By J.L. Schmidt, Statehouse Correspondent
Ah December, that awkward season between Husker Football and the beginning of the Legislature. Not that anybody is going to really miss this year’s football season, but the presence of a new governor for the first time in a decade and a freshman class of 18 senators should provide for some welcome drama in the Capitol.
The leaders of 20 state agencies are busy either brushing up their resumes and resigning, or hoping to survive the whims of Governor–elect Pete Ricketts, who officially takes office in about a month. Likewise, senators are jockeying for leadership positions of 20 major committees at the Nebraska Unicameral.
Ricketts has already set the tone saying he’ll launch national searches for new directors of Corrections and Health and Human Services. Not only are these two of the largest agencies, but they are also the biggest problem areas. HHS Director Kerry Winterer recently announced his resignation. Corrections Director Mike Kenney, appointed from within by Governor Dave Heineman in 2013, may be working on his resume.
In case you have been under a rock, or otherwise disinterested, Corrections has been making headlines for at least a year with the release of an inmate who pleaded for mental health treatment which he never received and was released from custody only to kill four people within a matter of days. The department also miscalculated the release date of hundreds of inmates and let a large number out too soon. Meanwhile, Director Kenney decided to create his own furlough program that allowed some of them to remain free while others were rounded up and returned to prison.
The fallout from the prison situation was carefully probed by a special legislative committee. The inquiry and lengthy questioning resulted in several senior members of the prison legal staff retiring when they should have been fired. Lawmakers also widely criticized HHS for missing out on millions of dollars of federal aid by ignoring or otherwise not implementing programs. Mistreatment of residents of a state facility for the developmentally disabled in Beatrice also brought criticism to the department.
Ricketts really would have had no choice but to replace the two agency heads in question. It’s also incumbent on him to name new heads for Economic Development and Labor since he said he was separating the two departments again. Heineman had appointed one director for the two agencies in the hopes he would be able to merge them and create a new department of commerce. But that idea never got any traction in the Legislature and the governor had to appoint interim heads for each department.
The heads of Administrative Services, Environmental Quality, and Natural Resources all stepped down earlier. Two of those agencies are being run by interim directors who may or may not remain. A lot depends on how many “favors” the Republican Party and the Governor-elect are obligated to honor.
No real surprises down the hall at the Legislature where the top race, Speaker of the Legislature, pits Lincoln Senator Colby Coash against Senator Galen Hadley of Kearney. The 39-year-old Coash, who has been Vice Chair of General Affairs and 72-year-old Hadley, Chairman of the Revenue Committee, each have only two years left in their term-limited tenure.
The Speaker job is a big deal. Not only is the Speaker the presiding officer of the body, but his office also sets the daily agenda and works to keep things running smoothly. In the waning days of each session, the Speaker also selects 25 bills as priority measures. Each of the other 48 get to designate one bill and committees also get a priority bill designation.
We’ll keep an eye out for rolling heads and posturing in the coming weeks.