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Bill to change status of History Nebraska advanced

A state agency with a recent history of controversy would be placed under the direct authority of the governor under a bill advanced from general file March 7.

Sen. Steve Erdman
Sen. Steve Erdman

Under LB1169, introduced by Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, the Nebraska State Historical Society — commonly known as History Nebraska — would become a code agency under Nebraska state law. Code agency directors are appointed by the governor with legislative approval and report directly to the governor.

History Nebraska has been a noncode agency since 1994 and is governed by a board of 15 trustees, three of whom are appointed by the governor. The remaining trustees are elected by History Nebraska members in each of the state’s three congressional districts. The director is appointed by the board of trustees.

Erdman said the agency has had management issues for years, most recently when felony charges were brought against its former director for misdirecting a donation to a private charitable organization that he founded. He also noted that, under its current form of governance, History Nebraska disposed of a large number of items from the Fort Robinson historical site.

“This is the solution that we need to proceed with to bring some confidence back to those people who are making contributions to History Nebraska … so that they can be confident that we’re keeping the history that we should be keeping in Nebraska,” Erdman said.

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon supported the proposal, saying the agency needs greater oversight and a new leadership structure. He cited as an example the lack of whistleblower protections for individuals who brought recent wrongdoings to light.

“The system is broken,” Brewer said.

Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad expressed concerns about the bill, while acknowledging that the agency has had a “host” of issues in recent years. The criminal justice system is addressing misconduct by the former director, she said, and the agency is taking concrete steps to move in the right direction.

“Just by making something a code agency, that in itself … does not prevent waste, fraud and abuse,” Conrad said, adding that some of the state’s “most troubled” entities are code agencies.

She said the measure carries a “lingering undercurrent” of a desire to curtail academic freedom and censor content, noting that the agency has drawn scrutiny for its engagement with the state’s LGBTQ history and community. Making History Nebraska a code agency could have a “chilling” effect on some historical research and outreach, Conrad said.

Among other provisions, LB1169 would require prior approval of gifts to History Nebraska of real property or with a monetary value of $10,000 or more. It also would outline the director’s duties and prohibit the director from serving on the board of any charitable organization that provides monetary or other support to History Nebraska.

Finally, the bill would remove administrative duties from the trustees and instead give them an advisory role to the director.

Lawmakers gave LB1169 first-round approval on a vote of 27-1.

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