HARTINGTON — Every worker on the factory floor at the Hydraulics Components plant reacted to Gov. Pete Ricketts’ presence differently Monday as he toured Cedar County’s largest industry.
The Governor said he visited the local plant, which will be celebrating its 40th year in operation here this year, in order to get the opinions of rural Nebraska workers.
Many looked up and stared for a moment, others continued working without a second look and a few gave the first-term governor hearty smiles and firm handshakes.
The world champion Chicago Cubs, which are owned by the Ricketts family, were also a big topic of discussion for the local workers.
Jon Polak saw Ricketts’ visit as an opportunity to point out the shoddy state of more than a few highways across the state.
It’s evidently not the first time Ricketts has heard this, nor will it probably be the last.
“A lot of people are a lot less subtle than you,” Ricketts said with a disarming smile honed to near-perfection from years of sitting on numerous boards of directors.
Pete Ricketts has been lauded by fellow conservatives like Texas Senator and former presidential candidate Ted Cruz as a non-politician, an outsider with the ability to connect with Nebraskans outside the confines of a cozy office in the capitol building.
On Monday afternoon, Ricketts didn’t show Hartington factory workers the politician in him. Instead, he was a businessman with a product to sell, specifically subtle campaign promises.
“The vision of my administration is to grow Nebraska,” Ricketts said to workers sitting at tables in the factory’s break room before launching into his plans to further cut taxes across the state, including property taxes.
“This is probably the single biggest issue I hear across the state,” he said.
According to Ricketts, the tax bill he proposed was the most comprehensive tax bill since 1980. The bill failed in the legislature this spring after a coalition of senators, led by Omaha’s Burke Harr, argued the bill focused too heavily on income taxes rather than the high property tax burdens farmers face and it would be irresponsible to make large tax cuts during a budget shortfall.
Substantial property tax relief for farmers should help the rural economy, Ricketts said.
The Governor said tax relief will come through reduced spending at the state level, especially as farmland values continue to decline.
“I’m not going to support raising taxes,” Ricketts said. “We’re going to control expenses and cut our spending just like our farm and ranch families do.”
Despite this burden being the single biggest issue he’s heard across the state, Ricketts told workers at Hydraulics he still intends on pushing the income tax-focused bill through.
“Putting through any bill is hard,” Ricketts said. “We’re not giving up on it.”
The governor’s visit to Hartington came off the heels of a morning celebration in Fremont, where he participated in the groundbreaking ceremony of a new Costco poultry plant.
This visit marks the first time Ricketts has come to the community as Governor. He was here in November 2014 during a last-minute campaign stop before the Nebraska gubernatorial election. Ricketts will be running for re-election next year.
If re-elected, a key issue facing manufacturing plants like Hydraulic Components, Inc., will be the concern of job loss as increased automation creeps its way into factory floors across the country.
The governor said his administration aims to help students understand the job opportunities in skilled labor by encouraging local companies and businesses to cooperate with schools to create curriculums geared toward technical trades. He said this will mean students exposed at a young age will be able to explore career paths in skilled labor going into high school. With this plan, companies know where their labor is coming from and how they were educated.
“The single biggest thing the companies are looking for is to make sure they’re looking for the right people,” Ricketts said.
Still, Ricketts says factory employees shouldn’t be concerned about increased robot usage in the workplace. He said automation opens up new job opportunities for a new generation of workers possessing a technology-oriented skill set.
“The manufacturing jobs today are not like they were 30 years ago, that’s why the kids that are coming out are trained,” Ricketts said.
Ricketts was impressed that Hydraulic Components’ employees has roughly 2,050 years of combined service among its 115 employees.
Hartington’s slow population decline may put the company in danger as its older workers begin to retire and the next pool of young, incoming workers is too small to replace the losses.
The hope lies in companies like HCI to be able work with Hartington-Newcastle Public Schools and create a curriculum that encourages students to work in local plants.
Despite his reputation for being an outsider, Ricketts’ visit to Hartington showcased his capability of straddling the line between a concerned politician and a friendly salesman. His charm lies in his ability to communicate with every Nebraskan, from the casual Chicago Cubs fan, to the college students spending their summer breaks operating factory machinery.
HCI workers were glad to see him stop in.
“Thanks for stopping in. Glad to see you out here talking to people like us,” Jon Polak said, after shaking hands with the Governor.