Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen’s office, industry groups crafted bill easing ag permitting process, emails show

At a February legislative hearing, a seemingly mundane bill reforming county zoning procedures drew testimony from a big name: Gov. Jim Pillen. 

For those seeking to build projects such as livestock operations, Pillen said, applying for a permit from the county can be “extraordinarily frustrating.” The bill would “take some of the subjectiveness out of this process,” he told the legislative committee.

Before becoming governor, Pillen had gone before county boards seeking permission to build his hog farms as he grew a Nebraska pig empire. 

He usually succeeded. When he failed, he didn’t hide his frustration. In 2002, when Boone County commissioners rejected a farrowing center and imposed regulations on two other Pillen facilities, he called the measures “unprecedented” and “a major defeat” for livestock and rural Nebraska. 

“It raises the bar and sets a precedent,” Pillen told the Omaha World-Herald in 2002. “Some of these are very dangerous to the viability of livestock producers in Nebraska.”

Now he’s pushing to ease the permitting process of livestock feeding operations, such as those owned by his business, Pillen Family Farms. 

The Pillen administration has been deeply involved in both writing and selling the bill, according to internal emails obtained by the Flatwater Free Press through a public records request. 

His policy adviser worked closely with livestock groups and a livestock-friendly lawyer who has also represented the troubled AltEn ethanol plant to craft the legislation, the emails show. 

Thanks to our sponsor

The governor’s office said there’s no conflict of interest and the bill would affect multiple industries, including energy, manufacturing and agriculture. 

The bill, LB 1375, would clarify the responsibility of county planning and zoning commissions and boards and streamline the permitting process, said Sen. John Lowe, a Republican from Kearney who introduced the bill on behalf of the governor. 

It includes measures to eliminate public meetings at the planning and zoning commission level. It would impose an automatic approval if the county takes more than 90 days to decide on a permit. It would also prohibit counties from considering federal or state regulations, such as water quality, while making a decision on a new livestock operation.

A livestock interest group executive, in an email with the governor’s office, wondered if the bill could prevent situations like one in Gage County, where supervisors last year narrowly rejected a hog farm proposed by another hog industry titan, an Iowa company whose owner donated to Pillen’s gubernatorial campaign.

Most Nebraska counties require those seeking to build industrial or large-scale ag operations to meet certain conditions. These conditions, often established after a public hearing, can require projects to be a certain distance from neighbors or water sources.

But these public hearings have turned into “a court of public opinion” rather than hinging on facts, said Kris Bousquet, executive director of the Nebraska State Dairy Association and a director with the livestock group Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska. Emails show that Bousquet worked closely with Pillen’s policy adviser, Cicely Wardyn, on the legislation. 

“We brought the bill because it was important to agriculture, not because it was important to Jim Pillen,” Bousquet told the Flatwater Free Press. “You know, he’s the governor. And he’s an ag guy.”

He said the bill is the result of discussions from a livestock stakeholder group.

The legislation seeks to address inconsistencies in how counties apply their rules and regulations, AFAN’s executive director Steve Martin told the Flatwater Free Press. “Because if your rules and regulations are not applied the same time after time, in business people don’t know how to act,” he said. 

The Legislature long ago gave counties the authority to pass their own zoning rules. Livestock producers need the county’s buy-in to construct or expand a feedlot or hog barn. In neighboring Iowa, county zoning doesn’t apply to animal feeding operations. 

The proliferation of industrial-sized livestock facilities in the ‘90s by producers, including Pillen, led dozens of Nebraska counties to enact stricter zoning regulations, remembered by advocates as the “hog war.” 

PC West, a Pillen Family Farms’ livestock operation, sits 6 miles northwest of Platte Center. Gov. Jim Pillen’s office crafted a bill that would place certain limitations on counties when considering permits for large livestock and other land uses. A spokesperson for the governor said the legislation was “brought for the benefit of every Nebraska business sector” and did not represent a conflict of interest. Photo by Matt Waite for the Flatwater Free Press

To this day, many advocates see these regulations as the most effective tool for residents to fend off land use they don’t like, including big animal feeding operations and renewable energy projects. 

The bill is in line with what the large livestock producers, including Pillen, have been pushing for the past few decades, said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. “He’s never hid his agenda that I’m aware of,” Hansen said. 

In a white paper drafted last August after stakeholder meetings, Wardyn listed possible legislative changes, including eliminating planning and zoning commission hearings altogether. The goal: Make planning and zoning commissions an information-gathering entity and non-voting, according to the document.

In a response, Bousquet asked whether written testimony would be included in the process. 

“Probably need a way to allow the public to participate,” Martin wrote. 

The bill eventually included language permitting written testimony. 

In another email sent in December, Pillen’s policy adviser Wardyn signaled to Martin and Bousquet the office was ready to take on the issue in a bill.   

“I would like to move the bullet points into a draft bill and see if that can’t sneak through this year and get us poised for something else next year,” Wardyn wrote.

Wardyn formerly served as assistant director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. She is a public employee with an annual salary of $89,500, according to the Flatwater Free Press’ Public Payrolls database.

She engaged bill drafters, including Lincoln-based lawyer Stephen Mossman, the emails show. Mossman represented Summit Pork, which operates a 6,250-head Gage County hog farm but was refused a second one of the same size. Mossman also represented AltEn, whose ethanol plant in Mead caused severe contamination from pesticides and triggered a state-ordered cleanup.

“It is so obviously self-serving in (Pillen’s) case, so consistent with where he has been as an operator and from a policy standpoint. And then you have to take the pulse of the Legislature to try to figure out how far you can go and make it work,” said Hansen. 

State law considers it a potential conflict of interest when a public official takes an official action “which may result in a financial benefit” to the official, their family members or associated businesses. 

The governor’s office hasn’t filed a statement disclosing potential conflicts of interest with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, which typically advises filers on whether a recusal is warranted. 

Bousquet works closely with Wardyn on ag-related issues. He called the bill drafting process a collaborative one, with feedback from zoning experts and the Nebraska Association of County Officials. Then the governor’s office took their policy proposals and “ran with it,” he said. 

To Anthony Schutz, a University of Nebraska College of Law professor, such a relationship is questionable. The governor’s office is developing legislation that benefits the segment of the ag industry that Pillen is financially aligned with, he said. 

But Schutz doesn’t see Pillen’s involvement as a direct conflict of interest, as it would ultimately fall to the Legislature to pass the bill.

It’s not unusual for governors to develop public policies, spearhead a bill and shepherd it through the Legislature. But on regulatory matters, the governor’s involvement creates an “uneasy” relationship, Schutz said. 

“What we’re seeing with the development of this policy team is that, in fact, they are a very powerful lobbying organization,” Schutz said. “And that’s a different role for the governor to play, or at least it’s pushing the historical role that the governor has played in the legislative process.”

Gov. Jim Pillen

Laura Strimple, Gov. Pillen’s spokesperson, said the legislation is “no conflict of interest.” It was “brought for the benefit of every Nebraska business sector in every part of our state …” Strimple said in an email statement sent to the Flatwater Free Press. 

“The intent of LB 1375 is to streamline the process and create consistency around county zoning,” she said in the statement.

Wardyn declined to comment and directed inquiries to Strimple, who sent the statement but didn’t answer the questions that FFP had originally posed to Wardyn.

The bill may have taken on more importance, to both its authors and opponents, after a close and controversial decision in Gage County.

Last fall, the Gage County Board of Supervisors blocked a hog farm proposed by Summit Pork, an Iowa-based company. The vote was 3-3. 

In an email, Martin briefed Bousquet on the Gage County outcome and copied Wardyn, writing “But a big question is; with what we are proposing for legislative changes, would it keep this from happening?” 

In her reply, Wardyn wrote: “It appears that the county slapped on a bunch of extra requirements to their permit, like groundwater protections etc. … which is DEEs’ responsibility, not the county’s.”

The finished bill includes language to prevent the county from considering federal and state regulations, including those governing water quality. 

Summit Pork’s owner is Bruce Rastetter, a hog industry magnate. He gave $50,000 to Pillen’s gubernatorial campaign in 2022, state campaign finance records show. 

Emily Haxby, who voted to approve a Summit Pork facility southwest of Adams earlier last year, voted no on the second one near the village of Liberty in southeast Gage County. She said she voted no after witnessing unprecedented opposition from residents. 

She then testified against the bill at the legislative hearing, calling the proposed legislation an act of “bullying.”

Patty Barnard, a neighbor close to the proposed Liberty hog farm, was among dozens of Gage County residents to voice her concerns at public hearings. She worried about the odor as she has asthma, the potential for diminishing her property value and impacts on local water quantity and quality. 

“I’m very proud of this small community because we did really have a good attendance and a lot of input,” she said.

Ivy Bloom stands near the 119-year-old barn on the acreage she and her husband bought two decades ago in Gage County. Following construction of the 6,250-head Summit Pork swine finishing operation a couple of miles away, Bloom said a north wind can carry an overpowering stench. “It just stinks. It smells so bad that you just have to go inside,” she said. Photo by Eric Gregory for the Flatwater Free Press

Barnard said the bill would take the rights away from rural residents. 

Jonathan Leo, an environmental lawyer, said Gage County opponents engaged in a civil, intense debate focusing on why certain land uses are appropriate or others are not. And the residents’ efforts speak to why LB 1375 is a bad idea, he said. 

“They are everything that Jim Pillen doesn’t want to hear – our real Nebraskans. They’re not East Coast elites. They’re not college-educated. They are farmers and livestock producers. And they don’t want this,” said Leo.

The bill also has Gage County supporters. 

Farmer Dean Otto originally planned to partner with Summit Pork and receive the manure to apply as fertilizer. Otto told the legislative committee the Adams-area hog barns met all county zoning regulations, but the commission and board tabled the proposal multiple times and imposed costly conditions. The board required the hog barn to install monitoring wells that the county likely can’t enforce, he said. 

“These projects should have been a slam dunk. They were not,” said Otto. He said he felt “belittled, degraded and attacked” at meetings on the failed Liberty project.

Some Gage County board members had good intentions and reflected neighbors’ feelings, Otto said, but they didn’t follow the rules. A bill could change that.

“All these meetings would start to allow people to get out of control and multiple remarks were made against me and my family, as well as the board members themselves,” said Haden Otto, his son. 

Sen. Myron Dorn, who previously served as chair of the Gage County board, said he doesn’t believe the bill was targeting Gage County, as other counties have turned down proposed projects. 

He said allowing public input is important and the board did its duty in considering the Summit Pork proposal.  

Dorn said the bill could potentially benefit Pillen, yet he is “fully supportive of” Pillen bringing the bill and spurring a discussion.  

In his testimony, Pillen said “emotionally-charged” comments at public hearings can create rifts between neighbors. The proposed changes in the bill would turn down the temperature at the local level, he said. 

But a string of opponents, including the Nebraska Association of County Officials, objected to the elimination of planning and zoning hearings, arguing that it would stifle local input on projects that can majorly impact the local community.

Lowe said he would ensure counties have the option to hold a public hearing if they want to.

Lowe hasn’t taken action to prioritize the bill or piggyback it onto another bill to push it out of the committee. As of Thursday, only six days remain in the current legislative session.

“The public testimony piece … I don’t think anybody really wanted to take that away, and if that’s the way it was perceived, maybe we need to go back to the drawing board on that,” Bousquet said.

Mark Schoenrock, a Jefferson County commissioner and Nebraska Association of County Officials regional director, called the bill “short-sighted” public policy. 

“Somebody could come back and reintroduce it next January,” said Schoenrock. “But if they do, you know, we’ll be right there to oppose it again.” 

Sky Chadde, of Investigate Midwest, contributed to this story.

Investigate Midwest is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that covers the agriculture industry.

More in Pigs & Power series

Why we’re launching “Pigs and Power,” a series focused on Nebraska’s governor: The series, a collaboration between the Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest, will detail how Pillen built his empire, and examine some issues that arise in his newest role.

By Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu (pronounced yen-chee shu) most recently covered courts and law for NC Newsline in North Carolina, focusing on criminal justice, voting rights, housing justice and redistricting. Prior to that, she was part of a team at the Investigative Reporting Workshop that developed the Public Accountability Project, a newsroom search tool that hosts more than 1 billion public records in one place. She hails from China, where she first developed an interest in telling stories that resonate with people, no matter where they are.


Thank you for reporting on this important issue. Public hearings are a bedrock of democracy and eliminating them is outrageous, as is the elimination of the requirement to consider the impact of state and federal water regulations. Whose voices are being taken away? First, the nearby neighbors (primarily other farmers) who are most impacted by the building of a new feedlot or hog facility. Second, all of us who will pay the price of ignoring the environmental impact on our water and air in Nebraska.

Excellent reporting! Grateful to have a “watchdog” free press in Nebraska like Flatwater.

Thank goodness for your excellent work. We cannot let a few greedy and ignorant people ruin our natural resources for all time! They do not understand the significance of our aquifer.

It’s getting a bit unseemly to read this author’s unhealthy obsession with Gov. Pillen.

The Guv was involved in writing and promoting a bill? And the bill affects how ag businesses are regulated…in ag-friendly and focused Nebraska?

Wow. That’s real news.

Come on FFP, time to get off the “let’s expose the guv” crusade.

Move on.

I found the article to be informative. I continue to appreciate Flatwater’s focus on local issues. I did not find it germane to the article to include Wardyn’s salary or the fact that Mossman also represented AltEn. Including this information comes off as an attempt to smear them both and has no bearing on the remainder of the story.

I fail to see how the Governor would not benefit from a bill such as this,therefore making it a conflict of interest. Gov Pillen should spend his time and energy Cleaning up the pollution at the facilities he already owns.

Great reporting! Keep up the good work, despite the sickening harassment from the self-serving power bunnies!

I very much appreciate these articles and the efforts being made to force the governor of Nebraska to comply with the law. I live in an area where there are three of Pillen’s hog farms and it STINKS! Our natural resources are being compromised by the head of the state government for his own personal financial benefit, and that is simply not right. Thank you to Yanqi Chu for your research and reporting.

“Pillen said ’emotionally-charged’ comments at public hearings can create rifts between neighbors.”
Yah, we can’t trust small-town simpleton folk to debate issues affecting their property. The Governor knows what’s best for them!

Rastetter developed this corporate capture of governance in Iowa and now has set his sights on Nebraska thanks to Pillen. If Nebraskan’s don’t wake and realize want is happening and the consequences, before we know it much of the state will be covered with CAFOs and the landscape will be a dumping ground for manure. And no local control to stop it followed by no environmental regulations!

Man makes the laws, man changes the law. Which politician can you point to that doesn’t follow axiom? Why would any politician not be involved in law making that benefits, their self, friends or like type believers? Isn’t that what our system is built for? Note the founders didn’t tie themselves back to Britain when the war was over. They formed a whole new government actually refuting a large part of the laws of England, even though many supporters of the King who lived here certainly weren’t happy. The article maybe informative, but so what? It’s news that when political leader gets involved with the legislative side of government? Look at all that has been “legislated”, through EOs, by our current administration to push their agenda. If someone is trying to slip some thing by the populace and they are subject to info request, why would they use written documents they know can be made public?

Thank you for this reporting. The governor’s obvious self-interest in this bill and lack of concern for the voice of his constituents, the environment and existing regulations is business as usual. Is our state slogan still “The Good Life”, if so, I think that needs to be challenged for anyone living next to a hog farm without a choice in the matter?



Every Friday, we’ll deliver to your inbox Nebraska’s most interesting, meaningful, deeply reported and well-written news stories.