Opinion writer

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) really likes the thought of his state killing death row inmates. He likes it so much, in fact, that he’s spending his own money to make sure his state keeps doing it.

In May, the Nebraska legislature voted 32-15 to abolish the state’s death penalty. This was a pretty remarkable thing. Nebraska, of course, only has one legislative body, and that body is officially nonpartisan. But this is a state that voted 60 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012 and hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964.

Ricketts promised to veto the bill, and he did. The legislature then overrode his veto, 30-19. Classy guy that he is, Ricketts then vowed to kill as many of death row inmates as he can before the law takes effect, or even to carry out executions in spite of the new law.

Ricketts then put $200,000 of his own money toward a petition drive to put the death penalty on the ballot in the next election. Ricketts’s father contributed another $100,000. This isn’t a lot of money for Ricketts. In 2006, the former Ameritrade chief operating officer spent $11 million of his own fortune in an effort to unseat then-Sen. Ben Nelson. Ricketts lost by 28 points. He won the state’s governorship last year after squeaking through a crowded GOP primary field.

The petition effort was successful. Pro-death-penalty campaigners collected nearly three times the number of required signatures to get on the ballot. It isn’t clear how the initiative will fare. An American Civil Liberties Union poll taken in April found that 58 percent of respondents opposed the death penalty when presented with alternatives; just 30 percent support it. But asking the question while listing possible alternatives (such as life without parole) isn’t how the issue will be presented to voters in the upcoming campaign.

So we have a sitting governor spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to promote a ballot initiative to overturn a law the legislature passed over his veto, and a law he has promised to defy. It’s certainly an odd sight. The same guy spending all that money to keep the death penalty legal is the guy who, if he has his way, will be the one signing the death warrants. It raises some interesting ethical questions. But it also raises some questions about Pete Ricketts and his priorities.

Just for fun, I looked at some of the other things Pete Ricketts and his father could have bought instead of spending $300,000 so that Pete Ricketts can send men to their deaths. Here’s what else $300,000 could have bought:

  • 45 one-year tuition scholarships to the University of Nebraska.
  • One year of health insurance for 102 low-income Nebraskans.
  • Ricketts supports charters and vouchers for private schools. With the money he has spent to re-legalize state-sanctioned killing, he could have bought a year of tuition at a private elementary school for 81 kids who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
  • Ricketts also opposes abortion rights. The average pregnancy costs about $8,800 in the United States. That means Ricketts could have paid the hospital and medical costs of at least 34 low-income women — probably more, given that the cost of health care in Nebraska is almost certainly lower than the U.S. average.
  • From what I can tell, the average soup kitchen meal costs about $1.20. For $300,000, Ricketts could have purchased 250,000 meals for homeless people. He could feed 228 people three meals per day for a year.
  • Alternately, he could a year of rent-free living for 45 people in an average one-bedroom apartment in Lincoln.
  • He could employ 11 Nebraskans for a year at the state’s median salary.

Nebraska currently has 10 death row inmates. (The state hasn’t executed anyone since 1997.) This means that Ricketts (and his father) has spent more per inmate trying to execute those inmates ($30,000) than the average Nebraskan makes in a year ($26,899).

Just two days ago, a federal appeals court ordered a new trial in the lawsuit brought by the “Beatrice Six.” In 2009, the six Nebraskans were exonerated by DNA testing for a murder in 1985. Between them, they had served 77 years in prison. Remarkably, five of the six had confessed. Three of them testified against the only one who insisted on a trial. They later cited their motivation for confessing to a crime they didn’t commit, then falsely implicating someone else: fear of the state’s death penalty.