You will rarely find Tom Richards in his office.
His job as manager of Governmental & Community Affairs for OPPD takes him to Lincoln most days the Unicameral is in session. He’s among a dozen professionals who track legislation at the federal and state levels that could affect the utility and its customers.
“When the legislature is in session, I try to go every day,” he said. “I tell people it’s like going to a play. If you don’t go to the play and watch the scenes, you don’t know where the acts are going. Some days, I’m sitting on a bench talking with people. Other days, I’m actively engaged with lobbying a position.”
Richards even has an office in Lincoln, where he can do research and catch up on correspondence when he’s not in hearings or meetings. But he also spends a good deal of time out in the community – learning, networking and educating others about matters that are important to the utility.
“You’re sharing information. You’re basically an information conduit between senior management, the board and the legislature. We don’t raise money. We don’t give money or spend money on campaigns. Mostly it’s just providing information and providing a balanced answer to questions legislators have.”
Richards joined OPPD in 1989 as a corporate trainer, and he landed in Governmental & Community Affairs four years later. With an education in criminal justice and a certification in alcohol and drug education, Richards has always been geared toward public service work. Richards served on the Sarpy County Board of Commissioners.
Richards has helped to pass more than a dozen bills for OPPD, with customers’ best interests in mind.
“Usually the bills are driven by either reducing costs or shaping environmental policy, or tax policy, or governance,” he said.
In 2013, a bill requiring new election subdivisions was among the more hotly debated pieces of legislation in which he’s been involved.
“My job is to find a good compromise,” he said. “As a result of this legislation, the OPPD Board of Directors approved an amendment to redraw election subdivision boundaries – dividing four areas into eight new subdivisions, each of nearly equal population.”
In the 2018 session, Richards worked with legislators on a bill that would protect utility workers. Its language prohibited the obstruction of a public power district employee while doing his or her job. It would have made that offense a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to one year imprisonment and $1,000 fine.
The biggest bill he said he’s ever worked on, in terms of its impact on the utility, was the Mandated Capital Projects Act. Passed in 2006, it authorized public entities to issue bonds to finance capital projects mandated by federal or state law, or by a regulatory agency such as the Environmental Protection Agency. He found a sponsor for that bill in an unlikely place – chatting while grabbing soft drinks during intermission at Opera Omaha.
“It comes down to relationships,” Richards said. “People have got to like you. That’s the difference between somebody who simply does research, and somebody who can affect change.”
Richards truly enjoys working with our state senators.
“Working with members of the Nebraska Unicameral is nothing like Washington, D.C. People are able to work together, and legislation that needs to get passed actually gets passed. Generally speaking, the Unicameral is relatively business-friendly and supportive of public power.”
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