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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

February 19, 2018

Omaha World Herald. February 14, 2018

Nebraska leaders must be mindful of NU’s importance to the state’s future.

Nebraska’s future depends in far-ranging ways on the University of Nebraska. NU, currently with 52,000 students, plays a vital role in workforce development and long-term economic vitality, training Nebraska’s next generations of nurses, farmers, teachers, technologists and entrepreneurs, among other professions.

NU is one of the few institutions that bind all Nebraskans together.

Gov. Pete Ricketts and state lawmakers face major fiscal challenges, it’s true. Revenues for the current two-year budget are short by about $200 million. Cuts have to be made, and NU will need to take a share.

But state leaders need to be wary of imposing budget cuts so great that they harm NU in major ways for the long term — reductions that undercut Nebraska’s workforce development, compel tuition increases that put a university education financially out of reach for many families and undermine staff morale, hindering NU’s recruitment of top-flight faculty.

If state leaders mishandle this issue, Ricketts is at risk of being remembered as the governor who turned his back on NU at a crucial moment in the state’s history. The Legislature could be recalled as one so distracted by multiple issues that it dropped the ball in providing adequate state support for higher education.

The NU system absorbed a $13.5 million cut a year ago and faces about $34 million in additional cuts over the next 18 months, administrators say. NU Regent Bob Phares of North Platte is speaking realistically when he says of Ricketts’ proposed cuts: “We can’t just efficiency ourselves out of everything. This is going to have a significant impact on what we do and the cost for our potential students.”

Consider just a few of the major ways that NU contributes to the state. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Raikes School of Computer Science and Management has become a central conduit for developing Nebraska’s high-tech talent pool. In 2006, three Raikes graduates co-founded Hudl, the Lincoln-based company that’s grown into a global sports video corporation. Hudl has brought in record-setting venture capital investment for a Nebraska business, including $30 million last year and $72.5 million in 2015.

The Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at UNL has multiple initiatives to deepen students’ understanding of ag-focused business issues. In all, about 900 UNL students are studying entrepreneurship to some degree.

Among other notable NU benefits: The University of Nebraska at Omaha has repeatedly won national recognition for being a military-friendly campus in its supports and atmosphere. The University of Nebraska Medical Center is showing great vision with its high-tech iExcel program, which will train people in a range of medical professions and provide instruction for emergency medical technicians. The University of Nebraska at Kearney continues in its traditional role in helping first-generation college students from rural communities.

NU representatives will testify today during an Appropriations Committee hearing.

Nebraskans — and above all, Ricketts and state lawmakers — should have no doubt that NU is the state’s most valuable asset and no doubt about the need to safeguard it for the generations to come.

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The Grand Island Independent. February 15, 2018.

Putting flooding in the past

Grand Island area residents received good news last week when Central Platte Natural Resources District officials announced that work on a flood control project northwest of the city will be completed this year.

The Upper Prairie/Silver/Moores Flood Control Project has been in the works for more than a decade. It is designed to prevent flooding in northwest Grand Island and in the area outside the city and in Merrick County.

The $28 million project involves the construction of a series of water detention cells. More specifically, the project has a series of dry dams, lowland water detention cells and levees across 230 square miles that cover the Dry, Prairie, Silver and Moores creeks.

Residents in the area have waited a long time for the project to be completed. Much of the delay was because of explosives residue found at the site where water detention cells are being constructed at the former Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant site. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to complete an explosives remediation project before the cells could be constructed.

Now, though, the project has proceeded to where the end is in sight. And that is extremely good news for many homeowners in the area.

At a water program update last week, CPNRD assistant manager Jesse Mintken said the project will take 1,500 homes and businesses out of the flood plain.

The benefits don’t stop there. In addition, 10,000 acres of farm ground also will be protected.

In all, the project could prevent up to $130 million in damages from a 100-year storm, Mintken said. That sounds like the $28 million project is money well spent.

Grand Island residents got a good glimpse of the need for the project when heavy rains fell in 2005 and 2008 and flooding was seen in northwest Grand Island.

Since that time, more building has been done, increasing the value of the project even more.

Residents and experts know that projects like this work. The Wood River Flood Control Project, completed in 2004, has been extremely successful in protecting southern Grand Island from flooding such as occurred in 1967, causing millions of dollars in damage.

The northwest project is a partnership between the CPNRD, the city of Grand Island, Hall County and Merrick County. This cooperative project will for years prove to be a benefit to people living in these areas.

These creeks and areas have flooded many times in wet years. Not having to worry about the flooding will be a relief and financial benefit to many for years.

The benefits also will be more immediate. FEMA is set to remap the flood plain in 2019. Being taken out of the flood plain will be an immediate benefit to many home and landowners as they will no longer be required to have flood insurance.

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Lincoln Journal Star. February 16, 2018

Ethics body makes sense for senators to consider

State senators appear to agree on the concept of a legislative ethics board, as one member has proposed, but the specifics seem to be the sticking point.

The measure, introduced by Heartwell Sen. John Kuehn, advances an important conversation that Nebraska has yet to fully address: How can the Legislature police members’ actions, especially in a way unaffected by partisan politics?

His one-page bill offers a preliminary framework, creating an ethics board and allowing senators to determine what constitutes inappropriate behavior, how it would be investigated and what sanctions it would carry. Lawmakers also need to establish how this would fit into the Legislature’s existing rules.

The state constitution stipulates that “No member shall be expelled except by a vote of two-thirds of all members elected to the Legislature, and no member shall be twice expelled for the same offense.” It contains no mention of censure, the other means of condemnation senators have at their disposal.

Fresh on many Nebraskans’ minds, no doubt, is the last time these actions were debated: last January’s resignation of Sen. Bill Kintner minutes before the Legislature debated his expulsion.

He was originally fined $1,000 by the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission after using a state-issued laptop for cybersex with a woman who attempted to extort him, in addition to a series of controversial remarks about women, minorities, gays and others.

However, had Kintner not stepped down and somehow staved off an expulsion vote, the Legislature would have had no means to punish him beyond a censure. Without clear policies, there’d have been no process or document to determine if his actions were indeed inappropriate - or any recourse for Kintner.

Kuehn said that his bill wasn’t in direct response to Kintner’s situation or the #MeToo movement. But he noted senators had to act on a gut feeling rather than previously established due process, telling the Journal Star: “We have no system at all to protect the accuser or the due process of the accused.”

A variety of other states have such protocols, with the Arizona House of Representatives earlier this month expelling a lawmaker. A legislative investigation into a representative’s behavior turned up a pattern of sexual harassment - including an allegation made by a member of the House. The chamber then voted nearly unanimously to oust him.

Beyond its procedures handling workplace harassment complaints, the Legislature hasn’t seen any accusations of that magnitude in recent years. Before another high-profile case arises, though, lawmakers would be better served by considering exactly what an ethics board would entail.

Whether it’s by way of Kuehn’s bill or some other mechanism, senators should discuss an apolitical, transparent ethics process to provide guidance and clarity when it inevitably becomes needed.

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Scottsbluff Star-Herald. February 14, 2018

How will we be defined?

Imagine having to tighten the financial belt for your household budget. For most, you do not have to imagine, you have had to do it.

You tighten it. Then you tighten some more and then more.

Take a look at your budget, thinking of what it would look like today if you had to cut $43,000 out of it last year. Now, imagine going into your banker and hearing them say, “You need to cut $11,000 out of your budget this year and then another $23,000 out of next year’s.”

If those numbers don’t have a big impact on your budget, add a zero to the end of the number you need to cut.

What would you do?

Would it require dipping into your savings? Selling some property? Raiding your child’s college fund? Would you consider selling your house and downsizing?

Maybe you could find a different job or a second job? Add some extra income to offset the shortfall.

Now put yourself in the shoes of University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds and the university system. The University of Nebraska was asked to find $43 million in savings last year. Now, their banker, Governor Pete Ricketts, is asking them to cut $11 million this year and another $23 million next year.

The cuts will hurt and reshape the University, our state and our future.

In your personal budget you would look for ways to cut, but also ways to bring in additional income. Our governor is looking for cuts, but not willing to consider ways of bringing in additional income.

This could include holding back on many of our tax incentive programs, looking at changing what we consider tax exempt or even the possibility of increasing our state sales tax.

When you are running in the red you need to look at everything, not just cuts. It is tough; it could mean political suicide, but our leaders, including Governor Ricketts, were elected to lead and sometimes leading means making the tough, unpopular decisions.

Sales taxes and sales tax exemptions could be one area to look at. Presently Nebraska has a 5.5 percent state sales tax with a varying local sales tax. The average paid in Nebraska is 5.969 percent, according to salestaxhandbook.com. There are 38 states paying a higher rate of sales tax. Colorado comes in at 31st with a low state sales tax, 2.9 percent but higher local sales taxes with an average of 6.163. Kansas is the eighth highest at 6.5 percent and when you add in local sales taxes it jumps to an average of 8.048 percent.

South Dakota, where you will pay sales tax on groceries, newspapers, machinery and more, come in at 43rd with 4.5 percent at the state level, an average of 5.455 percent adding in local sales tax.

We don’t like even considering a higher tax, or changing exemptions, but we cannot continue to survive on cuts alone.

The cuts are not just impacting the university. It is impacting our local schools, new programs such as the proposed pilot program for students with mental and behavioral problems called Panhandle Beginnings and even property tax relief. We are left without a way to cover the cost of those programs, but cost cuts aren’t always the wisest approach.

If the Dental Hygiene program in Scottsbluff closes it will be very difficult to restart the program, even when times are better. If we don’t fund Panhandle Beginnings we will save money today, but may pay down the road as students with mental health problems don’t have the tools to keep a job or end up in prison. We make the needed cuts to property taxes only to have to offset those in lost aid to our schools.

Next year, what will we have to say goodbye to, the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center? Heaven help western Nebraska if that were to happen.

Cuts have been made, they will continue to be made, but as unpopular as it is, it is also time we consider ways to generate more revenue. Consider taking on that second job.

We need our elected leaders to not worry about their political futures and think about the future of our great state. Can we afford to sacrifice our college, our students and property tax payers on the cutting room floor without ever considering any new sources of revenue?

“This is a defining moment in Nebraska’s history,” University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds said of the proposed cuts.

He is right and we must ask ourselves, “How do we want to define Nebraska?”

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