Doug Bereuter


Interviewee Doug Bereuter,

Doug Bereuter

Position Held:

Full Interview:


Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:



MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's June 3, 2013. I'm talking to Doug Bereuter in Utica about the NRD Oral History Project.
And the first question is, just generally, to give you a chance to give a little background in how you got involved in state government and any kind of association with the NRDs.
MR. BEREUTER: All right. I'm happy to talk to you about this, Jim. Just to give you a little context without going into great detail, my first job after the Army, I worked for HUD in San Francisco as an urban planner, since that was my training and background. And I became responsible for meeting with the bay area councils of government, which gave me an indication of what governments could do together by using the interlocal cooperation act.
And I spent less than a year there before I came back to Nebraska to work in the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. And in a year or two, I had been working with Governor Tiemann to create the State Office of Planning and Programming. We were successful in doing that through a legislative act. And I took the concept that we had begun to investigate in the Department of Economic Development of regional cooperation. We'd tried a few things, for example, in the four southeastern counties trying to get them to work with Planning and Development using the interlocal cooperation act.
So, one of the first things that I had an involvement in with some key staff that were eventually hired by me, three people in particular, Jim Barr being one of them, to work in the State Office of Planning and Programming was what we called the building block theory. Trying to bring some order to the way that state agency lines and administrative regions were set up. And it was all based around a growth center theory. So that in each of, I think we had, perhaps, 24 or 26 building block regions that would be some growth center or potential growth center. Well, this had an impact on state agencies, and some agencies took that as an opportunity to reorganize their regional office structure.
About this time, of course, I learned that there was an effort underway, led by Warren Fairchild, to create the natural resource districts. And Governor Tiemann soon told me that Warren was concerned that the building block theory or the lines that related to them would get in the way of his initiative, which he hoped to pass in the legislature. So, I met and, I believe, with Jim Barr, with Warren Fairchild. At least, I met with him on one or more occasions and, perhaps, Gayle Starr was involved. And I assured Warren that I thought the natural resource districts should, by and large, be based upon hydrologic regions or water basins, river basins. And so, in my judgment, the building block theory was not a limitation or a factor with the creation of the NRDs.
And, in fact, most of the NRDs are based on hydrologic boundaries, although they were rounded off or squared off based upon precincts, the voting precincts typically. And some were -- had borders that were only partly hydrological lines.
And so, I think Warren was greatly relieved. And, as a matter of fact, I was relieved because I knew some people I greatly admired in the legislature, like Maurice Kremer of Aurora, was a key person involved in natural resources and, ultimately, expected to be a sponsor, perhaps already was a sponsor, of the NRD legislation. And we certainly didn't want to alienate any of the key senators over a non-issue. And so, as my judgment, which I conveyed to Warren, I think, reassured him that the building block theory, those boundaries in combination, were not going to have an impact, were not controlling over the natural resource district lines that they had pretty well outlined at that point.
So, that's kind of the background on it. I have had -- I can talk more about the natural resources districts and --
MR. BARR: Well --
MR. BEREUTER: -- my attitude about them.
MR. BARR: Might -- Before we go to that, I might mention to you, one of the things we learned in this process was that, according to Dayle Williamson, that Warren Fairchild kind of got the idea for the natural resource districts from a seminar he went to where Clayton Yeutter had talked about regional (indiscernible) and special purpose districts and that sort of thing.
MR. BARR: And I guess I was wondering if, within the Tiemann administration, for instance, rather there was much talk about regionalism -- regional approach to government? How the Tiemann administration kind of looked at that. In fact, Clayton's seminar probably even preceded the Tiemann administration. So, I just thought that was interesting.
MR. BARR: I had never heard that before.
MR. BEREUTER: I haven't, in fact, heard that. I'm not surprised because regionalism was beginning to be considered, especially when it came to growth theories or growth center economic development theories. And the State had already passed some time ago model legislation called the Interlocal Cooperation Act or something like that. Intergovernmental Cooperation Act, perhaps. So, it set the stage for governments to cooperate and pursue jointly things that they had individually had the power to do. So, it could, in some cases, involve both cities and counties and special purpose districts.
I do know as well, that there was some discussion within the administration about the proliferation of special purpose districts, including natural resource-related special purpose districts, that did exist. And I'm sure that was a motivating factor, to try to consolidate that effort and further empower the natural resource districts that were going to be created. Because these are really unique political subdivisions in the whole United States. They have broad powers. They have taxing authority, which is crucial to implementation. And I know, of course, there was great resistance in some of the better organized and long term effective soil and water districts. I remember some controversy involving one called the Maple Creek District, for example. I think that was up and included part of Colfax County, for example.
So, there was that discussion. But most of that discussion took place, frankly, it seems to me, it may be self-serving, but between the Governor and the Department of Economic Development and the State Office of Planning and Programming that we created. Whether or not seeds were sown earlier that had an effect on Governor Tiemann by Clayton Yeutter, I don't know. But, of course, Clayton Yeutter became the first chief of staff for Governor Tiemann in his administration, and I was shortly over as one of the -- the State Planning Director.
MR. BARR: Just in general, you've seen quite a bit of the country and other units of government. And the development of natural resource, how have they fared over the years, in your opinion?
MR. BEREUTER: I'm not an expert on this, but I know that there are other states that -- and other natural resource leaders, public and private sector leaders, that are envious of Nebraska's ability to do a wide variety of things by means of our natural resource districts. I do think, in many cases, the political subdivisions that exist in natural resource areas around the country do not have strong implementation power. They end up being primarily planning units but, oftentimes, they lack the ability to really implement the programs because they don't have the taxing authority and they don't have the democratic base, which we have by our natural resource district board members, which have, I suppose, survived a court challenge or two at one time or another. I don't know.
But our districts are very different. And my recollection is that the districts that were created by that legislation are intact, except that two of them have been merged. In retrospect, I think a few of the districts probably were too small in terms of financial resources and population, but especially financial resources, to do what they might have done otherwise. So, perhaps, some were, particularly in the less populated parts of the state, a bit too small to be as effective as some of those other ones in this eastern half of the state.
I know, from time to time, it does appear that the natural resource districts that involve the Omaha metropolitan area and the Lincoln metropolitan area have a broader orientation because you have more representatives of the urban population sitting on those boards. And in some cases, the people living in rural areas around Lincoln or around Douglas or Sarpy County, perhaps, have worried about the fact that most of the board members are coming from the urban portions of the district. But, by and large, I think, it's worked out extremely well.
MR. BARR: You have any comments on the Tiemann administration involvement of -- in relation to the formation of the natural -- the development of the legislation and the formation of the natural resource districts? I don't particularly remember, but I was just --
MR. BEREUTER: I don't have a direct knowledge about that, but I do know that, after the governor was elected but even before he took office, the so-called group of whiz kids around him, of which I was one of them, the only non-attorney, had a whole legislative program. And I think that's quite unique, almost, in Nebraska state government's history. So, they went in with all kinds of things already in legislative form, and then the effort was to try find the right people in the legislature to be sponsors. People that had expertise, committee assignments in the area, and, more importantly, respect of their other members.
So, Maurice Kremer was an obvious choice to have an involvement. And I believe you mentioned earlier, and I recall too, that Jules Burbach had a role. Probably Gerdes may have as well.
MR. BARR: Yeah, I think that's right.
MR. BEREUTER: And I know, as I sought to pass legislation for the governor in the area of economic development and urban affairs and the State Office of Planning and Programming, we went to the senator that we thought would be a good senator, by committee assignment and influence, to be able to pass it. We went to Rick Budd. And so, we worked with him, made sure he was comfortable with the legislation, modified it based upon his choice, and, ultimately, of course, it became his or it became several members of the legislative body's vehicle to move ahead. And the Governor's Office had an unusual impact on much legislation during that four-year period of time, but, ultimately, the Governor understood, and those of us that worked for him understood, it had to be that legislator or that group of legislators' product. They had to convince people it wasn't somebody pushing something down their throat. It was from them with some help from the executive branch and, certainly, support. And, also, the expectation that the legislation wouldn't be vetoed when it got to the Governor's Office.
So, I suspect that there was a lot of consultation between one or more members of the administration. Maybe some of those whiz kids involved in drafting that legislation. It's perhaps possible that Clayton had some involvement directly in it.
MR. BARR: In general, would you like to just, kind of, summarize some of the legislative accomplishments in that administration and --
MR. BARR: Off the top.
MR. BEREUTER: It is off the top of my head. But, of course, the most significant but, also, the most controversial was the fact that the state, basically, had no tax base. And Phil Sorensen and Governor Teimann, as gubernatorial candidates, both campaigned that they would have to pass a sales and income tax or some combinations or one or the other. And so, it was left, since the State had voted itself out of the property tax area, had no sales tax, had no income tax, it was left to the Governor, Tiemann, to implement the combination sales and income tax.
I suspect it was also during that period of time when the legislation was passed to establish revenue projection areas but -- of activity, but I'm not certain.
Of course, the Department of Economic Development was created in the first several months of the Tiemann administration. It had been just a division of Nebraska Resources, as a component of the State Department of Agriculture before that point. So, that was one that I was very familiar with and had some involvement in as well.
And then, about two years later, we had created the State Office of Planning and Programming.
Oh, but, gee, there were many other things. And I know that the highway program took a big step forward during that period of time as well. But I'd have to really think long and hard about --
MR. BARR: That's fine. It just occurred to me to ask (indiscernible) --
MR. BEREUTER: -- the full range.
MR. BARR: And I, at this point, I -- you know, you've seen the NRDs over a number of years. I guess they've had their 40th anniversary or something.
MR. BARR: So, just any thoughts you might have had on how they've turned out in relation to, maybe, how they were envisioned in the first place? Any other just general thoughts you might have in relation to NRDs?
MR. BEREUTER: I think, despite some initial controversy as you were consolidating and eliminating various special purposes districts, despite that, the support for them across the state among resource leaders and, in general, the citizenry is very strong. Most people don't understand, I suspect, that they are a unique institution in terms of the breadth of their power.
And the fact that, of course, they have comprehensive coverage across the whole state means that they're a strong basis of influencing the State to take other actions that are natural resource oriented. When I was in the state legislature, we helped create a natural resources fund for special projects, which they, in turn, were the implementing agent for with the Soil and Water Conservation Commission.
I do recall that there was a Department of Water Resources and the Soil and Water Conservation Commission at the point where Tiemann came into office. And there was some thought about trying to consolidate them from the beginning, but that's one that they didn't take on. The Commission, of course, was not directly responsible to the Governor. They were responsible to their own board at that point. So, that was another reason why it was particularly important to work with Warren Fairchild and assure that you had the support of the key senators to move ahead. It was a little unusual, I suppose, they might have thought, that what was -- that the Governor was acting more directly with re- -- something that was not what we called a line
item -- in line -- a line department. Excuse me.
MR. BARR: Yeah, a line department.
MR. BEREUTER: But, actually, a commission. So, I don't know the history of how that all changed later.
MR. BARR: Well --
MR. BEREUTER: But I felt confident as a state legislator of -- when I served from '74 to '78, to give implementing responsibilities to the NRD, which were up and running and well respected at that point.
MR. BARR: That was the general area I wanted to talk to you about, but if you have any other thoughts in this whole range, you're certainly welcome to add them and would have a chance to add at a later time, if you wanted to.
MR. BEREUTER: I was going to speak at the dedication of the -- of Lake Wanahoo because I had some involvement with the natural resource district, Lower Platte North, and the City of Wahoo in Saunders County, of course. And I'm a resident of Saunders County. And I did want to emphasize in my prepared remarks, which I never got to deliver because of the change in the schedule of the dedication, just how important the natural resource districts were and are, and that I thought that the Lower Platte North was demonstrating that they were able to take on some very significant projects. They had already constructed what I believe is called the Czechland Reservoir near Prague. And this was an even larger project, Lake Wanahoo, that involved a number of political subdivisions and, also, federal and state resources. So that I thought, from the smallest kind of projects on individual landowners' property where they provide assistance, right up to significant water development projects for conservation, for recreation, and for flood control, that NRD was demonstrating the range of capabilities that NRDs really have. And I expect to see them do more significant projects like that.
In Lower Platte South, you see them taking on some projects and programs that are really very urban in orientation, with the recent flood control project in Antelope Creek, for example, where they were a significant participant, along with the University and state government and, of course, the federal government, the Corps of Engineers.
So, I think we're just beginning to see the full range of potential of natural resource districts across the state. And with water being so precious, they're going to play a larger role, I think, in water conservation and regulation in some parts of the states to protect our resources.
MR. BARR: That's it. (Indiscernible) --
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