Ricketts leaving as governor after eight eventful years

Dec. 7, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Governor Pete Ricketts delivers a State of the State speech to the Nebraska Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Governor Pete Ricketts delivers a State of the State speech in 2016 to the Nebraska Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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When Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Tuesday that he'll seek appointment to the U.S. Senate, he said “Over the last eight years, we’ve shown the world the real impact conservative leadership can have,” and said he wants to continue to "reduce taxes, grow our economy, defend our liberties, and run government more like a business."

A look back at Ricketts eight years as governor shows someone who led the state through tumultuous times, including a pandemic and massive flooding, while promoting conservative economic and social policies with sometimes mixed results.

Ricketts had never held public office before he became governor of Nebraska. In fact, his only other campaign was as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2006 against Democratic incumbent Ben Nelson. In that race Ricketts, a businessman and the son of billionaire Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, spent nearly $12 million of his own money but lost by nearly 2-1.

His bid for governor in 2014 went differently. Ricketts narrowly defeated five Republican primary opponents and won the general election for the seat being vacated by then-Gov. Dave Heineman.

In an interview just before taking office, Ricketts named his top priority.

“As I put 64,000 miles in the car driving around the state. The number one issue I heard from people is our property taxes are too high. So, that's going to be my number one issue. We'll be working with Unicameral to bring about that property tax relief, and it's absolutely going to be my top priority,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts and his legislative allies focused on that, even though property taxes are levied by local governments, not the state. By 2021, they had approved tax cuts, including devoting nearly $1 billion a year in state funding to offset local property taxes. Ricketts celebrated that in a speech to the Legislature.

“This is the most, the biggest, the greatest amount of tax relief any legislature has done in a quarter century and potentially in the history of the state of Nebraska,” Ricketts said.

But Ricketts was unable to get the Legislature to slow the growth of local government budgets, including schools’, so property taxes have continued to rise. The Tax Foundation ranks Nebraska property taxes as the eighth highest in the nation. And another comparison of property taxes in the largest city of each state ranked Omaha's rate ninth highest.

In 2022, Ricketts endorsed the campaign of current Gov.-elect Jim Pillen and spent $1.5 million of his own money to help Pillen get elected. Pillen resurrected the property tax battle cry, intoning in a campaign ad, “There's one thing we can all agree on: Nebraska property taxes are out of control.”

Pillen, too, has vowed to limit local spending increases.

A rocky start to the first year

In Ricketts’ first year, the Legislature overrode his vetoes on three big issues: a gas tax increase, drivers licenses for DACA recipients, and abolishing the death penalty.

Ricketts accused senators of being out of touch. He contributed $300,000 to a referendum campaign to overturn the repeal of the death penalty, which voters reinstated in 2016. Two years later, the state carried out its first execution in 21 years.

Ricketts also chided Republican senators who had joined with Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature to override his vetoes.

He contributed to the campaigns to unseat three of those Republicans – Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis, and Sen.Jerry Johnson of Wahoo – contributing a total of $28,000 to their opponents campaigns in 2016. The outcome: Steve Halloran of Hastings, Tom Brewer of Gordon, and Bruce Bostelman of Brainard all defeated the incumbents and are currently serving in the Legislature.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb faults Ricketts for using his personal wealth to achieve political ends.

Jane Kleeb
Jane Kleeb (Nebraska Democratic Party photo)

“His success is buying elections,” Kleeb said.

She also criticizes his policies.

“One of the biggest failures from a rural perspective is that he sided with a foreign oil corporation over farmers and ranchers property rights,” she said.

That’s a reference to Ricketts’ support for the now-cancelled Keystone XL pipeline, which would have more than doubled the existing pipeline capacity to transport oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Ricketts favored the project, saying it would create jobs, generate tax payments for Nebraska communities, and contribute to U.S. energy independence.

Kleeb helped lead the opposition, saying the pipeline would threaten the environment, use eminent domain to build through the property of pipeline opponents, and contribute to climate change.

Kleeb also condemned Ricketts contract with Saint Francis Ministries to manage child welfare cases. That contract was supposed to save money but failed when scandal-plagued Saint Francis was unable to do the job.

Opening the door for water to get in

Ricketts has adamant supporters as well. State Sen. Mike Hilgers, Republican speaker of the Legislature, sees plenty of positives.

“Gov. Ricketts has been an absolutely outstanding governor. And he’s done a number of great things,” Hilgers said.

Speaker Mike Hilgers
Speaker Mike Hilgers (Nebraska Legislature photo)

He mentioned improving efficiency and holding spending below revenue growth, enabling tax cuts and leaving the state with a big surplus. He also cited water projects, including the half-billion dollar canal Ricketts has proposed that would bring water from Colorado to Nebraska.

“That’s one that’s not going to change the trajectory of the state on Jan. 5, 2023 when the new governor gets sworn in. but it’s one that I think we’ll look back on in 30 years and say, ‘That was transformative,’” Hilgers said.

The canal proposal is the latest incarnation of an idea that’s been around for more than a century. It would bring water from the South Platte River in Colorado into western Nebraska. Construction on what was then called the Perkins County Canal began in the 1890s, but the effort ran out of money.

Nevertheless, Nebraska’s legal ability to build such a canal was recognized in a 1923 interstate compact between Nebraska and Colorado. That compact specifies that, in addition to the water Nebraska gets during the irrigation season, the state is entitled to substantial flows in the non-irrigation season, but only if it builds the canal.

Ricketts said the canal is needed to continue bringing Nebraska the water it needs, and not lose it to the growing, thirsty communities of Colorado’s Front Range.

Colorado officials argue Nebraska is getting the water it needs, and the canal is an unnecessary boondoggle.

A consultant is currently studying the costs and benefits of the proposed canal.

Ricketts’ first term saw several lean years requiring budget cuts and preventing major initiatives from coming to fruition. In his 2016 State of the State speech, he cited those conditions to oppose expanding Medicaid.

“This government entitlement crowds out investments in tax relief, roads, and education. Things we need to grow our state,” he said.

However, in 2018, an initiative petition drive put Medicaid expansion on the ballot, and voters approved it.

At the same time, they reelected Ricketts over Democrat Bob Krist by 59-41 percent.

Meanwhile, the state wrestled with prison understaffing. In 2021, Ricketts agreed to raises of up to 40%, and the staffing crisis began to ease. But overcrowding is another an issue. Ricketts supported a new prison, now estimated to cost $270 million, but lawmakers resisted, with some arguing overcrowding will continue unless sentencing is reformed.

Other challenges cropped up in Ricketts second term.

In 2019, devastating floods hit about a third of the state, inundating farm fields, destroying bridges, dams, and military buildings, and causing more than a billion dollars worth of damage.

Pandemic response

Then came the pandemic. Unlike some governors who locked their states down, Ricketts let businesses stay open while restricting the size of indoor gatherings. He focused on maintaining hospital capacity, and opposed mask mandates.

“My position on this has been very clear – it's something we’ve maintained throughout the entire pandemic going back to last spring. And I really want to emphasize masks work, but they’re just one tool,” he said at one news conference.

In an evaluation this April the online news site Politico judged Nebraska had the most effective COVID response among the states. The analysis cited the state’s economy, education, and health outcomes, while also noting critics saying the state could have done better with health measures. Subsequent school test scores suggest Nebraska students suffered, although in some cases less than compared to other states.

Ricketts also maintained conservative positions on cultural issues, opposing efforts to legalize marijuana, even if restricted to medical use.

“This is a dangerous drug that will impact our kids. If you legalize marijuana, you’re gonna kill your kids,” Ricketts declared in a Capitol Rotunda news conference.

The future

Toward the end of his term, Ricketts focused more on national issues, opposing President Joe Biden’s so-called “30 by 30” conservation initiative and condemning critical race theory. That led to speculation he was eying national office. With Sen. Ben Sasse planning to resign Jan. 8 to become president of the University of Florida, Ricketts announced Dec. 5 he would seek appointment to that U.S. Senate seat he ran for 16 years before.

Ricketts leaves office, and Pillen will be sworn in as his successor Jan. 5.