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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

May 6, 2019

Omaha World Herald. May 2, 2019

Nebraska researchers lead way in understanding rural drug abuse and solutions

Our country needs more focused study on the health needs of rural residents, the National Institutes of Health says. The more that health professionals understand the medical and behavioral health needs specific to non-urban areas, the better those problems can be addressed.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will soon pursue that worthy goal through a partnership to study rural drug abuse problems in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. NIH is providing a five-year, $11.85 million grant for UNL’s Rural Drug Addiction Research Center. The University of Nebraska Medical Center will be a partner in the project.

The drug-overdose death rate in Nebraska in 1999 was 2.3 per 100,000 residents; by 2017, The World-Herald’s Rick Ruggles reports, the rate had increased to 8.1. In Iowa, the rate during 1999-2017 increased from 6.1 per 100,000 residents to 21.7.

Improved reporting probably accounts for the increases to a degree, but this grant-funded study is important because it will help health authorities better understand, and address, the factors that led to the increases. Alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine are the most abused substances in Nebraska, according to Tamara Gavin, a deputy director of the Nebraska division of behavioral health.

The five-year research project will include neuroscience analysis as well as examination of social and economic conditions contributing to drug addiction. One focus will be how social networks facilitate illegal drug access and use.

The project will use anonymous interviews and other methods that have proven effective in other studies across the nation involving sensitive topics, such as HIV transmission, said Kirk Dombrowski, a UNL professor of sociology and head of the program.

It’s encouraging to see Nebraska medical and behavioral health experts lead the way in deepening our understanding of rural health needs and the best options to address them.

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The Grand Island Independent. May 5, 2019

Plan for property tax cuts headed in right direction

There is a fact that some state leaders in Nebraska choose to ignore. To achieve significant property tax relief that will make a real difference for ag producers, there has to be another source of tax revenue to replace what is lost through lower property taxes.

After all, Nebraska doesn’t want to leave schools decimated through a drastic cut in revenue, which would mean fewer teachers, larger class sizes and a decline in the quality of education students receive.

So the approach being taken by the Legislature’s Revenue Committee in LB289 is the right one. It aims to lower property taxes by increasing state aid to schools by $500 million. The state would get that $500 million by increasing sales tax revenue.

The bill would increase the state sales tax by a half-cent and eliminate the sales tax exemption on about 20 services. These services include lawn service, haircuts, veterinary services for pets and home repairs. In addition, sales tax would be added to candy, pop and bottled water — items that aren’t currently taxed. The tobacco tax would also increase by 36 cents on a pack of cigarettes.

The bill clearly is a shift from property taxes to sales taxes. Critics, such as Gov. Pete Ricketts, are right when they say it is a tax shift. But critics ignore that a tax shift is exactly what is needed to achieve property tax relief, which Nebraskans have sought for years. It has become a critical issue for ag producers, many of whom have seen their income go down but their property tax bills go up.

Nebraska has long lagged behind other states in state funding for education. LB289 would finally correct that. Nebraska would go from 47th in the country in state support of K-12 education to about 20th.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan called that “a big turn in direction” from relying on property taxes to fund education. It’s a turn that Nebraska has needed to take for a long time.

The bill also includes some other measures, including lowering the valuation of property that could be taxed from 100 percent to 90 percent for residential and commercial property and from 75 to 65 percent for ag land during the second year the bill is in effect. In addition, there are some caps on spending of property taxes.

One concern about the bill is that it takes $119 million from the property tax credit fund to use for school aid. The property tax credit fund is guaranteed property tax relief, although not as significant of an amount.

The bill doesn’t guarantee that property taxes would go down, but the Legislature would be sending a clear message to school districts that their state aid is increasing so that property taxes can be lowered and not so spending can be increased. It would be up to voters to hold school board members to that objective of lowering property taxes.

The property tax reform measure faces a hard road ahead, especially with the governor’s opposition. But it’s long past time that the Legislature addressed the issue, especially now that a petition drive on lowering property taxes has been announced.

The Revenue Committee deserves praise for having the courage to advance a comprehensive measure to the floor. It’s about time that a measure like this was debated by the state’s lawmakers and considered by its taxpayers.

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Lincoln Journal Star. May 5, 2019

Undercount on census would hurt Nebraska

If only the politics surrounding the upcoming 2020 census were as cut and dried as Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which mandates an “actual enumeration” of Americans every 10 years.

Congressional representation is certainly one of the most important outcomes stemming from this decennial tally, which will occur next year. But other vital procedures - including the awarding of federal funds and the drawing of other political districts - directly result.

This critical count is far too significant for political stunts - especially at the federal level - to undermine.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha estimates just one missed resident will cost the state nearly $2,100 in federal funds per year - or almost $21,000 over the course of the decade.

Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen introduced a bill (LB436) that would join every state other than South Dakota in creating a citizens committee to ensure an accurate census. Gov. Pete Ricketts has opposed the measure, which comes with an estimated $111,000 price tag.

The Journal Star editorial board debated this bill extensively earlier this year without coming to a consensus. Regardless, the utmost precision is needed.

Some members felt Hansen’s bill was about as common sense as it got, given that it’d pay for itself if just six more Nebraskans filled out the census. Others, however, feared a sunk cost, as residents who wanted to avoid being counted would find ways to dodge the form - largely because of the Trump administration’s insistence on reinstating a citizenship question that was scrapped in 1960.

Undocumented immigrants have expressed worry that a response to that query could alert authorities to their status in the country and lead to deportation. But federal law prevents for 72 years the release of any personally identifiable information from the census - which would be 2092. The question’s fate will ultimately be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments on it last week.

Still, the Census Bureau has estimated as many as 6.5 million people - the population reported by Massachusetts, then the 15th-most-populous state, in 2010 - may elect to not participate.

If Nebraska’s population is underreported, it could cost the state greatly.

In terms of representation, Nebraska’s sprawling 3rd District is expected to remain above the threshold that would cost the state a seat in the U.S. House. However, if a large number of Nebraskans fail to fill out the 2020 Census, that seat could theoretically be lost - and diminish the state’s clout in Washington.

And federal funding - which helps defray the cost of highways and health care, among other programs in the state - represents nearly 27% of Nebraska’s budget. If fewer Nebraskans complete the census, the direct effect will be fewer federal dollars.

Nebraska benefits from having the most accurate count of the “whole number of persons,” as later set forth in the 14th Amendment. State and federal policies must reflect this fact.

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