Heineman: Farm focus key for new University of Nebraska regent

Farm Forum

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Gov. Dave Heineman said on Feb. 15 that agriculture and college affordability will play key roles in his decision to fill an opening on the University of Nebraska’s governing board.

The Republican governor said he’ll rely heavily on the advice of his new second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann, when he picks a replacement to serve on the university’s Board of Regents.

“This regent district, to some extent, is a rural district,” Heineman said in an interview. “I certainly want someone who will appreciate and understand rural Nebraska, will have an agricultural focus, and a common-sense fiscal conservative. And then we’ll look at a wide variety of issues.”

Heineman’s decision to name Heidemann as his new lieutenant leaves a key opening on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents. It also has raised concerns among abortion opponents who want to change the university’s policies on embryonic stem cell research.

The new regent will represent District 5, which covers a mostly rural expanse of southeast Nebraska.

Heidemann, a former state lawmaker, resigned from his seat on Feb. 13 after a little more than a month on the board. During his campaign, Heidemann was endorsed by the group Nebraska Right to Life because of his opposition to expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

He defeated Mike Jones, a David City insurance agent who supported the current regents’ policy that allows for the stem cell usage approved by President Barack Obama. Jones said Nebraska’s policy should be left to state lawmakers, not the regents.

Jones is a Republican who describes himself as “pro-life,” but his position on the university’s stem-cell research policy cost him the endorsement of Nebraska Right to Life. Executive director Julie Schmit-Albin said she plans to present Nebraska Right to Life’s concerns to the governor.

“Sen. Heidemann’s appointment as lieutenant governor means we’ve lost an advocate on the Board of Regents,” Schmit-Albin said. “I’m very glad he’s going to be the lieutenant governor. He’s a wonderful man. But it does mean that we need to impart to the governor what our experience was in the 2012 election with Sen. Heidemann’s opponent.”

Schmit-Albin said the research issue was a “deal breaker” for her group.

“You can’t just say I’m pro-life, like Mike Jones was saying, but he’s not on research,” she said. “Lavon Heidemann had a consistent record in the Legislature, voting with us any time the issue came up.”

The regents, who are elected, voted 4-4 in 2009 not to place tighter restrictions on embryonic stem cell research than those outlined under federal guidelines. The guidelines were expanded after Obama took office.

The board needed a majority of its eight voting members to approve the measure. Former board member Jim McClurg, who was endorsed by Nebraska Right to Life, voted against the resolution.

Jones said on Feb. 15 that he has already applied for the open seat. In an interview, he said his answers in a Nebraska Right to Life survey were identical to the ones given by Heidemann. The two only differed on the research issue, which Jones said he declined to answer because the vote had happened years ago. Jones said he wanted to be judged on more than his views opposing abortion.

“The university is critical to the health and well-being of our state,” Jones said. “This is an institution of higher education. Let’s not politicize it more than it already is.”

Heineman said he doesn’t consider Jones’ position a disqualifying factor.

“I’d say very candidly that I’ve met him a couple of times, and he appears to be a respected business leader,” Heineman said. “He ran a competitive race, so I’ll consider him along with everyone else who applies.”

The governor’s office is accepting applications for the regents’ seat through the close of business on March 8.