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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

May 13, 2019

Omaha World Herald. May 11, 2019

Nebraska lawmakers are right to look at school consolidation options

School consolidation has been a recurring topic of debate in Nebraska for generations. Now, Nebraska lawmakers are saying, the time has come to look anew at the issue and address it.

It’s an appropriate occasion for such a discussion. Nebraska currently has 244 school districts covering a large range of student population sizes. At the same time, lawmakers should be mindful not to exaggerate the cost-saving possibilities from consolidation.

“We have to have that big discussion,” said State Sen. Justin Wayne, a former member of the Omaha Public Schools board. A large set of rural senators voiced support last week for a school consolidation study that Wayne proposed.

Public school districts account for about 60% of all property tax collections in Nebraska, said State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion. So, looking for and achieving school efficiencies are important in holding down the property tax burden for the long term, he and other rural lawmakers said.

“It’s a great discussion to have,” said State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard. Local schools spur a tremendous sense of community, and that needs to be respected. At the same time, he said, it serves the public interest to examine consolidation possibilities that could reduce costs for school operations.

In an amendment, Wayne proposed that school districts complete a consolidation feasibility study in cases where two or more high schools from different school districts compete in one or more extracurricular activities as a single team.

Wayne said he introduced the measure, which he ultimately withdrew under an agreement with colleagues, to spur 30 minutes of discussion on the floor of the Legislature and build interest in a legislative study to be headed by State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, chairman of the Education Committee. The study would look at the best options to encourage consolidation, where practical, for consideration during the 2020 legislative session.

Senators acknowledged the political difficulties if lawmakers would move toward making consolidation mandatory, rather than voluntary. But if discussions at the Legislature on the issue next year are as thoughtful as the one state senators held last week, Nebraskans will be well served.

Two senators offered cautionary notes about cost savings. State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of the Elkhorn area, chairwoman of the Revenue Committee, praised the discussion but cautioned that the consolidation possibilities shouldn’t be exaggerated. Twenty-seven Nebraska counties already have only one school district.

Plus, she said, consolidation can run into a major obstacle when there is a big difference in the property tax rates between two districts.

State Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood described a school consolidation that occurred in his area. A positive from the consolidation was a strengthening of academic programs for students. There wasn’t a significant cost savings, though, because the payroll costs increased as teacher salaries fit within a pay scale for bigger-population schools.

A 2013 study by two Nebraska economists concluded that cost efficiencies tend to grow as a school district approaches the 8,000-student mark and then decline as the size grows above 8,000. Merged districts don’t tend to see major cost efficiencies if their student numbers are far smaller than that level, the economists said.

During the legislative discussion, Wayne emphasized that the most realistic consolidation prospects are for rural schools in much of eastern Nebraska. In the west, consolidation options are less numerous, given the long distances that many students already must travel. He also called for a new look at school consolidation in Douglas County — though proponents need to recall the political firestorm that erupted in 2005 when OPS unilaterally attempted to impose a “one city, one school district” policy.

Over the generations, Nebraska has traveled a very long road on the school consolidation issue. In the 1920s, the state had some 7,200 school districts, the most of any state. At certain times — 1949, 1995, 2005 — state leaders have taken action to encourage or require consolidation.

Now, the state is appropriately turning again to the issue. A practical-minded study, analyzing all the data, can help guide the state toward a responsible approach.

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Kearny Hub. May 9, 2019

Tariffs hurting more than farmers

Financial markets gave a thumbs-down response to President Donald Trump’s threat this week to impose higher tariffs in the trade war with China. Investors’ negative reaction signals they’re growing weary of uncertainty and would welcome a return to normalcy with global trade.

It is anyone’s guess whether Trump’s latest bluster will produce favorable long-term results, but for now, it’s a signal the president’s grievances against China won’t be resolved until it learns to play by the rules and stop stealing technology, manipulating its currency and negotiating trade deals fairly and honestly.

Trump, the U.S., and the global economic community certainly are united around the need to discipline China for its bad behavior, but here in farm country, it seems farmers and ranchers are being punished worse than China. Having lost access to some of their best trading partners, U.S. farmers certainly have become the pawns in the trade battle between the U.S. and China.

Crop and livestock producers have seen profits decline and in some cases, disappear as the trade war drags on. Ag commodity prices are tanking. It will remain difficult to be optimistic about the economy in farm states until farmers and ranchers again can market their meat and grain competitively around the globe.

We residents of farm country are patiently waiting for the president to make good on his claim that trade wars are easy to win. If that is the case, give us the trophy and let’s return to normal as quickly as possible.

As dreary as the situation is, there may be a reason for optimism in Trump’s latest threat,

It’s knowing that farmers and ranchers won’t be the only ones feeling the sting.

If the president unilaterally follows through on the threat to impose a 25 percent tax on $200 billion of Chinese goods, it means all Americans will be paying higher prices when China retaliates against U.S. tariffs. Driving up the cost of raw materials and manufactured goods drives up prices for consumers. They will feel it in the pocketbook.

Farmers won’t be the only pawns in the trade war. Their cousins in the city also will get a lesson about how easy it is to win a trade war.

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The Grand Island Independent . May 8, 2019

Legislature should raise the age for e-cigarettes

With a unanimous vote last week in favor of LB149, Sen. Dan Quick’s bill to raise the minimum age to buy and use electronic cigarettes in Nebraska to 19, the Legislature should move quickly to complete the second and third votes and send the bill to Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The bill was amended in the General Affairs Committee to change the age limit from Quick’s original intention of 21 to 19. The amendment also made the age of 19 the minimum for purchase and use of tobacco products.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that turn liquid often containing nicotine into an inhalable vapor. They’re generally considered a less dangerous alternative to regular cigarettes, but health officials have warned nicotine is harmful to developing brains.

Quick introduced the bill after Grand Island school board member Lisa Albers approached him with her research findings.

Albers is concerned about the use of electronic cigarettes by high school and middle school students. In talking to high school students, she learned that many of them didn’t realize that e-cigarettes have addictive nicotine in them.

They are often marketed as a smoking cessation device for adults, but they’re designed to look like candy and use by teens has been skyrocketing.

Albers proposed the bill as a way to keep 18-year-old high school students from legally buying e-cigarettes and giving or selling them to younger students.

Grand Island Public Schools has put together a video featuring principals of all four high schools in Grand Island, along with Albers, Officer Wes Tjaden and Tobacco Free Hall County coordinator Michaela Perry. The video explains the dangers and the negative impact of vaping.

The video’s purpose is to raise awareness for parents and show that e-cigzrettes use is everywhere — not just Grand Island Senior High or Grand Island Central Catholic, which recently banned use of USB drives in school because they look like e-cigarettes.

This bill takes a common-sense approach to addressing a public health threat to the state’s teenagers. The reduction of the age minimum to 19 is regrettable, but it’s still a good first step. The Legislature should pass Quick’s bill and then give serious consideration next year to increasing the age to 21.

It is also very encouraging that the Legislature gave final approval last week to Sen. Steve Halloran’s bill that would make it illegal to use deceptive caller ID to defraud people.

Halloran has said he introduced the bill to try to protect people across Nebraska from robo-calls and scams. It would allow the Nebraska Public Service Commission to impose a penalty of up to $2,000 for each “spoofing” violation.

We urge the governor to sign this bill. It has been said that nothing can be done to stop spoofing, but the Legislature is willing to try.

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