Dave Heineman — How Good A Governor?
Former Governor Dave Heineman has signaled an interest in running for governor in what is already proving to be a crowded field of candidates. Heineman said he won’t be make a decision on the race until this fall. Already, Chuck Herbster, Jim Pillen and Brett Lindstrom have said that they are running for governor.
Then Lieutenant Governor Heineman was elevated to the position of governor when Mike Johanns resigned in 2005 to take the job as Secretary of Agriculture in the Bush Administration. Subsequently, Heineman pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in Nebraska history when he defeated former Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne in the 2006 GOP primary.
Unfortunately, Heineman’s electioneering skills didn’t translate into competent governing skills during his record setting ten year tenure as governor. His administration was marked by gross incompetence, a series of scandals and fealty to the wealthy.
It would be impossible for me to cover all of Heineman’s failures in a short blog piece. Instead, I will highlight what I believe to be his most significant failures.
During his first term, the Heineman Administration’s general arrogance and incompetence caused the disintegration of the Beatrice State Developmental Center (BSDC) . Heineman cut funding for a medical care unit that was on the BSDC campus . After it became evident that the medically fragile residents couldn’t be properly cared for, 47 of these residents were moved to hospitals in Lincoln and Omaha.
These unnecessary and panic transfers led to 12 deaths of Nebraska’s most vulnerable citizens. This negligence not only cost 12 lives — it caused BSDC to lose $30 million in federal funds and its certification. A rescue of BSDC led by Senator Steve Lathrop saved the facility and restored the lost federal funds and certification.
Another serious scandal of the Heineman era involved the Corrections Department where 750 prisoners were freed prematurely and had over 2,500 years shaved off their collective sentences. Heineman scapegoated several career lawyers at the Attorney General’s office over this fiasco by forcing their resignations and ruining their careers.
As it turned out, Heineman was behind the early release of these prisoners. Then Nebraska Parole Board Board Chairwoman Esther Casmer testified at a 2014 legislative hearing that Larry Bare — Heineman’s chief of staff — threatened to terminate her if she refused his request to approve greater numbers of prisoners for parole and for a furlough program. Casmer testified that Bare said to her: “Don’t be concerned about losing your job for paroling people. Be concerned about losing your job for not paroling.”
Heineman’s secret early release program jeopardized the safety of Nebraskans and was in defiance of court ordered sentences. The special legislative committee that investigated Heineman’s early release program found that at least 162 violent offenders were prematurely released including ten who had been convicted of manslaughter or second degree murder.
Committee Chair State Senator Steve Lathrop stated: “The Governor’s failure to declare an overcrowding ‘emergency’ led to most of the administrative foul-ups at the Department of Correctional Services and prompted the agency and administration to deal with crowded conditions ‘in the shadows’ and sometimes outside the law.”
Perhaps Heineman’s biggest policy failure was his 2013 attempt to abolish the state income tax and replace the lost revenues with a huge (and regressive) increase in sales taxes. This plan was so extreme that it generated a firestorm of opposition and didn’t even make it out of the Revenue Committee.
Over 400 years ago William Shakespeare used the words, “What’s past is prologue” in his play, The Tempest. You could certainly say that about Dave Heineman. Like most Republicans these days, Heineman isn’t interested in governing and sees government as a favor factory to reward his wealthy campaign donors.
The 2022 election cycle will be here before you know it. This election will determine whether the right wing of the GOP will wreck the state with ruinous tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. Ricketts will be termed out and we will be electing a new governor. In addition, several Democratic and moderate Republican state senators won’t be running for re-election due to term limits. We have our work cut for us in 2022. Let’s get it done! Let’s leave it all out on the field! We can do this!