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Groene in ‘position of power’

February 5, 2017 GMT

Education Committee chairman takes heat for abrasive emails

LINCOLN — State Sen. Mike Groene has led a petition drive to cut school budgets, thinks schools waste too much money on administrators and frills, and believes that parents, not teachers or special interests, should control education.

He’s blunt, combative and often harsh, and now he’s sitting in a powerful spot as chairman of the legislative committee that oversees public education in the state.

The head of the Legislature’s Education Committee is a post usually reserved for a former teacher or school administrator, or someone who has served on a local school board, someone viewed as a reliable vote for education.

By contrast, Groene, a 61-year-old agricultural equipment salesman from North Platte, got his start as a critic of spending by his local school district. In 2006, he led a statewide petition drive to limit government spending that was opposed by the state’s teachers union, the Nebraska State Education Association, among others.

And now he’s taking heat for a fiery email exchange with a public schools defender two years ago in which he described teachers as “lazy” and “second rate.” Groene is unapologetic, saying the comments were taken out of context.

“I’m not a cheerleader. I’m a businessman who wants to improve public education,” Groene said. “Schools can do better.”

He is one of several conservative lawmakers swept into leadership positions this year over Democrats and more moderate Republicans.

His defenders say there’s nothing wrong with having a fiscal conservative in the top spot of a committee that decides issues related to schools and teachers.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have someone approach education from a little bit different perspective, especially when we have a budget shortfall. He focuses on the taxpayers,” said Crete Sen. Laura Ebke, the Legislature’s only Libertarian and a friend of Groene.

But critics say he’s anti-public education, and they are angry over a series of emails he exchanged in 2015 with a retired actuary from Hastings.

In the emails, Groene wrote that teachers keep their jobs only because of tenure, which protects teachers from being fired without just cause.

“Ever since the cowardly draft dodgers of the sixties hid behind education deferments and infested our public education system, our public schools have weakened,” Groene wrote.

Citizens need to reclaim education, he added, and if teachers don’t like it, “Walmart is hiring.”

At least one Democratic blogger said the comments show that Groene should not even be on the Education Committee, much less run it.

Jane Kleeb, the head of the Nebraska Democratic Party, called on Gov. Pete Ricketts to ask Groene to resign. She termed the email comments “disgusting.”

“Reading Groene’s emails to voters makes you wonder if he says this in public, how can he be a fair legislator when dealing with school budgets and other critical issues facing our state?” Kleeb said.

Ricketts, in comments Friday, said he had not seen the email, but that no matter how people feel about education, “we want to respect our educators” and that conversations should be based on “respect and dignity.”

Reaction from Groene’s legislative colleagues runs the gamut, from “stupid” and “disappointing,” to this is what sometimes happens when you get into a heated debate via email or over the Internet.

“Unfortunately, it’s sometimes not what you say but how you say it,” said Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing-Brooks, a member of the Education Committee. She added that teachers deserve support and respect.

Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer, the speaker of the Legislature, said he had “a conversation” with Groene after copies of the emails were sent to senators and school superintendents in mid-January.

“I think Sen. Groene regrets some of the comments in the terms he made them,” Scheer said. He added that the senator shouldn’t be criticized just because he has different views on the future of education in the state.

For his part, Groene said he has nothing to apologize about. The comments were taken out of context, he said, and were meant to condemn only bad teachers. He said that his debating style is to “try to get under the skin of my opponent,” which he did, and that sometimes he pushes that too far.

“Basically, if I did anything wrong, I was blunt,” he said. “And that’s what I’m known for.”

Later, the senator added, “I say what we all say around the kitchen table. I’m not politically correct. I don’t need to be.”

The email exchange came as no surprise to people in North Platte, where Groene has earned a reputation for aggressively opposing school spending proposals and other projects that use tax dollars.

He co-founded the Western Nebraska Taxpayers Association, which advocates for cuts in spending and lower taxes. The group went to court to fight the use of tax dollars to build a local tourist attraction, the Golden Spike Tower.

Groene and his group also opposed the use of tax increment financing for economic development projects, including a new Menards store, by the city. Such tax breaks benefit one entity while requiring others to foot the tax bills, he said. TIF is more about “urban renewal” than economic growth, Groene maintains.

“I believe in tax breaks for everybody or tax breaks for nobody,” he said.

A conversation between Groene and Ricketts led to the founding in 2006 of the conservative Platte Institute for Economic Research. Ricketts was the board president; Groene was one of the board members.

The senator cut his conservative teeth digging into the budget of the North Platte school district. He objected to spending he considered wasteful or extravagant. One project he fought was buying artificial turf for the high school football field.

Groene, who described himself as a “working-class Republican,” said spending needs to be focused on the classroom, not on a “plastic football field” or another layer of administrators.

“Some of these things get made because of community vanity,” he said, and not for sound reasons.

After unsuccessful campaigns for the Lincoln County Board and the local community college board, Groene decided to run for the Legislature in 2014. He filed just a couple of weeks before the deadline out of frustration after attending a state legislative hearing. He promised his wife he wouldn’t spend more than $2,500 of their money on a campaign.

Despite being outspent by a 5-to-1 margin, he said he won the election by knocking on more doors, talking to more voters.

“I went to every neighborhood,” Groene said.

But some detractors in North Platte said he was elected to “get him out of town,” a line that Groene himself used during a recent legislative hearing.

Critics say he opposes too many community initiatives, uses profanities too often and tries too hard to provoke people.

North Platte’s former state senator, Tom Hansen, whose wife was a teacher, described Groene as a hard worker who “gets a little intense.”

Pansing-Brooks, a current legislative colleague, said she’s nicknamed Groene “Sunshine” as a reminder to him to lighten up.

Groene said he appreciated the nickname, but he enjoys a good, lively debate because it hones one’s debating skills.

At his favorite cabin retreat along the South Loup River hangs a sign he had made that reads: “Politics & Religion is the only table talk at this cabin.”

But Bert Peterson, a retired actuary from Hastings, said he was shocked at the responses Groene sent to him about a newspaper op-ed piece he’d emailed concerning the correlation between poverty and low educational achievement.

The email exchange was in July 2015, but Peterson said when he realized that Groene had been elected chairman of the Education Committee, he shared the emails with every state senator and every school superintendent in the state, as well as others in education.

Peterson said they needed to be aware of the senator’s “absolute ignorance of education, and his hateful attitude toward educators.”

Groene said that Peterson was a “self-appointed” expert on education and proof of the “arrogance” of those in education toward opposing views.

“They believe the educational system is theirs, that it does not belong to the people, and the people are ignorant,” the senator said.

Groene said he’s been put “on the hit list” by liberals since the resignation of another outspoken conservative in the State Legislature, former Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner. Not only was Groene’s private email exchange released, Groene said, but a Facebook page that used to detail Kintner’s sometimes inflammatory quotes is now dedicated to Groene.

“But I haven’t done anything,” said Groene, who doesn’t use Twitter or Facebook.

Observers say there’s always a learning curve for a new committee chair in the Legislature, and Groene appears to be working to become a better listener, including to other points of view.

As the leader of the eight-member Education Committee, he’ll have to work to form consensus in a group that appears to be evenly split between moderates and conservatives.

The committee has some controversial issues to deal with, including whether to allow charter schools and whether to allow vouchers to be used to pay for private education.

Groene said he’s open to those ideas, under certain conditions, but that his big priority is to reduce property taxes by using the state aid to schools process.

He said he’s changed since the email exchange two years ago. Last year, he was in the minority as he led filibusters to derail proposals to provide tax credits for wind farms and require vaccination against meningitis.

“I’ve now got a position of power. I can get things done without being an agitator,” the senator said.

Officials with the NSEA did not return phone calls seeking comment about Groene, but the organization is supporting one of his bills — one that allows teachers to use physical force if a student becomes unruly or violent.

One veteran lobbyist, John Bonaiuto of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, said that while times have changed, Groene is very accessible, as well as being very frank.

“He’s definitely a conservative, with his own point of view,” Bonaiuto said. “What I have to do is work hard, when we are at odds, that maybe he isn’t seeing the whole picture.”