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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

January 22, 2018

Omaha World Herald. January 17, 2018

Nebraska has a stake in U.S.-South Korea relationship

A Nebraska delegation met last week with government and business leaders in South Korea to strengthen economic ties with that Asian nation. The outreach makes much sense for Nebraska — South Korea is the state’s fifth-largest trading partner and a major player in the global marketplace.

The Nebraskans noted that in 2015, a South Korea company established operations at the University of Nebraska’s Innovation Campus in Lincoln to provide Korean food products to the U.S. market.

It was fitting that Gage County sent an economic development official, Walker Zulkoski, to meet with the South Koreans, since that Nebraska county already is host to significant investments by China (through World Lawn Manufacturing) and Japan (though Itochu Corp.’s partnering with a local biodiesel plant).

Zulkoski, executive director of the economic development organization NGage, explained: “South Korean companies have demonstrated their willingness to invest in Nebraska and, by meeting with more prospects, we hope to help more companies succeed by locating in Nebraska.”

Nebraska currently sells about $517 million worth of goods annually to South Korea.

The Nebraskans’ trip provides an appropriate moment to highlight the immense contrast between the two Koreas. Consider the difference in their governments. For years after the Korean War, strongman military rulers dominated South Korea, but in 1987 the political system opened up to democratic reform. The country is now a strong democracy.

The scandal involving Park Geun-hye provides a dramatic illustration. Until a year ago, Park was South Korea’s elected president. In March 2017, the country’s highest court unanimously upheld the decision by the national parliament to remove Park from office on grounds of corruption.

She currently is in jail awaiting trial on 20 criminal charges.

Such a situation is unthinkable north of the Demilitarized Zone, where North Korea’s eccentric and reckless dictator, Kim Jong Un, keeps the country tightly in his grip.

The economic contrast between North and South also is stark. North Korea’s per capita gross domestic product is only $1,700, while South Korea’s is $37,700 — 48th in the world, ahead of countries including Italy, Spain, Chile and Argentina.

Such are the differences when one society pursues economic dynamism and innovation, opening itself to the global marketplace, in contrast to a regime that stifles individual initiative and takes dangerous military actions that spur other nations to impose sanctions.

The result: a national GDP of $1.9 trillion for South Korea (ahead of Spain, Canada and Australia) but a GDP of only $28 billion for North Korea.

American service personnel in Korea fought more than six decades ago in battles such as Hill Eerie and Heartbreak Ridge. The combat was brutal. But those Americans achieved something tremendous: They helped lay a foundation that today allows millions of South Koreans to live in freedom and democracy.

It’s fitting that our country maintains that enduring security relationship with South Korea and that Nebraskans now reach out to deepen our economic ties.

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The Grand Island Independent. January 18, 2018.

Budget, property tax proposals raise questions

“I’m happy to report that the state of the state is strong and growing,” Gov. Pete Ricketts said in his annual State of the State speech last week.

The governor was right in his assessment of the state as he cited economic development projects and international trade deals.

However, Ricketts also went on to make proposals on addressing two lingering problems: a budget shortfall and high property taxes.

The budget shortfall is estimated at about $200 million for the two-year budget period ending June 30, 2019. After making major cuts to address a shortfall last year, the Legislature is hard pressed to find new cuts.

The governor proposed taking $108 million from the state’s cash reserve. Although this would leave the reserve at its lowest level since 2006, taking funds from there is the proper approach that will help lessen budget cuts.

On those cuts, Ricketts suggested an across-the-board 2 percent budget cut for the rest of this fiscal year and a 4 percent cut for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Across-the-board cuts are the easy way out — and not the best way. Some state agencies and entities are already strapped and have been cut to the bone. Further cuts will diminish needed services.

For example, the University of Nebraska has already made cuts. NU sought last year to close a $49 million budget hole by making budget cuts and raising tuition 5.4 percent for 2017-18 and 3.2 percent for 2018-19.

Now the university is being asked to cut $11.4 million more for this year and another $23.3 million in 2018-19. Academic programs likely will have to be cut and tuition increased even more.

To the governor’s credit, he did stick to his budget priorities and is not cutting funding for K-12 education or corrections and is seeking an increase in funds for child welfare. Those are good targeted areas not to cut. There may also be other areas that shouldn’t be cut.

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On property taxes, the governor is proposing that property owners get a state tax credit on what they pay in property taxes. For agricultural land, the credit would be 10 percent. For home owners, the credit could be up to 10 percent. The tax credit could be increased in future years. This plan, Ricketts said, focuses on Nebraskans and not absentee landowners. Over 10 years, the plan would give $4 billion in property tax relief, the governor said.

Ricketts deserves credit for putting forth a proposal. Past governors just pushed the problem back to the local level.

However, there are serious questions about it. For example, how would the state replace the revenue being given away in the tax credits? Would even more budget cuts be in the offing?

This seems more like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. What Nebraska really needs to consider is how it can provide more funding for education and lower the burden on property taxes. This would require a new revenue source, such as eliminating sales tax exemptions or expanding gaming and taxing it.

Gov. Ricketts has shown leadership by trying to tackle the budget and property tax problems. However, there are plenty of questions about the proposed solutions and much more work to be done.

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Lincoln Journal Star. January 17, 2018

Nebraska strengthens resolve to fight trafficking

Ending the trafficking of minors for sex is a worthy purpose, one that has long united elected officials of all political persuasions.

Nebraska’s executive and legislative branches are once again rolling up their sleeves to do the dirty work of combating this dirty business, which, unfortunately, has touched every corner of the state.

In rolling out the “Demand an End” campaign in the Capitol rotunda last week, leaders of all political persuasions and lines of work laid out their vision for a united front in this ongoing fight. They hope - and we do, too - that bringing this shadowy underworld to light will raise awareness that the trafficking of minors is a problem, even here in the Good Life.

Kids don’t belong in the sex business. Full stop. Yet far too many are coerced into an evil that Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks correctly terms “modern-day slavery” that must be ended.

The new initiative will be more visible than past efforts. Some of that will be through posters placed at rest areas across the state - a smart move, given that sex trafficking often entails physically trafficking minors from place to place.

Increasing penalties against those convicted of buying sex from minors, as the Legislature has done in recent years, is an important weapon in the arsenal.

Legislation passed last year that unleashes prosecutors to charge suspected johns as traffickers themselves - and the stiffer sentence that comes with that count - should have a chilling effect for prospective buyers. A minimum prison term of 20 years will be a far more effective deterrent than the previous maximum of two years for soliciting prostitution from someone younger than 18.

But it’s only half the picture: Those who commit these crimes against children don’t expect they’ll be caught. As such, more aggressive campaigns to combat this scourge are needed. Ramping up law enforcement operations and the state’s prosecutions of suspects in child enticement and trafficking cases represent the other side of the coin.

Being able to conduct additional stings and allowing attorneys to throw an even larger book at those charged as a result of these efforts should further dissuade people from participating in this shameful, exploitative business. More prosecution, too, will breed more news coverage of arrests and prosecutions - a development that one would hope discourages people from pursuing minors for sex.

Throw any negative adjective in front of trafficking, and it’d be fitting. But, as officials accurately pointed out, it remains a business, governed by the same principles of supply and demand as any legitimate for-profit enterprise.

By targeting both education and enforcement for increases, Nebraska is aiming to clamp down on demand - one, we hope, leads to an end to this modern-day slavery of children bought and sold by selfish individuals for a sinister purpose.

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McCook Daily Gazette. January 17, 2018

True tax relief will require tough decisions

Propose elimination of a school, county agency or local governmental position, and you’ll hear an uproar, with good reason.

We all have friends who work in that office, teach in that school or depend on the tax dollars it brings to the community.

The closing of a school sounded the death knell of many a small community or at least portended it.

Faced with a budget shortfall, government at all levels must look at supply and demand — with the exception of the federal government, which has happily rolled up trillions of dollars in deficit spending over recent decades.

The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry passed along some information the sheds light on Nebraska’s budget problems.

State and local governments have the 12th highest per-capita spending in the nation and the seventh highest number of state and local public employees per capita.

Nebraska’s public union membership is 22nd highest in the nation at 29 percent, higher than any neighboring state except Iowa.

Of nearly 150,000 state and local public employees, about 75 percent are employed by local governments that are funded by property taxes.

K-12 public school districts account for about 60 percent of the average Nebraska property tax bill, and about 16 percent of the average property tax bill goes to county government.

New Mexico has about 200,000 more residents than Nebraska, but Nebraska has nearly 100 more public high schools — 424 high schools in Nebraska, including 375 public and 49 private schools.

We’re 37th of the 50 states in student enrollment, and spent an average of $13,833 per student in 2013, compared to a national average of $11,841, according to NPR.org.

Similar in size to Nebraska, South Dakota has 237 fewer square miles, but only 66 counties, compared to Nebraska’s 93 and New Mexico’s 33 counties.

The homesteading of Nebraska moved more people into the state than agriculture could support at the time, and horse-drawn transportation has given way to mile-a-minute vehicle travel and light-speed electronic communication that wasn’t dreamed of when the state’s 93 counties were established.

Clearly, to have meaningful spending reductions and increases in efficiency, Nebraska needs to take a long, hard look at combining taxing entities and eliminating duplication of services.

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