LINCOLN, Nebraska — With only a couple weeks left in his tenure as Nebraska's top executive, Gov. Dave Heineman said he's confident the state is in better shape now than when he took office nearly 10 years ago.
The 66-year-old Republican is about to finish two and a half terms — the longest stretch in Nebraska's history — marked by tax cuts, an expansion of business incentives and increased funding for higher education. Yet Heineman will also be remembered for scandals on his watch, from problems in the state's prison system and social services to the abrupt resignation of two lieutenant governors.
"I think Nebraska is stronger, educationally and economically," Heineman said in an Associated Press interview at the Capitol. "We've worked very hard on improving that. Nebraska is now recognized as a national leader in many areas."
Heineman pointed to updated high school graduation requirements for Nebraska students, improved state tax rankings by national groups and an economy with the nation's second-lowest unemployment rate. He signed the largest and second-largest tax cuts in state history into law. Nebraska has also made strides in bringing together conflicting groups to preserve the state's water supply and in promoting wind energy, he said.
Throughout his tenure, Heineman said he followed the advice that he recently gave his soon-to-be successor, Pete Ricketts: "Do your homework, listen to the people of Nebraska and be yourself."
Ricketts will replace the term-limited Heineman when he is sworn in at the Capitol on Jan. 8. Heineman was appointed governor on Jan. 20, 2005, after serving as lieutenant governor under then-Gov. Mike Johanns. He won election to the office in 2006 and was re-elected four years later, both times by huge margins.
His future remains unclear. Heineman said he and his wife, Sally Ganem, plan to return to their home in Fremont with their 5-year-old dog, a Silkese named Snickers.
The governor had applied for the vacant University of Nebraska presidency but wasn't chosen as a finalist. Heineman said he might consider a job on a corporate board or in a position that promotes economic development, though he hasn't committed to any specific groups.
Heineman worked closely with major agriculture groups on tax policy and was a strong voice for animal agriculture, said Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Heineman also listened closely to farmers' concerns about water policy and state spending, Nelson said.
"Gov. Heineman was extraordinarily accessible," Nelson said.
Heineman sometimes clashed with lawmakers over tax policy, spending and immigration. But he also worked with the Legislature to help Nebraska emerge from the recession in better shape than other states, said Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha.
"Anytime he has that kind of focus, he's a great leader and we've done some great things," Krist said. "His agenda was always to take care of major issues — the university, education, taxes."
But Krist, appointed by Heineman in 2009, also criticized the administration for a lack of oversight that has cost the state millions.
State audits found numerous financial problems and mismanagement within the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. A 2009 effort to privatize child welfare services backfired, and the federal government last year demanded that Nebraska repay $22 million for child services that weren't properly documented. The amount has since been reduced.
Heineman lost two lieutenant governors in scandals: His first, Rick Sheehy, resigned in 2013 after news broke that he made thousands of calls to women other than his wife on a state cellphone. Sheehy's replacement, Lavon Heidemann, left office in September after a judge approved his sister's request a domestic violence protection order.
The governor faced criticism for state prison problems after officials miscalculated hundreds of inmate sentences. Administrators also were blamed for their handling of Nikko Jenkins, an inmate who was released from prison in July 2013 and killed four people in Omaha the following month.
"Dave Heineman has been one of the worst governors in the history of the state," said Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. "He has presided over scandal after scandal after scandal. He failed in his most important job — to protect Nebraskans from crime — when his administration completely mishandled the Corrections Department."
Powers said the various scandals have cost the state millions, and that Heineman left tens of thousands of Nebraskans without health care coverage because of his opposition to the federal health care law. Powers said Heineman was often more interested in Republican Party politics than state policy.
Heineman dismissed the criticism, and he played down the mishaps of the last few years, saying he stayed focused on big-picture issues and responded to problems quickly when they came to his attention.
"The people of Nebraska will make their own judgment," Heineman said. "For the last 10 years, we've moved this state forward."
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