Prisons, Abortion, Presidency among Topics Addressed by Ricketts

Jan. 10, 2022, midnight ·

Governor Pete Ricketts (Photo by Tiffany Johanson, Nebraska Public Media)
Governor Pete Ricketts (Photo by Tiffany Johanson, Nebraska Public Media)

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Prisons, abortion, and the presidency were among the topics discussed by Gov. Pete Ricketts in a wide-ranging interview with Nebraska Public Media News.


Ask Gov. Ricketts what his priorities for this year are, and the first thing he mentions is public safety. What kinds of things does he mean by that?

“One of the key ones there will be replacing Nebraska State Penitentiary, modernizing our prison. Having a facility where we can provide better programming better safety, for both the inmates and our teammates in the Department of Corrections is important,” he said.

Ricketts referred to last October’s water main break at the Lincoln prison, which had people inside relying on porta-potties and bottled water until service was restored.

“We saw what happened with the old facility, the old facility is over 150 years old, we lost water to the inmates for three days. That's a terrible quality of life. With a modern facility that replaces it, we can have a much better quality of life, and who would be against a better quality of life for our inmates and for our Corrections teammates,” he said.

The penitentiary was designed to hold just over 800 inmates. Last year, it held just under 1,300 on an average day. I asked the governor whether the new 1,500-bed prison he’s proposed would do much to address overcrowding in the whole prison system, which last year held about 1,700 more people than it was designed for.

“You're framing your proposal as a replacement for the penitentiary. And your Corrections Director Scoot Frakes says as of now the plan is to tear down penitentiary, although he earlier had talked about repurposing, but if you do tear it down, you wouldn't make a substantial addition to the state's prison capacity. So doesn't the logic of the numbers point to keeping the Nebraska State Penitentiary open in some capacity? And would you be surprised if that's what the next governor has to do?” I asked.

“With regard to the old facility? Well, we gotta remember, again, it's 150 years old, so you're gonna have to invest in it. It would be the decision of the legislature, if they wanted to continue to repurpose that to something else. What I'm proposing is separate from that decision. That is what I'm proposing is to replace that with a state of the art facility that is modern, to be able to allow us to take care of that current population. With regard to what happens in the old facility, that will be a decision for a future legislature. That's not what we're talking about right now,” Ricketts replied.

Ricketts’ other priorities include taxes, where he wants to do things like expand the Social Security exemption, lower corporate taxes, and cap school property tax increases.

Ricketts also said the state has a great opportunity for one-time water infrastructure projects.

And he has a plan he’ll release Thursday about what Nebraska should do with the $1 billion the state expects to get from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

I asked Ricketts about what is expected to be another major subject in this year’s legislative session: abortion.

“The Supreme Court is currently considering an abortion case out of Mississippi that could well result in a decision that would turn major decisions on that subject back to the States. What do you think Nebraska should be doing, if anything in anticipation of that decision?”

“Well, Nebraska is a pro life state. I mean, you can see it driving down the highways and the signs you can see it and the people who help out emergency crisis centers, or the people who go visit folks in our skilled nursing facilities or assisted living. You can see it just the way that we took care of each other during this pandemic and the floods. Nebraskans take care of their neighbors. We are pro-life state. You can see it in the elected officials that we have. So I think that here in Nebraska, we want to continue to work on legislation that's going to protect those preborn babies,” Ricketts said.

I asked Ricketts about his characterization of Nebraskans opinions.

“You say Nebraska is a pro life state. And you've said that repeatedly. But the only state specific polling data I've seen, which is a Pew survey from 2014, found that 50% of Nebraskans said Nebraska, or abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 46% said it should be illegal in all or most cases. That puts Nebraska pretty much in the middle of the states nationwide. Is your assertion that Nebraska is a pro life state dismissive of what half of Nebraskans think on this issue?” I asked.

“Well, you can have some left-leaning organization do a poll, or you can look at what the facts on the ground are… Pew is definitely left-leaning.

“They also were part of your own criminal justice reform a few years ago,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. But that doesn't mean they're not left-leaning,” he replied.

The poll on abortion attitudes was done by Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of Pew Charitable Trusts, which worked with Ricketts, the Legislature, and the judiciary on criminal justice reform in 2015.

I concluded our interview by asking Ricketts about his political future, beyond the governorship.

“This year, it will be your last as governor, because of term limits. Will you spend any time during this year thinking about possibly running for President in 2024?” I asked.

“I'm going to be focusing this year on being the best governor I can be. This is not the type of job where you can take your eye off the ball. And anything that happens after 2022 I will worry about after 2022. So I'm going to focus on being the best governor I can be. And that's going to be focused on,” he said.

“And you won't be thinking at all about your political future?” I asked.

“Well, 24 hours is forever in politics, Fred.” Ricketts said, laughing. “Who knows what it's gonna look like a year from now? I know what the job in front of me for the next year is going to be. I'm going to stay focused on that.”


Editor's note: You can listen to Fred Knapp’s full 20-minute interview with Governor Pete Ricketts on these subjects and others, including controversies over the Alt-En ethanol plant in Mead, the Saint Francis Ministries child welfare contract, and Critical Race Theory at the University of Nebraska, here. Or you can read a transcript of the interview below.


Knapp: Well, Governor, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Ricketts: My pleasure.

.Knapp: Let's start with the obvious: What are your priorities for this coming year?

Ricketts: So as we look at this upcoming year, and this legislative session, we've really got four priorities. The first is going to be public safety, then looking at tax relief, then investing in our natural resources. And then finally, the fourth one will be around the ARPA dollars, that's over a billion dollars and looking at making infrastructure investments and investments in one time projects to be able to help us continue to recover from the pandemic.

Knapp: Okay, well, let's unpack those: public safety.

Ricketts: Public safety. One of the key ones there will be replacing Nebraska State Penitentiary, modernizing our prison. Having a facility where we can provide better programming, better safety, for both the inmates and our teammates in the Department of Corrections is important. We saw what happened with the old facility, the old facility is over 150 years old, we lost water to the inmates for three days. That's a terrible quality of life. With a modern facility that replaces it, we can have a much better quality of life, and who would be against a better quality of life for our inmates and for our Corrections teammates?

Knapp: Now you're framing your proposal as a replacement for the penitentiary. And your Corrections Director Scott Frakes says as of now the plan is to tear down penitentiary, although he earlier had talked about repurposing, but if you do tear it down, you wouldn't make a substantial addition to the state's prison capacity. So doesn't the logic of the numbers point to keeping the Nebraska State Penitentiary open in some capacity? And would you be surprised if that's what the next governor has to do?

Ricketts: With regard to the old facility? Well, we gotta remember, again, it's 150 years old, so you're gonna have to invest in it. It would be the decision of the Legislature, if they wanted to continue to repurpose that to something else. What I'm proposing is separate from that decision. That is what I'm proposing is to replace that with a state of the art facility that is modern, to be able to allow us to take care of that current population. With regard to what happens in the old facility, that will be a decision for a future Legislature. That's not what we're talking about right now.

Knapp: All right. Tax relief, was the second priority you mentioned, what do you have in mind?

Ricketts When it comes to this budget, we need to remember that we already passed a two-year budget. So we're not going to be doing more spending, right? We're going to continue to control our expenses, we're going to fine tune the budget, as we do every year in the, you know, the short session. But this is not the time for additional new programs. What we're going to do with those revenues that are coming in, we need to remember those are the people of Nebraska, as you know, that's their money, not our money. And so we need to return that back to them in additional tax relief. And so that will be a big priority for this session, which is how do we take those additional revenues that are coming in, keep our expenses low? This is what I've been talking about for seven years, keep our expenses low. As we have revenues, run above expenses, give those back to the people in Nebraska. So that's going to be a big priority for this session.

Knapp: In what form, though? Property? Income? Sales?

Ricketts: Well, we'll have additional announcements with regard to what the specifics are. But I'll give you some of the things we've already started. So for example, we started Social Security tax -- getting that tax off. We got about halfway there, we need to get the other half. We started working on getting the tax on job creators down to align with individuals. So we want to continue to focus on that. We want to continue to look for things on property tax relief. And then of course,also part of this package needs to be what we started with LB408, which is control how fast those property taxes can go up. Because we've seen historically, if we, the state just provides more property tax relief, but property taxes just keep going up eventually that relief gets eaten up. So we have to come back with something with regard to 408 to be able to control how fast as property taxes can go up.

Knapp: On natural resources, what are your plans there?

Ricketts: So with regard to natural resources, one of the things we have to remember is that after our people, water is the greatest natural resource that we have here in our state. Speaker Hilgers has led his Star Wars project to take a look at what we need to do with regard to investments in water infrastructure. And so again, there'll be a later announcement with regard to this, but that's part of that idea that we have the opportunity right now to invest in what are really one-time type projects to create that infrastructure around preserving our water resources.

Will you be proposing to build a canal and river reservoir system on the South Platte starting in Colorado, as allowed by the interstate compact that we have with that state?

Ricketts: So with regard to the details on that package, we'll be announcing those later.

Knapp: And the fourth priority you had?

Ricketts: The ARPA dollars, it's a billion dollars, I think in your own report that you put out yesterday or the day before you said, that's about 20% of our general fund budget. So it's a lot of money. And so making sure that money is spent appropriately, focusing on infrastructure investments, one-time projects, and not creating ongoing general fund liabilities for the state.

Knapp: So for example, one of the proposals that came up in the hearing that the Appropriations Committee had -- where everybody and his brother showed up to ask for money -- but one of the serious proposals was wipe out the developmental disabilities waiting list. But that's an ongoing commitment. Is that something that cannot be done under the framework that you just (described)?

Right. Again, we want to prioritize infrastructure investments, and one time projects not create ongoing liabilities for the state. So the specifics of what I'm going to propose in the ARPA budget, I'll release on Thursday with my regular general fund budget. So we'll follow the same sort of process where we do a fine tuning of the budget, we give that to the Appropriations Committee, we will have a separate package that we will give to the Appropriations Committee with my proposals for the ARPA dollars, the Appropriations Committee will take that recommendation, they will work through their process and then take a bill to give to the general -- you know, the floor of the rest of the Legislature to be able to hammer out and then of course, they'll pass their bill, it'll come to my desk, I'll have the opportunity to do line item vetoes. So it'll follow the normal budget process.

Knapp: In the past year, you've been very vocal in your criticism of UNL's anti-racism initiative. Will you try to use your budget proposal to leverage change in that?

Ricketts: Well, with regard to Critical Race Theory, and how the university is pushing this, I think that's something that is a longer ongoing conversation that we need to have. Because their approach to what they want to accomplish is all wrong. The goal of having more minority engagement is a good one. And that's what we've done here at the state. So under my administration, we've increased engagement with minorities and hiring minorities, for example, at the state of Nebraska. So for example, in 2014, minorities made up about 7.3% of our overall state employment. And by 2020, that number had grown to 12.1. We did that without Critical Rrace Theory, without quotas, anything like that. So the university's approach is way off base. That is an ongoing conversation, because that is really talking about changing the culture of what the university is doing. So it doesn't necessarily directly involve the budget from that standpoint. It's really about how are they approaching addressing a very real issue, but they're doing it in the wrong way.

Knapp: The University Medical Center (actually Nebraska Medicine, UNMC’s teaching hospital) yesterday came out with their own initiative. It's signed on to a national initiative, that other universities (have). Do you have the same criticisms of that as you do of the UNL one?

Ricketts: I have not had a chance to review the UNMC one, so I don't know what's in it. But if you go back to the UNL one, specifically, for example, they referenced Ibram Kendi, whose philosophy on this is just completely out of the mainstream, he talks about creating a separate Department of Anti-Racism, staffed by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who would have the level -- the ability -- to suppress laws and speech at any level of government. I mean, this is Soviet Union-style tactics that are completely out of the mainstream of what people think. That's why you really have to dig into some of this stuff. And by the way, Ibram Kendi was referenced specifically in that UNL document on page two. So this this who they're taking as a leader, and why they're way off base on how to approach this.

Knapp: Now you're the father of, I believe, a recent UNL graduate. Did you get feedback that he felt discriminated against as a white person?

Knapp: So with regard to my own son's graduation from University of Nebraska, I don't believe that he had any experiences that way. However, I have heard from other families who have felt that. But really, this is not necessarily about the students. This is about what are you doing to engage minorities, for faculty and staff. So it's really about how are you engaging your workforce. That's why I used the example of what the University of Nebraska is doing in contrast to what we've done here at the state where we've been very successful. I challenge any organization here in the state since 2014, to show me their numbers and how they've engaged more minorities and their workforce. I don't know of anybody who's done what we've done for a size of organization we have. So I'm saying we've done a lot of work. The university should look at what we've done, and not go down this path which is really about -- which is frankly, the path the university is going down is selling out the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King wanted his grandchildren to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Critical Race Theory judges you by the color of your skin.

Knapp: Although I believe in his speech that was aspirational, he said that he hoped that that would be what was achieved in the future. Do you think that we've reached that point?

Ricketts: We certainly have more work to do in this country with regard to race relations. But going down the path we're now -- what critical race theory does is resegregation. It's going backwards on the Civil Rights Movement.

Knapp: And your fourth priority, I'm sorry--

Ricketts: About ARPA spending. So that's the ARPA dollars. And, again, just making sure we're making infrastructure investments in one time projects.

Knapp: In the past year, your administration ended the contract with Saint Francis Ministries to supervise child welfare cases in eastern Nebraska. Looking back on that whole episode, what do you think was the root of the problem?

Ricketts: Well, the root of the problem was that the management at the time of Saint Francis was not honest with us with regard to what their capabilities were. And if somebody is not telling you the truth, it's very hard. I mean, when we -- any contract that we do, whether it's the state government or the business world, you are assuming the person is being honest with you. You don't want to do business with people who are not honest. And we were we were operating under the assumption that they were being honest with us with regard to their capabilities. At the end of the day, they were not.

Knapp: Your administration has placed such an emphasis on business like operations, holding down spending. When they came in with a bid that was 40% under the competition, didn't that set off --shouldn't that have set off some red flags?

Ricketts: Well, I think Dannette Smith, our CEO of HHS had been very clear about the steps we took to vet their bid, and, you know, on site visits we did with them with regard to their financials, and so forth. But at the end of the day, when people are not being honest with you, that's very difficult to be able to uncover. I mean, this is why you have auditors that go in and uncover things in companies when people are not being honest. So we did the best job we could to be able to vet their bid. And also the requirements of state law are such that we're somewhat constrained on that. I know that's one of the things the Legislature is going to look at. If you look at the requirements of state law, to be able to make sure we're getting the best value for the people and taking low bids and that sort of thing, you know, there may be opportunities to be able to improve that.

Knapp: The Supreme Court is currently considering an abortion case out of Mississippi that could well result in the decision that would turn major decisions on that subject back to the states. What do you think Nebraska should be doing, if anything, in anticipation of that decision?

Ricketts: Well, Nebraska is a pro-life state. I mean, you can see it driving down the highways and the signs, you can see it and the people who help out emergency crisis centers, or the people who go visit, you know, folks in our skilled nursing facilities or assisted living. You can see it just the way that we took care of each other during this pandemic and the floods. Nebraskans take care of their neighbors. We’re a pro life state. You can see it in the elected officials that we have. So I think that here in Nebraska, we want to continue to work on legislation that's going to protect those pre-born babies. In 2020, we passed one of the most significant pro-life legislations when we banned the barbaric practice of dismemberment abortion. And as we believe we have additional flexibility here in a state with whatever (the) Supreme Court decision is, I'm sure that will pursue legislation that will always take advantage of that.

Knapp: But you don't have a specific proposal that you're endorsing.

Ricketts: Well, I want to continue to support the pro-life groups that will have legislation here, but it really gets back to until the Supreme Court rules, we don't know all that we'll be able to do.

Knapp: So you don't think that they should pass anything – a so-called trigger law that if the Supreme Court throws out Roe v. Wade, then this is the Nebraska

Ricketts: Well, there's no there's no doubt that I want to see Roe vs. Wade overthrown in the Supreme Court. And a trigger law would be based upon something like that happening. But if you could set up a law appropriately that way, I'm certainly interested in a law like that. But also, you just don't know what's going to happen in the Supreme Court.

Knapp: Now, you say, Nebraska is a pro-life state. And you've said that repeatedly. But the only state- specific polling data I've seen, which is a Pew survey from 2014, found that 50% of Nebraskans said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 46% said it should be said it should be illegal in all or most cases. That puts Nebraska pretty much in the middle of the states nationwide. Is your assertion that Nebraska is a pro life state dismissive of what half of Nebraska think on this issue?

Ricketts: Well, you can have some left-leaning organization do a poll, or you can look at what the facts on the ground are, which is that --

Knapp: Are you saying Pew is a left-leaning organization?

Ricketts: Yes, I am. Pew is definitely a left-leaning --

Knapp: They also were part of your own criminal justice reform a few years ago.

Ricketts: Yeah, I know. But that doesn't mean they're not left leaning. And if you just look at the results on the ground, every elected statewide office in this state is elected -- is held -- by a pro-life person. Every congressional delegate is a pro-life person. And as I point out, even our state legislature passed the most pro-life legislation we've passed in a long time in 2020. So if you look at the actual results of who people elect, they elect pro-life people.

Knapp: Did you say every elected official?

Ricketts: Every statewide elected official, so we're talking about constitutional officers (and) we’re talking about the federal delegation.

Knapp: Do you believe that the legislature has become more partisan? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Ricketts: Well, I don't know that the Legislature has become more partisan. I'm not part of the body. So that is really probably a question more suited to the Legislature. I do see a decline in decorum since I've been governor. And that is something that I think the Legislature has the opportunity to improve, is just working on the level of decorum and how they treat each other on the floor.

Knapp: What's your view of the performance of the state in monitoring the AltEn plant in Mead that had tremendous pollution problems and has now been shut down?

Ricketts: Yeah, I think the state has done a great job of responding to that. We've worked very closely with the community with regard to that. We've engaged the EPA to be able to help us monitor and so forth, we've taken steps to mitigate the damage that have been there. And it gets back to, when somebody is not being honest with you, you're not going to know the first time they're not honest with you. And so we, you know, the folks at AltEn were not honest with us, and it took –

Knapp: But that went on for like a year? (Actually, some people started complaining of odors in 2015. It took the state nearly two years, from its first testing in 2019, to February, 2021 to shut the plant down).

Ricketts: Well, well, again, if you're talking about things such as environmental compliance, those things are generally done over a longer period of time, they're not done in a week. So you know, if somebody's not being honest with you, you have to -- you can't just bust into somebody's place on a suspicion. We're a country, the rule of law, so you have to be able to have reasonable suspicion of even arresting anybody…if you're talking about criminal justice. So what we have to do is put together the case and make the case. And that's what we've done with the Attorney General.

Knapp: Some of your critics say that if you had spent more time focusing on that situation, and less on national issues like critical race theory, or 30 by 30, the outcome might have been better.

Ricketts: Well, I'm going to take issue with what you just said there, Fred, because 30 by 30 and Critical Race Theory are not national issues. Those are issues that impact the people of the state of Nebraska. They impact the people that work at the University of Nebraska; they impact our farmers and ranchers. So that's here in our state. So those are state issues. And with regard to AltEn, we did the best job we could in uncovering it, once we uncovered what was going on there --. again, when people were not being honest, it's very difficult to work with them. And when we uncovered what was going on there, we moved very quickly to work with the community and mitigate the circumstances.

Knapp: This year will be your last as governor, because of term limits. Will you spend any time during this year thinking about possibly running for President in 2024?

Ricketts: I'm going to be focusing this year on being the best governor I can be. This is not the type of job where you can take your eye off the ball. And anything that happens after 2022, I will worry about after 2022. So I'm going to focus on being the best governor I can be. And that's what I’m going to be focused on.

Knapp: So you won't be thinking at all about your political future?

Ricketts: Well, 24 hours is forever in politics, Fred. Twenty four hours is forever in politics. Who knows what it's gonna look like a year from now? I know what the job in front of me for the next year is going to be, I'm going to stay focused on that.

Knapp: And what do you hope your legacy as governor will be when people look back?

Ricketts: Legacy is something that historians should worry about. That's about vanity. And that's not what I'm concerned about. I'm concerned about doing the job for the people of Nebraska. Right now, I'll let others look back on it and make their decisions on what we did. But right now we're focused on delivering for the people in Nebraska, and that's what we're gonna continue to do for the next year.