Nebraska as fiefdom

November 21, 2022 3:00 am
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

As is the case with the governor of any state in the country, the governor of Nebraska has a great deal of power to set public policy and direct the mechanisms of state government.

The governor appoints all heads of code agencies, sets priorities for the thousands of state employees in those agencies, appoints numerous other boards and commissions that set policy for the state, fills vacancies that occur in other branches of government including the State Legislature, State Board of Education, Board of Regents, and formulates and administers the state budget. The governor effectively runs state government and controls most of the power the state can exercise.

But in the case of the current governor, that does not seem to be enough. In addition to the power he wields as the duly elected governor, during his eight years in office he has chosen to use his personal power (read: money) to mold state government as he chooses.

Remember when the Legislature passed the repeal of the death penalty over the governor’s veto? To any other governor, that would have been the end of the story, accepting the defeat and viewing it as the Legislature doing its job to debate and pass laws with which others, including the governor, may disagree.

But Mr. Ricketts decided that he could use his personal wealth to thwart the Legislature’s will by backing an effort to reinstate the death penalty by ballot. The concern here has nothing to do with the issue of repealing the death penalty itself, or the people’s referendum right; it has to do with a governor using his own personal wealth to increase his own personal control of policy beyond the constitutional limits on the governor’s power.

There are other examples of what I would consider to be questionable influence by the governor. He has liberally spent to support candidates in other races, especially legislative races. Often this is money spent to support one Republican against another which has not been done by a sitting Republican governor in my memory. The only rationale for making these large contributions by a sitting governor to these candidates is to influence the workings of a coequal branch of government.

During the years 2021-22 alone, the governor spent a total of $137,500 to support legislative candidates, $78,500 to support candidates for other state offices, and $103,000 for local races.

But the biggest expenditures have been to support his favored candidate for governor in the Republican primary. He personally contributed $100,000 to Jim Pillen’s campaign and spent another $1,275,000 through his Conservative Nebraska Pac to oppose other Republican candidates in that race.

And the governor has just formed another PAC, Nebraska Future Action Fund, which he has funded with a $314,000 contribution and which spent, as of Oct. 4, 2022, $51,856 against a Board of Regents candidate.

All these numbers are from filings with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

Let me be clear: Nothing about the governor’s actions is illegal. He has the right to use his own personal resources as he deems best, but isn’t it at least unethical for the sitting governor to use that wealth to enhance his power as governor beyond what is allowed under the Constitution? Isn’t it overreaching? Don’t Nebraskans deserve to know what an elected official is doing to influence other officials beyond the bounds the constitutional limits of his or her office?  The answers to these questions  seem clear.

Otherwise, the risk is that the state will continue to be governed as a fiefdom by those who have the resources to do so.

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Kerry Winterer
Kerry Winterer

Kerry T. Winterer, a native of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, served on the Nebraska Board of Education in 2007-09. A former businessman, Winterer served as CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services from 2009 through 2017. He was of counsel for Kutak, Rock LLP from 2015 through 2017. He is married, with two grown children, and now lives in Jackson, Wyoming.