By Governor Pete Ricketts
May 10, 2016
The Governor’s official photo is available here.
Over the last year, I have regularly written about the importance of running government like a business. It is something I have been focusing on in state agencies over my first 16 months as your Governor. Unfortunately, government does not always work for the taxpayers. Two weeks ago, the State Auditor announced that he had uncovered significant waste and abuse of your taxpayer dollars at the Nebraska Tourism Commission, a government agency run by an independent board which does not report to the Governor.
In a 79-page report, the Auditor’s Office detailed how the commission provided complimentary massages at a tourism conference, paid a speaker over $40,000 for an hour and a half speech, and spent $18,000 to move a single employee from Sidney to Kearney. In addition to this wasteful spending, the commission reimbursed a contractor for alcohol and cigarettes, and mismanaged a contract with an ad agency which went an astounding $4.4 million over budget.
On top of this waste, the State Tourism Director, Kathy McKillip, attempted to ask the Legislature for money to patch a hole in their budget—without her board’s knowledge—even though our state had a record year for hotel tax revenues that help fund the commission. Because of all this waste and mismanagement, I have called on the Tourism Commission board to fire Ms. McKillip, so the commission can search for new leadership to help run the organization more like a business. Nebraskans cannot tolerate such flagrant abuse of taxpayer dollars, and it is important that commission directors take the necessary steps to rectify this situation.
You only have to go back a few years to understand how the Tourism Commission ended up with minimal oversight. In 2012, the Legislature voted to create an independent commission to promote tourism—a function previously performed by the Department of Economic Development. The creation of an independent commission took away the accountability of direct oversight from the Governor’s Office. As Governor, I have the authority to appoint commission members, and will make my first appointments later this year when the terms of several commission members expire. While I will have the opportunity to make appointments to the commission as Governor, I do not have the authority to remove commission members.
When the Legislature creates independent commissions, there is always a risk of a lack of oversight by the volunteer board members of commissions and it is harder for elected officials to hold them accountable. Unlike the Governor or Legislature, the board members of the tourism commission are not elected by a vote of the people. Additionally, unlike my cabinet, which is accountable to me, I cannot fire directors or commissioners from these agencies at will. Removing our tourism office from the Department of Economic Development made it more difficult to hold the State Tourism Director accountable.
In the coming days and weeks, I hope to see the Tourism Commission do the right thing by making staffing changes and instituting best business practices. My office will continue to work to encourage commissioners to do the right thing in the wake of this scathing audit. In the agencies reporting to me, I will continue to work with my directors to run agencies in a more business-minded and customer-friendly manner. If you have any thoughts on this subject or any other matter, you are welcome to share them by emailing my office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 402-471-2244. I look forward to hearing from you!