LINCOLN — Should someone who didn’t speak favorably about a COVID-19 mask mandate be on the State Board of Health?
That question prompted a long debate Wednesday at the Nebraska Legislature.
A group of state senators, all Democrats, criticized the appointment of Bud Synhorst, who heads a conservative business group in Lincoln and is a former executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, because they said he opposed Lincoln’s mask mandate, and because the Health Board lacked racial and gender diversity.
Omaha State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh led the opposition, saying that Synhorst’s “outspoken” criticism of the director of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, Pat Lopez, helped inspire death threats against her, and the need for Lopez to hire security protection.
“This is a problem, a real serious problem,” Cavanaugh said.
Other senators, including Megan Hunt of Omaha and Matt Hansen of Lincoln, also said they could not support confirming Synhorst’s placement on the 17-member board, which helps set state health policies, because he didn’t support public health initiatives like wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But many senators spoke in support of Synhorst, who is president and CEO of LIBA, a small business group in Lincoln, saying he was “fair minded” and a “good man.”
Synhorst has served conditionally on the State Health Board since December, when Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed him to a “lay member” position. Synhorst already appears to have won the support of his fellow board members, who elected him vice president.
Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist said it was “absurd” to suggest that Synhorst’s action had encouraged violence against Lopez.
“We’re willing to drag someone through the mud because they’re a Republican,” added Peru Sen. Julie Slama.
Synhorst, when reached later, said he was disappointed by the accusations. He said that neither he nor LIBA opposed the mask mandate, and that he had only spoken in support of letting businesses “get back to normal” when a LIBA member, Madsen’s Bowling and Billiards, chose to defy the city’s mandate.
“We have advocated that business be opened back up,” Synhorst said. “But that isn’t about masks, it’s about businesses.”
All gubernatorial appointments are subject to a confirmation hearing before a legislative committee, and then a confirmation vote by the full Legislature. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee had recommended Synhorst’s appointment on a 6-1 vote, with Sen. Cavanaugh the lone “no” vote.
Opponents of the appointment also argued the Health Board does not reflect the people it is supposed to represent, because it has only one female member, no members of color and no members who live east of 72nd Street in Omaha. Others said it was inappropriate to appoint a registered lobbyist to such a post, because they will represent the interests of the organization that hired them.
After lawmakers defeated a motion by Cavanaugh to recommit the nomination back to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, and a motion to reconsider the defeat of that motion, Synhorst’s appointment was confirmed on a 37-7 vote.