Although Gov. Pete Ricketts believes he has experienced a successful first year as governor, he has turned to former Govs. Ben Nelson and Mike Johanns for advice on how he can work more effectively with the Nebraska Legislature.

That outreach follows the governor's loss of some high-profile legislative veto battles in 2015.

"This year, I will be working more closely with committee chairs," Ricketts said during a sit-down interview in the ornate governor's office at the Capitol.

"A year ago, we were very focused on the budget and building a cabinet and making sure there was tax relief," the governor said. "We really didn't know the committee chairs."

Already, he noted, he has kept in close touch with Revenue Committee Chairman Mike Gloor of Grand Island and Education Committee Chairwoman Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids as their committees tackle the challenging task of trying to craft some consensus on property tax reductions and state aid to schools.

Property tax reduction remains a Ricketts priority.

Both Nelson, a Democrat, and Johanns, a Republican, came to the governorship from outside the Capitol, just as Ricketts did. And they also faced a similar learning curve.

"They said their first (legislative) session had ups and downs," Ricketts said. "They were new to the game. They said just keep working."

Approaching the one-year anniversary of his governorship this week, the governor was relaxed and candid in assessing his own performance.

While he achieved his primary first-year objectives of reducing the growth of state government spending, increasing property tax credits and building a talented executive team, Ricketts said, the legislative results were admittedly mixed.

Ricketts lost three high-profile veto struggles when the Legislature overrode his vetoes of legislation to repeal the death penalty, increase the state gas tax and allow young immigrants who primarily were brought to the United States as children to acquire Nebraska driver's licenses.

The first two battles were lost by a single vote.

Veto overrides of "some of those hot-button issues" were unanticipated by almost everyone, Ricketts said.

"But, yes, we can be more effective working with the Legislature," he said. "We can do a better job."

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There was notable success in working with Appropriations Committee Chairman Heath Mello of Omaha in helping achieve a 2015-17 state budget that reduced the growth in state spending from 6.5 percent to 3.5 percent and increased property tax credits by 45 percent, Ricketts said.

"That's a great example that people can be proud of, in seeing how our government works in contrast to the national level," he said.

Ricketts is a Republican, and Mello is a Democrat in the nonpartisan Legislature.

Even though it may not have exactly matched his recommendations, the governor said, "that budget was a huge win for taxpayers."

Ricketts said he believes his goals of forming a talented executive team and creating a culture that builds accountability, efficiency and excellence into state government performance "have gone wonderfully well."

A couple of mid-course corrections changed leadership in the state Department of Economic Development and recently added trusted Ricketts adviser Jessica Flanagain to his staff.

"We always want to do a better job," the governor said.

"That's why I do town halls around the state. That helps us determine what our priorities ought to be."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.


Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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