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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

June 3, 2019

Omaha World Herald. June 2, 2019

Nebraska lawmakers need to learn right lessons from the 2019 session

The Nebraska Legislature has many capable members, across lines of party and ideology.

At times during the 2019 session, lawmakers did impressive work, reaching agreement on complex or divisive issues. But at other times, a combination of factors tripped up state senators badly, pulling the Legislature into disarray. The result was embarrassing failure on two preeminent issues: a tax policy overhaul focused on property tax relief, and a revamp of state business incentives.

First, here’s a look at some of the successes. Approval of the new two-year, $9.3 billion state budget tops the list. The spending plan features a 2.9% average annual increase and is well balanced. Its appropriate priorities include a considerable boost in school aid and strong support for the University of Nebraska. Also funded: new election equipment requested by Secretary of State Bob Evnen and significantly increased payment rates for health care, child welfare, behavioral health and other providers.

The state’s cash reserve is projected to increase to a bit over $340 million in two years — helpful, though still well short of the nearly $800 million that fiscal analysts recommend for a budget of this size. Funding for five new problem-solving courts is a positive. The budget’s main prison provision is $49 million for a 384-bed addition in Lincoln. Gov. Pete Ricketts has signed the budget bill, issuing no vetoes of individual spending provisions.

A sampling of other positives this session: A sound revamp of treasurer’s tax deeds will give people better protection against losing their property through miscommunication while enabling an efficient process for county governments. A carefully written bill meets a host of technical requirements so Nebraska can receive online sales tax from out-of-state firms. Nebraska continues to make incremental progress in easing licensing burdens while protecting public safety.

In addition, senators made needed adjustments to prevent protection-order applications from falling through the cracks and to make revenge porn a crime. The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District received a five-year extension in its bonding authority. The Omaha area will be able to pursue regional transportation coordination.

The session’s disappointments included lawmakers’ failure to approve anti-discrimination protection against LGBTQ individuals and to allow creation of land banks in communities besides Omaha, where the concept has worked well.

Because lawmakers failed to find agreement on a tax policy overhaul, the one source of property tax relief is the state’s tax credit fund. While the fund was boosted to $275 million, that provides only a small measure of relief for individuals.

Many factors came into play this year in producing stalemate on a range of issues. A central challenge was simply that lawmakers represent widely varying constituencies and interests, and finding a way to reconcile their differences can be immensely difficult. It’s generally easy for the Legislature’s factions to throw down hurdles to legislation. Such factionalism tripped up approval of the business incentives bill, for example.

A second problem: poor personal relations among some members. The sour relations stemmed from heated floor-debate brawling early in the session; some senators’ irresponsible penchant to hurl barbed comments at each other publicly; and a quick resort by some to temper tantrums and sulking.

The failure to find agreement on the tax policy and school funding issues, in particular, should spur serious soul-searching by Speaker Jim Scheer and other leaders about how this Legislature is handling negotiations on those matters.

A fatal roadblock has been a “my way or the highway” attitude by some lawmakers, thwarting consideration of new ideas and the development of a broader coalition.

The 2019 session had its successes, but it also was marred by major failures. The questions now: Will enough senators learn the right lessons to move forward, and will Scheer and others exert the leadership necessary to set the course for success next session?

For Nebraska’s sake, the answers need to be yes.

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Lincoln Journal Star. May 31, 2019

Overcrowding in prisons must yield sentencing reform

Even as several prisons bills were amended into a single piece of legislation signed into law this week, some state senators expressed frustration at how little progress was made this session.

Indeed, the average daily prison population in Nebraska’s 10 prisons inched north of 160% of designed capacity during the first quarter of 2019. And that’s without considering the 100 or so state inmates contracted to six county jails at any given time.

However, a bill that should decrease these numbers advanced out of committee late in the session and will be primed for debate by the full body early in 2020. Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks has again proposed returning Nebraska to its former practice of allowing a prisoner to become eligible for parole in as little as half of the original term imposed by the court.

A law passed in 2015 mandates the declaration of a prison overcrowding emergency if the population isn’t below 140% on July 1, 2020. Back in January, Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, told lawmakers he didn’t expect his agency would be able to meet that goal — and, with exactly 13 months to go, nothing appears to have change.

As Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, chair of the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, told the Journal Star, the only real solutions to reduce prison overcrowding are to “build our way out of this or provide some kind of sentencing reform.”

The costs of the former are well documented, with Gov. Pete Ricketts’ budget directing $49 million to add two high-security housing units — which can hold up to 384 beds — at the Lincoln Correction Center.

But a capital outlay of this size will have a minimal impact on overcrowding, reducing the percentage by just single digits even if they were open today. Adding 100 beds to Community Corrections Center-Lincoln in 2017, for instance, led to just a 2% decline within Nebraska’s prison population the first year.

Therefore, the best path ahead involves sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration to reduce the prison population long term.

Opening the door earlier for inmates who earn good time and complete programming provides an incentive for them to improve themselves in prison and pursue an earlier release. Nebraska followed this practice for roughly two decades, back at a time when its prison system was far less packed.

Names along the lines of “corrections” and “reformatory” lay bare the intended mission for the prisons system. Ensuring inmates being released after their incarceration can become productive citizens makes both human and economic sense for this state.

With next year’s 60-day legislative session expected to be laden with time-consuming tax matters, senators must not lose sight of the need for prison reforms. Any bill that can safely ease overcrowding in our crowded Corrections system deserves serious consideration.

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The Grand Island Independent. May 29, 2019

Demographic trends predict challenges, opportunities

Last week David Drozd, research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, presented a fascinating look into Grand Island’s future using demographic data and trending.

Drozd was the keynote speaker at the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corporation’s annual meeting at Riverside Golf Club last week.

The importance of accurate Census counts in advance of the 2020 Census was stressed. Counting everyone will be essential for two overarching reasons — “money and power,” according to Drozd. Federal funding of social programs is directly tied to population and congressional representation (power) is especially important in Nebraska as continued population growth will be necessary for the state to maintain its three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The trending data tells the story of Nebraska’s changing population makeup. Generally, the state is becoming more culturally diverse, older, better educated and better paid.

From a workforce standpoint Nebraska has reached a critical juncture. For the first time in history, elders 75 years and older outnumber children age 5 and younger.

The stats show that Nebraskans are hard at work, with the state’s unemployment rate near the lowest in the U.S. Everyone in the state who wants to work is working. Nebraska ranks first in the U.S. in labor force participation of single mothers with kids under six at 81%, second for percent of married couples with both working - 61%, second for age 55-64 work force participation - 74%, third for those 16 to 19 employed- 53%, and fourth in the nation for the number of workers with two or more jobs - 8%.

Of serious concern is the forecasted decline in prime age workforce, those 25 to 64 years old. This segment of Nebraska’s workforce is at the tipping point with a slow decline projected to occur over the next 10 years. This trend will be played out across nearly all Nebraska counties.

Drozd spoke of the value of Grand Island’s strong growth trend. From 2010 through today, Grand Island has experienced a 6.2 percent increase in population. Drozd noted that one of the reasons why Grand Island and Hall County’s population continues to grow is due to the in-migration of people from some 30 different countries. Without these new residents the population of Grand Island and Hall County would have followed the declining trend experienced in the rural counties of the state.

According to Drozd, ethnic populations in Grand Island have increased from less than 10 percent in 1990 to about 50 percent of the workforce currently. That strong, gradual growth has fueled Grand Island’s economic growth and prosperity.

The next chapter of Grand Island’s economic demographic story will tell how the community has developed its workforce from within, how it is able to continue to attract living wage jobs, and how it deals with burgeoning growth of its older population as people live longer and gravitate from rural areas to towns like Grand Island where retirement and medical services are readily available. Those older residents will be needed to supplant the local workforce to offset the predicted decline in prime age workers over the next decade.

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