Ascierno ok'd for public health on 2nd try; Capitol HVAC up to $106 million

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May 6, 2015 - 6:08pm

One day after failing to confirm Gov. Pete Ricketts nominee for Nebraska’s public health chief, the Legislature reversed course and confirmed Dr. Joseph Ascierno today (Wednesday). And lawmakers approved a $28 million addition to an already $78 million estimate for the costs of updating the Capitol’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

When the Legislature debated whether Dr. Joseph Ascierno should be confirmed to continue as the state’s chief medical officer, senators were divided between those who said his background as a lawyer and a physician made him well-suited for the job, and those who complained that he was arrogant and reluctant to confront what they see as problems in the state’s health system.

Tuesday, his confirmation came up three votes short, with many senators not voting. Wednesday, Sen. Health Mello of Omaha moved to reconsider Tuesday’s vote. Mello said he hadn’t voted Tuesday because he thought the nomination would go through despite the reservations some senators had. He said Wednesday he think Ascierno shouldn’t be blamed for things that went wrong at the Department of Health and Human services during the administration of former Gov. Dave Heineman.

"Colleagues, I stand in front of you asking to take a step back and reconsider what we did, because I believe the new leadership in this department is going to try to correct those wrongs," Mello said. "If, for whatever reason, Dr. Ascierno continues ….to be part of that roadblock, so to speak, to the reforms that all of us have been asking for and have been talking about and clamoring for over the last few years, I have no doubt that he would be removed by the CEO or the new governor."

The new CEO of Health and Human Services is Courtney Phillips.

Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, supported Ascierno’s confirmation. "Dr. Ascierno has the credentials to do this job. And I’m willing to give Miss Phillips the opportunity to work with him and to make her own judgments and allow the governor also to make those judgments," Campbell said.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers opposed Ascierno’s nomination. Chambers said because Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed both Ascierno and Phillips, she wouldn’t fire him. "And now Sen. Mello and the rest of us are being asked to put that responsibility on a young black female to remove him," Chambers said. "She’s not going to remove somebody that the governor appointed."

Phillips was not available to comment. But Campbell expressed confidence that she could fire Ascierno if she needed to.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins changed his vote from opposing Ascierno on Tuesday to supporting him on Wednesday. "The man is arrogant. Hopefully the vote that he received yesterday will tone that down a little," Bloomfield said.

Senators then voted to confirm Ascierno on a vote of 34-6. Ascierno said he appreciated the vote, and looks forward to working with Ricketts, Phillips and the staff to continue to move public health forward.

Senators also gave second-round approval to the state budget. In the process, they added $28 million for a multi-year plan to update the heating, ventilation and airconditioning at the Capitol. That’s in addition to the $78 million senators agreed to last year for the project, over the veto of then-Gov. Heineman, and brings the total project cost to $106 million.

The increase includes general cost increases and buying land for a geothermal heat pump several blocks away that will cut down on future energy use. Bloomfield expressed concern about plans to use the state’s savings account for such a long-term project. "I am very hesitant about going to appropriating nine years in advance out of the cash reserve that we don’t know if will be there or not," he said.

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist warned senators the project could get even more expensive in the future. "Y’all know what happens when you take an old house apart and you take something down off the wall, you never know what’s behind that wall,"Krist said. "So there may be some times in the future where we’re going to have to pony up and make sure we’re taking care of this great building. And I for one will be there with a ‘yes’ vote as long as those costs are reasonable.

 

 

 

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