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Group spars with Ricketts over diversity on Nebraska Environmental Trust board

Group spars with Ricketts over diversity on Nebraska Environmental Trust board

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers his 2021 State of the State address to the Legislature.

LINCOLN — A citizens group and Gov. Pete Ricketts scrapped last week over recent appointments to the state board that awards state lottery funds for environmental projects.

The Friends of the Environmental Trust called Ricketts’ appointments to the Nebraska Environmental Trust board “unfortunate” and “backward” because the appointments resulted in a panel that consists entirely of white men and has no representatives who live west of Hastings.

“The mission of the Nebraska Environmental Trust is statewide, and the board should reflect our entire citizenry,” said former Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, who chairs the Friends group and introduced the bill that created the trust when he was a state senator.

The Friends group, in a press release, also criticized the reappointment of two board members, Rod Christen of Steinauer and Jim Hellbusch of Columbus, who voted a year ago to overturn the recommendations of the trust’s Grants Committee and defund four conservation projects. Instead, the board awarded the $1.8 million in grant money to an ethanol pump project that had already been awarded $1.3 million. The projects for saline wetlands, duck marshes and preserving a Pine Ridge ranch had been graded much higher for environmental benefits and funding than the ethanol proposal.

The governor, who appoints nine citizen members of the trust board — three from each of the state’s congressional districts, said Friday that the criticism was politically motivated and incorrect.

Ricketts said that he has a diverse Cabinet, including an African American woman as head of the state’s largest agency and an African American man as director of economic development, and that overall hiring of minorities has increased during his administration.

“In the State of Nebraska, we don’t have quotas. We look to hire the best people,” the Republican governor added.

Beutler is a Democrat, and another Friends leader, former State Sen. Sandy Scofield, once ran for Congress as a Democrat. But the group’s leadership also has some Republicans, including Gail Yanney and Gerry Lauritzen, both of Omaha. The Environmental Trust was created when a Democrat, Ben Nelson, occupied the Governor’s Mansion and after voters approved a state lottery.

The Friends group said the trust board has, until recently, always included at least three women and at one point had six female members.

When asked about the criticism at a press conference on Friday, Ricketts said that when the lone female member of the board, Sherry Vinton of Whitman, recently asked to resign, she recommended a male replacement, Josh Andersen of Edgar.

The governor, who is a staunch supporter of ethanol, said that the Environmental Trust board has the final discretion on which grants to approve and that ethanol benefits the environment as a cleaner-burning fuel than gasoline.

Ricketts also called the Friends “a schlocky operation” for misspelling Hellbusch’s first name in its press release.

The grant switch a year ago prompted a lawsuit alleging that it was a political decision. The Legislature, which must confirm appointments to the trust board, will hold hearings on some recent appointments this week.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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