LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen has broken with more than 30 years of gubernatorial practice by not releasing information about his public schedule.
During the 10 weeks since Pillen and Lt. Gov. Joe Kelly took their oaths of office, his administration has not provided schedules for either. Inquiries about the schedules or upcoming events have yielded silence or incomplete information.
Previous governors’ schedules have provided advance notice of press conferences, speaking engagements, participation on public boards and appearances at everything from ribbon-cuttings to Husker football games, complete with information about dates, times and places.
The schedules showed when the governor planned to take questions from the public on a monthly radio call-in show. They also showed when the governor would be out of the state, leaving the lieutenant governor or, in the lieutenant governor’s absence, the speaker of the Legislature in charge.
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Pillen spokeswoman Laura Strimple described the change in practice as simply a different way of doing business. She said Nebraskans know what Pillen is doing based on press coverage from events he attends, saying his presence and comments are covered broadly.
“Every governor determines the way they wish to communicate information and availability to the public and the media,” she said. “There is no requirement or formula for how it is done.”
As for out-of-state trips, she said “Nebraskans can be assured” that “appropriate steps are taken” to ensure the job is being handled.
But government watchdogs of varying stripes criticized the new practice for reducing public access and accountability.
Gavin Geis, executive director for Common Cause Nebraska, said he believes Pillen should continue the tradition of governors sharing their schedule with the public.
“Government transparency and accountability are not just enshrined in state law but are what Nebraskans expect from elected leaders,” he said.
“The governor’s schedule gives us all insight into his priorities and helps keep the public informed about the work he’s doing on our behalf,” Geis continued. “While it may be an afterthought for some, it’s an important part of bringing voters into the hard work of governing.”
In a statement, the Nebraska Freedom Coalition Board of Directors compared the administration’s new practice to Pillen’s decision to skip debates and candidate forums while running for governor.
“As was customary on the campaign trail, Jim Pillen only appears in settings his team knows are entirely friendly,” the board said, calling that behavior “completely insulting to constituents and the citizens of Nebraska.”
“While we appreciate some of the work Gov. Pillen has been involved with so far, such as school choice, it’s high past time that politicians quit hiding from the public, stop running from tough questions and are held accountable for their record,” they said. “Hiding from journalists and the media is HOGWASH.”
Pillen didn’t participate in a single debate during the 2022 election cycle, a fact that drew criticism from his fellow Republicans in the GOP primary and his Democratic opponent in the general election.
He did participate in a few forums ahead of the primary, including one hosted by the Nebraska Farm Bureau where Pillen took heat for describing the condition of Nebraska roads and broadband coverage as “not that bad.” The comment was in response to a question about what Nebraska should do with $2.5 billion provided by the infrastructure bill championed by President Joe Biden.
Strimple took issue with the idea that Pillen was not accountable or accessible, saying that he “provides ample opportunity for citizens to hear from him on a variety of issues, through his testimony to the Legislature, at events the media attends and one-on-one conversations with reporters.”
During the week just ended, she said, he testified before the Appropriations Committee, gave interviews to members of the media at an event in Sioux City and answered a reporter’s questions at a military send-off ceremony.
“In each of those settings, lawmakers, citizens and media had the opportunity to question him and hold him accountable,” she said.
Lawmakers, citizens and journalists had limited chances to ask questions, however, because Pillen’s office did not provide advance notice that he would be appearing at any of those settings.
The prior week, in response to a reporter’s questions about the governor’s plans for the week, a spokesman said he planned to speak at an Ethanol Emerging Issues Forum and would be signing proclamations the following day. He did not mention that Pillen was the featured speaker at a Lincoln Chamber of Commerce luncheon, which was open to the public.
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