Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, who chairs the Western Governors' Association, advocates the use of information technology as a tool for economic development, health care and education. With the WGA, he is championing the Virtual University -- recently named the Western Governors' University -- which could enable Western state residents to work on degrees using distance learning. A Democrat, he is currently campaigning for the U.S. Senate.
The following interview was conducted
by Brian Miller, features editor.
GT: How has your administration been using information technology to reform or change Nebraska's state government?
Nelson: Because Nebraska is a geographically challenged state -- meaning it has a lot of territory, a lot of geography and a small population -- we've used information technology as well as video technology to bridge those distances in education, telemedicine and economic development. Our public television is one of the leading institutions in the country in terms of bridging that gap with information and programming.
We've also been working on making government more open and efficient, to expand access to health care and education, and to enhance economic opportunities just generally. What we are attempting to do is manage technology and our resources to achieve rapid, cost-effective results.
GT: How is your approach different from other states, given Nebraska's geography?
Nelson: We would probably begin working with distance learning. We had the Sandhills project. We developed partnerships with local schools and the private sector to do just that -- first with satellite technology and now with fiber-optic technology. I would say that we have been able to move ahead of other states.
We were one of the first states to deregulate telecommunications. For several years we've employed strategies using our state government's demand for telecommunications and services to leverage investment by the private sector. Some states have elected to invest government money in the technology. We've done some of that with satellite technology, but mostly we've leveraged our state resources with private resources.
GT: How does all of this, including the distance learning and the partnerships, further the goals of your administration?
Nelson: Communications shortening distances has been absolutely essential. I chose as a vision and mission statement for our state to be "One Nebraska" -- to be pulled together, to be unified in a very significant way. Communications is critical in establishing that kind of unified relationship so that distances won't divide us and keep us apart as they have in the past. This makes geography nearly irrelevant, if not irrelevant.
If you have your public television and your telecommunications system in place, people don't have to travel 500 miles to testify at legislative hearings at the state capitol. They can do it from offsite locations across the state.
Expanding that kind of technology really does bring the state together because it makes geography irrelevant. Geography is very relevant if you have to travel 10 to 12 hours and wait another five hours at a hearing to testify on legislation and/or you decide not to testify on legislation because you don't have the time to commit.
Education is also a good example. Being in a rural school or a small school in a sparsely populated area doesn't matter because you can connect to the Internet. Or, if you can have distance learning and be able to learn Japanese in a school of 200 students or less, then you don't have disadvantages based on size. You have the same opportunities as larger schools.
What you do is knock down the haves and have nots based on size, geography and, at times, resources -- financial resources, or funding -- within a school district. We're well on our way to connecting all of Nebraska's schools to the Internet by 2000.
GT: My next question has to do with LB1190, the recent legislation providing funding for the year 2000 database conversion. The approach that you took is different than other states. Other states are planning to have departments use their own budgets to pay for it, while Nebraska has actually appropriated money for this. What led you and the state Legislature to take this approach?
Nelson: If we drained off existing resources to do that, then it would create a little anemia in the existing funding and the technology that we currently have. I thought it was better to recognize that we should specifically fund it and find the funding source for the year 2000. That's why we identified the cigarette tax revenues that could be made available for the purpose.
We didn't have to raise taxes. We didn't have to come up with a new tax. We were in a situation where some existing funding from the cigarette tax was completed and we could identify that to give us a funding source to help us oversee the state's work, assuring a smooth transition in our computer systems for the year 2000. We put together an information technology cabinet to get people who had government experience, higher education experience and business experience to look at the big picture of how it would be best for us to get to the year 2000 in a smooth way. If we bled off existing resources of funding, we didn't think we would get there as smoothly as if we identified some additional funding to do it.
GT: Of all the various ways of raising this money or creating this revenue, why tobacco taxes?
Nelson: Because it was there. Cigarette tax in Nebraska has been used as sort of an all-purpose tax to fund a lot of different things. It's funded capital construction for the university. It's funded cancer research for research universities in the state. It was also used on one occasion to replenish our cash reserve fund.
It's been an all-purpose tax and when we looked to see what funding was being completed for current projects, it became available. Rather than have it fund something else, we felt that this was probably our highest priority.
If we didn't have our technology infrastructure in place by the year 2000, a lot of the other things that we would like to do would be clearly in second place. I don't like to go to general tax revenues and I haven't raised taxes since I've been governor. If you have that attitude, then you begin to look for these sources of funds, rather than being driven.
GT: What is the role of information technology in economic development in your state?
Nelson: It has a major role. One of the first things we identified was that we had a lot of information about economic development out there -- a lot of people engaged in economic development in public utilities, in communities, in regions -- but the information wasn't getting shared in a meaningful way.
One of the things we developed was the Rural Development Commission. As a result of putting together the Rural Development Commission, we developed Nebraska Online and we also put together the Economic Development Network. So we've got technology that is now available and data and information that is available and inputted by the local economic developers through the state Department of Economic Development and the Library Commission. Then it's made available for access not only to those who are inputters, but to communities that have never thought of themselves as being capable of doing economic development.
Once again, information technology removes geography as an economic barrier. The availability for that information and equal access to telecommunications for communities all over the state simply means that there's more economic development going on today than ever before and it's been driven not only by interest at the local level and leadership at the local level, but by the availability of the technology and the data -- the information.
We've got people who never thought of themselves as economic developers now involved in economic development. And I'll give you a statistic that will show you how this has changed in Nebraska. In part at least, I think it's due to the approach we've taken since 1991. Between 1980 and 1990 -- in that decade -- only 10 of the 93 counties in Nebraska gained population. The other 83 actually lost up to 10 and 20 percent. The 10 that gained didn't have enough to give the state any net gain in population.
When we changed economic development so that it became a locally driven effort we began to provide technical information of this sort and put our money into that. Then the local folks began to take charge of their own economic development destiny. If I
told you that we currently had 20 counties out of 83 with increased population, compared with 10 before, it would be a 100 percent increase. But it's better than that.
Forty-eight of the counties -- almost a 500 percent increase -- have gained population since we changed this way of doing business. Technology and information technology have been big factors in that change. Our state has grown in population 4 percent in these last five years. We have at least 50 communities operating with technology committees that develop community and regional strategies for capitalizing on this opportunity that information technology provides. Communities have moved aggressively in their own right and now they have an overall strategy and an overall framework within which they can take charge of their own economic development destiny, and they do it with technology.
GT: How can technology help improve the quality of life in Nebraska?
Nelson: It improves education in a significant way. If you know wherever you live and go to school that you're not going to be disadvantaged, that you have the same opportunity, that you're not going to be left out of the process, then of course you already have an improvement in your quality of life.
If you know that geography matters less about economic development and where business expands and locates because of the availability of technology, including express mail, the fax, the computer, etc., then the quality of life is improved because you don't have to move to a big city or leave your rural area or roots to go someplace else.
With the distance learning capability that we have, and the statewide satellite system with regional video-active networks -- where you can learn Japanese or some of the less fundamental skills -- educational opportunities become available.
I also put together some funding for the statewide lottery that I introduced. More than $12 million have been distributed across the state for educational technology projects to help stimulate local schools on a research and development basis to find ways to take care of their technological needs. That has made a major contribution to increasing the use of technology, and for schools that would have otherwise been in the backwaters of this development because they didn't have the funding.
On an even more macro basis, I'm chairman of the Western Governors' Association this year and you're probably aware of the concept of Virtual University, which would greatly enhance our education through the use of technology -- not totally unlike what we have been doing here at the K-12 level.
Once again, distance and geography become nearly, and in many instances totally, irrelevant. There is a major, major improvement of life where you can stay where you are, where you want to be, continue to do many of the things that you are presently doing, and get an education through the Virtual University through distance learning and through the utilization of those resources in a way that has never been available to anybody.