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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

March 25, 2019

Omaha World Herald. March 22, 2019

The help for OPS would be small, but LB 31 deserves lawmakers’ approval

Omaha Public Schools has dug itself into a gigantic financial hole: a pension shortfall of $771 million. Now, the district is looking at options to slowly recover. The process will take years. A prudent proposal before the Legislature this session offers the possibility of a small measure of help.

Legislative Bill 31, by State Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, would have a study done to see if savings can be achieved by transferring management of the OPS pension system to the state board that currently administers six other public-employee pension funds. OPS would cover the costs for the $140,000 study.

Kolterman emphasizes that LB 31 would not merge the OPS pension system with the state pension fund for non-OPS teachers, nor would it shift any of the pension liability onto the state. Those need to be central principles, indeed; OPS brought this problem on itself by failing to manage its pension obligations properly, and the district needs to fully shoulder that burden.

Kolterman, who chairs the Legislature’s Retirement Systems Committee, has made those points clear to OPS leaders. At the same time, he has shown a responsible willingness to explore options that might provide a measure of relief to OPS without placing any financial burden on non-OPS taxpayers.

LB 31 is a small effort along that line. The proposed study would compare OPS’s current pension fund administrative costs with those of the state Public Employees Retirement Board, and analyze the costs of transferring management to the state board.

If the study finds that administrative cost savings are likely, the transfer could serve the public interest. The study is to be completed by June 2020 so the Legislature could consider a possible transfer in the 2021 session.

Such a step would generally be in line with the state’s transfer in 2016 of investment authority from the OPS pension management entity to the state’s investment officer. That move is already yielding positive results, Marque Snow, president of the OPS Board, said this week in testifying in support of LB 31 before a legislative committee.

The Legislature’s Retirement Systems Committee, which scrutinizes Nebraska public-sector pension issues closely, has designated LB 31 as one of its two priority bills, boosting the proposal’s chances for consideration.

It’s up to OPS to meet its massive pension obligations. But LB 31 is a small, sensible step to see if efficiencies are possible to provide a modest amount of relief. The measure deserves approval by lawmakers.

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Lincoln Journal Star. March 22, 2019

Give counties more latitude to hold votes entirely by mail

Two statistics from the 2018 midterm elections provide a case study on why Nebraska should permit more flexibility for counties to conduct all-mail elections.

(asterisk) Three of the four counties - Garden, Merrick and Morrill - with the highest percentage of voter turnout last November did so entirely by way of vote-by-mail.

(asterisk) Eight of the 10 counties with the lowest turnout were ineligible to hold all-mail elections because of the present cutoff of 10,000 residents currently in state law.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt’s push to eliminate the population threshold and allow all counties to conduct all-mail elections, pending approval from the Secretary of State’s office, makes so much sense. Let’s clear hurdles so that registered voters can more easily participate in Nebraska’s representative democracy.

Removing the arbitrary cap should help increase turnouts in geographically large counties - especially those where just one city contains a vast majority of the population.

Take sprawling Lincoln County, for example. About two-thirds of its population resides within the 13-plus square miles of North Platte, with the other 12,000 people spread among more than 2,560 square miles. In 2018, its turnout ranked in the bottom quintile of Nebraska counties, joined by others with similar demography, including Scotts Bluff, Box Butte and Cheyenne counties.

Of those 10 counties with the lowest participation in last November’s election, four are in the Panhandle. Only three of the 11 Panhandle counties exceeded a 60 percent turnout - all of which used all-mail populations.

The investment of time and resources needed to travel to a polling place in large, sparsely populated counties can dissuade Nebraskans from civic participation. All-mail elections need to be praised in the same vein as early and absentee voting for their success in allowing more citizens to cast a ballot.

In addition to the benefits of improved turnout and a decreased barrier to vote, counties have reported a decreased cost of holding elections. Much of this can be attributed to no longer needing to pay poll workers to keep several far-flung precincts open for 12 hours.

For instance, Garden County’s per-voter cost fell from $19.41 in the 2014 midterms to $13.75 during the 2016 presidential election, the first vote it conducted entirely by mail. That number dipped even further, to $13.56, in 2018. Dawes County, too, reported a decline from $3.86 in 2016 to $3.50 in 2018, its first all-mail election.

This proposal won’t eliminate in-person voting in Lincoln or other urban centers; it merely allows county officials more room to do what they see as best for their constituents. Each of Nebraska’s 93 counties must weigh different challenges as Election Day nears.

Accordingly, the Nebraska Legislature should approve Hunt’s LB163 and grant counties more control and flexibility to manage elections.

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Kearney Hub. March 20, 2019

Disaster will not get the best of us

As residents of Buffalo County and the rest of Hub Territory continue their recovery from the flood of 2019, we would like to recognize the emergency personnel who logged long hours from the beginning of the rain and snowstorms until the floodwaters finally dissipate.

These professionals and volunteers certainly earned our appreciation and respect in the numerous acts of courage and selflessness they demonstrated throughout the five-day ordeal. While others hard-hit by flooding stayed home to focus on what needed to be done to minimize damage to their property and protect their families, first responders stayed on the job, delaying attention to their own losses until they were satisfied they had done all they could to assist their communities.

The Kearney Hub recently reported about the difficulty in recruiting volunteers to fill the ranks in our region’s volunteer fire departments and EMT crews. The flood of 2019 demonstrated without doubt that the work of these amazing volunteers is appreciated and necessary. If you’re interested in signing up or learning more about volunteering for your local fire department or other first responder unit, seek out your local fire chief. That person will be happy to help you learn how to join the department or first responder crew.

We residents of south-central Nebraska also need to salute the armies of friends and neighbors who dropped everything and offered their assistance. Some brought flat-bottom boats or air boats to aid in rescues, others brought pot roast and other goodies to sustain the emergency workers. It’s this spirit of caring for one another that makes Nebraska the special place that it is. Mother Nature might destroy our homes, businesses, highways and bridges, but the Nebraska attitude is unbeatable.

We also wish to recognize the Nebraskans who helped document this amazing disaster with photos, videos and written messages. The images we have viewed are awe-inspiring and breathtaking. They invoke an appreciation for the undeniable power of Mother Nature. After seeing buildings swept downstream or vehicles washed into the ditch, it cements the notion that when Mother Nature holds all the cards, it’s best to fold your hand and walk away.

Finally, we thank the person who thought of the “turn around, don’t drown” motto.

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