Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster accepts the endorsement of the State Troopers Association of Nebraska, the union that represents Nebraska State Patrol troopers. He said they need better pay and a more affordable retirement. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — The union representing Nebraska State Patrol troopers sent a message Tuesday to Gov. Pete Ricketts and his preferred replacement: They’re tired of waiting on the state to pay them more.
The State Troopers Association of Nebraska endorsed Conklin Co. CEO Charles Herbster in the Republican governor’s primary race, a candidate Ricketts has said would be “terrible.”
The union interviewed at least four candidates before making its choice, including the governor’s favored candidate, University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen.
Union leaders said Herbster put greater emphasis on their needs.
“The State Patrol has suffered greatly over the last few years in hiring the number of highly qualified candidates to serve the citizens of Nebraska that they deserve,” said State Patrol Investigator James Estwick, the union’s vice president for eastern Nebraska.
Estwick called the Patrol’s “crisis in staffing” a “decline in service.”
Patrol leadership listed a sworn staffing number of 482 Tuesday, with 50 vacancies. A Patrol spokesman provided data showing the agency had 42 to 50 open jobs in 2000, 2010 and 2020.
Retired Patrol Col. Tom Nesbitt, whose daughter is a trooper, said the Patrol is down too many troopers from an authorized staffing number he says is already too low to do the job. Herbster said Nebraska is short about 150 state troopers. (That’s up from his recent comments at a March 20 event in York, where he said the Patrol was short 100 troopers.)
Nesbitt said he backs Herbster because he “has a plan, and that plan is going to work.” But Herbster, Nesbitt and the union declined to detail what’s in the plan, what it might cost and what promises were made to secure the union’s endorsement.
Multiple people familiar with the troopers’ candidate questions and interviews said the union made clear what it wanted for its endorsement: someone to break its years-long impasse with governors over higher pay and getting the state to pay a larger share of the Patrol’s pension shortfall.
The union was so frustrated with Ricketts in 2018 that its board endorsed then-Democrat Bob Krist, a former state senator the union knew had little chance of beating the incumbent governor.
But the problems remain, union leaders and Nesbitt said. Nesbitt said the La Vista police chief called to say his 23-year-old daughter Bailey, the state trooper, could earn $20,000 more a year by working for the local police department than for the Patrol.
Nesbitt said new troopers pay about 17% of their income toward their retirement, when most other law enforcement agencies pay 8%. That’s too big a difference, he said.
Closing the pension funding gap could cost state taxpayers up to $52 million, retirement reports show. Salary increases would result in increased annual pension contributions, as well.
“We have got to fix this,” said Nesbitt, who was flanked Tuesday by several troopers and their family members. “We’ve got to figure out how we can retain our troopers and how we can recruit the troopers and keep them within the agency.”
Herbster criticized Ricketts and ex-Gov. Dave Heineman for not doing more, saying troopers tell him the state has not kept its commitments on trooper pay and retirement costs.
“They’re not asking for anything that’s unreasonable,” Herbster said, declining to specify what the troopers want. “They’re not asking for some huge, big bonus, or some windfall. … They’re just asking to be treated fairly from a compensation standpoint … and make sure that they’ve got a good retirement.”
Ricketts’ spokeswoman Alex Reuss said “nearly every law enforcement agency around the country is looking for qualified candidates to hire” and the Nebraska State Patrol “is no different.”
She said the governor has been working with the Patrol and lawmakers on the issue. One way: holding multiple training camps for new recruits to fill the ranks. Recruit classes were canceled during tight times in previous administrations.
State Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, who chairs the Legislature’s Retirement Systems Committee, said Herbster, Nesbitt and the troopers’ union are discounting a decade of work in the Legislature to help.
“Herbster has no idea what’s gone on here in the last 10 years,” Kolterman said. “We’ve worked with them (troopers) on that. I think the governor’s worked with them on that. Every time they come to the table, we’re willing to talk to them.”
This session, lawmakers are about to pass a $750 retention bonus for state troopers, he said. They’re also working to help troopers pay less in taxes with a bill that would let them reduce their adjusted gross income by the amount troopers pay each year for health insurance premiums. And they’re likely to boost troopers’ tuition reimbursement from 30% to 100%.
Troopers and state taxpayers are paying more to make the pension plan whole because Patrol retirement is still recovering from losses during the Great Recession of about 27%, he said.
But troopers pay roughly the same for their retirement as other state employees with pension plans, he said, including judges and teachers, who pay into their pensions and pay Social Security taxes. Troopers do not pay into Social Security, he said.
The average monthly retirement benefit for troopers has climbed from $3,850 in 2013 to $4,550 today, he said. Their pension was about 76% funded in 2013. It is now funded at nearly 91%.
“For them to think that they’re getting treated unfairly is absolutely bizarre,” Kolterman said. “I believe they’re being treated fairly.”
Kolterman said if the union was going to endorse a candidate, they should have endorsed the Retirement Systems Committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, because of his work to stabilize the pension fund.
Pillen announced two law enforcement-related endorsements of his own Tuesday: Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson and Joe Kelly, the Trump-era U.S. attorney for Nebraska, who previously served as Lancaster County attorney.
Last week Pillen was endorsed by the union that represents state prison and Department of Corrections employees, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88.
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