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From Christmas to the Legislature, a year in review

December 26, 2018

It’s over. Another Christmas done. New Year’s a few days away. It’s that awkward time of the year for Nebraskans. There’s no football to discuss, because who cares about bowl games if we aren’t going? The Legislature has yet to convene.

At the risk of sounding like Internet click-bait, let’s look at the 12 big things that happened in 2018. Yes, the bane of every journalist’s existence, the list. We had an election and an execution, but no property tax relief. If you’re counting, that’s three. Here’s the list and a brief explanation:

Election. With the Republicans winning virtually everything – surprise, surprise – the big news was that the incumbent Governor managed to escape with only one debate and a joint appearance. I’d say that Democrat challenger Bob Krist, a 10-year legislative veteran, got the short end of the stick. Krist knew challenging deep pockets incumbent Pete Ricketts was an uphill battle. Debates could have changed things because Krist was far more affable and credible.

Execution. Transparency died August 10 when a federal judge ruled the state can kill one of its citizens despite the protests of a drug company that didn’t want its products used for such purposes. He also said the state doesn’t have to reveal where it got the drugs. Simultaneously, a Lancaster County District Court judge ruled a legislative committee cannot exercise its legal right to subpoena a state official to answer questions about the aforementioned drug protocol. On August 14, the State killed death row inmate Carey Dean Moore.

Education. Nebraska teachers, the kids they teach and the parents who send them to school dodged a bullet when a proposed constitutional amendment to allow voters to abolish the Nebraska Board of Education and turn control over to the governor did not pass muster. Sen. John Murante of Gretna said the current eight-member state board is out of touch and has lost its way. The current Board is elected by voters in eight statewide regions. Two are from Omaha, one from Lincoln. The others are from Beatrice, Chapman, North Platte, Oakland and Papillion.

Charlie Thone, a former Nebraska congressman and one-term governor died this year. His widow Ruth died a few months later. Thone will long be remembered as a very conservative Republican who was the first governor to support Ronald Reagan for President. He appointed Kay Orr to fill a mid-term vacancy as State Treasurer. She later became governor. Capitol observers also remember the “Thone Clones,” a group of state senators he organized to help things go his way. Ruth was an oft-vocal opponent of some of Charlie’s policies.

Gun control. Students took to the streets nationally and in Nebraska to ask for a ban on assault-style weapons, comprehensive background checks and a higher minimum age to buy guns. The popular mantra was Guns Kill Kids. In reality, guns don’t kill people. People with guns kill people. Cars don’t kill people. People who drive cars recklessly or under the influence kill people. The debate will obviously continue. Let’s get our focus on the right issue.

Bipartisanship. Outgoing Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha told his colleagues they must learn to work together to better the state. This is a team sport. “Politics rewards partisanship. Compromise comes through debate. Bipartisanship is an achievable goal,” he said, urging his colleagues to rely on trust and friendship. Departing colleague Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said working together, across party lines, is the only way to solve our problems.

Tax relief. Schumacher said the phrase “I’ll cut your taxes” are the very first words in the “I want to be Governor” handbook. He cautioned that the state’s cash reserve is dwindling, cut in half. People have every right to hold us accountable. He said there can be no property tax reduction for rural landowners. “All that there can be are shell games, smoke and mirrors and packs of lies. Our people deserve more honesty than that,” Schumacher said.

Signatures. A federal judge ruled that Nebraska’s law raising the number of signatures required to win a place on the ballot is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge John Gerrard ruled against a 2016 state election law sharply limiting an independent candidate’s access to Nebraska’s statewide ballot. That law increased the number of signatures from 4,000 to about 121,000. That’s what stymied efforts of Sen. Krist to form an independent party to challenge Ricketts, forcing him to run as a Democrat.

Medicaid Expansion. After six years of failure in the Legislature, voters finally approved a measure to require the state to extend insurance coverage to an estimated 90,000 Nebraskans who have fallen through the cracks. Former state Sen. Kathy Campbell (a Republican) and current Sen. Adam Morfeld (a Democrat) collaborated to get the matter before voters. The state must now provide Medicaid insurance to certain adults ages 19 through 64 whose incomes are 138 percent of the federal poverty level or below.

State Auditor. About a month after he blew the whistle on a discrepancy in the State Treasurer’s office, the Omaha World-Herald blew the whistle on the alleged workday habits of State Auditor Charlie Janssen. He acknowledged that he sometimes spends more of his Lincoln workday at a sports bar 16 blocks south of his Capitol office. The 47-year-old Republican said he starts his workday at 5 a.m. at his Fremont home and conducts meetings at those lunches. He has promised to change his work habits.

Tourism. If you haven’t heard the buzz around Nebraska’s new tourism advertising campaign, I honestly don’t know what to say. “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” The campaign has gone viral and is already doing what it intended. The pitch may strike you as a little odd, itself, or even a little risky, said Nebraska Tourism Director John Ricks. With research showing Nebraska so low on American travelers’ radar, maybe a little self-deprecating humor is worth a try.

Football. The University of Nebraska Cornhusker football team won’t go bowling this year. They finished 4-8 overall, 3-6 in the Big 10 Conference, next to the last in the Big 10 West Division. But, they are rebuilding. Keep the faith. Hope springs eternal.

J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 19 years.

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