either, because of the likely impact on citizens’ freedom to travel freely. If Nebraska stops being a “welfare state,” Comstock says, we wouldn’t have an illegal immigration problem in the first place. Voters were deciding between the two candidates as The Reader went to press. This story was produced by KVNO News.

posted at 06:15 pm
on Wednesday, November 03rd, 2010

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