Omaha World Herald. December 8, 2017

Lawmakers should decide what to disclose about death penalty protocols

Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Department of Corrections seem willing to do whatever it takes to keep the source of the state's lethal injection drugs secret.

The effort began a year ago, when Ricketts proposed a revised death-penalty protocol that would conceal the identity of those suppling the drugs. Ricketts dropped that provision after strong objections were raised at a public hearing last December.

Then State Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell, who often aligns with Ricketts, proposed a change to state law that also sought to shield the identity of the state's drug suppliers and compounders. The bill stalled, lacking enough support for passage.

Now, by trying to keep most of the information secret anyway, the administration appears to be circumventing both state law and the Legislature's prerogative.

The appropriate approach should be either to follow Nebraska public records law or work to change it.

Instead, the Corrections Department is arguing an overly broad approach to attorney- client privilege because the state is being sued. Such a broad state interpretation of exceptions risks rendering the public records law moot. State and local governments are often sued. Consider ACLU Nebraska, which is suing the state over prison crowding, failure to disclose the drug supplier and the validity of the state's older death sentences.

The state also appears to be again arguing it doesn't have to reveal its drug supplier, under the new execution protocol — despite pulling back from that position in January. The state contends that the law reviving the death penalty allows Corrections wide latitude in designating members of its execution team, including perhaps a compounding pharmacist and/or drug supplier. It hasn't specified which are included. But designating a supplier as part of the execution team is a legal stretch.

Hiding such information is not in taxpayers' interest. For example, the public records law enabled taxpayers to learn about the 2015 debacle when Corrections wasted $54,000 on drugs from a supplier in India because the drugs could not be legally imported.

The department should honor the intent of Nebraska public records law, which requires disclosure of how state tax dollars are spent. The law says fiscal records of a public body should be "liberally construed" as public records, a standard reinforced by previous attorney general opinions and years of case law.

The state spent $10,500 on drugs for its new protocol. Taxpayers deserve to know the identity of the supplier and details, including how much the state paid to compound the drugs into a usable formula for executions.

State law also requires Corrections to describe the contents of any records withheld and specific reasons for the denial, which the department has failed to do adequately.

Nebraska voters strongly supported reviving the death penalty, as did this newspaper. But the state remains obligated to follow legal procedures in carrying out the penalty.

The state's current effort has introduced more delays into the process by triggering legal challenges.

The administration should show its commitment to the spirit and letter of public records law by reconsidering its stance and releasing the records in question. If a change is warranted in the transparency of death penalty procedures, that decision should rest with the Legislature. And it should be decided after full, vigorous — and open — debate.

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Kearney Hub. December 7, 2017.

NAFTA us no more? It seems unthinkable

This week we learned from the Nebraska Farm Bureau and Nebraska Cattlemen that members of the two organizations are pondering the unthinkable — surviving without the North American Free Trade Agreement.

With markets for livestock and grain already depressed, farmers and ranchers are under extreme financial stress, and yet President Donald Trump has threatened to abandon NAFTA unless Canada and Mexico give him what he wants in a new deal. Nebraska farmers and ranchers have good reason to be concerned.

They saw Trump walk away from talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership that would have opened up new markets for U.S. agricultural products. Ditching TPP cost Nebraska producers millions, but the damage from losing NAFTA would be far more severe.

During its gathering in Kearney this week, Farm Bureau said Nebraska farmers and ranchers would lose somewhere around $2.9 billion if Trump bungles the NAFTA negotiations.

The Farm Bureau's economist sees per-farm losses ranging as high as $55,468 in Hub Territory if producers lose key trade partners in Canada and Mexico. Agricultural nations around the globe would gladly provide what our neighbors need if the United States suddenly couldn't be trusted to stand by its agreements.

Locally, the losses from a NAFTA walkout could be devastating. Farmers are already struggling, but we wonder how they would survive if confronted with the crippling financial situation without NAFTA markets.

"The idea of withdrawing from NAFTA is unfathomable," Farm Bureau president Steve Nelson of Axtell said. "That would be a disaster for Nebraska and American agriculture. The same could be said of any renegotiations that would weaken agriculture's trade position in the agreement."

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer has spoken to Trump about NAFTA, but we've not heard of Sen. Ben Sasse or Nebraska's U.S. House members standing up for their constituents. That would include central and western Nebraska's Rep. Adrian Smith, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has so much sway over trade, the NAFTA crisis should be Smith's defining moment.

We urge readers to write Fischer, Sasse and Smith. It's time to head off a disaster in farm and ranch country by keeping NAFTA in place.

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Lincoln Journal Star. December 6, 2017

Don't tax tuition waivers as income

For all the talk about tax cuts for lower- and middle-income earners, graduate students would feel the pain of a provision in the House tax bill more than most.

Problem is, under that legislation, their taxes would skyrocket on money they never even see or receive.

At issue is what's called a "tuition waiver." Many students pursuing master's or doctoral degrees work for their college through teaching and other duties to earn a stipend and have a portion of their tuition waived. Money never changes hands in an agreement that benefits both students and universities.

Neither these stipends - which many graduate students have argued are inadequate - nor the waivers represent much money. In a document it sent out to students, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Graduate Student Assembly estimates a typical stipend at $18,000, though they vary by department, and waivers at $8,500 (in-state) or $22,000 (out-of-state).

But taxing the waiver in addition to stipend, which is currently taxed, often bumps these students up to higher tax brackets on money that's simply an internal accounting transfer by more than doubling their taxable income.

The Journal Star has received and printed several letters to the editor and a Local View column from graduate students illustrating the plight this would cause them. Such an action would no doubt reduce the number of NU alumni who come for an advance degree, stay in this state and start a business, creating a negative economic impact from a tax bill that's instead supposed to benefit job creators.

These students make a compelling case. Higher education is more expensive than ever, yet those seeking to obtain advanced degrees would find the difficult road even more financially untenable than it currently is. The waivers often are a key means to making the cost attainable at all.

In Nebraska, the population of graduate students is small - but it is important. At 10,000 among the four University of Nebraska campuses, that figure represents roughly half a percent of the state's population, though not all of the 10,000 have tuition waivers.

Nationwide, the American Council on Education noted 57 percent of waiver recipients were in the very fields of science, technology, math and engineering in which lawmakers and employers have claimed this country has a shortage. Reducing access to those degrees for the best and brightest runs counter to their stated goal.

Though both chambers of Congress have passed tax reform bills, they'll still need to iron out differences between the legislation. Since the tuition waiver isn't in the Senate bill, Republican congressional leadership can still strike it in the conference committee before it returns for a final vote.

Seeing as tuition waivers are a win-win-win for students, their universities and the economy, we urge them to do just that.

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The Grand Island Independent. December 6, 2017

Bond issue support keeps schools current

The unveiling of Boone Central Public Schools' newly renovated high school in Albion just before Thanksgiving emphasized an important message about the value of local taxpayers' support in keeping schools up to date through building projects.

It took three bond issue votes for the school district to get enough votes to embark on a renovation of its facilities, but in 2015 the district passed a $13 million bond issue. Eighteen months later, they have a new kitchen and commons area, a wrestling deck, weight room, locker rooms, science rooms, concession stand, administration offices and restrooms and a new gym at the high school.

A new fire sprinkler system was installed throughout and the HVAC system was replaced in a portion of the school that was from 1996. The 1953 and 1972 portions of the school were completely remodeled.

All this work was sorely needed and this is a very exciting time for the students and staff alike.

The kitchen staff had been preparing meals in a 64-year-old facility. A multipurpose gym was used to serve breakfast and lunch to the students and then the tables had to be put away each day in order for physical education classes to meet there.

Now, a modern kitchen will meet the school's needs for many years to come and there is a commons area that provides space for the students to eat as well as for other activities throughout the school day.

The building project also expanded both the school's art room and its science rooms, as well as transforming the old gym into a space for performing arts programs.

Because the Boone Central district's voters were willing to pass the 2015 bond issue, the educators they employ to teach their children will be providing students more educational and extracurricular opportunities.

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In Grand Island we are seeing the importance of bond issue support as well, and on a much larger scale.

Students have moved into a new Starr Elementary School and others are looking forward to what is yet to come with the Stolley Park and Jefferson school projects. Renovations are also making big differences at the elementary, middle school and high school levels with the help of the $69.9 million 2014 bond issue.

When school boards and administrators work to come up with building projects that hold costs down as much as possible, but also ensure that school facilities and programs are meeting the needs of children well into the future, it is important that taxpayers embrace the responsibility to support our schools.

The Nebraska Legislature will continue to debate the issue of state government financial support for public schools. The state's property taxpayers have a legitimate concern about the burden of educating children being placed so heavily on them. But for now, property taxes are the main funding source for Nebraska's public schools, and our children need our continued support.

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