Politics

Sudden Summons

Dave Heineman has done all sorts of jobs in Nebraska government. With his boss leaving for Washington, he's about to get the big one.
by | January 2005

Like all successful politicians, Dave Heineman has gotten ahead through a combination of hard work and good luck. His ability to land in the right place is about to pay dividends as he glides into a job he's long coveted, governor of Nebraska. Heineman will take over for Mike Johanns, President Bush's choice to head the federal Department of Agriculture.

Heineman has served as the state's lieutenant governor since 2001 and before that held just about every type of job possible in Nebraska politics: party official, congressional aide, Fremont city councilman and state treasurer. He almost didn't get this one. After the previous lieutenant governor was appointed to a federal post in 2001, Johanns dawdled for 10 days before naming a replacement, fueling speculation that Heineman hadn't been his first choice. Johanns always denied this, but he had earlier passed Heineman over for a vacancy in the secretary of state's office.

Once he won the appointment as lieutenant governor, the West Point graduate took on real responsibilities as head of homeland security for the state and chief of an innovative information technology commission. "He probably has been more involved in the policy side of state government than any lieutenant governor that I've ever known," says Barry Kennedy, president of the state Chamber of Commerce.

Heineman has won generally good reviews for helping public safety agencies evolve to face contemporary challenges, improving emergency communications and overseeing the creation of a statewide public health system. Communications with neighboring states have been stepped up as well, and the state's agriculture agents have implemented new programs to trace livestock in the event of disease outbreak or bioterrorism.

He's also helped get the largely rural state up to speed for the information age. The Nebraska IT Commission, created by the legislature in 1998, has improved technology services throughout the public sector. There's now a telecom "backbone" fulfilling the requirements of both the state and the University of Nebraska's main campus. By bundling its bandwidth purchases, the state saved money and is offering to share its stepped-up system with other universities and K-12 schools. The IT commission also has been aggressive in developing a statewide telemedicine network.

Once Johanns is confirmed by the U.S. Senate and Heineman crosses the hall to the governor's office, he may start questioning his luck. Despite a growing economy--particularly in the agriculture sector-- Nebraska is approaching its next biennial budget season at least $58 million in the hole. And that's not even counting Medicaid growth and the state's mandatory obligation to put $175 million back in its reserve fund--or face some pretty significant environmental penalties.

In 2002, a federal judge fined the state $151 million for failing to keep interstate compact commitments to store low-level radioactive waste. This past summer, Nebraska reached a settlement with the other states, lowering the sum a tad. There could be additional savings, depending on how negotiations go in getting Texas to take the material. But Heineman will still have to come up with close to the original sum, once interest is factored in. "That's creating a black cloud over everything," says Doug Christensen, the state's education commissioner.

Still, Heineman's success at a wide variety of tasks has people in Lincoln optimistic about his chance. "If there's anybody in Nebraska that is well prepared for the job, served everywhere very well," says Dan Vodvarka, president of the Nebraska Society of CPAs, "it's Dave Heineman."

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