Ricketts' Priorities Lauded and Challenged

Jan. 13, 2022, midnight ·

Gov.ernor Pete Ricketts speaks Thursday as first lady Susanne Shore looks on (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Publiic Media News)
Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks Thursday as first lady Susanne Shore looks on (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Publiic Media News)

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Saying the state of the state is strong, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts highlighted priorities for the last year of his governorship in his State of the State speech Thursday. But the plans he outlined drew a mixed reaction from members of the Legislature.

It was the eighth and final State of the State speech for Ricketts, inaugurated in 2015 and scheduled to leave office next January due to term limits. The governor said Nebraska is prospering despite floods, fires, and the pandemic.

“In the face of unprecedented challenges, the state of the state is strong,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts said the state is on track to have $1.5 billion in its cash reserve, and talked about his support for eliminating taxes on Social Security in five years, lowering corporate and individual income taxes, and locking in funds for property tax relief. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the Revenue Committee, was enthusiastic about those ideas.

“I’m very, very pleased with his recommendations because I agree wholeheartedly with him: when we have the amount of revenue that we have and we’re collecting far more revenues than we need to meet our needs, we need to give it back to the people,” Linehan said.

Ricketts promoted a proposed $500 million a canal to carry water from Colorado to Nebraska, and $200 million for water projects elsewhere in the state, including a new lake between Lincoln and Omaha.

And he talked about how he thinks the state should use $1 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

Sen. John Stinner, chair of the Appropriations Committee, was asked if there were things he thought should have been included in the governor’s proposals that weren’t.

“Well, I noticed the University of Nebraska had made quite a number of proposals. None of those made the cut. We’ll take a look at what that’s about,” Stinner said.

University President Ted Carter had proposed $175 million in projects from ARPA funds, including $50 million for the Holland Computing Center in Omaha, $25 million for a building linked to USDA facilities in Lincoln, $30 million for pancreatic cancer center in Omaha, and $60 million for a rural health complex in Kearney. Of those, Ricketts included only $10 million for Kearney in his proposal.

Ricketts has been at odds with university officials over an anti-racism initiative. The Governor believes the plan uses Critical Race Theory, which he says would lead to anti-white discrimination. In an interview last week, he was asked if he would use his budget proposal to try and leverage change.

“That is an ongoing conversation because that is really just talking about changing the culture of what the university is doing. So, it doesn’t necessarily involve the budget from that standpoint,” Ricketts replied.

The governor is proposing that the Legislature approve another $155 million to build a new prison, whose price tag has now risen from $230 million when proposed a little over a year ago, to $270 million now.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, chair of the Judiciary Committee, wants a facilities study completed before deciding on what to build. That study won’t be completed until after the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn in April. Lathrop said senators should wait for both that study and the results of legislation aimed at keeping more people out of prison.

“I really think we’re putting the cart ahead of the horse. We need to look at the reform, chart a way forward, and then figure out what facilities we need over the long haul,” Lathrop said.

Senator Justin Wayne speaks as Sen. Terrell McKinney looks on (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Justin Wayne speaks as Sen. Terrell McKinney looks on (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Among a host of proposals he mentioned in his speech, Ricketts pointed to one he said would help economic recovery in an impoverished area.

“In north Omaha, business and community leaders have been working to develop and revitalize Omaha’s historic north 24th Street through physical improvements such as providing high speed fiber optic updates and a comprehensive streetscape plan. The project’s work promises to bring businesses and customers back to the area,” he said.

Ricketts is proposing to spend $12 million in ARPA funds for the project. In a news conference after the speech, Sen. Justin Wayne, who represents part of the area as well as part of surrounding Douglas County, said that’s not enough.

“I think the governor’s budget proposal using ARPA misses the mark completely,” Wayne said.

Sen. Terrell McKinney, who represents north Omaha, said he wants a different focus for this legislative session.

“It shouldn’t be about building prisons and building lakes. It should be about helping people and alleviating harms,” McKinney said.

Wayne and McKinney said ARPA funds are supposed to be concentrated in areas like north Omaha that have suffered more. They’ve proposed spending $450 million for things like housing and training.

Sorting out these competing priorities will be a major task of the Legislature over the next four months.