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Ricketts' priority list: Prison, taxes, water and federal pandemic relief dollars

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LINCOLN — The themes sounded familiar when Gov. Pete Ricketts sat down with The World-Herald last week to talk about his legislative priorities and other issues.

But the setting was definitely 2022. The governor wore a face mask and sat 6 feet away in a room larger than his normal office following news that he had been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts shares his priorities for the Legislature during its 2022 session. This will be his last session as governor. Ricketts is term-limited and barred from seeking reelection this year.

As of late Friday, he remained symptom-free and was continuing with activities that could be done safely. Ricketts has been vaccinated and gotten a booster shot, so he was acting in accord with the latest federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Ricketts started the interview by talking about what he wants to get done this session, which started Wednesday and is slated to wrap up in mid-April. It will be his last as governor. He is term-limited and cannot run again. His responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Q. I would start out asking you a little bit about your goals for this year.

A. As we look into this year, there are going to be four priorities that I have with the Legislature. Public safety, tax relief, investing in our natural resources and the fourth one would be the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act federal pandemic relief) dollars.

With regard to public safety, one of the things that we got permission from the Legislature to do last year is start to move forward on replacing the State Penitentiary. It needs to be replaced. It’s over 150 years old and, as we saw last year, we had pipes break and inmates were without water for (two) days.

A modernized facility will allow us to improve the quality of life for our inmates through additional programming opportunities, through safety for our inmates and for our teammates in the Department of Corrections. Who would be against improving the quality of life for our inmates and for our corrections teammates?

While it doesn’t make a huge difference in the number of beds, this is about replacing an aging facility. This is about making sure we have a modern correctional facility, improve the quality of life for our inmates and our teammates. That’s the first priority.

Second priority is tax relief. We passed a two-year budget. We continue to control spending. If you control your expenses and allow your revenue to grow, that’s how you do sustainable tax relief and that’s how we’ve been able to provide in the current two-year budget $2 billion in (property) tax relief. That’s the equivalent of 20% of our state budget. That’s historic.

I want to continue to build on that foundation and take the revenues that are over and above what we need to run the state and give them back to the people of Nebraska, because they are the people of Nebraska’s dollars, not our dollars.

There’s some things we want to continue to work on. We got about half of it done on Social Security taxes last year. We want to come back and get the other half. We want to get the job creator tax (corporate income tax) down to the individual tax levels. Then of course it’s also about controlling how fast property taxes go up. Unless we control how fast those property taxes are going up, the relief that the state provides will get eaten up by the local governments.

The third priority is investing in our natural resources. We’ll have more announcements on that down the road. (Ricketts has a Monday press conference to talk about water policy and the recommendations of a special legislative committee on water issues.) Here’s what’s important to know about this: We’re an agricultural state. After people, water is the most important resource we have in this state. We have to make continued investments to preserve and protect that natural resource here for the future growth of this state.

Then the fourth priority will be ARPA. We have $1.04 billion, which is roughly 20% of our state budget, that we have available to us to help us recover from the pandemic. Here again, the priority is going to be infrastructure investment, one-time projects, things like that, versus creating ongoing liabilities for the state.

Q. Talk to me a little bit more about what areas you see as priority for ARPA money. Are we talking health care, are we talking housing, what are you looking at?

A. We’ll be talking about that when I release the budget.

Q. On prisons, the prison system in this state is more overcrowded now than when you were elected governor and we’ve been through a deadly riot, a number of incidents of violence …

A. Yes, years ago.

Q. Staffing shortages that have reached the critical level, even though I know there’s been some recent efforts to address that …

A. Not just recent efforts. We’ve been taking steps all along the way to address everything you just said. We’ve been taking steps along the way to address compensation for our teammates, professional development for our teammates, investing in our facilities, investing in security equipment.

Q. But you still have a prison system that’s more overcrowded than it’s ever been. How would you assess the Department of Corrections?

A. We’re making progress. We need to continue to make progress and one of the key things we need to do to continue to make progress is modernize the Nebraska State Penitentiary and then we can improve the quality of life for our inmates and our teammates.

Q. About property taxes. As you say, that is an area the state has done quite a bit on and, yes, nearly $1 billion a year of direct property tax benefits for Nebraskans. Do you see a need to provide more financial relief besides the caps that you’re talking about and can the state do more?

A. My pledge to the people of Nebraska when I got elected was to work on property taxes every year and this year is no different. We’ve got a number of different things we can do with regard to tax relief in general and property tax relief, so that’s one of the things that we’ll be working on with the Legislature.

Q. So, one of the things that’s come along more recently in your term is COVID, of course. So, as of Monday, the state data showed 2,783 people have died from COVID and COVID patients continue to strain the health care system. What do you think Nebraska has done well in dealing with this and where has the state fallen short?

A. I think Nebraska has taken a very balanced approach with regard to our pandemic response, and by taking that more balanced approach, Nebraska has done a very good job. People of Nebraska have taken care of their neighbors, did the right thing when we asked them. What we need to do is just continue to educate people about vaccines and boosters being our best defense against the COVID virus. And also remember that this virus is not going away. It’s a virus, so we have to learn to manage it.

Q. Do you get frustrated with the number of people who are not taking your advice about vaccinating and, when necessary, masking and taking other steps?

A. As I travel around the state and talk to people about why they are not vaccinated, the number one reason they tell me is because they just don’t know who to believe. Really at this point, it’s going to take somebody who knows somebody personally, a family member or a friend, that has that conversation to say, “Hey, you should get vaccinated. This is really going to help you avoid going to the hospital,” that kind of thing.

Q. State Sen. (Julie) Slama introduced a bill that would essentially ban abortion in Nebraska by prohibiting it after the point at which you could detect a fetal heartbeat. Is that something that you believe the state should pass, given the uncertainty of the Supreme Court rulings?

A. Nebraska is a pro-life state and I support pro-life legislation. As medical science advances, babies become viable at younger ages outside the womb, so I do support any steps we can take to protect pre-born babies.

Q. Does that include a heartbeat bill that, unless Roe v. Wade is completely overturned, there’s no way that’s viable?

A. Well, we have to pass bills that are constitutional but again I promote pro-life bills. I haven’t seen Sen. Slama’s bill but I do support trying to protect pre-born babies to the greatest extent allowable.

Q. Do you think Nebraska’s model of the nonpartisan, one-house Legislature can still work in these politically polarized times?

A. I would point to the last two years as an example of how the Nebraska Legislature works. They’ve done a fantastic job through this pandemic. Not only providing the state the resources we needed early on to fight this pandemic but also passing historic tax relief, putting in great policies to help us train the next generation of Nebraskans, build infrastructure like rural broadband and even getting redistricting done. I think you can say this Legislature works well. This Legislature did marvelous work.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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