- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Gov. Pete Ricketts took office promising to bring his business savvy to state government and remove obstacles that make it harder for companies to flourish in Nebraska.

Yet in his first two years as governor, the former corporate executive has repeatedly found himself at odds with business groups on some of their top legislative priorities.

Ricketts vigorously fought legislation last year to allow driver’s licenses for certain young immigrants brought to the country illegally, who play a growing role in the state economy. In April, lawmakers overrode his veto of a bill to let those immigrants qualify for more than 170 commercial and professional licenses in a variety of fields, from health care to construction.

And he opposed a business-backed push to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from workplace discrimination, saying new laws weren’t necessary.

Ricketts defended his relationship with the business community in a recent interview, noting that he has helped companies by reducing the time and paperwork required for various state permits. His administration also created a first-in-the-nation reemployment program that lets Nebraska businesses search a database for potential employees, and is hosting an economic development summit for businesses this summer in Lincoln.

But the Republican governor said the business argument for giving benefits to immigrants who came to the country illegally is “an ends justifies the means philosophy” that rewards law-breaking.

“It’s about the principle involved of following the rule of law,” Ricketts said. “The foundation of our society is that people believe in the rule of law. The more we undermine that, the more we undermine that basic foundation.”

Business groups viewed the bill as a way to increase the state’s skilled workforce in health care, engineering, manufacturing and other fields with an employee shortage. Nebraska had the nation’s third-lowest unemployment rate as of April, at 3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Business leaders played down the disagreements with Ricketts but acknowledged they have had to turn to the Legislature several times to try to override the governor’s vetoes.

“I think the governor looks at it from a strictly legal standpoint, while the business community looks at it from a more practical standpoint,” said Bruce Bohrer, executive vice president of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce. “We need to attract as many people as we can.”

Bohrer said the anti-discrimination bill was particularly important to his group and was widely supported by the city’s business community.

The Lincoln chamber wanted to take a stand on the issue early after its members saw the public backlash in states like Indiana, where a new religious freedom law led some companies and organizations to limit travel to the state and halt expansion plans. Bowing to public pressure, Indiana lawmakers and Republican Gov. Mike Pence changed the law to reduce the odds that it could be used to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

“It is absolutely something we’re concerned about as far as the image we have as a state,” Bohrer said.

Barry Kennedy, executive director of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said most of his group’s members supported the immigrant professional licenses bill after the potential benefits were explained. The chamber’s executive committee supported it unanimously earlier this year after agreeing that a statewide worker shortage is the biggest challenge they face. Ricketts cast the proposal as an “amnesty bill” and tried to pressure lawmakers into upholding his veto.

“These things happen,” Kennedy said. “You’re not always together 100 percent of the time. We still view the governor as being pro-business, and we work with him on a lot of issues.”

Kennedy said the group supported Ricketts’ backing of additional state roads funding, a budget with lower-than-average spending growth and the renewal of economic development incentives that were about to expire.

Ricketts also helped forge relationships with foreign investors through his recent trade mission to Japan, said Pat Haverty, vice president for economic development with the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development. Haverty said he expects a Japanese company will announce an expansion in Lincoln in the next 30 days, thanks largely to the governor’s efforts.

“With the governor’s business experience, he is able to do a nice job of making connections with these companies,” Haverty said.

Still, businesses throughout the state are relying more than ever on immigrant populations to work in manufacturing, meatpacking and other fields. K.C. Belitz, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, said his area faces a “desperate situation” with more than 900 open jobs. The new law allowing immigrants to get professional licenses could help fill some of them, he said.

“With the workforce situation being what it is here, you really can’t afford to make it more difficult than necessary for people with skills to put those skills to use,” Belitz said.

Opposing the immigrant licensing bill carried little political risk for Ricketts, said University of Nebraska political science professor John Hibbing. Providing benefits to people in the country illegally remains unpopular among Nebraska voters, he said, and Ricketts is unlikely to lose support from the business community even though he tried to block some of their top priorities.

“I think he took those stances because he feels they’re more in tune with the people of Nebraska,” Hibbing said. “I can’t see the business community campaigning hard against him. The link between Republicans and the business community in Nebraska is very strong.”

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