An exit interview with Gov. Pete Ricketts
By Fred Knapp , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Dec. 23, 2022, 6 a.m. ·
Listen To This Story
Fred Knapp: Thanks, Gov. Pete Ricketts, for taking the time to meet with me here at the end of your term. It’s sort of an exit interview.
Pete Ricketts: Okay, that's a good way to phrase it.
Knapp: Let me begin by asking what you think your greatest accomplishment has been as governor?
Ricketts: Well, one of the things I'm really proud of is the team we put together here at the state government and how they have really improved services to the people of Nebraska in a whole host of different ways. I'll just throw out a couple of them that I think really exemplify what we've been able to done here. We've really changed the culture to make it more customer focused, more efficient, more effective —which was our goal. And you can see that reflected in a couple of things.
So, or example, you know, you may recall in Aug. ’23 [correction: August 2014] that the average hold time for somebody calling in for economic assistance was like 23 minutes. And we set a goal of answering the phone in five minutes or less.We hit that for about four years until the pandemic came along. And we're getting back down — with pandemic we had a lot of customers come in, so our hold times went up. But now we're back down around five minutes. It was also taking us about 40 days to process a SNAP [food assistance] application. We got that down to 10 days or less, which was our goal. Again, during the pandemic that went back up. Now, I think we're about 11 or 12 days. So we're getting back to where our service — we want our service levels to be.
With children who are medically handicapped or disabled, their parents will often travel to go see specialists. It used to take us 13 to 15 days to reimburse those parents for those travel costs, like hotels and mileage and so forth. And that creates a burden for families who are living paycheck to paycheck. So, we cut the number of steps to do that, and we now we're turning those paychecks or those reimbursement checks around in two days. So, that's within a pay period. So, we're not burdening those families.
Look at the DMV, we've reduced the hold times at our South Omaha service center by 70%. It used to be about 29 minutes to get your driver's license. Now it's like eight. So, we've offered a lot of online services along the way. So, we're really focused on how we can make it so that Nebraskans are spending less time filling out forms, waiting on hold standing in line, and provide better services from the state. And that's one of the things I'm most proud of.
And then to go along with that is just what we've accomplished, legislated with regard to the tax relief, you know, property taxes were the number one issue that we've been talking about. With the bills we passed in 2020 with (LB)1107 plus (LB)873 this year, we're going to deliver by 2027 $12.7 billion in tax relief, and over 10 billion of that will be property tax relief.
Knapp: That's cumulative, and you've consistently identified property tax relief as your number one priority. And I believe that, at this point, the property tax relief through the income tax credit, the credit Relief Fund and the homestead exemption altogether, it's about a billion dollars a year. But that comes from transferring effectively state income and sales taxes to help cover local property taxes, which have continued as you know, continued to increase. They were 3.6 billion a year before you took office. And last year, they were 4.7 billion. So have your efforts just masked a structural problem? And what is the solution to that?
Ricketts: Well, it's certainly more work to be done on property taxes, right, we got a great start on it. But there's more work to be done. Part of it is controlling the spending side, you know, how have we been able to deliver this historic tax relief? Well, it's because we've kept our spending down to 2.8%. So if you look across the eight years of budgets that we've done, the budget has only grown 2.8% annually, compared to the six and a half percent it was growing before I took over. And when your revenues grow about four and a half percent, and you keep your expenses lower than that, that's how you have the ability to provide this type of tax relief.
And so yes, we've been able to predict, for example, this year, you'll get 30% rebate on whatever you're paying to your K through 12 schools and your community colleges. But we also have to get a hold of the expense side. We've done it here at the state. And that's how we're delivering tax relief. Now local entities have to do the same thing. So we've obviously proposed a number of different ideas on that over the years. We haven't gotten any of those across the finish line. And so that'll be you know, the work of the next administration to be able to really tackle how can we slow the growth of those local property taxes.
Knapp: You've supported the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and you cited the employment, property tax, and energy independence benefits. Has the recent rupture of the existing Keystone pipeline in Kansas and the spill of nearly 600,000 gallons of oil affected your thinking on that?
Ricketts: So, when it comes to how do you transport the things we need, like energy and oil, there's no safe way to do within pipelines. And so, while there are going to be accidents —and those are terrible — they need to be cleaned up and addressed right away. If you look at it compared to other forms of transportation, this is less risky. So, there are going to be accidents. We need to have plans in place to respond to them.
But we also need to make sure, you know, we can't shut down society because we're willing to take zero risk. That's not true for anything. You know, for example, we could reduce probably all highway deaths by taking the speed limit down on the interstate to five miles an hour. But we don't do that, right? We accept that there's going to be risks because we want to have a society where we are mobile, where we have energy, our homes are heated, the lights come on when we flip a switch. So, we accept certain amount of risk that goes along with that. And frankly, pipelines are the safest way to transport all that.
Knapp: One of your consistent mantras, and you referred to it in the first answer, is that government ought to be run more like a business. But after you signed a contract with Saint Francis Ministries that allegedly was going to save the state 40% in child welfare case management, it turned out, they couldn't perform. What lessons did you draw from that?
Ricketts: Well, anytime somebody is not going to be honest with you, it's difficult, right? And so when somebody represents, they can do something and don't do it, you have to make changes. We gave Saint Francis the opportunity to be able to correct what they were doing. They didn't do it. And so, we ultimately ended that contract. That's kind of the way it works in business.
I've been in other business deals in the private sector, where you make an arrangement with somebody that's not working out, so you end the agreement. And that's what we did [with] the St. Francis. And so we took it over at the state.
And if you look, the Department Health and Human Services made great strides in bringing on more people to be able to be caseworkers and serve those children, I think we've only got 20 vacancies right now. So, that's a significant improvement from where we were under Saint Francis. So. we got more work to do. Part of being a private sector business is always finding ways to improve and have a culture of continuous improvement. And I think that's what we've got here at the state. We're always looking for ways to do a better job.
Knapp: Another challenging situation has been the Alt-En plant in Mead, where they were cited numerous times for violations of environmental regulations, and they kept on doing what they were doing. And now there's kind of a mess out there. Was the state aggressive enough in responding to that situation?
Ricketts: Again, when people aren't going to be honest with you, it's difficult for us to be able to know what's going on. So, that's another case where the people were not being honest with us with regard to what they were doing — the treated seed, for example. (Note: Alt-En told the state it was considering using treated seed in 2012). And the state was following up. And again, we did our job to discover this. And then of course, the attorney general took the appropriate steps [by filing a lawsuit against Alt-En]. But again, we have laws against robbing banks and people still rob banks. So when people are going to be dishonest, you're going to have bad consequences.
Knapp: The leadership of the Nebraska Republican Party, to which you used to make substantial contributions --
Ricketts: I was very generous with Nebraska Republican party this year.
Knapp: Prior to July, or May, whatever it was when the leadership was replaced (Note: it was in July). An element of the new leadership, called the Nebraska Freedom Coalition has been very critical of your leadership. At the same time, that new leadership was apparently unable to increase the number of registered Republicans in the Legislature, which is officially nonpartisan. What is going on with your party?
Ricketts: Well, the party leadership, as you noted, has changed. So I think that question is probably better directed to the new chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party. I don't think the Nebraska Freedom Coalition actually represents the broad swath of Republicans. They're certainly a faction, but I certainly don't think their views represent the large majority of Republicans who are supportive of what we're trying to accomplish in the Legislature with regard to tax relief and the reforms we're making and how we run government more effectively. And we'll just continue to doing our job at the state government. And, you know, I'll continue to work to try and help candidates.
Knapp: What do you think the future of the party is?
Ricketts: Well, I think one of the things that we, as Republicans, have to do is we have to do a better job of communicating why our philosophies are better for the average person. You know, your regular Nebraskan wants to know, 'What are you going to do for me, my family and my community?' And so, we've got to make our policies come down to ‘This is how it's going to help you.’ And really demonstrate that through the progress that we make, and then also making it real by talking about the people that we're helping.
So for example, you know, yesterday we had the we had the press conference on Ignite Nebraska, another innovative way we're doing workforce development, and how we help Laura Croswell be able to get a job where she's making now you know -- the average graduate’s making $50,000 to $60,000 they're -- and she personally is now getting off of SNAP. So that's an example of how working together with the public sector or the private sector, academia, we've created a program that's actually helping people live a better life. And that's what our goal in government is. So I think those kinds of policies that we as Republicans are pushing forward are what we have to communicate out to get voters on board and to help us elect candidates.
Knapp: You've expressed interest in being appointed to the Senate. If you get the Senate seat, a lot of people would say that your donations influenced Gov. Pillen’s decision. How would you respond to that?
Ricketts: Well, I would put my record over the last eight years against anybody else in the state, I believe I'm the most qualified person, given how much I've traveled the state of Nebraska; the work we've actually demonstrated in government here with regard to how (we’ve) improved government operations and the tax cuts we've delivered. And so I will make my case to Gov.-elect Pillen. And he'll — he's got a process. He's accepting applications right now. But I think I've got the best case to say, this is why I should go represent Nebraska. And I really want to do that. I love the state, and I want to continue serving the people.
Knapp: If you were appointed, what do you think would be the most important issue that Congress will face in the next couple of years? And what are your thoughts on how that should be approached?
Ricketts: Well, if I'm appointed, the first thing I'm going to do is make sure we continue to grow our state and, specificallym around agriculture. That's our our biggest industry here in the state. So, I want to make sure we're representing Nebraska's interest in the Senate.
And then of course, I think the Congress in general, both the House and the Senate, are going to have to look at issues such as national security and China, what kind of threat do they pose to the United States? And then the economy, making sure we've got a strong economy so that everybody can enjoy the American dream. So those are some of the big issues, I think, broadly speaking, that we're going to have to tackle. And frankly, just like we've done here at the State of Nebraska, we're going to have to get our spending under control.
Knapp: Many people are upset about the surge of undocumented immigrants at the southern border. At the same time, the head of the state Chamber of Commerce says there simply aren't enough native-born workers here to fill all the available jobs. What are your ideas for solving those problems?
Ricketts: Well, first of all, before we can do anything with regard to immigration, you've got to control your border. And that's where the Biden administration has abdicated their responsibility on the southern border. Literally millions of border contacts, right? And those are the people we're encountering, that doesn't count the people we're not encountering. Many of those people are given a court date, two or three years in the future and released into our country. And guess what? Talking to the Customs and Border Patrol people, they never show back up for their hearings.
So, this is a huge problem that Biden administration has really turned a blind eye to that has to be addressed before he can really have any sort of additional work on immigration. I think everybody would agree that our immigration system is broken. But until you fix the southern border, you're not going to make progress.
And then with regard to how do we continue to find businesses find the people that they need to hire? I'd point back to what we did with our press conference yesterday on Ignite. We've got lots of talented people that just need to be developed, that maybe haven't had that opportunity to get the education or skills or certifications they need. And if we can do that, like for Laura Croswell, we can help a single mom with two kids be able to get a great paying job and, guess what? Blue Cross gets a new it worker which they need. That's the kind of programs we have to focus on.
I think it's about 50% of our high school kids aren't getting a postsecondary education. There's lots of talent here, we need to think differently about how we approach developing that talent. Companies have to get involved much earlier like Blue Cross/Blue Shield is with the Ignite Nebraska program. And, you know, start earlier with students like we're doing with our Developing Youth Talent initiative where we get to kids in seventh and eighth grade. All these things, we have to think differently about how we develop our talent, make sure that we're not leaving any of these young people behind.
Knapp: The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot has recommended to the Justice Department that they prosecute former President Donald Trump for inciting insurrection, among other crimes. What's your view of what, if any, consequences former President Trump should face?
Ricketts: I think the House Committee is largely a partisan exercise. And so I would disregard any of the recommendations. I don't think it matters. Certainly, I think voters are more concerned about what's going on with the economy and what's going to impact their family directly. If President Trump violated a law, that's up to the Justice Department, but they're gonna have to prove it. And, you know, I'd be interested to see what kind of proof — it's got to be a pretty high bar to go after a former president of the United States. But again, I think a largely partisan exercise in a Democrat-controlled Congress is — doesn't really mean anything.
Knapp: Having served as governor and with the possibility of representing the state in the U.S. Senate, what's your hoped-for vision for the future of this state?
Ricketts: Well, Nebraska, we are set in a great position right now. We have got a strong economy; we've got the best workforce in the world; we got one of the highest – we’ve got the highest workforce participation rate in the country. People here love to work. We're a strong financial position coming out of the pandemic. So, there's lots and lots of opportunities.
I think some of our biggest challenges are continuing to develop our workforce, we’ve talked about that already, but how we think differently about developing our young people and making sure everybody's got a chance to take those great paying jobs. That's going to be a key thing. And then, from our national level, just thinking about the national security issues, what are we doing at the national level to make sure we've got a strong economy, controlling our spending all the other issues along those lines.
But I gotta tell you, the future for Nebraska is very, very bright. We're going to continue to see big demand for agricultural products, innovative things we're doing to reduce our carbon footprint, things like sustainable aviation fuel made from ethanol. These are all things that are going to present opportunities. Think about new technologies — Monolith Materials and what they're doing. There're just so many cool things going on in Nebraska right now. They're going to create a tremendous number of opportunities for our young people to have their careers right here in our state.
Knapp: Very good. Is there anything else you'd like to mention while we have the time?
Ricketts: Well, it has been an honor and a privilege of a lifetime to be the governor of Nebraska. We have the best place in the world. We have the best people in the world. I have loved my job the entire time, and I am so pleased to be able to hand this off to Jim Pillen. I believe he has got the same sort of attitude around how we run the government. He's a businessman, he's grown his own business up, employed over 1,000 Nebraskans, and I believe he's going to take the work we've done and take it to the next level, So we're going to have an even brighter future.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Get the latest from around Nebraska delivered to your inbox