By Becky Uehling
The Grant Tribune-Sentinel
Governor Pete Ricketts’ recipe for growth throughout the state of Nebraska includes becoming more competitive on taxes, cutting regulatory red tape and improving education.
Governor Ricketts outlined these three areas, and others, during a town hall meeting Friday in Ogallala at the Petrified Wood Gallery.
It takes taxes of Nebraskans to run the state government, and according to Ricketts, the smaller the government, the fewer taxes Nebraskans will have to pay to support it. His goal is to reduce the size of Nebraska’s government.
“When you slow the growth of government you are then able to return that money back to the taxpayers,” he said.
According to Ricketts, this is exactly what has happened in the last budget session when the growth of government was cut from 6.5 percent to 3.5 percent.
“Because we slowed that growth, money was returned back to the taxpayers,” he said.
Money going back into the property tax credit relief fund increased by 45 percent, adding $64 million a year back to that fund, he said.
“That is direct property tax relief from the state to all property owners in the state,” he said.
Beyond this, Ricketts said he continues to work with senators across the state to cut property taxes even more, with more announcements coming in January.
In his effort to create a more efficient government, Ricketts has hired a Certified Operating Officer (COO) for the state, who is Felix Davidson, former president of TD Ameritrade Clearing.
“It’s just one way I’m bringing my private sector knowledge to government. I know this isn’t a normal procedure in government, but it is in business, which I am familiar with,” he said.
Davidson will oversee the creation of job descriptions, annual reviews for state workers and measurement tools for such things as cutting waiting times to get state assistance or to get an environmental permit, all geared toward making each department more accountable.
Ricketts said the state recently increased the money it will make available to cities and counties through a program that allows them to swap federal dollars for state money to complete street and bridge work.
Nebraska counties and midsize cities will receive an extra $3 million each year for this work, cutting federal red tape, and moving projects along more quickly.
In the past, the state has taken 20 cents of every dollar that cities and counties receive in exchange for providing the swap. Ricketts said the state will reduce that fee to 10 cents per dollar.
Leading this change is the new director at the Nebraska Department of Roads, Kyle Schneweis, who was appointed by Ricketts.
Nebraska is one of 27 states that has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), contesting a rule called the Waters of the U.S., which, according to Ricketts, is trying to redefine the Clean Water Act of 1972.
The ruling expands the definition of bodies of water subject to federal pollution controls, including water in ditches, ponds or water on a construction site.
According to Ricketts, the federal government has overstepped its bounds with this ruling.
“The EPA is breaking the law, they are going outside the bounds of what congress intended,” Ricketts said. “This ruling would be really bad for Nebraska because it would allow any third party to sue someone if they saw standing water on their property, saying they needed a permit.”
This proposed ruling would cost landowners thousands of dollars and lost time in seeking out and obtaining a correct permit for standing water on their property, and delay the landowner from doing the right thing, he said.
“Frankly, we do a good job in the state with managing our water. Our farmers and ranchers are our original conservationists. We have had the NRDs managing our water since the 1970s. We don’t need the EPA’s help on this, and that is why we are going to court,” he said.
Power plant lawsuit
Ricketts said Nebraska is also helping to push back on the EPA’s clean power plant initiative.
“The EPA said we first needed to cut back on our carbon emissions by 26 percent, and now they are saying 40 percent. The EPA knows we cannot comply with this since 63 percent of our energy comes from coal and they have only given us seven years to comply, which is unrealistic,” he said.
He said the EPA has suggested states compact with other states and buy their credits and swap them out. According to Ricketts, this concept is illegal.
“Well folks, that’s cap and trade,” Ricketts said. “President Obama tried to get cap and trade passed in the beginning of his administration and couldn’t and so now he is trying to back door this through regulatory process, and that is just wrong and illegal.”
Ricketts said the EPA’s new ruling on power plants would be devastating to Nebraska because it would drive up consumer’s electric bills.
“We are a public power state,” he said. “States have always had the opportunity to choose our utility mix and we have been doing a good job with cutting our carbon emissions. We have clean air in Nebraska and we do not need the EPA.”
Increasing trade jobs
Ricketts talked about his goal to increase students in the state who want to receive vocational training to help meet the demand for skilled labor.
“Every manufacturer I have talked to while traveling around the state says they can not find enough skilled labor. Enough machinists, electricians and welders.
“I’ve implemented a pilot program called Nebraska Developing Youth Talent Initiative that encourages private sector companies to work with Nebraska’s school districts on shaping curriculum and mentoring students to make sure they are getting employees with the skill sets they want,” he said.
Ricketts gave an example of York schools already starting the program to work with a local irrigation company to mentor employees before they graduate from high school.
Ricketts said he encourages feedback from Nebraskans. To reach the governor call 402-471-2244 or get on his web site governor.nebraska.gov for information on more ways to reach him.