Dennis Rasmussen

Position Held: Nebraska State Senator, 1972 - 1979; Board Member, NPPD, 1979 - time of interview

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Lower Loup


MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's July 5th. I'm in Cotesfield, Nebraska, interviewing former Senator Dennis Rasmussen. And if you would like to make a few comments about your background and --

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, I've had a very interesting life, of course. I served in the legislature for six years and went broke feeding cattle in the '70s and I had to find a job. John Humpel, Blue Cross, right at that time he says, why don't you lobby. I says, I don't think I can do it. Oh, yes, he says, you can. So he says I'll help you get your first client. So we did it and one Friday afternoon was my last day in the legislature in the start of the '79 session and then Monday morning I was a tried and true hard-working lobbyist. If you don't think that was a change. It was a little like a dog that gets dumped off along the highway. I didn't really know which way was home. But for me it worked out so well and I went at that for about 35 years and found out one thing. You could still do an excellent job of lobbying by shooting just as straight as the people I have to deal with. And there was one thing, being a lobbyist, if you were ever caught lying, you were just about done because we did have to have a lot of integrity. And I think that was pretty -- I think that's carrying on now. I don't know now for the last -- since the new people coming in for eight years, term limits, not the best in the west. And as long as I'm reminiscing, I followed a guy by the name of Dick Lewis very well. He was from Arapahoe or somewhere out west. He was kind of my mentor. I went to him a lot and he had been there quite a while and he could give me a lot of good advice. And another guy that really helped me tremendously was Bill Scarda, good friend of Gene Mahoney. And he was really, really fair to me. He would always ask me if it was ag-related, water-related, do you want this, will it help you? And if I said yes, I always got -- always, always got his vote. But by the same token, when they were building their first, second office building in Omaha, which was really the start of the downtown development that many years ago, and he asked me if I would vote for that, and I could see no reason why not to because a city of that size, even at that time, still had a tremendous amount of state workers. And so we got that bill run through then and to me it was not -- I knew in my own mind that it was a good thing, not that I had ever dreamt that downtown Omaha would ever come on like they have with the big arena and all that kind of stuff. But it was the start and it's still there and being used today.

MR. BARR: Did you have any involvement with either the Soil and Water Conservation districts or the NRD before you got to the legislature?

MR. RASMUSSEN: No, I did not. I was a pretty dumb, green farmer, Jim. I had never served on anything. And the only reason I got into it was that we did not have one person running, representing agriculture. And I thought that there should be.

MR. BARR: Sure.

MR. RASMUSSEN: And lo and behold. But I've got to put one little caveat in here. I did every night when I went -- said my prayers at night --

(Phone ringing.)

MR. RASMUSSEN: Anyway, it's interesting. Every night when I said my prayers, still say them, of course, but I'd always say, God, if you want me in Lincoln, help me get elected. I'll be darned if he didn't. So I guess that was -- if he hadn't of, I wouldn't have got there. I know that. What is your next question?

MR. BARR: Well, what were some of the -- well, let's just start. Was there any major issues in the campaign that you had as you were getting ready to serve in the legislature?

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, yeah, the death penalty was big at that time and that had just been rescinded by Congress in '72. And that's another little story. Jim Exon come into my office, as a green senator, and says, will you carry a bill for me? What do you think a guy from out here would think when the governor came in, and I said sure. He didn't tell me it was the death penalty until afterward, so I had quite a struggle with Ernie for about six weeks. But I did find out that the death penalty, abortion, it comes from -- I didn't lobby one guy because it comes from within your heart. You cannot change their philosophy, and I don't think you should. Another thing, too, we had a guy, Mark Scheidler. He had a call-in radio show for me at Ord every Wednesday at one o'clock. I called from the office in Lincoln. And that was really the best thing for me that I had all those years, was that I never knew the questions. But I did find out that I could explain a no in a way that they understood why I was going the way I was, and then they were satisfied. They had never thought of that other side of the issue. So that helped me tremendously and I still thank Mark for that whenever I see him. It really was a wide open forum. They could ask any question they wanted to and I was supposed to know the answers. But if I didn't, I didn't pass the buck. I says, I'll get back to you on that.

MR. BARR: You were there about the time they started implementing the natural resource district law. And was there anything in particular that you remember about that?

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, I do remember that as we were discussing here a little while ago, the lawsuits and everything, but I do remember Loran Schmit had a bill in to outlaw them. And, of course, that failed. And I personally think that they have really done a tremendous job, especially in the water when they started to have the no more drilling and over-appropriated. And, of course, there I've been pretty lucky, too. My older brother by six minutes, Dean, has been on the NRDs for 40 years and any questions that were really kind of bugging me a little, I'd always ask him and always get the straight answer.

MR. BARR: Were there some other local water issues here at Calamus or anything else that you got involved with?

MR. RASMUSSEN: Oh, yes, Calamus, that was really an interesting one. If you remember, we had the Norden Dam, the Calamus Dam, they were twins. And John Cavanaugh was anti dams and he was in Congress. And Paul O'Hare was his chief of staff. And I went back there numerous times with Shaughnessy and the rest of the -- Henry Lang and testified before Congress on that bill. And finally one day it was getting pretty testy out here and then Paul O'Hare just bluntly says, well, Goddammit, Denny, which dam do you want? And I, a little prejudiced here, of course, and I said, well, the Calamus, of course. And from then on O'Hare left the Calamus alone. And in my old -- I'm an old man now, but that Norden should have been built. They never irrigated one acre. But, of course, it wasn't and it won't be. But so -- little things in life that come about that make an impact, that if it's gone you don't think about it any more. But from then on John did leave Calamus alone.

MR. BARR: What has that reservoir or that project done for the area?

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, right as we're sitting here at Cotesfield, we're right in the heart of the North Loup Valley. And for 20 years since Calamus came in, there's been no underground water used. And that home where I was born and raised, there's sloughs down in there and there's water today and it used to be they would have some in the spring. And now there are geese there. They raise young ones down there and the ducks. Another, it's kind of tickled me, Jim. The NRCS, or whatever they are, they build these ponds and my nephew owns the land now where we were born and raised. And he gave an easement to get wildlife in. It was once a heck of a meadow. And they were only making them two and a half foot deep. So he thought, by golly, you know, everybody in the family likes to fish. If we make it 10 or 12 foot deep then we would have a heck of -- oh, no, because the ducks didn't go below two and a half feet of water to find food they were getting. So there's little things along the line, but it has turned out to really be a wildlife oasis that those guys -- somebody dreamt up and somebody got it done. It is, to me -- you know, really, you think about it, the rural people are probably the most environmentally experts of anybody, except there is a few pasture lands that have been broken up that shouldn't be. Another thing, too, that we were into when I was there on the ag committee, Doug Bereuter was the instrument that started the planning and zoning. And, of course, out here in the west they don't like rules and regs very good. And so Loran Schmit and the ag committee, we flew up to Valentine for a meeting. And I thought they were going to run us out of town with a pitchfork. Well, guess what happened then in the '80s when they started raping the Sandhills. Who was in Lincoln asking for help, but the very people that at that time was -- the idea was too early. So a lot of funny things happened, Jim, along the way.

MR. BARR: One of the big issues has been the NRDs having the authority on groundwater use and, of course, with the appropriation right for surface water at the state level. Do you have any thoughts or anything on that issue?

MR. RASMUSSEN: I know there's really a rift between surface and underground water. And there just is no doubt in my mind, and there shouldn't be in anybody's, that the groundwater deeply affects the river stream. I was telling you about the sloughs down there where there's geese today. And, of course, this was called an over-appropriated so they can't drill here anymore, but they do go up north and buy Sandhill acres and that's where this pasture land is being broken and I don't think that's a very good idea. But it's not my money nor my business.

MR. BARR: Is it still being broken?

MR. RASMUSSEN: Yes. And the first Sandhiller I talked to, he sold his for $350 an acre and he thought he really done well. But now I hear it's $1,000 or more an acre. So, times change. But water out here is just so key. One time -- this is going back to when I was still in the legislature and actually in the '70s. We had some water meetings and one of them was in Ord. And Virginia Smith was there, who was a central Nebraska guardian angel. But, anyway, we'll get into that a little bit more. But that day I told them that people won't realize that we're short of water until they turn the spigot. And when nothing comes out, then they'll realize it. But back to Virginia (Smith). She created an oasis out here with the Sargent, Farwell and the Calamus dams. And I was a little antsy and we waited. We were the last major project built in the United States. And I was a little antsy that Sargent came first, and then Farwell and then Calamus. But it would be impossible today to build a dam that -- we got it done before common sense left. I don't think common sense enters in anymore. A lot of it -- and some of the environmentalists are my best friends, but they don't see both sides of the issue. And we got that -- I'm on the NPPD board, and we got that with the wind. They would have windmills all over and close all the coal plants down. They don't realize that only half the time those windmills are turning. And the other five days we would be without. There would be no lights. I gave a talk at the Alliance Club here this winter on this water and the people just don't -- I told them to go home and count up the different appliances from heat, air, to you name it, to the computer age, just to understand how important that electricity is to the farmer out here. I'm a little concerned, maybe we're getting a little bit off here, Jim, but having watched the REA come in. I was young and I remember sitting around the table like you and I are sitting here and, of course, it was a kitchen table because every major thing was taken care of at the kitchen table because you didn't use the dining room and for sure the living room unless company come. But they didn't -- my folks didn't actually know if they could afford $3.50 a month for 50 kilowatts. Well, they decided they were going to. But there's one thing about it. I'm a little worried about people have forgotten the true purpose of public power and the rancher living 20 miles out of Hyannis or up in the Sandhills, there would never have been a line built in there unless they had the postage stamp fairy, which is still there today.

MR. BARR: That --

MR. RASMUSSEN: A little off the subject.

MR. BARR: Well, yeah, and even further off, that same principle, probably not doing that is what has prevented us from having high speed internet in the rural areas, too, is that they haven't done something like the power.

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, I think the changes -- they use that money from the telephones to --

MR. BARR: Do you think that will eventually get --

MR. RASMUSSEN: I think they're eventually getting it, yeah.

MR. BARR: You mentioned you're on the NPPD board. Is there any particular interrelationships or -- between the NRDs and the power companies?

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, we don't -- water is huge because that's our cooling for our power plants. But we have more dealings with the surface water because we run that through the power plant and that goes on down the canal and somebody down the line uses it for irrigation water. And then when they're done with it, whatever is left goes into the river. So really that water is really getting used twice, even though it goes -- because evaporation is not that great.

MR. BARR: Have you been acquainted with the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance?


MR. BARR: And, you know, largely that kind of formed, the instigation of some of the REAs along the Republican and the Platte because they could see without some thought on water that their eventual existence would be affected.

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, we saw that happen up here in the '60s. The Meeks and the ranch on the Gracey Creek, they came from -- they bought land up here from Texas because they were running out of water down there already that far back. And so they knew what we had up here. And, of course, very successful operations, too. But the thing is that water is so critical, especially from here on west.

MR. BARR: Getting back to the original NRD legislation, and this is maybe off subject a little, too, but it passed in Nebraska and there's been efforts over the years to see if other states might adopt this sort of procedure. But, to date, none have. Do you have any thoughts on why that might have succeeded here and not otherwise?

MR. RASMUSSEN: I think it's due to Nebraskans. We have the only one-house unicameral, too. And until term limits come along, that was really a good, good way to govern. But since term limits came in, I see wavering because there is no institutional knowledge there. It isn't hurt to be different, as long as we know we're right.

MR. BARR: Yeah. What about partisanship? Has that changed since you've been in the unicameral?

MR. RASMUSSEN: Yes, very much so. Bill Scarda who I was talking about, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and Tom Kennedy from Newman Grove, and they were -- gosh, I worked so well with those guys. I never thought about what their party affiliation was. Well, even at that time, Jim, the Repubs had a breakfast every couple weeks every morning. The Republican senators had a caucus. Well, we didn't pay no attention to them, so they don't do them anymore. Because if we had the same principle in DC today, we would be getting a lot of stuff done. But that's not going to happen for -- I don't know when it's going to happen. Something will bring it.

MR. BARR: You've also worked lobbying the legislature over the years and been a close observer of the unicameral. Were there any other major natural resource type issues that you'd like to reflect upon any?

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, the big one was the keeping them intact, and the other big one was the Calamus Dam. Those two were so important to Nebraska that -- and the other, in my lobbying, I got into that and I started in the health care field and it did not take me over one year to realize in that there is so much emotion. I worked for the doctors, and the nursing homes, and so I just, as I could, I was very blessed, as I could, I switched over to business. I had Phillip Morris with Kraft Foods, Miller Brewing and telephone and farm equipment, a lot of important different clients, but they were all business clients. And that is more black and white than -- where emotion can't run away. And I also, Jim, have been in there when emotions run away for an afternoon and we had to come back the next day and change the bill, too. And you've seen that. You're no stranger down there.

MR. BARR: Yeah, it can be interesting.

MR. RASMUSSEN: But I do believe that it will come to, every well will have to have a metering and they will be allowed so many inches of water. It is just so important to this state that -- I don't know. They tell me that there is a guy that had a huge land holdings in the Republican Valley, sold it all, moved on up like the Meeks did, up above the Niobrara where there was water. And I think I know that it's so important to the livelihood out here that there could be an arrangement made so that everybody could be pretty happy. Back to NPPD, we put a million dollars a year to the University for energy and they have -- they can prove that you can water for less and get nearly the same bushels.

MR. BARR: I think -- and I remember, this is another one of the things that Water Balance Alliance has been working on, too, is that -- and this University Water for Food is more --

MR. RASMUSSEN: Yeah, that's for --

MR. BARR: Food per drop, or whatever you want to call it, try to get more production per unit of water. And there has been a lot of thought that there's quite a bit more progress that can still be made.

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, that was quite a coup for Nebraska to get that worldwide thing. And that (Ken) Cassman, that one professor down there, is just so sharp. He led us through on a save energy. And the funny thing was we put in a million every year and since then the corn and the soybeans and the Targets and the Shopkos have all got involved in there and they put in over four times the money that we put in.

MR. BARR: Well, that water and food (institute) I think was Bob Daugherty's gift, was one of the original ones anyhow.

MR. RASMUSSEN: Yes, and, of course, that water, (Ken) Cassman, that was huge when we first started this arrangement. Another funny thing. I dealt with the University all the while I was in the legislature and they were -- the NPPD was going -- had me on this board as advisory. Well, I had seen all through the years that the University didn't really need any advising. They did what they kind of wanted to. But lo and behold, there was a change there and everybody dealt with the same deck and we accomplished so much with that Darrell Nelson million dollars that it's unbelievable.

MR. BARR: Well, and this whole -- I don't have any specific questions, but is there anything you'd like to talk about in the general area of water or natural resources?

MR. RASMUSSEN: Well, yeah, and we brushed on it. I think the day is coming right here in the heart of the valley, there is no irrigation wells any more. But I do believe before we run out, which the pumps are dry in the Republican Valley, there's just no doubt about it, and before that happens other places I think we probably should be looking more at not water rationing and “X” amount of well. It amounts to that.

MR. BARR: Sharing or something.

MR. RASMUSSEN: Yeah, sharing, yeah.

MR. BARR: Anything else on anything? I didn't want to --

MR. RASMUSSEN: I'm an old man and I've been very fortunate to deal with some not only high up people but good people. That's really been quite a trip around the block. But we're sitting here in my two-bedroom bungalow in Cotesfield and when my wife was still alive we had a 4,000 square foot house, but that was in the past and there's nothing that can be done about that. And I'm comfortable here anyway. And Jim seems to be, so I think we're doing okay.

MR. BARR: Okay, well, thank you very much for doing this.

MR. RASMUSSEN: I really appreciate that and I probably got to rambling a little. But a lot -- I found out in the legislature that so many things tie together in the outcome of legislation that it's very important. And that's why I spend so much time out here. I have a place in Hickman, too. But I spend so much time out here because the guys I worked with are some of the top lobbyists and they were my good friends, but I don't keep up with every bill like they do. So I kind of find it a little bit like a city guy sitting down at our coffee table where it's all farming. So they are still my best friends but we are following different paths.

MR. BARR: Well, I have really appreciated visiting with you.