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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

January 15, 2018

Omaha World Herald. January 11, 2018

More guardians are needed for Nebraska’s vulnerable

Twenty publicly funded guardians currently serve 237 adults. Sometime this year, the public guardianship program will likely reach the maximum total of 300 wards allowed under the 2014 law.

Nebraska took a commendable step forward in 2014 when the Legislature approved a proposal to publicly fund guardians who would help elderly and disabled adults lacking anyone to manage their financial affairs.

The legislation, by then-State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, arose after a private guardian in Gering was accused of embezzling a total of $600,000 from 688 wards, in 60 Nebraska counties, who had been assigned her by the courts.

Discussion of the bill highlighted how the state’s number of guardians fell far short of the need, compelling Nebraska courts to appoint volunteers who often took on heavy caseloads.

Twenty publicly funded guardians currently serve 237 adults. Sometime this year, the public guardianship program will likely reach the maximum total of 300 wards allowed under the 2014 law.

In anticipation, the state Office of Public Guardian says it will launch a pilot waiting list, so people can be assigned a guardian, when available, based on the severity of the situation.

This is an eminently worthwhile program, and Nebraska leaders should be attentive to the likely increased demand for it in coming years. Demographic projections in the office’s recent report to the Legislature and Nebraska Supreme Court show why.

Nebraska had 240,000 residents over age 65 in 2010, and by 2030, the number is projected to increase to 400,000. A significant portion of those adults will likely have no trusted relative or friend to serve as a guardian, the report says.

The report highlighted various challenges for the public guardianship program. Lawmakers at the state or federal level should look to see whether legislative adjustments or administrative action could help address some of the obstacles.

For example, they should consider taking steps to:

“ Clarify the rights and responsibilities of guardians when a ward is receiving health care, to lessen uncertainty for medical staff.

“ Help wards better understand their opportunities for free or reduced-cost legal services when available.

“ Improve a person’s eligibility for Medicaid if he or she has been a victim of financial abuse by family members.

Michelle Chaffee, director of the Office of Public Guardian, notes that many Nebraskans served by her office once held well-paying jobs but now, in the wake of a health care crisis, find themselves in serious need for help with their financial affairs.

“Any of our Nebraska neighbors could end up being in need of public guardianship services,” she said.

The public guardian program serves a vital purpose. Nebraska leaders should be mindful to maintain it and make practical improvements when appropriate, to meet the long-term need.

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The Grand Island Independent. January 9, 2018.

Proposal would improve trooper’s accountability

Nebraska’s state troopers have a difficult job. They have to cover the entire state. They monitor traffic and safety on highways throughout the state, including Interstate 80 where vehicles roar past at 75 mph or faster.

When involved in a chase or in apprehending a suspect, they have to make split-second decisions. They face dangerous situations on a daily basis. Every time a vehicle is stopped, the troopers don’t know what they’ll encounter when they approach the vehicle.

So Nebraskans owe the troopers a debt of gratitude because they put their lives on the line to protect others.

However, it’s also important that troopers be held to the highest standard of behavior. What they do must be open to impartial review so the state’s residents can have confidence in the work done by the state’s top law enforcement agency.

That confidence has been shaken in the past year. Last summer, Gov. Pete Ricketts fired Brad Rice, head of the patrol, for what has been called internal misconduct within the agency. The patrol’s new leader conducted his own review and last month fired one trooper, accepted the resignation and retirement of two patrol leaders and demoted some others.

Most of the misconduct allegations seem to stem from patrol leaders exerting pressure for internal investigations to show troopers in the best light instead of seeking accuracy, transparency and accountability.

So the governor and his administration are proposing to change the agency’s processes for internal affairs investigations. Most of the proposals are reasonable and would improve accountability and confidence in the patrol.

One provision in the collective bargaining agreement allows a trooper to review all evidence in an internal investigation before making a statement. This doesn’t make any sense. A trooper’s statement should be compared to the other evidence and not be groomed to conform with it.

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Another good proposal would require all law enforcement agencies to report why officers leave. This would help keep officers leaving for misconduct from getting another job where the agency isn’t aware of the previous misconduct.

Also good is removing the requirement that the Attorney General’s office defend troopers facing criminal liability. This prevents the AG’s office from being involved in investigations. The troopers’ union, though, is critical of this provision, saying that it will increase legal liability for troopers and hurt morale.

Another proposal the union opposes would remove sergeants from the bargaining unit. This would involve about 60 members of the approximately 400-member union.

There is still a lot of debate that needs to take place, but overall the governor’s approach is in the right direction and will help restore confidence in the Nebraska State Patrol.

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Lincoln Journal Star. January 12, 2018

Ricketts’ new tax plan is significant improvement

The Journal Star editorial board’s conversation with Gov. Pete Ricketts’ before his State of the State address, unsurprisingly, focused heavily on the specifics of his proposal to revamp Nebraska’s structure for property and income taxes.

What was surprising, though, was the radical revamp of his plan, which now aims to swing the pendulum more in favor of property tax relief than income tax cuts.

The plan would provide Nebraskans with an income tax credit for property taxes paid on their owner-occupied homes, as well as any farmland they own, and would reduce income taxes on both individuals and corporations. By repurposing the pre-existing property tax relief fund and eliminating a recently enacted personal property tax exemption program to fund the new proposal, Ricketts’ plan is essentially revenue-neutral.

It is not perfect. But it makes a significant turn in the direction of the property-centric, revenue-neutral reform for which we’ve long advocated in hopes of reducing Nebraska’s high overall tax burden compared with other Midwestern states.

Without question, the state needed property tax relief first and foremost. Seeing the governor admit that property tax reduction was Nebraskans’ No. 1 goal and produce a revenue-neutral plan to reflect that reality was refreshing.

Total property taxes levied on agricultural land increased by 164 percent - from $455.4 million to $1.2 billion - from 2006 to 2016 despite reductions in the percentage of valuation that could be taxed.

That runaway growth inspired a well-intentioned but misguided plan that proposed a credit for half of property taxes paid by Nebraskans to their local K-12 school district. Its $1.1 billion price tag, though, raised concerns about affordability. Ricketts warned that asking voters to enact such a plan could ignite a political “civil war,” pitting agricultural interests against countless other groups in the state, something he hopes to avoid.

Nebraska’s urban-rural divide needs no additional exacerbation.

In our meeting with Ricketts, the governor also talked openly about compromise and courting “pro-growth Democrats.” His more moderate, inclusive language was largely reflected by his new tax proposal.

However, at least two provisions within it give us serious pause.

For one, the plan to use an automatic trigger as a mechanism to increase the property tax credit limits flexibility and could drive up budget deficits - just ask Kansas or Oklahoma. Basing the trigger on actual revenues exceeding projected revenues, instead of year-over-year gains, could easily create situations where the state brings in less money than the previous year but remains all but obligated to increase credits.

Furthermore, while we appreciate the governor’s aim of benefitting mainly Nebraska farmers and homeowners rather than non-Nebraskans who own property here, we’re concerned about his plan’s constitutionality. Treating residents different from nonresidents, or one type of property different from another, might run afoul of both the U.S. and state constitutions.

The final version of Ricketts’ plan will almost certainly look different if enacted by the Legislature. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, is correct when he forecasts it has a “very narrow path” to the 33 votes necessary for its passage.

While some improvements remain needed, the governor’s vision of tax reform is now far closer to that of a majority of this state.

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McCook Daily Gazette. January 12, 2018

Human trafficking campaign rightly targets demand

Those of us who grew up in small-town Nebraska may conjure up a scene straight out of Andy Griffith when we think back to our childhoods.

While much of rural Nebraska may be more like Mayberry RFD than Los Angeles, we have our share of crime and depravity, and authorities are dealing with far more than Barney’s misadventures.

That’s why it’s appropriate that officials have targeted child sex trafficking through the Demand An End public awareness campaign.

Not only do main corridors like Interstate 80 carry legal commerce from city to city, but we hear what seem like daily reports of drugs seized during traffic stops, and, less often but more alarmingly, human trafficking.

The Human Trafficking Hotline reported 116 calls in 2017, and 34 human trafficking cases reported.

That’s a tiny number compared to places like California or Texas, but one case is too many, especially when it involves children.

Like the federal raids this week on a national chain of convenience stores, which targeted demand for illegal workers, the Demand An End campaign targets those who would purchase the chance to exploit a minor.

They need to know there will be a heavy price to pay when they are caught.

According to the Human Trafficking Initiative, 11 percent of those sold for sex online are advertised under the age of 21.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson is partnering with numerous individuals and agencies, including state and local officials, the Department of Transportation, Nebraska Trucking Association, Nebraska Latino American Commission, League of Nebraska Municipalities, Nebraska Council of School Administrators, non-profits and countless private citizens to attack the problem.

A concentrated effort targeting Interstate 80 is designed to bring awareness to those traveling through our state that trafficking will not be tolerated.

“Although it is very troubling to know that young people are being trafficked in Nebraska, I am encouraged that so many Nebraskans have united to fight child sex trafficking,” Attorney General Peterson said. “Together, we must demand an end to this form of slavery.”

No, we don’t live in Mayberry, and it’s up to each of us to contact authorities if we suspect someone is being exploited.

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