Articles of Interest

ST. FRANCIS PLANS TO START TAKING OVER OMAHA-AREA CHILD WELFARE CASES 3 MONTHS EARLY, IN OCTOBER

LINCOLN — A Kansas nonprofit could start overseeing cases of abused and neglected Omaha-area children three months earlier than planned.

St. Francis Ministries had been slated to take over child welfare case management from PromiseShip, an Omaha-based nonprofit, on Jan. 1. Now state officials are pushing for case transfers to start in early October. Danette Smith, chief executive officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the state wanted a gradual changeover between the two private contractors to avoid potential setbacks and disruption of service to children and families.

“This is being done to ensure a safe transition of cases over a three-month period, rather than all at once on Jan. 1,” she said in a statement.

Under the new plan, case transfers would begin before the state completes a review of St. Francis’ readiness to fulfill the requirements of its contract with HHS. They could also begin before the courts resolve a pair of lawsuits challenging the contract.

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NEBRASKA HOMEOWNERS, FARMERS TO GET BUMP IN PROPERTY TAX CREDITS

LINCOLN — Homeowners, farmers and other property owners will see a jump in their state property tax credits next year, but whether that translates into a lower property tax bill for individual taxpayers remains to be seen.

If local property valuations or tax levies go up — which is determined by local government officials — it could wipe outthe impact of the increased state credit. For instance, in Douglas County, property valuations are expected to rise by an average of 6.65%, which could translate into a higher tax bill depending on where tax levies are set by school districts, cities and counties.

The increase in state property tax credits for the owner of a $100,000 home amounts to $17.65 — about the price of a case of inexpensive beer. That homeowner will receive a total credit of $104.15 on next year’s property tax bill. For farmers, the owner of land valued at $1 million will get a credit of $1,249.80. Last year, that same farmer got a credit of $1,038.10.

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NEBRASKA AG PETERSON: 48-STATE ANTITRUST PROBE SENDS 'STRONG MESSAGE TO GOOGLE'

WASHINGTON — Fifty U.S. states and territories, led by Texas, announced an investigation into Google's "potential monopolistic behavior."

The Monday announcement closely followed one from a separate group of states Friday that disclosed an investigation into Facebook's market dominance. The two probes widen the antitrust scrutiny of big tech companies beyond sweeping federal and congressional investigations and enforcement action by European regulators.

Nebraska attorney general Doug Peterson, a Republican, said at a press conference held in Washington that 50 attorneys general joining together sends a "strong message to Google."

California and Alabama are not part of the investigation, although it does include the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Tara Gallegos, a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, declined to confirm or deny any state investigation and would not comment on the announcement by the other states.

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TRUCKING GIANT TESTING AUTONOMOUS BIG RIGS AROUND SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA HIGHWAYS

ROANOKE, Va. — Daimler Trucks has begun testing highly autonomous big rigs on public highways in Southwest Virginia, the industry giant announced Monday.

The news comes after regulators approved Daimler’s acquisition of Torc Robotics, the Blacksburg company that has been developing self-driving technology for over a decade. Now that Torc is officially part of Daimler, what better place to test the company’s new self-driving trucks than in Torc’s own backyard?

The trucks will be highly autonomous, which is referred to as SAE Level 4 in the robotics industry. Drivers are still present in Daimler’s tests, but they don’t have to be. As long as the proper conditions are met, such as weather and route, the truck is completely capable of driving itself.

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COUNCIL CLEARS THE WAY FOR MASSIVE DATA CENTER IN NORTH LINCOLN

LINCOLN - The Lincoln City Council on Monday annexed more than 570 acres north of Interstate 80 into the city and approved the zoning changes to ready the transformation of farmland into a massive data center.

The data center would occupy a campus of up to 2 million square feet west of 56th Street and south of Bluff Road and would be run by a company that still hasn't been publicly identified. Officials with Project Agate, as it's called, told the state the business may invest as much as $600 million in the data center, which may employ up to 1,000 people within 20 years.

"This is the type of project that we as a city very often hope for or plan for but don't always get," County-City Planning Director David Cary said at a hearing last month.

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FARMERS SIGN TAX RELIEF PETITION AT HUSKER HARVEST DAYS

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — You won't find farmers writing checks at Husker Harvest Days, but they are signing on the dotted line in big numbers for property tax relief.

“People are lining up 3 deep to sign on,” said Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil. Murman along with fellow Senators Steve Erdman and Steve Halloran man a booth under a T-L pivot, pushing to get a plan on the ballot that would give property taxpayers a refund.

“35 percent of what you paid in property taxes would be a credit right off your state income tax,” Murman explained.

It would be a billion dollar tax reduction. To pay for the refund checks, senators say they could make some budget cuts, but also shift some of the burden on other taxes, namely sales tax, where they'd like to eliminate some exemptions.

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COALITION SEEKS MORATORIUM ON LARGE LIVESTOCK OPERATIONS IN NEBRASKA

A coalition of citizen and environmental groups is calling for a moratorium on large livestock operations in the state.

At a media event in rural Valparaiso on Monday, the groups unveiled a Change.org petition seeking support to put a temporary stop to what they call "factory farms." Randy Ruppert, a Nickerson resident who has been a frequent critic of the Costco poultry processing plant in Fremont, said such a moratorium is needed because state and local zoning laws are inadequate to deal with large confined animal feeding operations.

Most county zoning regulations "are 40 years out of date," said Ruppert, who helped to start Nebraska Communities United in 2015.

The event was at Pine Crest Farms Bed & Breakfast in advance of a Saunders County Planning & Zoning Commission hearing Monday night in Wahoo on a proposed poultry farm near Morse Bluff that would raise chickens for the Costco plant that started up this month.

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RICKETTS SAYS ASIAN TRADE AGREEMENTS COULD HELP AGRICULTURE

LINCOLN - Winding up his trade mission to Vietnam and Japan on Monday, Gov. Pete Ricketts expressed optimism for a growing international market for Nebraska's agricultural products in Asia.

Vietnam could develop into a major new customer, the governor said during a telephone interview from Tokyo. Meanwhile, Japan and the United States may be on the cusp of a broad new trade agreement that results in lower beef and pork tariffs that would be "a really big deal for Nebraska," Ricketts said.

Asked about the Nebraska Farm Bureau's recent estimate that trade policies under President Donald Trump have resulted in a $2 billion hit to Nebraska agriculture over the past two years, the governor said he believes rural Nebraska understands the need to adjust U.S. trade relationships.

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SUIT OVER MEDICAID EXPANSION PLANS TO BE REFILED IN LOWER COURT AFTER NEBRASKA HIGH COURT REJECTS IT

LINCOLN — A lawsuit challenging Nebraska’s plans for expanding Medicaid to about 94,000 people will be refiled in district court after the Nebraska Supreme Court refused to take the case. Last week, the high court denied Nebraska Appleseed’s bid to make its arguments directly to the state’s top court.

In written minutes, the court explained that it is “primarily an appellate tribunal for purpose of reviewing matters tried in lower courts” and that it does not ordinarily consider cases that could be filed first in a lower court. James Goddard, Appleseed’s economic justice director, said Monday that he hopes to refile in Lancaster County District Court this week and wants to keep the case moving quickly.

“We are going to do everything we can to push it along as soon as possible,” he said.

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10,000 NEBRASKANS WOULD LOSE FOOD STAMPS UNDER PROPOSED RULE CHANGE, STUDY FINDS

An estimated 10,000 Nebraskans currently on food stamps — about 6% of all recipients — would lose their benefits under a Trump administration proposal to tighten eligibility under the food assistance program.

In Iowa, 16% of food stamp participants would lose benefits, one of the highest percentages of any state in the nation, while about 8% of recipients nationwide would lose benefits. Those estimates came out of a recent state-by-state study of the plan to limit states’ ability to extend eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s primary program for feeding the needy.

Despite the Trump administration’s suggestion that the current system allows millionaires to use food stamps, most of the estimated 3.6 million people who would lose assistance nationally are living below or just above the federal poverty line and have no more than modest amounts of savings, said Sarah Lauffer of Mathematica, the New Jersey-based public policy research organization that completed the study.

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K2, HANDMADE TATTOO MACHINE, SMUGGLED CELLPHONE FOUND DURING SEARCH OF STATE PENITENTIARY

LINCOLN — Syringes, homemade weapons and the synthetic marijuana K2 were among the items found during emergency searches last week at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, officials said Wednesday.

An increase in staff assaults and a hike in contraband smuggled into the State Pen prompted corrections officials to order a lockdown on Sept. 4 and conduct searches of the state’s largest prison. The facility went to a modified lockdown Friday, with normal operations resuming Monday. State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said Wednesday that the searches yielded the sort of items that he expected.

“Obviously, you never know what might turn up. But, the fact that we were able to find so many different things shows me that this effort was well worth it,” he said.

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PLANNERS OK LARGE SOLAR PROJECT; OTHER HURDLES REMAIN

A massive solar energy project proposed east of Lincoln cleared its first hurdle Wednesday.

After more than two hours of testimony, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission voted unanimously to grant a special permit for a 230-megawatt solar farm on roughly 1,100 acres in an area bounded by 128th Street, 148th Street and O Street and Havelock Avenue.

New York-based Ranger Power has proposed the project, which would be the largest solar farm to date in Nebraska by a wide margin, more than five times the size of all installed solar energy projects in the state.

Colin Snow, the development manager for the project, said the company chose the area because it is close to both Lincoln and Omaha and also because it has existing infrastructure — in the form of a nearby transformer owned by Lincoln Electric System — "that is robust enough for us to plug into it."

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'NEBRASKA FAMILIES CONTINUE TO STRUGGLE': MANY PROBLEMS WITH FOSTER CARE UNADDRESSED, REVIEW SAYS

LINCOLN — The state agency that tracks foster children expressed disappointment Tuesday that many problems within the child welfare system in the state remain unaddressed.

Significant improvement has not been made in several areas, with too many children having multiple placements in foster homes, too few kids attending juvenile court hearings and state caseworkers changing too frequently to help kids, according to the annual report of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office, released Tuesday.

“Nebraska families continue to struggle with substance use, domestic violence and access to mental health treatment,” stated the report. Juvenile probation offices, the report added, lack community-based programs to refer families to in order to prevent kids from being removed from a home.

Katherine Bass, research director with the agency, said the annual report will continue to repeat its “unaddressed recommendations” until changes are made.

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NEBRASKANS SUPPORT DOING AWAY WITH SOME TAX EXEMPTIONS TO HELP LOWER PROPERTY TAXES, POLL SUGGESTS

LINCOLN — Nebraskans appear to support increased limits on government spending, and possibly doing away with sales tax exemptions, to lower property taxes, according to polling done by the Platte Institute, an Omaha-based think tank.

The organization polled nearly 3,000 people in January, posing several questions about property taxes, which many farmers and homeowners say are too high and must be reduced.

The poll questioned residents in only eight state legislative districts — the eight represented by senators on the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. That committee advanced a property-tax reduction bill this spring that failed to advance. But Platte officials said Wednesday that they believe their polling represents the views of people across the state.

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MUD BOARD PICKS FORMER STATE SEN. TANYA COOK TO FILL REMAINDER OF TOM DOWD'S TERM

OMAHA - The Metropolitan Utilities District board chose a former state senator to fill its open slot representing northeast Omaha.

In a 6-0 vote Wednesday, the board chose former State Sen. Tanya Cook to replace Tom Dowd, who died in early August after a long illness.

Cook will serve the remainder of Dowd’s term, representing MUD’s Subdivision 5 through the end of 2020.

MUD board members are paid an annual salary of $13,440.

She will have the option of filing to run for the seat. She was one of 16 applicants for the seat. Finalists included former State Sen. Burke Harr.

“I welcome the chance to continue my own public service as a member of the MUD Board of Directors,” she said.

Cook served two terms in the Legislature, including stints on the Appropriations and Business and Labor Committees.

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SERIOUS MISBEHAVIOR AT NEBRASKA STATE PENITENTIARY LEADS TO MAJOR LOCKDOWN, WIDESPREAD SEARCHES

LINCOLN - The Nebraska prisons director has had it with misbehavior at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

A recent increase at the prison in assaults, drug use and possession of contraband, including weapons and cellphones, has led to a lockdown of the prison that began Wednesday morning and extensive searches.

Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said in a news release that he is taking a "no-holds-barred approach" to stopping the increase in disorder.

“No matter if it’s K2, alcohol or other substances, staff members are dealing with inmates who are intoxicated and are often confrontational when they are in that state,” Frakes said. “That, in addition to the homemade weapons that have been discovered, represents a serious compromise to facility safety. The only way to address this is to stop all movement and thoroughly search the facility.”

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NEBRASKA INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE CASES OF VAPING-RELATED LUNG DISEASE

Nebraska health officials confirmed Tuesday that they are investigating several possible cases of severe pulmonary disease associated with using e-cigarette products, or vaping.

Four possible cases of the disease have been reported to the state, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

The agency sent a notice to health care providers Tuesday advising them to consider vaping-related illness in patients presenting with respiratory symptoms and a history of vaping. They should report suspected cases to their local health department or the state.

Further details regarding the ages and locations of the possible Nebraska cases were not immediately available. As of a week ago, about 215 possible cases were under investigation in 25 states, including four in Iowa, and additional reports of pulmonary illness were suspected.

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HOW FAR AND HOW FAST CAN OPPD PUSH TOWARD 'ZERO CARBON' ENERGY FUTURE? STUDY SEEKS ANSWERS, COSTS

OMAHA - The Omaha Public Power District is studying how far it can push toward generating the region’s electricity without the carbon emissions that scientists say contribute to a changing climate.

Utilities from Omaha to Amsterdam have pledged in recent years to generate more of their communities’ electricity from renewable sources, including the sun, wind and water.

OPPD in 2018 set a goal to generate half the power that its local customers buy from renewable sources. Electric companies in other cities have aimed as high as 100%.

OPPD also is studying a step beyond adding more renewable energy. It’s studying how far and fast OPPD can go in reducing the carbon emissions of all its power plants.

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GRETNA SEEKS TO CAPITALIZE ON PROXIMITY TO OMAHA AND LINCOLN

GRETNA — The Nebraska Crossing Outlets is celebrating yet another expansion with the opening of a combination TJ Maxx and HomeGoods store.

Another project will begin operations this fall at the outlet mall: justdata.com, a data-driven real estate technology company that will work to solve the challenges facing the flagging shopping center industry.

The company could have based itself anywhere. Rod Yates, the mall's developer and founder of justdata.com, chose the site south of Gretna in part because they want to be able to recruit from the state's two largest cities for the $150,000-a-year jobs.

In fact, the mall's overall success — it has expanded four times and is planning two more — is a testament to Gretna's position along Interstate 80.

"The advantage we had is we're equal distance between downtown Lincoln and downtown Omaha," Yates said.

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SOME MARIJUANA USERS HAVE AVOIDED CHARGES IN NEBRASKA. THAT MAY BE COMING TO AN END

LINCOLN — Marijuana users have been getting a pass in some Nebraska counties as prosecutors declined to charge low-level possession cases because of an inability to prove what’s illegal marijuana as opposed to legal hemp.

But the reprieve may not last much longer.

An official with the University of Nebraska Medical Center said Friday that within three weeks, its crime lab should be able to test and determine the difference, clearing the way for prosecutions to resume.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, whose office uses the UNMC lab, said that means business as usual in the state’s largest county.

In Lancaster County, one of several counties that have stopped filing criminal charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana, a prosecutor said his office will begin reviewing whether to file the charges as soon as tests are available. At least three of the cases to be reviewed for possible prosecution involve Nebraska football players.

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DOUGLAS COUNTY PLANS NEW POST TO OVERSEE JUVENILE SERVICES; BOARD MEMBER SAYS IT WON'T HELP KIDS

OMAHA - Douglas County is considering whether to hire a person to oversee the county’s juvenile justice services and coordinate reform efforts.

The county would create a new position, a deputy county administrator for juvenile services, under a plan being promoted by County Board Chairman Chris Rodgers and Patrick Bloomingdale, the county’s chief administrative officer.

The person would supervise the directors of the Douglas County Youth Center and Juvenile Assessment Center, the county’s disproportionate minority contact and compliance coordinator and leaders of other services, Bloomingdale said.

The person also might oversee the staff of Operation Youth Success, a county initiative to keep young people out of the justice system while maintaining public safety.

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NEBRASKA COULD SOON BE AT CENTER OF NATIONAL LEGAL BATTLE OVER ROUNDUP

COLERIDGE, Neb. — For a third-generation farmer like Larry Domina, it seemed like the biggest labor-saver since the invention of the tractor.

Agri-chemical giant Monsanto in the late 1990s came out with genetically modified corn and soybean varieties that were resistant to the company’s Roundup herbicide.

After planting these “Roundup Ready” seeds, Domina and other farmers could freely spray the weedkiller all over their fields without fear it would kill off their crops, too. For Domina, it meant no more walking corn and bean rows to pull or spot-spray weeds.

“It was almost magic,” he said.

But in 2012, Domina was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer he believes was caused by his use of Roundup.

Now a lawsuit he filed against Monsanto could put Nebraska at the center of a national legal mega-battle over the safety of the nation’s most popular weedkiller — one that for decades has been sprayed by farmers and backyard gardeners alike.

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NEBRASKA MEDICINE CREATING MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS CENTER ON OMAHA CAMPUS, NOT IN SARPY COUNTY

OMAHA - Nebraska Medicine now plans to establish a psychiatric emergency center on its Omaha campus, rather than in Sarpy County.

The health system’s board of directors approved the project in concept Monday, with the goal of opening next spring or summer, said Dr. Howard Liu, chairman of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

In early June, the health system confirmed that it was in “very preliminary” discussions with Sarpy County officials about adding such a facility to its Bellevue campus. Officials also said at the time that they were considering a similar facility at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

But Liu said this week that discussions with the Sarpy group ended a couple of months ago. A planning group including leaders in psychiatry and emergency medicine determined that the health system, given limited resources, should focus first on Douglas County with its greater volume of patients. They also received feedback from and had discussions with other behavioral health partners in the community.

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ONE NAME MISSING AS TOP NEBRASKA REPUBLICANS SIGN ON TO HELP TRUMP'S REELECTION EFFORT

OMAHA - President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has released its list of honorary Nebraska chairs, and there is one notable name missing.

It may not be surprising that one of Trump’s most vocal Republican critics — U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse — has not signed on as an honorary chair of his campaign.

But Sasse stands alone among Nebraska’s all-GOP federal delegation. His fellow senator Deb Fischer, as well as Nebraska’s three House members, Jeff Fortenberry, Don Bacon and Adrian Smith, have all signed on as honorary state chairs. So have Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Govs. Dave Heineman and Kay Orr.

Heineman, an early supporter of Trump’s in 2016, said he got a call from the Trump regional political director. “It was a short conversation. I said yes.”

Sasse spokesman James Wegmann said the senator declined to be on the state chair list because “we were told that being on the list would amount to a pledge to never disagree.”

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BUSINESS TAX INCENTIVES COST NEBRASKA OVER $200 MILLION LAST YEAR. SOME LEGISLATORS QUESTION THEM

LINCOLN — Opinions appear as divided as ever over whether Nebraska’s business tax incentives are worth the millions of dollars they cost, judging by a legislative hearing on Thursday.

Representatives from the Nebraska Department of Revenue were peppered with questions from state senators during an annual hearing to discuss the costs and benefits of incentive programs like the Nebraska Advantage Act, passed in 2005, and LB 775, enacted in 1987 amid fears that Omaha corporate giants like ConAgra and Union Pacific would flee the state.

Last year, the state defrayed $206 million in taxes to companies that reported 2,489 new full-time-equivalent jobs. One set of statistics that raised eyebrows was a projection for 2019 that showed the state would see a $142 million net loss in tax revenue to create 1,169 “dynamic” jobs, which officials said were totally new positions created, not just an increase in hours for existing workers.

A couple of senators who dislike incentives did the math — $112,000 per job. Other senators also questioned whether Nebraska was getting an adequate bang for its buck.

“These incentive programs cost us a lot of money,” said Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, a leading critic of the tax giveaways.

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HEAVICAN: ISOLATION, CHALLENGES, SATISFACTION FOR NEBRASKA COURT'S CHIEF JUSTICE

LINCOLN - Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican is not often recognized when he goes on his routine run in Lincoln nor are you likely to encounter him at social events. Definitely not at political events.

"I avoid contact with political figures," he says.

And all of that is part of the job. A distancing from outside influence, or even the appearance of it.

"There's a sense of isolation," Heavican says. "That's part of being a judge. "The longer you are a judge, the more inclined you are to interact only with other judges," he says.

"I think that's one of the real limitations of the job. You need to keep that in mind. And it bothered me initially."

But after a career as a state and federal prosecutor — Lancaster County attorney for 10 years after a stint as deputy county attorney, assistant U.S. attorney for 10 years, U.S. attorney for five years — Heavican is where he wants to be.

"There certainly is no better job than chief justice," he said. "But I would say I liked them all. Real accountability comes with each of the different positions."

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ACLU OF NEBRASKA SEES A PROCEDURAL VICTORY IN PRISONS LAWSUIT CLASS-ACTION MOTION

LINCOLN - As a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Nebraska against the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services winds through the courts, the ACLU said Friday it won an important procedural motion in the case.

The lawsuit, filed in 2017, named 11 Nebraska prisoners it said suffer because of conditions and crowding that endanger the health, safety and lives of prisoners on a daily basis. The lawsuit challenges what it alleges are dangerous overcrowding and unconstitutional conditions of confinement in Nebraska’s prison system.

In February it filed a motion to increase the reach of the complaint with class-action status on behalf of about 5,500 men and women in the state's prisons. It enlisted six people with expertise in treatment of prisoners with mental health, medical, dental treatment needs and disabilities to tour the prisons and provide sworn statements on conditions.

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PRISONS OFFICIAL: ASSAULT, K2 USE PROMPTS RESTRICTIONS IN HOUSING UNIT

LINCOLN - An unspecified housing unit at the Nebraska State Penitentiary is on modified operations due to separate incidents involving multiple inmates, prisons officials said in a news release issued Saturday evening.

Earlier in the day, Chief of Staff Laura Strimple said an unidentified inmate at the Lincoln prison was assaulted by several other inmates in his cell. He suffered serious injuries, including a fractured jaw, and was taken to a local hospital for treatment.

Additionally, 11 inmates in the same housing unit had to be treated by medical staff at the penitentiary for being under the influence of synthetic marijuana, also known as K2.

An investigation into the incidents is ongoing.

While on modified operations, prisons officials more closely control movement of inmates, which can include confinement in cells, cancellation of program and work activities and direct escort in some cases.

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EARLY STUDENT READING ASSESSMENTS BEGIN THIS SCHOOL YEAR IN NEBRASKA

OMAHA — A new state law requiring Nebraska public school students to undergo the first of three reading assessments within 30 days of starting school is scheduled to go into effect this school year.

The assessments provided by the Nebraska Department of Education are designed to identify children in kindergarten through third grade who may have a reading deficiency. Under the Nebraska Reading Improvement Act, students who are struggling must be entered into a special reading intervention program.

Cory Epler, the department's chief academic officer, said many schools already had similar assessment systems in place. School officials in several districts said the new requirements wouldn't significantly change how students' reading skills are assessed.

"The law is kind of the starting point," said Jadi Miller, director of assessment for the Elkhorn Public Schools. "And then we've found ways to kind of supplement around that to make sure that we have a full and accurate picture of what a student can do or where they might need extra support."

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DON WALTON: 'SOCIALISM' BECOMES WEAPON TO TARGET NEBRASKA DEMOCRATS IN 2020

LINCOLN - Socialism clearly has emerged as the sword that Republicans have decided to deploy in targeting Democrats in Nebraska in advance of the 2020 election.

"They want to see radical, socialist ideas implemented at every level of government," Gov. Pete Ricketts warned in a recent message sent to Lancaster County Republicans.

"Democrats seek to replace Sens. Mike Hilgers and Suzanne Geist with liberals who will fight against tax cuts, responsible budgets and pro-life legislation in the Legislature," the email message stated.

"They want to replace Congressman Jeff Fortenberry with a far-left progressive who will vote to impeach President Trump."

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NEBRASKA APPLESEED FILES LAWSUIT SEEKING EARLIER START DATE FOR EXPANDED MEDICAID COVERAGE

LINCOLN — Nebraska Appleseed filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to move up the date when about 94,000 low-income Nebraskans could gain Medicaid coverage.

The suit asks the Nebraska Supreme Court to order state Medicaid officials to implement voter-approved Medicaid expansion by Nov. 17.

That’s nearly a year earlier than the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services planned to start offering the coverage. The plans called for kicking off the new coverage on Oct. 1, 2020.

James Goddard, director of Appleseed’s economic justice program, said the suit was filed on behalf of Mellissa Ely and Gerald Brown, two Nebraskans with serious health conditions for which treatment is critically needed. Both would gain coverage and care under the expansion.

“This suit seeks to ensure our family members, friends and neighbors receive Medicaid coverage this year and that Nebraska tax dollars are brought back to support our health care system,” Goddard said.

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LINCOLN MAN'S LIFESAVING DRUG RINGS UP AT $102,296 A MONTH WHEN INSURANCE DENIES CLAIM

David Watson found out after becoming seriously ill as an eighth grader back in 1998 that he has a rare genetic liver disorder.

Called Wilson’s disease, it means that his liver can’t remove excess copper from his body. Over time, the metal, found in trace amounts in food and water, can build up and become toxic. Untreated, it can cause life-threatening organ and neurological damage.

To clear the metal, the Lincoln man started taking a drug called Syprine. At the time, it cost about $1 a pill. Watson took six pills a day.

But in recent years, the tab for his monthly prescription — 240 pills — has skyrocketed. When he went for a refill earlier this year, Watson, 35, learned that there was a problem with his insurance coverage. With it came some serious sticker shock.

He could pick up a 30-day supply of the drug without insurance for the retail price of $102,296.

“I cannot afford $102,000 a month,” Watson said. “Mortgaging my house wouldn’t get me real far.”

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PHONE COMPANIES, STATE ATTORNEYS GENERAL ANNOUNCE BROAD CAMPAIGN TO FIGHT ROBOCALLS

Twelve of the country’s largest telephone companies on Thursday pledged to implement new technology to spot and block robocalls, part of an agreement brokered between the industry and 51 attorneys general to combat the growing telecom scourge.

The new effort to be announced in Washington commits a wide array of companies in the absence of regulation to improving their defenses and aiding law enforcement in its investigations into illegal spam calls, which rang Americans’ phones an estimated 4.7 billion times in July alone.

Under the agreement, the 12 carriers have agreed to implement call-blocking technology, make anti-robocall tools available for free to consumers and deploy a new system that would label calls as real or spam. Known by its acronym, STIR/SHAKEN, the technology takes aim at a practice known as spoofing, where fraudsters mask their identities by using phone numbers that resemble those that they’re trying to contact in a bid to get victims to pick up and surrender their personal information.

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U.S. SEN. DEB FISCHER'S STATE FAIR ROUNDTABLE FOCUSED ON DISASTER

GRAND ISLAND — Farm organization leaders and state and federal officials didn’t have a lot of good news to share at Friday’s disaster-themed roundtable hosted by U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer on opening day of the 150th annual Nebraska State Fair.

She was joined at the head off the table by Gov. Pete Rickets and 3rd District Congressman Adrian Smith.

Speakers praised the disaster response from local, state and federal officials, but they mostly described cattle and crop losses, and damages to houses, businesses and infrastructures that will take years and many millions of dollars to repair.

One positive moment came near the end of the discussion when a U.S. Department of Agriculture official said he had permission from Washington to announce that USDA’s Risk Management Agency confirmed that crop losses in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming due to the July 17 irrigation system tunnel collapse will be covered by crop insurance.

There was applause and a shout of “wonderful, beautiful” from Bob Busch, a Mitchell farmer affected by the damaged surface water irrigation system on the North Platte River and representative of the Nebraska Sugarbeet Producers.

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MCDONALD'S SYSTEM PURCHASES $180M IN COMMODITIES FROM STATE AG PRODUCERS

McDonald’s recently announced it has purchased $180 million in commodities from Nebraska farmers and ranchers. 

In 2018 alone, the McDonald’s system purchased 85 million pounds of beef, 21 million pounds of flour, 23 million pounds of pork, 900,000 pounds of soybean oil and 2 million pounds of sugar in Nebraska. These purchases represent approximately $180 million by the McDonald’s system to local farmers, ranchers and producers across Nebraska. In May 2018, McDonald’s USA began serving fresh beef quarter-pound burgers across the United States.

“While our beef patties have always been made with 100% pure beef with no fillers, additives or preservatives, McDonald’s wanted to do more to bring our customers a hotter, juicier quarter-pound burger,” the company said in a press release. “The beef purchased from Nebraska farmers helps us continue our food journey in the U.S.”

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WEATHER DELAYS CAUSE AG SECRETARY PERDUE TO CANCEL STATE FAIR VISIT

GRAND ISLAND - Weather-related travel issues caused U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to cancel his appearance at several events at the Nebraska State Fair on Friday.

Perdue had been scheduled to visit Cyclone Farms near Waco with Gov. Pete Ricketts and Rep. Adrian Smith, appear at a roundtable with Ricketts and Sen. Deb Fischer, and participate in a town hall moderated by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green. The secretary and his travel delegation had run into a weather delay Thursday night that would push back those events to later Friday.

But just before 6 a.m. Friday, UNL announced Perdue would be unable to make it to the opening weekend of the 150th Nebraska State Fair. UNL said it is working with Perdue's office to reschedule the town hall, but no date is available at the time.

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JAPAN TRADE AGREEMENT "VITAL" FOR BEEF STATE FARMERS & RANCHERS

LINCOLN – Governor Pete Ricketts issued a statement following news that President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan had reached an initial agreement on key parts of a U.S.-Japan trade deal.

“For Nebraska, our trade relationship with Japan is one of our most important,” said Governor Ricketts. “Japan is Nebraska’s number four export market, largest direct international investor, and largest international market for beef, pork, and eggs. Thank you to President Trump and Ambassador Lighthizer for working with our friends in Japan on crafting a trade deal. Getting this trade deal done and lowering tariffs for our beef and pork is vital for Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers as well as our Japanese customers.”

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LANCASTER COUNTY YOUTH CENTER COULD HOUSE STATE JUVENILE OFFENDERS WITH SIGNIFICANT BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS

LINCOLN - The Lancaster County Youth Services Center could be an option for male and female juvenile offenders from around the state who need more-intensive behavioral health services, the CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services said Monday.

The state is discussing leasing a 20-bed area at the Lancaster County center, said HHS administrator Dannette Smith. It's possible the boys and girls who need more-intensive services could be housed there, with regular and special education, case management, probation and therapeutic recreation and transition services. Once those youths return home, they could receive individual and group therapy and in-home family support, she said.

Additionally, Nebraska lawmakers announced they plan to investigate staffing shortages in state facilities that house juvenile offenders after some workers complained about safety and employee burnout. The issue gained new attention last week when all 24 girls were moved from the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva because of poor living conditions. Lawmakers who visited with staff and juvenile offenders at the all-girl facility learned that many of the girls weren't getting rehabilitative programming and frequently rebelled against employees. The girls damaged several of the buildings where they were housed, and lawmakers found fire hazards, holes in the wall and water damage in campus buildings.

Some lawmakers said inadequate staffing is the core problem because there aren't enough workers to safely monitor and treat the girls. Without those services, they said the girls are more likely to get into trouble and destroy property as they did last week.

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NEBRASKA APPLESEED DEMANDS END TO PRIVATE MANAGEMENT OF OMAHA-AREA CHILD WELFARE CASES

LINCOLN — Nebraska Appleseed sent a letter to state officials Monday demanding an immediate end to private contracts for child welfare case management in the Omaha area.

The letter argues that the contracts violate the Nebraska Constitution’s prohibition against special legislation, that is, legislation that treats similar groups of people differently. It gave the state one week to comply or face a lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court. Sarah Helvey, Appleseed’s child welfare program director, said the issue is created by the system of private case management that serves only two counties in the state, Douglas and Sarpy. She called for the state to take back management of cases in those two counties.

“Nebraska’s children and families deserve a stable child welfare system that is not subject to disruption on an ongoing basis,” she wrote. “The time for experimenting with the Eastern Service Area has come to an end and it is time to return to a cohesive system of case management statewide.”

A Nebraska Health and Human Services spokesman said the agency does not comment on threats of litigation or pending litigation.

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HHS AIMS TO CUT READMISSIONS, ESCAPES AND ASSAULTS AT JUVENILE OFFENDER INSTITUTIONS

LINCOLN — Nebraska officials announced a goal Monday of reducing the number of assaults, escapes and readmissions at the state institutions for juvenile offenders. The initiative is among 15 priorities set out in the Department of Health and Human Services’ fourth annual business plan.

Gov. Pete Ricketts joined Dannette Smith, the HHS CEO, at a press conference to unveil the plan, which touches on all divisions of the state’s largest agency. Implementing Medicaid expansion, broadening the skills of behavioral health providers, developing a plan to serve people with disabilities in the least restrictive settings and decreasing employee turnover are among the other priorities.

“These are all ways that we’re trying to do a better job of serving Nebraskans, and that’s what this business plan is all about,” the governor said.

Ricketts and Smith also talked about potential next steps for the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Geneva, the troubled facility for female juvenile offenders.

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GRACE: DESPITE HEAVY TOPICS, DISCUSSION AT BAKERY WITH SEN. MCCOLLISTER 'IS WHERE CIVILITY BEGINS'

OMAHA - There was no blood on the floor of The Omaha Bakery on Saturday morning after Nebraska State Sen. John McCollister spoke.

This was a victory for civility and my gurgling, empty stomach.

I had come to the bakery at 608 S. 72nd St. to hear the Republican senator whose tweetstorm earlier this month turned heads when he called out President Donald Trump for stoking racist fears and the Republican Party for being complicit in its silence. McCollister’s criticism made him a national media darling and a scourge of the Nebraska GOP, which invited him to become a Democrat.

McCollister kicked off his portion of the event by reading the head-turning tweets he issued Aug. 4, in the wake of back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton that killed 31 people and injured dozens more. McCollister tweeted that the Republican Party is enabling white supremacy. He tweeted that doesn’t mean Republicans are white supremacists or that the average Republican is a racist. He tweeted that Trump “continually stokes racist fears,” that Nebraska has “Republican senators and representatives who look the other way and say nothing.” He tweeted it was time for Republicans “to be honest with what is happening inside our party.” 

Other topics that came up Saturday morning included guns. One questioner, noting that McCollister’s tweets were inspired by the mass shootings, asked what might happen on a state level to study gun use and gun violence, noting that federal law generally prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from doing that kind of study.

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DIRECTOR OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES IN NEBRASKA HHS WILL RESIGN

LINCOLN — The man who has been in charge of child welfare, public assistance, child support services and Nebraska’s two youth rehabilitation and treatment centers is resigning.

Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Friday that Matt Wallen will step down as director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Children and Family Services to take a job with United Way of the Midlands. Wallen’s last day will be Sept. 8. He began working for HHS in December 2015 as chief of staff. He took over as the Children and Family Services director in August 2017.

During his tenure, the division inked a new contract for child welfare management in the Omaha area and reduced the number of children in out-of-home care. He maintained improvements in AccessNebraska, the state’s public benefits call center system, and worked to improve child care services.

The position oversees the protection and safety section, including all child welfare services, adult protective services and domestic violence; the Office of Juvenile Services, including two youth rehabilitation and treatment centers in Kearney and Geneva; and the economic support section, including child support enforcement and economic assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Aid to Dependent Children, energy assistance, child care subsidy and others.

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CITING DAMAGED BUILDINGS AT GENEVA CENTER, NEBRASKA MOVES YOUNG FEMALE OFFENDERS TO KEARNEY

The State of Nebraska emptied its Youth Rehabilitation and Training Center in Geneva on Monday, moving all 24 of the girls still there to a similar facility for boys in Kearney.

The Geneva center for female juvenile offenders will be closed at least temporarily while state officials assess repairs to its residential buildings, reexamine programming and seek solutions to understaffing, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said Monday. The girls from Geneva will be housed in a secure area separate from the boys in Kearney.

It’s unclear how long the situation will last. Supporters of the center said they will work to see it reopen, given its importance to the local community.The Geneva center serves girls ages 14 through 18 who are sent there by the courts for breaking the law. It has a capacity of 82 people and an accredited high school, and is one of the largest employers in the community.

“The relocation.... gives DHHS the opportunity to refresh the youth program from a clinical and programmatic standpoint,” the department said in a press release.

Dannette Smith, the department’s chief executive officer, said Monday that sometimes CEOs have to make tough decisions and that this is one of those times. She said she and other department leaders want the girls in their care to be in a “healthy, safe, well-maintained environment.

“I felt that wasn’t completely happening,” Smith said. “It necessitated a move right away.”

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ANTI-PIPELINE ACTIVISTS, COUNTY COMMISSIONER DIFFER ON WHETHER $49,000 PAYMENT WAS A BRIBE

LINCOLN — The leading group opposing the Keystone XL pipeline says that pipeline developer TC Energy has offered what the group calls a $49,000 bribe to a Holt County Board member for his cooperation in getting the controversial project built.

The board member, William Tielke of Atkinson, said the money, which he disclosed in a state conflict of interest filing in July, was “not a bribe to me.” And a spokeswoman for TC Energy, formerly TransCanada, said that similar payments have been offered or are in the process of being offered to all landowners, like Tielke, who have signed right-of-way agreements for the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana.

“The construction completion bonus is neither unique to Mr. Tielke nor is it unusual,” said spokeswoman Robynn Tysver, who added that 90% of landowners in Montana and South Dakota and 75% of landowners in Nebraska have already signed it. She said the only specific request in getting the bonus is that landowners be “open to negotiating with us” over additional workspace during construction.

In July, Tielke filed a conflict of interest statement with the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Commission stating that he had sold an easement to TC Energy so the pipeline could cross his land in Holt County. Then, he added, “But they do say they will pay me around $49,000 after the project is completed if I work well with them.”

Jane Kleeb, of anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, said that the conflict of interest statement clearly outlined a “bribe,” and that it was filed only after Bold Nebraska members in Holt County raised concerns.

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LATEST BANKERS SURVEY INDICATES SHRINKING RURAL ECONOMY

The latest monthly survey of bankers in parts of 10 Plains and Western states indicates a shrinking rural economy, and three-quarters of bankers said President Donald Trump’s trade policies are having a negative effect on their local economies.

The results of the Rural Mainstreet survey, released Thursday, show its overall index falling from an already anemic 50.2 in July to 46.5 this month. Any score below 50 indicates a shrinking economy. Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who oversees the survey, said trade tensions “are driving growth lower for areas of the region with close ties to agriculture.” Goss also noted that despite negative consequences from tariffs, almost 7 out of 10 bank CEOs surveyed support either raising or continuing the Trump administration’s current tariffs.

Bankers from Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming were surveyed.

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EX-HAWKEYE STAR DROPS FIRST LEGAL BET AS SPORTS GAMBLING OPENS AT AMERISTAR IN COUNCIL BLUFFS

COUNCIL BLUFFS - Let the bookies cry.

After decades of being confined to Las Vegas or underground betting parlors, Omaha-area sports betting enthusiasts for the first time could place wagers legally last Thursday — at least on the Iowa side of the Missouri River.

Ameristar Casino Council Bluffs was one of six Iowa casinos that began accepting sports bets on-site the first day it was legal, said Brian Ohorilko, administrator of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, and two others are on the verge of final approval. He said nearly all the 19 state-regulated casinos are expected to follow suit, most in the next few weeks.

Harrah’s and Horseshoe casinos, also on the Council Bluffs waterfront, have scheduled the opening of their sportsbooks for 4 p.m. Aug. 23. Heisman Trophy-winning Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch and WBO welterweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford are scheduled to appear.

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NEBRASKA SCHOOLS NOW TEST READING SKILLS THROUGH THIRD GRADE TO KEEP KIDS ON PATH TO SUCCESS

OMAHA - Within 30 days of starting school, these students will be given the first of three reading assessments as required by a state law that goes into full effect this school year.

The assessments, given to students in kindergarten through third grade, are intended to identify students who may have a reading deficiency. If a deficiency is detected, the law requires the school to provide students with a special reading intervention program and notify parents. All Nebraska students won’t be taking the same assessment — districts pick an assessment from a list approved by the Nebraska Department of Education. The results are not reported to the department.

Some metro area districts, such as Elkhorn and the Omaha Public Schools, have selected the same assessment. After third grade, students no longer are taught reading fundamentals. Instead, students are expected to learn from what they read.

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NEBRASKA HEMP LAW COMPLICATES HOW PROSECUTORS PROVE MARIJUANA POSSESSION CHARGES

LINCOLN - Three Nebraska football players may have dodged pot charges this summer. Not because they're Huskers, but because the Lancaster County Attorney's office is still trying to figure out a new Nebraska hemp law and what to do with marijuana possession charges.

A new law on the books has complicated how prosecutors can prove marijuana possession charges because law enforcement officers' experience and training are not enough any more to make charges stick in court, said Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon.

Chief Deputy Lancaster County Attorney Bruce Prenda said last week he wasn't charging sophomore running back Maurice Washington, freshman defensive back Myles Farmer and senior walk-on Jeremiah Stovall because his office needs to continue to evaluate the effect of the new law (LB657) as it applies to prosecuting marijuana and paraphernalia cases.

With LB657, which became effective May 30, hemp grown in Nebraska would be required to be submitted for testing to determine whether crops contain less than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive drug in marijuana. But hemp and marijuana are both from the cannabis family, and look and smell the same.

So the question has popped up: In order to prosecute a marijuana possession charge, would it have to be tested to hold up in court? And would that testing be cost-prohibitive and clog up the testing labs, once the Nebraska crime labs have the ability to prove the amount of THC in marijuana confiscated by law enforcement?  

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DON WALTON: MIKE FLOOD, LADY LIBERTY AND SONNY PERDUE

LINCOLN - Mike Flood's entry into the 2020 legislative race in Norfolk's 19th District is good news. Some guys — both men and women — are skilled legislators who can be strong when necessary, compromise when needed, deal and lead. 

Tough and continuing challenges lie ahead: tax reform, school funding, prison reform, economic development, 2021 redistricting and more. Including, I believe, a developing decision about affordability and access to public higher education in the state along with the quality of those institutions. As an elected officeholder, you actually can accomplish important stuff in Nebraska's non-partisan, single-house, 49-member Legislature. And there are no political party or seniority hoops to jump through; you can do it right away.

That's where strong and effective leaders ought to be.

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WASHINGTON DIGEST: ERNST PUSHES WIND POWER MEASURE, FISCHER SEEKS ETHANOL WAIVER CHANGES

WASHINGTON - We’ve entered the depths of August recess, when lawmakers return to their home states and even the president leaves town for some vacation.

Despite the tumbleweeds blowing down Pennsylvania Avenue last week, however, there was still some news to be had. The Trump administration moved forward on new rules broadening the types of government assistance that can derail immigrants from receiving legal status. Appearing on NPR, acting Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli defended the rule by talking about immigrants who can stand on their own two feet.

It’s part of the administration’s overall attempt to adopt a merit-based immigration system. The proposal has immigration advocates worried about repercussions, while Nebraska lawmakers were more positive on the administration's move.

Additionally, The Trump administration announced earlier this month that it would issue 31 refinery waivers from federal ethanol requirements.Those waivers have been a sore spot for the ethanol industry, which says they are being handed out like candy and have undermined demand for their product.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., issued a release about the waivers touting her legislation aimed at making the waiver process more predictable.

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SUSAN FRITZ BECOMES FIRST WOMAN TO LEAD UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA SYSTEM

LINCOLN — Susan Fritz chipped away at the glass ceiling for women on Friday, but whether she broke through is in the eye of the observer.

Fritz became the first woman to lead the University of Nebraska system. She is serving as interim president while the NU Board of Regents seeks a permanent president. Fritz has told the regents that she will not compete for the permanent presidency, a position that might be filled late this year. So her presidency is short-term. The regents celebrated her interim presidency Friday with testimonials and photo sessions during the 45-minute installation of the longtime NU professor and administrator. University of Nebraska at Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen called it “a very historic event.” 

Fritz, 62, grew up on a Nebraska farm and received all three of her degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her professional career has been spent as a faculty member and administrator at UNL and in the NU system. The bulk of her work has been in the UNL College of Agricultural Sciences. 

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JUDGE OUSTS 1 OF 2 BOARDS LOCKED IN POWER STRUGGLE OVER INSURANCE POOL PROTECTING STATE'S TOWNS AND VILLAGES

For more than a year, the taxpayer-funded insurance pool protecting nearly 170 political subdivisions in Nebraska has been at the center of a power struggle between dueling boards of directors.

Last week, a Lancaster County District Court judge ousted all nine people from the original board who had acted in recent years to change how members were chosen and to turn the League Association of Risk Management into a private entity. In an Aug. 15 order, Judge Jodi Nelson ruled the board members violated the interlocal agreement that the pool, referred to as LARM, had with its member cities and towns and boards for natural resources, sanitation improvement and economic development districts.

Writing that those members were “unlawfully holding and exercising office," Nelson sided with Lynn Rex, executive director of the League of Nebraska Municipalities, as well as the cities of North Platte, Hickman and Ansley, who filed the lawsuit last year.

“Each of the (purported board members) is hereby immediately ousted, removed, and excluded from office on the Board of Directors of the League Association of Risk Management, and has no actual or apparent authority over the same,” Nelson wrote.

The nine individuals named in the lawsuit were each tapped to initially fill vacancies on the board but remained after their terms expired. According to court records, none could show having ever been elected or reappointed.

In finding each member in violation of the interlocal agreement governing LARM, Nelson effectively terminated one of the two boards who have made claim to governing the risk-sharing pool operating in Nebraska since 1989.Rex said LARM's members, those entities contributing to the pool, and the League were pleased with the order, but declined to comment further.

Hunter, reached by phone, said the ousted board members have not decided whether they will appeal.

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NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE PANEL PUTS MORE EXEMPTIONS ON CHOPPING BLOCK, DISAGREES ON WHICH TAX TO CUT

LINCOLN — Taxpayers might be looking at more than $90 million in new taxes on things like admission to school sporting events and payments for college dorm rooms, memberships to the YMCA and the Henry Doorly Zoo, as well as purchases of art and autos for museums.

Those were among the tax exemptions eyed for repeal by members of the Nebraska Legislature’s Revenue Committee during a meeting Monday. By broadening the state’s sales tax base, new revenue could be used to lower tax rates. But the committee was split over whether to lower the state sales tax rate or local property taxes — which one senator called “the marquee issue” in the state. State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who chairs the eight-member committee, spoke Monday in support of using the new revenue to reduce the state’s sales tax rate, currently 5.5%, and any leftover funds to reduce property taxes.

As the senators went through the list, they voted on which sales tax exemptions they could, at this time, support repealing. The ones that drew support to repeal included:

  • Rental of dorm rooms at colleges, and rooms that are rented to family members at assisted living centers, hospitals and other licensed medical facilities ($70.7 million a year).

  • Newspaper subscriptions ($3.2 million).

  • Prepared food sold by schools ($8.9 million).

  • Admission or membership at a Nebraska zoo, such as Henry Doorly ($1.8 million).

  • Admission in organizations dedicated to healthy living and youth development, such as the YMCA ($3.5 million).

  • Admission to school events ($591,000).

  • Admission and food at political fundraisers (not estimated by the state).

Linehan’s new approach would not raise tax rates but would remove tax exemptions, which would increase tax revenues by millions of dollars so that the sales tax rate could be lowered.

“We gotta do something that the governor will support,” she said.

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FORMER SPEAKER OF THE LEGISLATURE MIKE FLOOD SEEKS TO RECLAIM DISTRICT 19 SEAT

LINCOLN — Former Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature Mike Flood of Norfolk said Friday that he’ll be a candidate for his old seat in 2020.

“I love northeast Nebraska and I love the state of Nebraska, and I am excited to earn another chance to represent Madison and Stanton counties in the legislature to help grow rural communities,” he said in a statement.

Flood, 44, a married father of two boys, represented District 19 in the Legislature from 2005 to 2013, and served as speaker for his final six years in office. A Republican, he was a front-runner in the race for governor in 2014 until dropping out after his wife, Mandi, was diagnosed with cancer.

He is seeking a seat now held by State Sen. Jim Scheer, the speaker of the Legislature, who is barred from running for reelection because of term limits.

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RURAL NEBRASKANS DIVIDED OVER VALUE OF IMMIGRANTS

LINCOLN - Thirty-eight percent of rural Nebraskans who responded to the 2019 Nebraska Rural Poll believe that immigrants strengthen rural Nebraska while 30% disagree.

While almost two-thirds of the respondents said they believe that undocumented immigrants should be deported, 62% said an undocumented immigrant who has been living and working and paying taxes in the United States for five years or more should be allowed to apply for citizenship. Seventy percent agree that immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children — the so-called Dreamers — should be allowed the opportunity to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time.

Almost three-fourths of the respondents agree that the federal government should tighten U.S. borders to prevent illegal immigration. Those are some of the results of the poll conducted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Department of Agricultural Economics in nonmetropolitan counties in March and April. The survey was mailed to 6,260 randomly selected households; 1,776 households responded.

"Overall, there is a consistent theme from the data," said L.J. McElravy, associate professor of youth civic leadership at UNL. "Respondents believe immigrants strengthen rural Nebraska when they are more likely to interact with immigrants, whether that exposure is a result of where they live or their age."

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BLUE BLOOD FACES STRING OF LAWSUITS OVER UNPAID LOANS; OWNER EXPLAINS WHAT HE THINKS WENT WRONG

LINCOLN --The story of how Blue Blood Brewing got to the point of abruptly shutting down in May started quite a bit earlier — it started before the brewery even opened in 2016 at the site of Robber's Cave near 10th and High streets.

Blue Blood founder and owner Brian Podwinski said construction costs for the building housing his brewing operation and a restaurant wound up being almost double what was estimated. During the construction process, he sold the property to Robbers Cave LLC and leased it back, winding up with lease payments higher than what he had planned for.

However, he said the business did well for about two years and the payments were not a problem. Up until late 2018, Podwinski said he was actually looking at expanding. Then the harsh winter started to put a damper on business. Podwinski said November was "just a crusher." December wasn't great. January was bad and February was "horrendous."

The abrupt shutdown of Blue Blood has led to five additional lawsuits against the business over the past couple of months from individuals and businesses who are owed money.

Together, suits against the company seek nearly $1.2 million.

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USDA FORECASTS HIGHER CORN, LOWER SOYBEAN PRODUCTION IN NEBRASKA

Nebraska farmers are forecast to harvest slightly more corn this year, despite spring floods that left many of them planting late or not at all.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's monthly crop production report estimates corn production in the state this year will be 1.795 billion bushels, up slightly from 1.788 billion bushels last year. The report projects that 9.65 million acres of corn will be harvested this year, up from 9.31 million acres last year, while yields will be lower -- 186 bushels per acre this year, compared with 192 last year.

Nebraska was hit hard by widespread flooding in March, and some parts of the state also experienced heavy flooding in July. Some areas along the Missouri River didn't see water recede for months. Despite that, Nebraska had fewer acres that were unable to be planted on -- 332,000 -- than any of the other top corn-producing states. Nationally, the USDA is forecasting that corn production will be down 4% compared with 2018. 

However, its projection that 90 million acres have been planted is 2.6% higher than what analysts project. 

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PONCA TRIBE OF NEBRASKA WIN ANOTHER LEGAL BATTLE OVER CASINO

CARTER LAKE, Iowa — The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska has scored another legal win in its fight to keep its casino in western Iowa open.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose on Monday rejected motions in a lawsuit by the states of Iowa and Nebraska and the Iowa city of Council Bluffs seeking to derail the casino. The motions sought to amend Rose's order earlier this year in which she required the National Indian Gaming Commission to revisit its 2017 ruling giving the tribe the right to build the Prairie Flower Casino on land it owns in Carter Lake.

Attorneys for Nebraska, Iowa and Council Bluffs had wanted the judge to declare that her order had vacated the commission's 2017 ruling, which likely would have required the casino to shut down as litigation dragged on.

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IT'S REALLY UP TO PROSECUTORS,' GOVERNOR'S TAKE ON CBD CONFUSION

OMAHA, Neb. — Gov. Pete Ricketts offers his take on the confusion over selling cannabidiol products.Some local county attorneys are prosecuting business owners and employees, while others refuse to file charges.

"If you've got over 0.3 percent THC content and that would qualify as being illegal because it would have too much of that drug that is illegal here in our state," Ricketts said.

The Nebraska Hemp Law states that is the legal limit for THC. That is the chemical that can produce a "high." The owner of DJ Vapes in Herman, Nebraska, says she was following the law at her store. Washington County Attorney, Scott Vanderschaaf believes otherwise. Judges dismissed her and her employees' felony charges three times. Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine won't file any charges.

"No, I will absolutely not prosecute," Kleine said.

Gov. Ricketts said he understands there is frustration with the inconsistencies.

"That's where you need to work with your local officials to decide what's appropriate. Obviously, that's going to be dependent on where you live," Ricketts said.

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NEW JAIL, MENTAL HEALTH CENTER, ROADS AMONG FOCUSES OF SARPY'S $176 MILLION BUDGET

SARPY COUNTY  - Leaders in Sarpy County often name three major projects when discussing the fast-growing area’s future: a new jail, a mental health center in partnership with Nebraska Medicine, and roads that adequately serve the population.All three subjects are among the priorities of the county’s $176 million 2020 budget proposal.

If approved, the budget would keep the property tax rate at 29.69 cents per $100 of valuation, which would produce an expected $49.8 million. That figure would account for 28% of the total budget. Under that rate, which has remained steady since 2002, the owner of a $200,000 home pays $593.80 a year in county property taxes.

A public hearing on the proposed 2020 budget will be held at the Aug. 20 Sarpy County Board meeting, held at 1210 Golden Gate Drive.

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DAVID CITY PLANT TO SHUT DOWN; NEARLY 200 TO LOSE JOBS

DAVID CITY - One of David City’s largest employers will shut its doors for good later this year. Fargo Assembly, a company that makes electrical wiring assemblies, said in a letter to the Nebraska Department of Labor that it will be shutting down its plant on or before Nov. 29.

The letter, sent last month, says the company employs 186 full-time workers and three part-time workers at the plant, all of whom will lose their jobs.Officials from Fargo Assembly, which is based in Fargo, North Dakota, did not respond to requests for comment. David City Mayor Alan Zavodny called the closing announcement "a shock and disappointment."

"This is a setback for the David City community, but we will rebound," he said in an email. 

Fargo Assembly, which has had a plant in David City since 1981, was bought in 2017 by Electrical Components International, a St. Louis-area company. Since that purchase, ECI has shut down a number of Fargo Assembly plants.Three smaller plants in North Dakota closed in the summer of 2018, and the company shut down a plant in Atchison, Kansas, in June.

Media reports have also indicated that ECI has been opening new plants in Mexico and has plans for more.

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TWO NEW PROGRAMS TRAIN MORE DOCTORS ON HOW TO TREAT ADDICTION

OMAHA, Neb. — In an effort to get more Nebraskans access to substance abuse treatment several state agencies are now working together. They have a new program that will give doctors the tools to help those who are battling addiction.

"It's a multifaceted approach," University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold said.

This was something that was first started back in 2017, and now it's at the forefront of the fight against addiction. The Department of Health and Human and Services, the Division of Behavioral Health, the Attorney General and UNMC presented two programs that will train health professionals on how to treat addicted patients.

"This is a huge step in that direction to provide access to care for patients and families," Addiction Division Director Dr. Kenneth A. Zoucha said. The one-month fellowship or the Executive Fellowship started back in November. To date, six doctors can now prescribe medication assisted treatment to patients.

"What this will do is train health care professionals on that science of addiction medicine," Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said.The second program is a one-year fellowship. This will train high-level management on patients with complex substance abuse.

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DOANE OFFERING ONLINE COURSES TO TRAIN HEMP INDUSTRY WORKFORCE

LINCOLN - While only a handful of farmers were selected to grow hemp in Nebraska this year, the jobs on the periphery of the state's nascent hemp industry are already expanding.

In the near future, hemp companies will need trained biologists and chemists to develop new means to process the cannabis plants, as well as employees specializing in finance, marketing and administration.

Doane University is taking its first step to train the hemp industry's workforce through a series of three self-paced online courses it's calling "Cannabis Science and Industries: Seeds to Needs."

Offered as part of its DoaneX library of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the liberal arts university sees an opportunity to be on the leading edge of an emerging higher education marketplace.

"We're at the brink of becoming a leader not only in academia but also in collaboration with industry, farmers and institutions interested in this research," said Andrea Holmes, a professor of chemistry who has been a driving force behind the new program.

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NEBRASKA COURT UPHOLDS DISMISSAL OF TANNING SALONS' LAWSUIT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a group of tanning salon owners, who had claimed the Nebraska Cancer Coalition had defamed them and hurt their businesses with an anti-indoor tanning message.

The business owners, who operated some 30 tanning salons in Omaha and Lincoln, sued in 2015 after the coalition launched its "The Bed is Dead" campaign, which includes a website and ads that link tanning bed use to skin cancer. The lawsuit says the campaign not only defamed the salons, but violated a state deceptive trade practices law.

The high court said in its decision Friday that a Douglas County District Court judge did not err in dismissing the lawsuit, noting that a defamation claim requires "more than general, industry-wide allegations."

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EPA ANNOUNCES IT WILL GRANT 31 SMALL REFINERY EXEMPTIONS FOR 2018

LINCOLN— On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it will granting 31 small refinery exemptions for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). According to the Renewable Fuels Nebraska, the waivers threaten more than 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol.

"At a time when farmers across this country have seen on-farm income cut in half, and ethanol plants are struggling financially to keep their doors open, it is beyond comprehension how this administration allows the EPA to deliver yet another gut punch to an industry so important to the agriculture economy," said Renewable Fuels Nebraska Executive Director Troy Bredenkamp. "Rather than protecting the integrity of the RFS, as the candidate Trump promised in 2016, the EPA under his administration continues to pick winners in the marketplace through their handing out of warranted waivers to prosperous oil companies like Halloween candy."

Congressman Adrian Smith weighed in on Friday night on Twitter and said, "Incredibly disappointing the E-P-A has undermined the President's commitment to ethanol by issuing another 31 RFS waivers this afternoon."

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NEBRASKA AWARDED $1.9 MILLION TO UPDATE 911 CALL CENTERS

OMAHA - The U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Friday that more than $1.9 million in grant funding will go to update Nebraska’s 911 call center.

Nebraska’s 911 centers will be upgraded to Next Generation 911 (NG911) abilities, according to a press release by The U.S. Department of Transportation. Some of the expected capabilities include a faster system, text message abilities, image and video processing, and advanced mapping.

The funding is a part of a larger $109 million in grants that includes 34 other states and two tribal nations, according to the release.

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NEBRASKA STATE BOARD MEMBER WANTS TO QUIT SHAMING SCHOOLS WITH LABELS

LINCOLN - Nebraska Board of Education member Robin Stevens had some thoughts on equity in education he shared with fellow board members last week. Equity should start, he said, with eliminating labels that place shame and blame on schools.

Stevens, a new board member who spent the past 13 years of his career as superintendent of Schuyler Public Schools before retiring seven years ago, took aim at the state's accountability system that classifies schools as “excellent, great, good and needs improvement. Instead, he said, the labels should indicate poverty level. So instead of ranging from "excellent" to "needs improvement," they should range from something like “low free- and reduced-lunch eligibility” to “high free- and-reduced lunch eligibility.”

In Schuyler, 83% of the students are Hispanic and 68% are eligible for free- and reduced lunch, the major gauge of poverty in schools. The high school was named a priority school last year, which means the state intervened to help it improve.Stevens said in an interview that his point was that labeling schools serves no purpose.

"I don’t believe that is the intent of labeling, but that’s what I see happening to schools — they feel shamed into trying to improve. I just don’t believe that’s the route we ought to go."

His comments also address a reality of standardized test scores: they are closely tied to the poverty level of students. Average test scores at high-poverty schools, where many students are dealing with issues in their home lives that make learning more challenging, are nearly universally lower than those in more-affluent schools.

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DON WALTON: MCCOLLISTER, ZORINSKY AND SCALIA'S FORGOTTEN WORDS

LINCOLN - Last week's John McCollister dust-up triggered a reminder of some Nebraska political history.

On Twitter, Vince Powers pointed to 1976 when Rep. John Y. McCollister, the current state senator's father, sought the Republican Senate nomination and GOP party leaders strongly endorsed him over Omaha's Republican mayor, Ed Zorinsky, who also wanted to enter the GOP primary race. Rebuffed by the Republican leadership, Zorinsky changed parties and ran as a Democrat. And Nebraska voters ultimately faced a choice in November between Omaha's mayor and Omaha's congressman.

Zorinsky was elected with overwhelming support from Omaha voters while McCollister prevailed in the remainder of the state.But there's an untold postscript to that story about party-switching that was shared with me by Sen. Bob Dole in conversation during one of his trips to the state.

One election year, with control of the Senate at stake and very much in doubt, the Senate Republican leader met quietly with Zorinsky to secure a commitment that he would be open to switching parties once again if his vote was needed to tilt the majority to Republican control in exchange for committee assignments and other considerations that would empower him and the state. They agreed to meet at a Washington hotel on the day after the election to work out the details, Dole said.

Democrats won control of the Senate and it didn't happen. 

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U.S. AG SECRETARY PERDUE TO HOLD TOWN HALL AT STATE FAIR AS PART OF NU'S 150TH ANNIVERSARY

GRAND ISLAND- U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue will hold a town hall with University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green to open the Nebraska State Fair.

The town hall, scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 23 in the Raising Nebraska exhibit hall on the State Fairgrounds in Grand Island, is scheduled as part of several events commemorating the 150th anniversary of UNL's charter this year. Perdue, a two-time governor of Georgia tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the USDA in 2017, will field questions from farmers, ag stakeholders and fair attendees at the event.

The ag secretary has visited Nebraska multiple times while in office. In 2017, Perdue led a roundtable discussion with Sen. Deb Fischer at her ranch in Cherry County, and last year appeared at an event in Alliance with Gov. Pete Ricketts.

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IOWA SEN. ERNST AND OTHER BIOFUEL ADVOCATES WANT A PIECE OF TRANSPORTATION BILL

WASHINGTON — A provision in the Senate’s surface transportation bill that would help pay for charging and refilling stations for zero- or low-emissions vehicles should also support more stations for biofuels like ethanol, say two Midwestern senators.

The bill would authorize spending on highways and bridge projects for five years. Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Rounds of South Dakota say incentives in the bill would only benefit wealthy people in coastal states who can afford electric-, hydrogen- and natural gas-powered vehicles, while leaving out rural America.The legislation would authorize $287 billion for the repair of roads and bridges, and other programs to improve transportation systems and reduce emissions.

 A section of the bill would set aside $1 billion to encourage the construction of charging and fueling stations along certain highways for electric-, hydrogen- and natural gas-powered vehicles. Ernst and Rounds are promising to push for the bill to also include refilling stations for biofuels such as E15, which is gasoline containing 15% ethanol. Biofuels offer marginal decreases in greenhouse gas emissions — and benefit corn and soybean farmers.

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'IT'S STILL NOT LEGAL': RICKETTS SAYS STATE IS WORKING ON WAY TO DISTINGUISH HEMP FROM MARIJUANA

LINCOLN — Has the legalization of hemp in Nebraska inadvertently legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana?

Gov. Pete Ricketts said “no” when asked that question on Monday, though he had little advice for county and city prosecutors on how they should proceed with prosecutions of marijuana cases. Those prosecutors expressed frustration and confusion in a Sunday World-Herald story on how to prosecute — or not — cases involving small quantities of marijuana.

“They’re the experts on this,” Ricketts said of prosecutors across the state. “They should decide how to continue with prosecutions.”

A legal dilemma has arisen since Nebraska legalized the cultivation and possession of hemp, a nonhallucinogenic, look-alike cousin of marijuana. Legal hemp has spawned concerns across the country about how to prosecute cases involving pot. Some jurisdictions have decided to drop or defer prosecutions.

The reason? Now prosecutors might have to prove in court that a person possessed illegal marijuana and not legal hemp. Hemp that contains 0.3% or less of THC is legal; any cannabis that tests higher than that is still illegal. And Nebraska currently has no crime labs that can discern between the legal and illegal weed, and it might be months before the labs have that ability.

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LEVEE REPAIRS BEGIN TO ACCELERATE: U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS TURN ATTENTION TO TRIBUTARIES

OMAHA - Repair work to dozens of damaged levees is accelerating as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ramps up contracting decisions this month.

The Omaha district of the corps has spent most the past four-plus months closing its highest-priority levee breaches while also gathering the information needed to design repairs for the rest.

The district has closed breaches in 10 levees in its territory since March and has 39 left to do. Because levees sustained all manner of damage, there’s more work to do than just those 39 breach projects.

Last week, the corps awarded two contracts for levee work, a $10.3 million contract for the Offutt levee and a $183,000 contract to repair damage to the 2.5-mile levee that protects Pierce, Nebraska, from the North Branch of the Elkhorn River. The Pierce levee protects 550 homes, businesses and other buildings along with about 1,100 people.

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ECONOMIC CONDITIONS DIP IN LATEST MID-AMERICA INDEX

OMAHA- The Mid-America index, dropped to 52 on the 100-point scale in July – which means the economy’s still growing, but growth is slowing down. Nebraska's index dropped from 55.9 in June to 52.9 in July. Ernie Goss, index creator and Creighton economics professor, said it’s not a good report and the overall index is representative of Nebraska's index. Goss said trade is down and he expects the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates by another quarter-point in September.

“The U.S. has some of the highest interest rates on the face of the globe," Goss said. "Particularly, in terms of the developed economies. We need to move our interest rates lower to get more in line with global interest rates.”

The Fed cut rates last Wednesday, the first time in a decade. The index shows more than half of supply managers in the nine states indicate tariffs make it more difficult to buy, but Goss said there’s still wide support for tariffs from supply mangers, with one telling him “short-term pain is worth long-term gain.”

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NEW TAX REFORM OPTIONS JOIN FEWER SALES TAX EXEMPTIONS

LINCOLN - The Legislature's Revenue Committee on Friday continued its search for a tax reform plan that would deliver property tax relief with some new ideas laid on the table.

Meanwhile, Creighton University economist Ernie Goss told the committee that "Nebraska is a high tax state (with) a spending problem," arguing that the state overspends both on K-12 education and higher education, based on the median level of regional states. The committee met with both Goss and Eric Thompson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist and director of UNL's Bureau of Business Research. 

Thompson also pointed to the option of eliminating some sales tax exemptions, but he noted that the exemptions that could raise the most revenue may be those most difficult to end.The top five are food, prescription medicine, gasoline, health care services and education services. Other tax reform options include expanding opportunities to raise revenue at the local level, he said.

The committee is focused on trying to build a plan that could provide property tax relief funded with revenue raised by elimination of some sales tax exemptions rather than seeking an increase in the state sales tax rate as it did during the 2018 legislative session. Revenue Committee Chairwoman Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn has set a goal of reaching a tax reform agreement by Dec. 15 that can win unanimous support from the committee, which also is attempting to find common ground with Gov. Pete Ricketts.

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TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ASKS JUDGE TO TOSS LAWSUIT OVER PIPELINE TO NEBRASKA

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Trump administration and a Canadian energy company are asking a Montana judge to dismiss environmental groups' legal challenge of a new presidential permit allowing construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border to Nebraska.

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice and TC Energy — formerly Transcanada — filed separate requests Thursday arguing that the groups have no right to sue. Justice Department attorney Marissa Piropato says in her request that "this is not a hard case" and that President Donald Trump had clear authority to issue the permit in March.

Trump signed the new permit after U.S. District Judge Brian Morris blocked construction of the 1,184-mile pipeline from Canada to Nebraska. Morris ruled that officials had not fully considered oil spills and other impacts. Environmental groups are asking the judge to block the new permit, too.

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DON WALTON: GUN ASSAULTS, TAX REFORM AND SALTDOGS

LINCOLN - The Russians may be trying to damage or weaken our country through interference in our elections, but we're already doing a pretty good job of it ourselves by destroying our right to live free and unafraid to gather in public places or send kids to school by allowing virtually uncontrolled access to weapons that are designed to kill people rapidly.

This ain't a 2nd Amendment argument; we don't have a constitutional right to own rocket launchers, grenades, missiles and nuclear weapons either. Still waiting for the responsible members of the NRA, and there must be many, to organize and speak out for responsible gun control. They could be a pivotal force. Their voice could matter.

Waiting for voters, grandparents and parents to say we're not supporting you in 2020 if you're not going to do anything about this. Doesn't matter if you're an R or a D. A president or a member of Congress. This just keeps happening and what do we do about it?

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ACLU SAYS LOW NUMBERS OF LAW ENFORCEMENT GET SPECIFIC TRAINING TO COMBAT RACIAL PROFILING

LINCOLN - An ACLU of Nebraska report shows racial disparities in traffic stops continues to increase in the state, despite an effort by some law enforcement agencies to address profiling and offer anti-bias training to some employees.

"Racial profiling hurts and humiliates people and does irreparable damage to the relationships between law enforcement and the community," the ACLU points out in the report, "Equality Before the Stop."

The civil liberties organization said new strategies are needed to "address these persistent and unfair disparities in traffic stops and to combat racial profiling."

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FDA INVESTIGATING 127 REPORTS OF SEIZURES AFTER VAPING

WASHINGTON, D.C.- The Food and Drug Administration is investigating 127 cases of people suffering from seizures after vaping, the agency announced Wednesday.

The agency received about 92 new reports of people, especially kids and young adults, experiencing seizures after using e-cigarettes since it first announced its investigation into the issue in April. The FDA said it’s unclear whether e-cigarettes caused the seizures and cautioned these cases occurred over a 10-year period. When the FDA announced its investigation in the spring, it asked for people to let the agency know if they had ever experienced this. The FDA on Wednesday again encouraged people to report if they had seizures after vaping.

“We appreciate the public response to our initial call for reports, and we strongly encourage the public to submit new or follow-up reports with as much detail as possible,” acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless said in a statement.

“Additional reports or more detailed information about these incidents are vital to help inform our analysis and may help us identify common risk factors and determine whether any specific e-cigarette product attributes, such as nicotine content or formulation, may be more likely to contribute to seizures,” he added.

E-cigarette liquids contain high concentrations of the nicotine. If swallowed, they can be poisonous, often causing nausea, sweating, dizziness and tremors, according to the National Capital Poison Center. In severe cases, nicotine poisoning can cause seizures or even death.

The FDA said the evidence it has analyzed so far doesn’t establish a clear pattern or cause for the cases. It also said the additional reports “do not necessarily indicate an increase in frequency or prevalence” of seizures among people who vape.

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PROPOSED RESTAURANT TAX SPARKS DEBATE BETWEEN LA VISTA MAYOR, RICKETTS; BOTH MAKE THEIR CASES

LA VISTA - The phrase “restaurant tax” in the Omaha area is as likely to spark lively discussion as potholes or Nebraska football.

A proposed 1.5% restaurant tax in La Vista did just that recently, leading to a debate — on social media and over the phone — between Gov. Pete Ricketts and La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig. The disagreement between the two elected officials came down to this: Ricketts is against most new or increased taxes; Kindig says the reality of operating a growing city means finding new sources of revenue. The elected officials, both Republicans, expanded on their views in separate interviews with The World-Herald. No one should be surprised, Ricketts said, that he’s against new or increased taxes at any level of government. In one of his tweets on the proposal, he said the “strength of the economy and existing revenue growth” should provide funds to the city, not new taxes.

Kindig compared operating a city to running a private business: La Vista must make investments upfront — like building new roads and infrastructure and spending money to attract new businesses — to see revenue down the road. He used the city’s investment in the Embassy Suites hotel and conference center near Interstate 80 and Giles Road as an example. In 2013, La Vista provided developer John Hammons with a $16 million loan by issuing municipal bonds.That development, between property, hotel occupancy and sales taxes, now generates more than $2 million a year for La Vista, Kindig said.

“Not only has that paid our investment back, but that now is positive cash flow that we can invest back into our city — but we didn’t see that (cash) for (several years) because of the investment and because of paying bills off.”

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LAKE MCCONAUGHY WATER MANAGEMENT ADJUSTED AFTER WYOMING IRRIGATION TUNNEL COLLAPSE

HOLDREGE — The July 17 collapse of a 2,200-foot long irrigation canal tunnel near Fort Laramie, Wyo., has caused Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District officials to adjust management of water flowing into and out of Lake McConaughy.

In reports at Monday’s CNPPID board meeting in Holdrege, Hydraulic Project Operations Manager Cory Steinke and civil engineer Tyler Thulin said some water intended to irrigate more than 100,000 acres in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska has been bypassing those areas while tunnel repairs are being made.

North Platte River flows into Lake McConaughy have been at 1,800-1,900 cubic feet per second, Thulin said, but will be increased by 1,000 cfs soon with a release by officials from federal Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the North Platte River dams in Wyoming and manages water use from those reservoirs, including Glendo.

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GROWER, RESEARCHER SAY NEBRASKA NEEDS TO STEP SLOWLY INTO HEMP MARKET

PLATTSMOUTH — A week ago, Annette Wiles made a quick trip to Lafayette, Colorado, to pick up hemp plants from an agricultural biosciences company. By Saturday, Wiles and other volunteers were planting 288 plants purchased from Front Range Biosciences in the Midwest Hop Producers' Plattsmouth greenhouse. They set 72 plants in each of four varieties in 3-gallon pots.The plants cost $5 apiece.

The Wileses had been growing corn and beans, but there's not a lot of money in those crops today, Annette Wiles said. That's why they looked into alternative, specialty crops, such as hops, and now hemp. The research they are doing on their farm includes trials on setting single, double and triple plants, and pruning techniques. When they were told they were selected for a licensing agreement, the Wileses called up University of Nebraska-Lincoln Agronomy Professor Ismail Dweikat, one of Nebraska's hemp experts who has been doing research on the cannabis plant for at least five years. 

Annette Wiles and Dweikat said they would like to see the state step slowly into the hemp business. By next year, if Dweikat had a say, he would allow only one hemp farmer per county, he  said, and the year after, only two per county. 

Markets and processing plants need to be established, he said. Annette Wiles said if the state had opened this up to hundreds of farmers the first year, it would not have had the infrastructure or processing in place. It's an expensive venture for growers. 

"The slower we do it, the guaranteed success we're going to have," Dweikat said. "If we're just going to open it up, and everybody starts growing it, it's going to be a mess."

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MORE THAN 2,300 NEBRASKANS WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES ON WAITING LIST FOR SERVICES

LINCOLN — Erin Phillips has made great strides in the three years since moving out of her parents’ home.

The 31-year-old has learned how to do her laundry entirely on her own. She takes showers with only a little nudging. She cleans her own bedroom and bathroom. That’s on top of working part time at a local grocery store and speaking out as an advocate for herself and other Nebraskans with developmental disabilities. But the Lincoln woman could have been further down the road toward independence if she had not spent seven years “on the wait” for developmental disability services from the state.

“We wanted to normalize her life, we wanted her to be as independent as she could be, but I couldn’t do anything while she was on a waiting list,” said Mary Phillips, Erin’s mother.

Waiting for developmental disability services has been the norm for decades in Nebraska, despite a 1991 state law promising services for everyone needing them. More than 2,300 people are on a waiting list for services including job coaching, training workshops, group homes, residential services, respite care and more.

Now disability advocates led by The Arc of Nebraska have launched a campaign to end the waiting list and ensure that Nebraskans with developmental disabilities get timely access to services. The effort includes a petition and several community events.

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BEN SASSE ANNOUNCES REELECTION CAMPAIGN, SAYS 2020 IS 'CHOICE BETWEEN CIVICS AND SOCIALISM'

OMAHA - Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska made it official: He wants to spend another six years in the Senate.

He kicked off his reelection bid Monday at the Millard Airport in Omaha with several of his fellow top Republican officials, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, former Govs. Dave Heineman and Kay Orr, Reps. Don Bacon and Jeff Fortenberry and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.
Sasse struck a tone similar to that of his first election bid, juxtaposing folksy stories with sweeping proclamations about the nature of liberty and the philosophical underpinnings of American government.

“America is an experiment,” he said. “America is an idea. What we said in 2014 is just as true now.”

Sasse, 47, was elected in 2014 after campaigning as “Obamacare’s Nebraska Nemesis.” He quickly became a conservative darling of the national media in part for quippy tweets and for writing two books. He was one of the leaders of the “Never Trump” movement before the 2016 election, saying he didn’t want to see either Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton win the presidential election.

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NEBRASKA MEDICAL MARIJUANA BACKERS CALL AG'S OPINION ON LEGALITY OF BILL 'POLITICALLY MOTIVATED'

LINCOLN — Backers of a medical marijuana petition drive in Nebraska on Monday dismissed a recent attorney general’s opinion as “politically motivated” and “wrong.”

Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws took Attorney General Doug Peterson to task over a legal opinion that concluded that proposed state legislation allowing medical marijuana would be unconstitutional. The opinion analyzed Legislative Bill 110, the Medical Cannabis Act, which sought to legalize medical marijuana in the state. The measure was debated during the legislative session earlier this year but stalled in the face of a filibuster. It is unlikely to be taken up again, as backers have shifted their focus to the petition drive.

The federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, defined as having a “high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use” and a lack of accepted safety for use ... under medical supervision.” In the opinion, the attorney general cited a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Gonzales v. Raich. In that California case, the court ruled that Congress had the authority to prohibit the cultivation and use of marijuana despite the state medical marijuana law that allowed such activities. 

But State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, who introduced LB 110 and is co-chair of the petition drive, said the attorney general’s opinion was based on a flawed interpretation of the Gonzales ruling. She said the decision did not bar states from enacting medical marijuana laws.

“If the ruling preempted state medical marijuana laws, there would not be hundreds of legal medical cannabis businesses currently operating in California and elsewhere in the country,” she said.

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NEBRASKA LAWMAKER, A REPUBLICAN, SAYS HIS OWN PARTY ENABLES WHITE SUPREMACY

WASHINGTON — Nebraska State Sen. John McCollister is speaking out against his own Republican Party and President Donald Trump.

“The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country,” McCollister wrote on Twitter on Sunday night. “As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to say this, but it’s the truth.”

In a phone interview Monday, McCollister said he has been concerned about the direction of his party for some time, but the horrors of people being gunned down over the weekend represented a tipping point. McCollister’s Twitter posts came after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday that left 22 people dead and 24 injured. Authorities have linked the gunman to a manifesto posted online that railed against an “invasion” of Latino immigrants, particularly in Texas.

McCollister, 72, has identified as a moderate voice in the party and represents a district in central Omaha. His father, the late John Y. McCollister, was a Republican who served in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1970s. Since the tweet, Senator McCollister's twitter following has grown from around 600, to a still-growing 38,000.

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VOICES FOR CHILDREN REPORT SHOWS RACIAL DISPARITY IN CALLS TO NEBRASKA ABUSE/NEGLECT HOTLINE

LINCOLN - A report by Voices for Children in Nebraska shows children of minority groups are more likely to be the subject of maltreatment reports to the state's child abuse/neglect hotline.

The report, "Equality Before the Law: Race and Ethnicity in the Front End of Nebraska’s Child Welfare System," examined calls to the child abuse and neglect hotline and the immediate child welfare system response. Either children of color are experiencing greater rates of maltreatment, or people are more likely to report families of color to the hotline whether or not there’s maltreatment, or both, said Juliet Summers, policy coordinator at Voices for Children.

"None of these options are good,” Summers said. "The striking disproportionality among calls is troubling."

Nebraska law requires mandatory reporting of incidents of suspected maltreatment of children.Children of color are overrepresented in such hotline calls not only in Nebraska, but nationally, the report said.

"This occurs in spite of evidence that families of color are not more likely than white families to engage in child maltreatment," the report pointed out.

Matt Wallen, director of the division of children and family services, said the Department of Health and Human Services serves all families, regardless of race, with a focus on providing services and works to keep families together when it’s safe to do so.

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TIME FOR 'SERIOUS CONVERSATION' ABOUT CASINO GAMBLING, NU PRESIDENT SAYS

LINCOLN, Neb. — As Iowa regulators roll out the rules for sports betting in state casinos, state schools stand to benefit from even more gambling revenue. It's a funding source not available to Nebraska. The outgoing University of Nebraska president says as the state deals with difficult budgets year after year, it's a revenue source lawmakers need to seriously consider.

"I don't think that you can leave anything off the table right now," Hank Bounds said in a KETV NewsWatch 7 exit interview. "The state of Iowa, through gambling revenue, spends a lot of money on refurbishing facilities at its universities."

After Bounds arrived to run Nebraska's universities in 2015, he had to temper ambitious plans because of a bleak financial situation. He presided over three straight years of budget cuts. "It puts you in a mode of doing nothing but managing," Bounds said. "Managing issues, managing cuts, it's hard to look over the horizon."

Bounds worries not enough policy makers in Lincoln are thinking about the long-term ramifications of their budgeting choices"The decisions that you make right now have an impact a decade from now," Bounds argued.

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LANCASTER COUNTY WHEEL TAX PROPOSAL DIFFERENT THIS TIME AROUND, LONGTIME COMMISSIONER SAYS

LINCOLN - The proposed county wheel tax, to be paid by anyone living in Hickman, Waverly or rural Lancaster County who has a vehicle, stands a better chance of overcoming concerns this time around, County Commissioner Deb Schorr said last week.

Schorr watched as the proposed county wheel tax she supported in 2005 was defeated. But the Republican commissioner, who is the only member of the county board remaining from 2005, believes the structure of this wheel tax proposal will help alleviate concerns about the money's use.  

"This time we're going to partner with the communities where the dollars need to go," said Schorr, who represents southwest Lincoln and the southwest portion of the county. 

The county wheel tax would be managed by a joint public agency, including the county and the Hickman and Waverly city councils, should it gain approval from all three government bodies. The county engineer would advise the seven-member taxing authority on projects it could fund with revenue bonds backed by wheel tax receipts. The wheel tax would apply to rural Lancaster County residents, those who live in Waverly and Hickman and residents of unincorporated villages. Most tax rates would mirror wheel tax rates paid in Lincoln.

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NEW CHILD WELFARE CONTRACTOR WANTED $15 MILLION MORE TO MEET NEBRASKA'S CASELOAD STANDARDS

LINCOLN — The Kansas nonprofit slated to oversee the care of abused and neglected children in the Omaha area wanted $15 million more than its original bid to comply with Nebraska’s caseload limits.

But when the state refused to budge, St. Francis Ministries ended up signing a contract in which it agreed to meet the caseload requirements without additional money. The $196 million, five-year contract puts St. Francis in charge of child welfare case management in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, replacing the Omaha-based PromiseShip. St. Francis offered to do the job for less than 60% of the amount currently being spent to care for those children and families, a difference that troubles key state lawmakers and child advocates. Learning of St. Francis’ request for more money added to their worries about the contract’s feasibility. 

“My concerns remain that we’re not giving the contractor enough money,” said State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, adding that she had continuing concerns about caseloads as well.

Sarah Helvey, staff attorney for the Nebraska Appleseed child welfare program, said the request suggests it’s “possible or likely” St. Francis will be asking for more money before the contract is up. But Tom Blythe, president and chief executive officer for St. Francis, said the nonprofit is “fully prepared” to satisfy the conditions laid out in the contract, including compliance with the state law limiting case managers to between 12 and 17 cases and the cost of the contract.

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GOV. RICKETTS PRAISES PRESIDENT TRUMP'S EU AGREEMENT TO INCREASE BEEF EXPORTS

LINCOLN – Today, Governor Pete Ricketts issued a statement following news that President Donald J. Trump signed a new deal with the European Union (EU), which will increase beef exports from the United States to the EU.

“For years, we have been working to increase the amount of beef Nebraska exports to the European Union,” said Governor Ricketts. “This agreement from President Trump presents a major growth opportunity for our state, and will help Nebraska build on our successes from the last 15 years. As we seize this great opportunity, I look forward to taking our message about Nebraska beef on the road during my trade mission to Germany this November.”

In 2005, only five percent of the U.S. beef entering the EU came from Nebraska. By, 2018, Nebraska’s share rose to 53%, and was valued at $124.3 million. A full profile of Nebraska’s trade with the EU can be found by clicking here.

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CORN DOING WELL BUT BEHIND IN DEVELOPMENT

Recent simulations of 2019 end-of-season corn yield potential and real-time crop stage for 37 locations across the U.S. Corn Belt showed that lower yields due to late planting will probably not occur.

The simulations used the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Hybrid-Maize crop model in collaboration with faculty and extension educators from 10 universities. According to the report, corn is still in vegetative stages throughout most of the region.

For the week ending July 21, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, reported that corn condition rated 1% very poor, 4 poor, 18 fair, 62 good, and 15 excellent. Corn silking was 40%, well behind 80 last yea and 70 for the five-year average. Dough was 2%, behind 19 last year and 10 average.

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DRUG OVERDOSE DEATHS IN NEBRASKA DECREASE BY 11%

The 10.8% decrease in Nebraska overdose deaths compares to a nationwide decrease of 4.2%. University of Nebraska Researcher Patrick Habecker, though, said a percentage change isn’t necessarily representative of the problem.

"It’s always really tricky to do these one year trends, particularly in Nebraska because we have so few deaths," Habecker said.

One hundred forty Nebraskans died from a drug overdose in 2018, 17 fewer deaths than the year before. That’s a pretty small number compared to neighboring Missouri, for example, which had more than 1,600 deaths last year. National data shows most deaths are from opioids. The CDC hasn’t released specific data for Nebraska yet, but Habecker said other data shows Nebraskans are more likely to use stimulants like methamphetamine.

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NEBRASKA STATE SENATOR: IRRIGATION TUNNEL COLLAPSE 'COULDN'T HAVE HAPPENED AT A WORSE TIME'

LINCOLN — Western Nebraska’s losses from an irrigation tunnel collapse could rank with those from floods farther east, a state lawmaker from the region said Thursday.

“This breach couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” said State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard. “It will be devastating for the Panhandle.”

Some 54,000 acres of irrigated crops in Scotts Bluff County abruptly lost access to water at the height of summer when the tunnel along the Gering-Fort Laramie Canal in Wyoming collapsed last week. The canal carries irrigation water from the North Platte River to farmers in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.

Erdman said officials hope to make temporary repairs that could have water heading down the canal again within three weeks. That would help the situation but would not be soon enough to prevent substantial crop losses, which could push some farmers over the edge economically.

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PROPOSED WHEEL TAX FOR WAVERLY, HICKMAN, RURAL RESIDENTS WOULD PAY FOR COUNTY ROADS, BRIDGES

LINCOLN - The residents of Waverly, Hickman and rural Lancaster County would join Lincoln drivers in paying an annual wheel tax to fund county road and bridge improvements under a newly unveiled proposal.

The wheel tax would apply to an estimated 44,000 vehicles and would be implemented through the creation of a seven-member joint public agency, comprised of representatives of the County Board and the two city governments, under the proposal. Most wheel tax rates would align with those already charged in Lincoln, including the $74 per automobile rate.

Leaders in Waverly and Hickman — two of the state's fastest-growing cities — appear willing to contribute to improvements on county roads leading into their cities. The proposals are in an early stage and could be up for public hearings as soon as September with a desired, but approval-dependent start, of Jan. 1, 2020.

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COURT RULES IN FAVOR OF STATE OF NEBRASKA ON LINCOLN REGIONAL CENTER OVERTIME CASE

A Lancaster County District Court judge has ruled in favor of the state of Nebraska on an overtime pay dispute involving a state hospital worker, and at the same time denied a renewed motion to certify the state's Regional Center workers as a class for that complaint.

Brian Lassalle, a longtime Regional Center employee, had alleged in a 2017 lawsuit against the state, its regional centers and youth rehabilitation centers, that he and other workers at those centers were being denied overtime pay they had earned.

At the time, Lassalle worked as a security specialist and medication aide at the state psychiatric hospital.

He contended that starting in July 2016, he and other hourly rate employees at state-run hospitals had been denied pay for earned and approved paid time off when the hours exceeded 40 hours in a week. For example, if Lassalle worked 32 hours Monday through Thursday, took eight hours of paid leave Friday, then was required to work eight hours Saturday, the state would only pay him for 40 hours, not 48.

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NEW LAW FORCES GOVERNMENTS TO HOLD EXTRA HEARINGS, VOTES TO COLLECT MORE IN PROPERTY TAXES

OMAHA - Nebraska property taxpayers should start seeing double this year, with a new state law requiring all levels of local government preparing to collect more in property taxes the next year to hold a second public hearing and vote.

Too often, spending critics say, local politicians celebrate no increase in local property tax rates as no increase in property taxes. Then Nebraskans get their property tax statements in the mail, and their bills are higher than before.

For instance, the City of Omaha.

Mayor Jean Stothert proposed a budget that would hold property tax rates steady at 47.922 cents per $100 of valuation in 2020. But Omaha plans to collect more in property taxes in 2020 than in 2019 — about $11.3 million more.

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CHINA SET TO BUY MORE U.S. FARM PRODUCTS AS TRADE TALKS RESUME

CHINA- Companies are expected to sign fresh deals on American products free of retaliatory tariffs as trade talks between China and the U.S. resume Tuesday, Chinese state media reported.

Some Chinese companies have applied for an exemption from paying retaliatory tariffs, state media Xinhua News Agency said on Sunday. Firms have already bought some farm goods after asking for price quotations on products such as U.S. soybeans, cotton, pork and sorghum July 19, Xinhua reported, citing China’s Commerce Ministry and the National Development and Reform Commission.

Bloomberg News earlier reported that several domestic companies have been approved to buy certain U.S. farm goods tariff free. The companies will buy more if the price and quality are acceptable, Xinhua said.

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NEBRASKA'S 2-TIER MEDICAID EXPANSION PLAN FACES UNCERTAINTY AFTER OTHER STATES' PROPOSALS REJECTED

LINCOLN — A federal agency’s rejection of Utah’s plan to partially expand Medicaid could send other states back to the drawing board on covering more low-income people under the Affordable Care Act, but it offers few clues about the potential fate of Nebraska’s Medicaid expansion plan.

More ominous was a federal judge’s ruling Monday that blocked Medicaid work requirements in New Hampshire.

U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg in Washington ruled that the Trump administration hasn’t adequately addressed the potential loss of health coverage for low-income residents. The ruling comes four months after he blocked similar work requirements in Arkansas and Kentucky. Nebraska Medicaid officials have announced plans to include work requirements for able-bodied adults in their implementation of voter-approved Medicaid expansion. The plan must win federal approval to move forward.

Supporters of full Medicaid expansion in Utah cheered the federal decision, citing a fallback provision that would require the state to cover more people if the U.S. government rejected the GOP-crafted plan.

Under former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, the federal government will cover 90% of the cost for expanding Medicaid to adults making up to 138% of the federal poverty level. That’s a higher federal match than for other Medicaid programs.Utah had sought the 90% match for expanding Medicaid only to a smaller pool of people — those making up to 100% of the federal poverty level.

In return, the state offered to accept federal payments based on the number of people enrolled, rather than on the medical services they used. That would put more financial risk on the state, which planned to limit costs by imposing work requirements and potentially capping enrollment.

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RICKETTS URGES LA VISTA TO REJECT PROPOSED RESTAURANT TAX, CALLING IT 'BAD FOR FAMILIES AND BUSINESS'

LA VISTA - Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday attacked a proposed 1.5% restaurant tax in La Vista, using Twitter to urge the City Council to reject the measure, calling it “bad for families and business!”

“The strength of the economy and existing revenue growth — not new taxes — should fund city hall,” Ricketts wrote in one of two tweets on the tax. The proposed restaurant tax, which would apply to many food and drink establishments, could generate up to $700,000 annually, according to La Vista. La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig said he was disappointed that Ricketts expressed his dissent on social media rather than in a one-on-one phone call.

“Is that how we communicate in this state now with our elected leaders?” Kindig asked.

Kindig said he has invited the governor multiple times to come to La Vista to study the city’s budget, which Kindig said would give Ricketts greater insight into how local municipalities manage growth. Those meetings were not accepted, Kindig said.

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NEBRASKA LETS LEGISLATORS SHIFT FROM LAWMAKING TO LOBBYING

LINCOLN - Nebraska state officials who want to profit off their government experience and connections after leaving office face virtually no obstacles in becoming lobbyists, unlike most other states that bar their leaders from immediately switching roles, according to a new national report.

Nebraska is among seven states with no restrictions on former lawmakers, governors or other elected officials working to influence their former colleagues, according to the analysis by Public Citizen, a consumer-rights advocacy group. At least 20 former elected officials have registered as lobbyists with the Nebraska Legislature since 2000, and half of them started within the last five years, according to Common Cause Nebraska's annual lobbying report released last month. Of those who were listed, 14 registered within a year of leaving public office, the report found.

Nebraska lawmakers have typically rejected restrictions, arguing that former lawmakers and state employees should be allowed to take their skills into private-sector jobs.

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BRYAN A PARTNER IN NEW GRAND ISLAND HOSPITAL BEING BUILT

GRAND ISLAND - Bryan Health has bought other hospitals, built clinics and even opened its own surgical hospital last year.

But now the health system is doing something it hasn't done in decades: build a full-service hospital from the ground up. Bryan, along with Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, is a part owner in the $70 million, 64-bed Grand Island Regional Hospital.

Kim Russel, Bryan Health's outgoing CEO, said in an interview last month that doctors and community leaders in Grand Island approached Bryan and Mary Lanning about being involved in the hospital, which is under construction and expected to open next summer. Dozens of Grand Island doctors, unhappy with the city's existing hospital, CHI St. Francis, hatched plans several years ago for a hospital that would be owned locally. However, the Affordable Care Act banned new physician-owned hospitals from participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which essentially makes it impossible for doctors to own a hospital. Enter Bryan and Mary Lanning.

The two entities provided financial support, experience in building and running a hospital and consulting for the hospital's CEO. They also will have seats on the hospital's board, but Russel stressed that all decisions regarding the hospital are made locally.

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RELEASES FROM GAVIN POINT WILL REMAIN HIGHER THAN NORMAL INTO WINTER

Add another season to the higher than normal levels on the Missouri River.

Flows on the Missouri River are likely to remain higher than normal into the winter, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps expects to continue releases from Gavins Point Dam at 70,000 cubic feet per second — about double normal — “for the foreseeable future,” said John Remus, chief of the Missouri River Basin Water Management Division for the corps.

And once the agency starts dropping down from that level, the decrease won’t be dramatic, he said.

“It’s fair to say we’re going to see very high flows through the end of November,” Remus said. “Very high” likely means more than 55,000 cubic feet per second “and quite possibly more,” Remus said.

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REPAIRS WILL START SOON ON LEVEES PROTECTING OFFUT, SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANT

OMAHA - Now that nearly all the most critically damaged levees on the Missouri River — all on the Iowa side — have been repaired, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is making its first major repair on the Nebraska side.

This week, the corps hopes to award a contract to repair the damaged levees built to protect Offutt Air Force Base, the Omaha metro area’s primary sewage treatment plant and other infrastructure north of the juncture of the Platte and Missouri Rivers. Two levees totaling 18.3 miles are involved.

Historic flooding occurred this spring — damage in Nebraska is believed to be the costliest on record — when the Missouri River and its tributaries surged out of their banks following a storm that unleashed a torrent of rain and snowmelt.

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DO OR DIE FOR UNICAM PROPERTY TAX RELIEF

NORTH PLATTE - Members of the Legislature’s Revenue committee are still striving to craft a property tax reform package most Nebraskans can live with, three state senators told a packed town-hall forum last Thursday night in North Platte.

But Sens. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, Mike Groene of North Platte and John Lowe of Kearney agreed that rural Nebraskans’ patience has nearly run dry with refusals to compromise by urban leaders and interest groups.

“I really feel we’re risking our future unless we get this under control,” Linehan, who chairs the eight-member tax-writing committee, told about 100 people at the Prairie Arts Center.

“Agriculture cannot forfeit 40 to 50 percent of their income” to property taxes and survive, said the one-time aide to former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. “This will not work.”

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HEALTH PROFESSIONALS FACE 'TOUGH PROBLEM' AMID TEENS' RISING USE OF E-CIGARETTES

Health professionals say the number of teenagers using e-cigarettes is at a crisis level.

“Obviously, we’re concerned about this,” Jill Selzle, a physician assistant with Nebraska Medicine, said Tuesday at a presentation on the devices.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, e-cigarette use grew 78% among high school students and 48% among middle school students between 2017 and 2018. The FDA also said that, among the 5 million youths who use tobacco products, 3.6 million of them use e-cigarettes, making it the most-used tobacco product among teens.

E-cigarettes and vapes can have serious effects on brain development in teenagers, Selzle said at the Science Cafe presentation. Frequent e-cigarette use can affect attention and learning ability in young users, as well as create mood disorders and lower impulse control, she said. Selzle also said treatment of nicotine addiction in teenagers can be a gray area.

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CONTROVERSIAL BETTING MACHINES COULD BE HEADED TO NEBRASKA HORSE TRACKS; SOME SAYING 'WHOA'

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Racing Commission rejected the position of the state’s attorneys in voting Wednesday to install controversial machines that take wagers at Nebraska’s thoroughbred tracks.

Commissioners voted 3-2 during a meeting at Grand Island’s Fonner Park racetrack to allow the machines, which are used to bet on historical horse races. The same board approved the machines in October but then nullified that vote amid warnings that the meeting had violated state open meeting rules. Chris Kotulak, the CEO of Fonner Park, praised Wednesday’s decision, saying it would pump millions of tax dollars into state coffers and provide a much-needed boost to the state’s struggling thoroughbred racetracks.

“It will be the urgent shot in the arm to help the horse racing industry,” Kotulak said. “The surrounding states that offer thoroughbred racing all have additional gaming that supplements their purse money. They’re taking away the horses and trainers.”

Meanwhile, the head of a leading anti-gambling group in Nebraska promised a swift legal challenge to the commission’s action. The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office has said the commission lacks the power to approve a new form of legalized betting in the state. “It’s a slot machine,” said Pat Loontjer of Gambling with the Good Life. “It walks like a duck, it talks like a duck — it’s a duck.”

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GOV. RICKETTS APPOINTS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR

LINCOLN – Today, Governor Pete Ricketts announced the appointment of Tony Goins as the next Director of the Department of Economic Development (DED).

“I am thrilled to have Tony’s executive experience and entrepreneurial drive at the helm of the Department of Economic Development,” said Governor Ricketts. “From leading Branded Products at Lincoln Industries to building teams for the Ford Motor Credit Company, Tony understands what it takes to build organizations and recruit new investments to the state. With his talent and experience, we will continue to lead the nation in new projects, build Nebraska’s brand around the world, and keep bringing great job opportunities to the state for the next generation.”

Goins, of Lincoln, currently serves as Director of Branded Products for Lincoln Industries where he leads a sales team responsible for aftermarket truck and Harley Davidson parts. He is also the CEO and Partner of the Capital Cigar Lounge, and leads a consulting firm, the Business Optimizer & Partners LLC.

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MAJOR AUTOMAKERS STRIKE CLIMATE DEAL WITH CALIFORNIA, REBUFFING TRUMP ON PROPOSED MILEAGE FREEZE

Four automakers from three continents have struck a deal with California to produce more fuel-efficient cars for their U.S. fleets in coming years, undercutting one of the Trump administration’s most aggressive climate policy rollbacks.

The compromise between the California Air Resources Board and Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America came after weeks of secret negotiations and could shape future U.S. vehicle production, even as White House officials aim to relax gas mileage standards for the nation’s cars, pickup trucks and SUVs.

Mary D. Nichols, California’s top air pollution regulator, said in an interview Wednesday that she sees the agreement as a potential “olive branch” to the Trump administration and hopes it joins the deal, which she said gives automakers flexibility in meeting emissions goals without the “massive backsliding” contained in the White House proposal.

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LARGE DATA CENTER PROJECT HAILED BY PLANNING COMMISSIONER AS 'DEVELOPMENT THAT CITIES OFTEN DREAM OF'

LINCOLN - A large data center project proposed in north Lincoln took a small step forward Wednesday.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission unanimously approved an annexation, zoning change, use permit and amendment to the city's Comprehensive Plan for a nearly 600-acre site northwest of the 56th Street exit on Interstate 80.

First reported by the Journal Star on July 9, a company called Agate LLC has proposed a data center campus on the site that could eventually cover 2 million square feet.

A site plan submitted to the Planning Department shows at least two buildings as part of an initial phase, and a traffic study included with the application estimates there could be 160 full-time employees at the site by 2022, 480 by 2025 and 960 by a projected full build-out of 2040.

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LANCASTER COUNTY TO CONSIDER MORATORIUM AFTER PROPOSAL OF ANOTHER COSTCO-AFFILIATED CHICKEN FARM

LINCOLN - The Lancaster County Board will consider temporarily blocking future large livestock operations until a task force working to update zoning laws for commercial farming ventures has completed its work.

Last fall, the board explored but ultimately declined to enact such a moratorium over concerns it couldn't practically block new confined animal feeding operations. At the time, planning officials had not fielded new inquiries for large feeding operations in the county.  

But the application for a 380,000-bird operation north of Raymond earlier this month re-energized an ongoing discussion about a potential moratorium, said first-year Commissioner Sean Flowerday, who asked that the board talk about possible action at its meeting Thursday.

"We just want to hit the pause button," he said.

Flowerday said he didn't believe any such moratorium could legally halt the pending application of Sunset Poultry LLC. That application, Flowerday said, will instead "stand on its own merits." Earlier this month, Sunset Poultry filed an application with the City-County Planning Commission, proposing to build the county's largest poultry operation. 

That farm, which would raise broiler chickens, would be built on 80 acres near Northwest 27th Street and West Ashland Road on the Saunders County line.

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SENATE CONFIRMS OMAHA ATTORNEY BRIAN BUESCHER TO FEDERAL JUDGESHIP

WASHINGTON — Nebraska’s federal judges can look forward to some imminent help in tackling the state’s caseload.

The Senate voted Wednesday to confirm Omaha attorney Brian Buescher to the U.S. District Court. The 51-40 vote fell along party lines. Not a single Democrat voted in favor of the nomination.

President Donald Trump nominated Buescher last year after U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp announced her plans to take senior status. Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, both Nebraska Republicans, recommended Buescher, who leads the agribusiness litigation team at Kutak Rock’s Omaha office.

Buescher faced pointed questions from Senate Democrats about his conservative views and whether he could set those positions aside in order to judge objectively.Those included questions about his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic service organization.

Republicans, including Fischer and Sasse, protested that line of questioning.

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STATE'S LARGEST SOLAR PROJECT PLANNED EAST OF LINCOLN

A solar power project being proposed east of Lincoln would be more than five times larger than all solar installations operating in the state combined.

Ranger Power wants to build a 230-megawatt solar farm on more than 1,000 acres of land generally east of 134th Street between O Street and Havelock Avenue. It would be the first project in the state for the New York-based company. The project would not only be the largest solar installation in Nebraska to date, which had 43 total megawatts of solar power generation to start the year, it would be one of the largest projects in the region.

Ranger Power has done more than 20 solar projects in eight Midwestern states.

Colin Snow, the development manager for the local project, said the company "took an early interest" in the site east of Lincoln largely because of the fact that it is close to a Lincoln Electric System substation and is close to the "major load stations" of Lincoln and Omaha.

Snow said the company started studying the area in 2017. 

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HEALTH INSURER PLANS TO EXPAND TO NEBRASKA NEXT YEAR

Nebraskans will have a new option for health insurance next year.

Bright Health, a Minneapolis-based startup health insurer, said it will expand its offerings to the entire state of Nebraska in 2020, along with major cities in Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina. In Nebraska, the company said it will offer both individual and family health plans along with supplemental insurance plans. It also will offer Medicare Advantage plans in the Omaha market.

Bright Health is providing insurance coverage to about 60,000 people in 2019. That makes it far smaller than the major U.S. health plans, all of which insure millions of people each, but also shows how fast it the company is growing, considering that it insured about 10,000 people just two years ago.

Bright Health's model is to establish a relationship with a major health system in a market and then construct a comprehensive network of services around that provider. Bright Health networks often include specialty doctors or independent health sites to make sure they meet patients' and regulators' expectations for adequate coverage.

The company did not say what health systems it plans to work with in Nebraska.

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NEBRASKA LICENSES HO-CHUNK FARMS, NINE OTHERS TO GROW AND PROCESS HEMP THIS YEAR

LINCOLN — A farm owned by the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe is among 10 entities granted a license to grow and process hemp in Nebraska this year.

Ho-Chunk Farms expects to plant 5.5 acres of industrial hemp on reservation lands in the coming weeks.

Aaron LaPointe, the company’s business manager, said this first season will help the company learn about local soil types, seeds and growing conditions to be better prepared for next year. Ho-Chunk Farms will also be able to learn more about hemp processing and marketing.

“This is a young industry with a lot of potential,” he said.

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FORMER STATE SUPREME COURT JUSICE SUES TO TRY TO STOP BOND SALES FOR COUNTY JUSTICE SYSTEM

OMAHA - A former Nebraska Supreme Court judge from Omaha filed an 11th-hour lawsuit to stop the sale of bonds for the proposed Douglas County justice center, putting the $120 million project on hold again.

David Lanphier’s lawsuit hit Douglas County District Court on Monday, the day before the bond sale was to be finalized. Investors had agreed to purchase the bonds, and the sale was scheduled for closing on Thursday. The Douglas County Board and Omaha City Council, having previously approved the bond issues, were scheduled to take what normally are routine procedural votes Tuesday to approve the final bond rates and terms.

But nothing about this project has been routine.

The County Board postponed its Tuesday vote. The City Council dropped the item from its agenda. Attorneys began scrambling for a legal fight.

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TRUMP ADMINISTRATION'S PROPOSED CHANGES TO FOOD STAMP BENEFIT COULD 'BE HARMFUL FOR NEBRASKANS'

LINCOLN — A Trump administration proposal to tighten food stamp benefits could make it harder for Nebraska families to get food assistance.

About 3.1 million people nationwide would lose benefits under the proposal announced Tuesday. It is not clear how many Nebraskans would be among that number. But the proposal would eliminate benefits for families, seniors and people with disabilities who have more than a few thousand dollars of savings.

“The proposed rule would be harmful for Nebraskans and households across our nation,” said James Goddard, economic justice program director at Nebraska Appleseed.

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RICKETTS BEGINS SEARCH FOR FOURTH ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR

LINCOLN - The third economic development director appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts will leave the department in August to return to Hastings, where he will work in real estate and talent development.

Dave Rippe, who began his job as director in December 2017, led the department in attracting investments from companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, Ricketts said. During his tenure, Nebraska won the Governor’s Cup for the most economic development projects per capita of any state for the third year in a row.

"He is incredibly talented and I expect him to be a huge asset to growing our state in his future endeavors,” Ricketts said.

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'THAT'S THE WAY IT SHOULD BE': VISITING HUD SECRETARY BEN CARSON PRAISES NORTH OMAHA'S HIGHLANDER DEVELOPMENT

OMAHA - An Obama-era redevelopment in north Omaha, Highlander, drew high praise from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on Monday when he popped into Nebraska to highlight urban redevelopment.

Highlander, built on the site of the former Pleasantview public housing development, is now home to about 300 people in 101 apartments, town houses and row houses. Sixty percent are subsidized for moderate-income people, and 40 percent are market-rate.

Carson toured Highlander on Monday and declared it a good example of how urban housing redevelopment should be done.

The Highlander’s mixed-income apartments and town houses fit into the neighborhood architecturally and culturally, and you can’t tell the subsidized apartments from the market-rate apartments, Carson said.

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PETITION TO ALLOW CASINO GAMBLING AT HORSE TRACKS SET TO HIT THE STREETS IN NEBRASKA

LINCOLN — Petitions to allow casino gambling at state-licensed horse tracks in Nebraska are expected to hit the streets next week.

The launch of signature gathering comes three months after Ho-Chunk Inc. and the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association announced the petition drive.

Lance Morgan, president and chief executive officer of Ho-Chunk, the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe, said sponsors have spent the intervening weeks refining and double-checking language on the trio of petitions, with an eye to likely legal challenges. Revised language, filed with the Secretary of State's Office early this month, makes no changes in the key components of the petitions. 

The Keep the Money in Nebraska petitions include a proposed state constitutional amendment to legalize expanded gambling at racetracks, along with two proposed laws that would regulate and tax casino gaming. Sponsors hope to put the proposals before voters in November 2020. 

Morgan is optimistic about achieving success this time around.  He said polling done by the two groups suggests growing support for expanded gambling in Nebraska, especially if the proceeds are used for property tax relief.

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SEN. JULIE SLAMA WILL SEEK FOUR-YEAR LEGISLATIVE TERM

LINCOLN - Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, who was appointed to a seat in the Legislature by Gov. Pete Ricketts earlier this year, announced last Wednesday she will seek a four-year term in 2020.

"I'll continue fighting for major property tax relief, fair state funding for our schools and roads, improved rural broadband access and more economic opportunity across the district," Slama said.

Slama, 23, faces a challenge from Janet Palmtag of Syracuse in an unusual legislative contest that has divided Republican heavyweights in the state. While Slama has the backing of Ricketts and former Gov. Kay Orr, along with Lt. Gov. Mike Foley and the state's other elected constitutional officers, Palmtag has been endorsed by former Gov. Dave Heineman and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.

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QUICK OFFICIALLY KICKS OFF 2020 REELECTION CAMPAIGN FOR LEGISLATURE

GRAND ISLAND - More than 50 people turned out last Wednesday evening at the Chocolate Bar in Grand Island’s Railside District for Sen. Dan Quick’s official 2020 re-election campaign kickoff.

Last month, Quick announced that he was seeking a second term to represent the 35th Legislative District in the unicameral.

While Quick talked to the crowd of supporters about his re-election campaign, he also addressed the flooding currently taking place along the Platte and Wood rivers. Communities like Gibbon, Wood River and Alda that were impacted by the massive flooding that took place in March are again threatened by flooding caused by intense rains that dumped 6 inches on last Monday.

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LAST CALL: BREWERY RUN BY ANHEUSER-BUSCH HEIR IS GOING OUT OF BUSINESS

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Missouri brewery that makes Kraftig beer, which is operated by an heir to the family that founded Anheuser-Busch, is going out of business. The William K. Busch Brewing Co. announced the decision this week, citing market demand. Billy Busch said in a statement that he hopes to eventually return to the brewery business.

“I’ve always been passionate about brewing, because it’s in my blood,” Busch said in a statement posted on the company’s Facebook page.

The beer will continue to be available in stores while supplies last, which is expected to be through September. The brewery began operation in 2011 in Brentwood, a St. Louis suburb. Busch is a son of August “Gussie” Busch Jr., the longtime leader of Anheuser-Busch credited with building the St. Louis brewer into the dominant force of the beer market. Anheuser-Busch was sold to Belgian brewer InBev in 2008.

Billy Busch never worked for Anheuser-Busch, but he has said he wanted to brew a beer in the style of his family’s tradition. He did not consider Kraftig — which means strong, stout or robust in German — a craft beer.

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CAVANAUGH CANDIDACY COULD LEAD TO BROTHER-SISTER LEGISLATIVE PAIR

OMAHA — Another Cavanaugh is seeking a seat in the Nebraska Legislature.

Assistant Douglas County Public Defender John Cavanaugh, the brother of State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha and son of former U.S. Rep. John Cavanaugh, announced Thursday that he will be running in 2020 for a post now held by State Sen. Sara Howard. Howard is term-limited. She represents District 9, which is generally west of downtown Omaha on either side of Pacific Street, west to 72nd Street. It includes the Field Club, Elmwood Park and Aksarben neighborhoods.

Cavanaugh, a registered Democrat, is a former aide to Sen. Ben Nelson and to former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey. He is a married father of four children. Machaela Cavanaugh was elected in 2018 to a four-year term representing Omaha's District 6.

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NEBRASKA FISCAL YEAR ENDS ON HIGH NOTE, BOOSTING CASH RESERVE; RICKETTS PITCHES PROPERTY TAX RELIEF

LINCOLN — Despite some lean months, Nebraska ended its fiscal year on a high note for tax revenues, fueling talk of property tax relief.

The Department of Revenue reported Monday that the state collected $4.89 billion in net taxes during the year that ended June 30. That’s $176 million — or 3.7% — more than the certified forecast of tax revenues, set in February.

It’s also $131 million more than the revenue figure lawmakers used in crafting a new state budget this year.

The budget was based on the April revenue forecast, which came in higher than February projections. Under state law, the official revenue forecast is recertified only if it is revised downward.

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SARPY COUNTY TO ADDRESS AFFORDABLE HOUSING ISSUE AT CRITICAL TIME AFTER MARCH FLOODING

SARPY COUNTY - Understanding a community’s housing needs is vital to ensuring that all people are being served — regardless of income level, says Carolyn Pospisil, a Sarpy County housing official.

A housing study in the county will help community leaders better understand those needs, including the types of housing needed, where it should be and who’s being overlooked.

The study comes at a critical time. The historic flooding in March damaged two Bellevue communities that were important sources of affordable housing: Paradise Lakes and Green Acres. All the homes in Paradise Lakes were declared uninhabitable, as were many in Green Acres.

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CORRECTIONS DIRECTOR WON'T BE REQUIRED TO TESTIFY ABOUT NEBRASKA'S LETHAL INJECTION PROTOCOL

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court dismissed an appeal Friday without ruling in a constitutional showdown between the Nebraska Legislature and attorney general involving the state’s lethal injection protocol.

The decision means that Corrections Director Scott Frakes will not be required to testify in public about the four-drug protocol used to execute Carey Dean Moore last year. The court ruled the appeal was moot because it concerned a subpoena issued by the Judiciary Committee of the 105th Legislature. It said that subpoena expired when the 106th Legislature began on Jan. 9.

“Even if we were to agree with the senators’ legal position, we could not grant the relief they seek,” the court said. “This prevents this court from reaching the substantive issues raised by the parties.”

Those issues focused on whether Frakes had to comply with an April 24, 2018, subpoena issued by the legislative committee.

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OWNER OF OMAHA STRIP CLUB GETS COUNCIL OK FOR LIQUOR LICENSE FOR GO-GO BAR

Omaha declared a truce Tuesday with a longtime adversary — adult entertainment business owner Shane Harrington. The city did so by recommending approval of his liquor license.

In return, Harrington agreed to steer patrons of his west Omaha strip club to the bar he plans to open next door. He also pledged not to let booze into his original club with nude exotic dancers.

Before voting, members of the City Council checked with the city’s Law Department to verify that it recommended approval of the application, with changes. Both City Attorney Paul Kratz and City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse explained that granting Harrington a liquor license would increase the city’s ability to enforce the law at Harrington’s businesses.

The City Council, in a 6-0 vote, then recommended that the state grant a liquor license to Harrington’s planned go-go club with bikini-clad dancers at 120th and West Center Road.

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GAYLOR-BAIRD AIMS TO DEVELOP CLIMATE RESILIENCY PLAN FOR LINCOLN

LINCOLN - The city of Lincoln will develop a new climate resiliency plan to focus on what efforts the city can undertake to sustainably use its resources and protect against the effects of climate change, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird announced last Thursday.

"We know that the time for us to act is now," the mayor said, recalling how the effects of historic flooding in Nebraska this spring made climate change real for the city.

The climate action plan will build on previous environmental reports and plans made during former Mayor Chris Beutler's administrations.

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OMAHA-AREA CHILD WELFARE CONTRACTOR SUES STATE OVER SWITCH TO KANSAS NONPROFIT

LINCOLN — The Omaha-based agency that manages Omaha-area child welfare cases is legally challenging the state’s decision to award a new contract to a different agency. State officials signed the new contract with St. Francis Ministries, based in Salina, Kansas, on July 3. The five-year contract is for about $196 million and includes an option for two more years.

The contract calls for St. Francis to take over managing the care of abused and neglected children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties from the current contractor, PromiseShip. On Monday, PromiseShip filed a taxpayer lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court. Kathy Bigsby-Moore, the founding executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska and a former PromiseShip board member, joined the lawsuit as a taxpayer.

“Having cared and advocated for abused and neglected children for more than 40 years, I could not stand silently by and watch the State of Nebraska enter into such an unlawful, unethical and inadequately funded contract,” she said. 

St. Francis, formerly known as St. Francis Community Services, offered to do the job for less than 60% of the $341 million bid from PromiseShip. The two nonprofits were the only bidders for the contract. 

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DR. RICHARD AZIZKHAN RETIRING AS PRESIDENT OF CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL & MEDICAL CENTER

OMAHA - Children’s Hospital & Medical Center announced Monday that Dr. Richard Azizkhan plans to retire and will leave his post as the hospital’s president and CEO effective Aug. 16.

Rodrigo López, former chairman of the hospital’s board of directors, will serve as interim president and CEO. The board has begun a nationwide search for a new president and CEO.

In a statement, Azizkhan thanked “everyone at Children’s” for the “tremendous honor and privilege” to lead the hospital through a time of rapid change. “I am extremely proud of all the dedicated professionals whose amazing work improves the lives of children every day,” he said.

Azizkhan took the post in October 2015. Now in his mid-60s, Azizkhan had worked as a pediatric surgeon for 30 years and served as chief of surgery at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center when he succeeded Gary Perkins, who retired after 30 years as the Omaha hospital’s CEO.

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NEBRASKA MEDICINE, UNMC LAUNCH PLAN TO SHORTEN WAIT TIMES FOR PSYCHIATRIC SERVICES

OMAHA - With long wait times the norm for new behavioral health patients — three months isn’t unusual, according to one doctor — Nebraska Medicine and the University of Nebraska Medical Center have launched a plan to improve access.

The plan, launched July 1, calls for returning most patients — once they’re stable — to their primary care providers for ongoing care, freeing more appointment slots for new patients.

David Cates, Nebraska Medicine’s behavioral health director, said limited access to psychiatric providers is a regional and national problem.

Behind the access crunch are a number of converging trends.

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LARGE DATA CENTER DEVELOPMENT PROPOSED ALONG I-80 IN LINCOLN

LINCOLN - Lincoln has long missed out on the regional data center boom that has brought major tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft to Omaha and Des Moines, Iowa.

However, that might be about to change.

A company called Agate LLC has filed plans with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department for a data center development at 56th Street and Interstate 80 that looks like it could be massive.

The development would be built on 590 acres on the northwest corner of the intersection, and Agate LLC is requesting annexation of the land, a change of zone from agriculture to industrial, a use permit and an amendment to the city's Comprehensive Plan for land use.

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USDA COVER CROP ASSISTANCE PROGRAM EXTENDS DEADLINE

Many farmers across Nebraska and the Midwest had to delay planting because a wet fall, spring and early summer left their land saturated and soggy. Some farmers didn’t even get their corn or soybeans planted.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service's (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides technical and financial assistance for farmers interested in planting a cover crop. Aaron Hird, state soil health specialist with NRCS, a division of the USDA, said cover crops protect a barren field from erosion and maintain proper nutrient levels.

“It’s an opportunity for folks to use cover crops in a corn/bean rotation where it might not have been totally applicable or possible in past years or future years," Hird said. "This year, by a set of circumstances, bad circumstances, has opened a window of opportunity.”

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PETE RICKETTS, ETHANOL BOARD EXPRESS DISAPPOINTMENT IN EPA'S RFS VOLUMES PROPOSAL

Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Ethanol Board have expressed disappointment on the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent announcement of its proposed renewable volume obligations (RVOs) for 2020 under the Renewable Fuel Standard.

“While Nebraska appreciates the EPA’s timely release of renewable volume obligations, this proposal does not reflect the agency’s legal duty to enforce a robust RFS or the president’s commitment to our farmers,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts, past chairman of the Governor’s Biofuels Coalition, is urging the EPA to “reallocate waived gallons and ensure that the agency is giving our farmers and ethanol producers the predictability they need, especially during tough times for agriculture.”

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DON WALTON: RURAL-URBAN REDISTRICTING AND PAUL REVERE'S FLIGHT DELAY

LINCOLN - OK, let's take an updated look at the political battleground in Nebraska.

New charts compiled by David Drozd at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research — based on the latest voter registration figures from the secretary of state's office — paint a picture of structural Republican advantage.

Republican dominance is enormous in western and central Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District, substantial in eastern Nebraska's 1st District and more marginal in metropolitan Omaha's 2nd District.

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FORMER SENATOR EYES GAMBLING REVENUE FOR PROPERTY TAX RELIEF

LINCOLN - Former Sen. Loran Schmit of Bellwood is urging state senators to turn to newly authorized mechanical amusement devices, including electronic video games, that dispense cash or other awards with cash value as a new revenue source to fund property tax relief.

"These machines are thinly disguised slot machines," Schmit said Monday.

"You will see a massive increase in those machines in Nebraska and tens of millions of dollars will be moved through those machines" as they become a new source of activity or amusement in bars and other establishments throughout the state, he said.

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SOME NEBRASKA HEMP GROWERS AND MANUFACTURERS FRUSTRATED WITH STATE'S RESPONSE TO APPLICANTS

The Nebraska Department of Agriculture announced this week that growers and businesses filed 176 applications to participate in the newly established industrial hemp 2019 growing season.

Some people think that was much more than expected. Others believe there could have been more, but for the limitations placed on the newly approved alternative crop by the state.

The agriculture department opened the application process June 28 and gave growers, businesses and corporations only a week to file applications. The department has not said how many were approved, but at least those who were not chosen in the apparently random selection of approved applications have been notified.

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2020 DEMOCRATS CAUGHT BETWEEN CORN AND ETHANOL FOES IN IOWA

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists are taking their case that corn-based ethanol is bad for the planet to the state that makes more of it than any other: Iowa.

They are bird-dogging presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker at rallies and town halls, trying to dissuade them from making politically convenient pro-ethanol pledges to get votes in corn country. Their message: Biofuels are driving environmental harms, from disappearing wetlands to algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico.

With Democratic 2020 candidates flocking to Iowa, biofuel foes are challenging conventional wisdom that ethanol support is untouchable in Iowa.

So far, their efforts aren’t working.

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TRUMP'S FARM SUBSIDIES: HOW MUCH IS NEBRASKA GETTING?

When President Donald Trump's administration announced a $12 billion aid package for farmers struggling under the financial strain of his trade dispute with China, the payments were capped.

But many large farming operations have had no trouble finding legal ways around them, records provided to The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act show.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the first Market Facilitation Program (MFP) in July 2018 to help agricultural producers who may have suffered due to recent trade disruptions with China.

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BIG NEW RESERVOIRS PLANNED NEAR DENVER WOULD DIVERT MORE NEBRASKA-BOUND WATER

DENVER — Colorado officials are planning to build multiple large reservoirs on the prairie northeast of Denver to capture more of the South Platte River's Nebraska-bound water, then pump it back westward to booming metro suburbs struggling to wean themselves off dwindling underground aquifers.

They're trying to prevent urban "buy-and-dry" of irrigated farmland and preserve rural communities across the South Platte Basin, which covers Colorado's northeastern quadrant and ranks among the nation's productive agricultural regions.

Booming growth along Colorado's semi-arid Front Range has led to cities buying farms to take control of rights to withdraw scarce water from the river, a relatively feeble source given the magnitude of urban, industrial and agricultural development.

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WIND TOWER ON WIND FARM CRUMPLES NORTHEAST OF NELIGH

NELIGH, Neb. — A wind turbine on a farm northeast of here lay crumpled on the ground Friday morning.

The turbine is one of 81 that make up the 200-MW Upstream Wind Energy Center, which was completed in January.

The turbine appeared to have a distinct break along the trunk near its base.

Beth Conley, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based Invenergy, said the company is investigating.

“One turbine was impacted, and the wind farm remains fully operational and is generating electricity,” she said.

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FUTURE OF NEBRASKA CHILDREN'S HEALTH CARE FUND IN DOUBT

A Nebraska state fund that pays for children's health insurance, aid for people with developmental disabilities, and more than 20 other government programs is slowly losing money and will eventually be depleted because lawmakers are withdrawing too much from the account, according to several top state officials.

State officials said they're concerned about the Nebraska Health Care Cash Fund, which covers the cost of a variety of programs, from compulsive gambling assistance to biomedical research.

"The Legislature keeps drawing more money out of it than what's going in," Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a recent interview. "For long-term stability, you're going to have to set priorities about what you're going to spend money on."

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HHS SIGNS CONTRACT WITH ST. FRANCIS MINISTRIES TO TAKE OVER OMAHA-AREA CHILD WELFARE CONTRACT

OMAHA - The State Health Department signed a contract Wednesday with a Kansas organization to provide child welfare case management in Douglas and Sarpy Counties beginning next year.

The finalized agreement was anticipated for several weeks. The Nebraska provider that has done the job in the past, PromiseShip, formally protested the decision to the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services. The department found PromiseShip’s protest inadequate.

At issue is the management of abused and neglected children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, which makes up about 40% of the state’s total. St. Francis will provide management services for foster care, adoption, service coordination and other tasks.

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EDITORIAL: BETTING GOOD ENOUGH FOR CUBS BUT NOT NEBRASKANS?

CHICAGO - As the sports betting wave ripples across the country, even the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team could add a sportsbook.

Media reports from Chicago indicate team officials have considered adding such an operation at venerable old Wrigley Field following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn a federal law that restricted sports gambling to Nevada casinos.

The family that owns the Cubs has a last name familiar to Nebraskans. And a member of that family – Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts – has long been an outspoken foe of expanding gambling in the state he now governs.

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REEFER MADNESS OR POT PARADISE? THE SURPRISING LEGACY OF THE PLACE WHERE LEGAL WEED BEGAN

DENVER — Serenity Christensen, 14, is too young to set foot in one of Colorado’s many marijuana shops, but she was able to spot a business opportunity in legal weed. She is a Girl Scout, and this year, she and her mother decided to sell their cookies outside a dispensary. “Good business,” Serenity said.

But on the other side of Denver, legalization has turned another high school student, David Perez, against the warehouselike marijuana cultivations now clustered around his neighborhood. He said their skunky aroma often smacks him in the face when he walks out his front door.

These are the ripples of five years of legal marijuana. Colorado’s first-in-the-nation experiment has reshaped health, politics, rural culture and criminal justice in surprising ways that often defy both the worst warnings of critics and blue-sky rhetoric of the marijuana industry, giving a glimpse of what the future may hold as more and more states adopt and debate full legalization.

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'A CURE OF HIV IS POSSIBLE': UNMC, TEMPLE RESEARCHERS ELIMINATE VIRUS IN HUMANIZED MICE

For the first time since the 1980s AIDS epidemic began, researchers say they've taken an important step toward a possible cure for HIV, thanks to technologies developed in labs at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Temple University.

"This is proof of concept that a cure of HIV is possible," said Dr. Howard Gendelman, chairman of UNMC's pharmacology and experimental neuroscience department and a senior investigator on the study. 

The researchers first used a slow-release, long-lasting formulation of HIV drugs developed at UNMC to suppress the virus in infected mice and then followed with a gene-editing therapy that Temple scientists in Philadelphia created to cut viral DNA from their genomes. Of the  mice that received the treatment, about a third showed no signs of HIV infection for up to five weeks after treatment, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. The study is receiving international attention.

Both scientists acknowledged that plenty of work lies ahead, starting with more studies in animals. But they said combining the two therapies provides a "clear path to move ahead" in further trials in animals and possibly clinical trials in humans.

"What we've done is we've showed that HIV can be cured," Gendelman said.

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3 GROUPS FIND FUNDING TO SAVE OMAHA-AREA TRANSPORTATION PROGRAM, AT LEAST UNTIL OCTOBER

OMAHA - A rural transportation program that provides thousands of rides to metro-area residents each year will continue to operate in western Douglas County and the surrounding counties at least until October.

The Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging’s rural transportation program was set to end next week in much of the Omaha metro area because of changes to the federal Department of Transportation’s classification of urban and rural.

But the Office on Aging reached an agreement with the Nebraska Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency to continue to fund the program, said Transportation Department spokeswoman Vicki Kramer.

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LYNNE WALZ TO SEEK REELECTION TO DODGE COUNTY SEAT IN NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN — State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont announced plans Monday to seek reelection to the Nebraska Legislature next year.

A registered Democrat, Walz was elected in 2016 to the District 15 seat, representing Dodge County. She is a real estate agent and former teacher who also worked as a care provider for people with developmental disabilities.

Since taking office, she has worked on legislation aimed at increasing mental health services in schools and improving the lives of people with disabilities. She also championed legislation to protect first responders who are assaulted in the line of duty.

Walz ran for lieutenant governor last year on the Democratic ticket.

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176 NEBRASKA STUDENTS TO GET DEBT RELIEF FROM FAILED COLLEGE

Nebraska students who took out loans to attend a failed for-profit college will get those debts repaid under a new settlement agreement with state attorneys general.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson announced Monday that 176 former students at ITT Tech will receive nearly $1.8 million in combined debt relief.

The broader national settlement with 43 attorneys general will provide more than $168 million for more than 18,000 former students in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The settlement is with Student CU Connect CUSO, which offered loans to finance students' tuition at the failed for-profit college. ITT Tech filed for bankruptcy in 2016 amid investigations and a move by federal officials to restrict its access to federal student aid.

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LAWSUIT SAYS NORTH DAKOTA LAWS, INCLUDING ONE LIKE NEBRASKA'S, FORCE ABORTION DOCTORS TO LIE

FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota's sole abortion clinic filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday over two state laws it believes forces doctors to lie, including one measure passed this year requiring physicians to tell women that they may reverse a so-called medication abortion if they have second thoughts.

The complaint from the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of the Red River Women's Clinic and the American Medical Association also targets an existing law requiring doctors to tell patients that abortion terminates "the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being." The suit says the laws violate the constitutional rights of doctors by forcing them to "convey false information and non-medical statements" to patients. It asks a judge to block enforcement.

"The First Amendment prohibits the government from hijacking the doctor-patient relationship to advance a political agenda," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

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RICKETTS LAUNCHES GUBERNATORIAL PODCAST WITH DEB FISCHER INTERVIEW

LINCOLN - Gov. Pete Ricketts launched a new gubernatorial podcast on Monday that will feature occasional conversations between the governor and a variety of guests.

Sen. Deb Fischer was the first guest on the governor's podcast, which he has named "The Nebraska Way."

During a 40-minute conversation, Fischer and Ricketts talked about her work in the Senate along with issues ranging from agriculture to national defense.

Fischer told the governor she isn't optimistic about any bipartisan agreement in the divided Congress on a long-discussed infrastructure improvement program.

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BOUNDARY CHANGES TO TRANSPORTATION PROGRAM WILL LEAVE NEARLY 90% OMAHA-AREA RIDERS INELIGIBLE

OMAHA - Hundreds of Omaha-area residents who rely on a transportation program to get to medical appointments, day programs and the like could be stuck at home, starting next week.

The changes, made on short notice to the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging’s rural transportation program, go into effect Monday. Officials are scrambling to find short- and long-term solutions.

State Sen. Carol Blood, who represents western Bellevue and southeastern Papillion, learned about the changes from a constituent and has pressed transportation officials to move quickly.

“The issue for me is we’ve got to do this in a timely manner. We don’t have six months,” Blood said. “A lot of circumstances are going to prevent people from getting the transportation they need, and we need to kick it into gear fast.”

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'THE BIGGEST WINNER' IN FRAUD COSTING THE OPS PENSION FUND $16 MILLION FACES CIVIL CHARGES

OMAHA - A California man whom federal regulators call “the biggest winner” in a scheme to defraud the Omaha Public Schools pension fund now faces charges in the case.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission says Jason Sugarman of Los Angeles provided the funding for the scheme, in which prosecutors say investment advisory firms were purchased for the sole purpose of looting client funds. Just days after Sugarman and his co-conspirators acquired a firm that had long advised OPS on the district’s pension fund, they stole $16.2 million through the purchase of bogus bonds.

The fraud contributed to the troubles of the Omaha School Employees’ Retirement System, or OSERS, whose $800 million shortfall is forcing OPS to make tens of millions in annual payments to bring the fund back to solvency. The World-Herald detailed the pension’s problems in a series called “How to wreck a pension fund.”

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GOV. RICKETTS CELEBRATES MERGER OF TWO AGENCIES

LINCOLN – Today, Governor Pete Ricketts, along with Director Jim Macy, head of the newly created Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, celebrated the merger of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the Nebraska Energy Office.

Following the passage of LB 302, the two agencies are merging into the new Department of Environment and Energy (DEE) effective July 1, 2019.

“This merger will make state government services more efficient, effective, and customer-focused,” said Governor Ricketts. “The two agencies have a number of related functions and similar goals, and their services to Nebraskans will be enhanced by combining their efforts. The newly consolidated agency will be able to take a longer-term, more strategic approach to helping grow Nebraska as we work to be a good steward of our natural resources and promote energy efficiency.”

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HIGH COURT STRIKES DOWN TENNESSEE ALCOHOL-LICENSE REGULATIONS

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court struck down stringent Tennessee regulations that prevented out-of-state retailers from obtaining state licenses to sell alcohol, saying the restrictions unlawfully hampered interstate commerce.

Wednesday’s decision was one of three the court issued on the penultimate day of its current term. The final opinion day will be Thursday, when the justices are expected to decide their three most eagerly anticipated cases: two on partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts and one on the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

At issue in the Tennessee case were rules requiring alcohol retailers, including their officers and directors, to be state residents in order to get a sales license—and to have resided in the state for two years before being eligible.

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DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION HOSTS FLOOD RECOVERY UPDATE MEETINGS

The Department of Transportation has been putting in a lot of work in the last few months to recover from spring flooding. They’re now holding a series of open house meetings for the public to learn about flood recovery and ask questions.

In District 1, where Nebraska City is located, the largest project dealt with damage to Highway 15 south of Schuyler, including a bridge over the Platte River. That project is already complete.

Mark Traynowicz is the Nebraska State Bridge Engineer. He says the Highway 15 bridge was just one of 27 state highway bridges that were damaged by flooding.

“A typical flood, you know we may have one or two state highway bridges that could get damaged. We’ve got six bridges that are completely washed out, we’ve got seven other’s that have got major repairs, and then the rest have more minor repairs. I don’t think people realize it’s such a significant event as it is,” Traynowicz said.

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LINCOLN, OMAHA COLLABORATING TO RECRUIT TECH WORKERS

LINCOLN - In April, financial news website MarketWatch named the Lincoln-Omaha region as the top new tech hot spot in the United States.

Sometimes, though, you can be a victim of your own success. With fast-growing startups such as Spreetail and Hudl, along with burgeoning established companies such as Nelnet, it's difficult for employers to find enough people to fill the openings they have.

That has led Hudl to hire a number of remote employees, while Spreetail opened an office in Austin, Texas. And all three of those companies have opened Omaha operations to expand their talent pools.

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BANKERS' GROUPS SUE NEBRASKA BANKING DEPARTMENT, CREDIT UNION OVER EXPANSION

LINCOLN - Two banking trade groups are suing the Nebraska Department of Banking and Finance and a Lincoln credit union over the credit union's plans to expand its reach.

The Nebraska Bankers Association and the Nebraska Independent Community Bankers filed a lawsuit last week alleging that the Banking Department's approval of an expansion by MembersOwn Credit Union was improper.

MembersOwn, which is based in Lincoln, applied early last fall to expand its field of membership from Gage and Lancaster counties to a 13-county area in southeast Nebraska.

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LANCASTER COUNTY POULTRY FARM OPPONENTS BLAST PROPOSED ZONING CHANGES

LINCOLN - A meeting Thursday night meant to be for public comment about proposed changes to Lancaster County’s zoning regulations for large livestock regulations instead started off mostly as a rehashing of a forum for opponents of an already-approved poultry farm in the southwest part of the county.

The first several people who spoke at the meeting of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Working Group at Scott Middle School criticized the decision first by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission and then the County Board to approve a 190,000-chicken operation near the Saline County line. Some even went so far as to insinuate that the working group was a sham.

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REVENUE COMMITTEE RENEWS ITS QUEST FOR A PROPERTY TAX REVAMP IN NEBRASKA

LINCOLN — After a month’s rest, the Legislature’s Revenue Committee met Thursday to renew its quest for property tax relief and new business tax incentives.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, the committee chairwoman, said she wants to have legislation on both issues worked out and ready to go when lawmakers return to Lincoln in January.

That means lining up support from a filibuster-proof majority before the session starts. She also wants the legislation, whether packaged as one bill or two, advanced from committee by a unanimous vote.

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PALMTAG ANNOUNCES LEGISLATURE CAMPAIGN

NEBRASKA CITY – Janet Palmtag of Nebraska City announced her candidacy for the Nebraska Legislature on Friday morning.

A press release says Palmtag has the endorsement of former Gov. Dave Heineman and Congressman Jeff Fortenberry for the legislative district that includes Johnson, Nemaha, Otoe, Pawnee and Richardson counties.

Palmtag, a small business owner, said its important to champion legislation that helps farmers, businesses and families succeed.

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DON WALTON: TAX REFORM, PARTISAN REDISTRICTING AND UFOs

LINCOLN - And so the quest continues.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan's proposal that the Legislature's Revenue Committee and Gov. Pete Ricketts sit down together and see if they might be able to reach some accommodation on a tax reform package that funds substantial property tax relief is the newest effort.

It's hard to see how an agreement can be forged given the governor's apparent, and so far adamant, opposition to any increase in taxes even when revenue from that increase would be used to reduce other taxes and not for increased government spending.

So far, Ricketts appears to be firmly opposed to elimination of some of the state's numerous sales tax exemptions, a path that the Revenue Committee has chosen to pursue on its uphill journey toward property tax reduction.

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UNMC BREAKS GROUND ON $26 MILLION RENOVATION PROJECT

OMAHA - The University of Nebraska Medical Center has its own unique history, and soon that history will have a new home.

UNMC held a groundbreaking ceremony Monday for a $26 million project that combines the construction of the new Wigton Heritage Center and the renovation of Wittson Hall, an academic, research and office building.

The 10,000-square-foot Wigton center will be a place for the university to tell its history through artifacts, archives, and a gallery and exhibit space. The project also will replace existing walkways between Wittson Hall, which is on 42nd Street between Dewey Avenue and Emile Street, and University Tower. The building also will serve as a campus welcome center with space for meetings and events.

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ANOTHER CANDIDATE IS ALSO SEEKING THE MIDTOWN OMAHA LEGISLATIVE SEAT

Mark Vondrasek, a self-described “queer socialist with a working class attitude” is seeking election to the Nebraska Legislature in District 9.

Vondrasek, 28, grew up in the midtown Omaha district and works as a bicycle mechanic and field technician for Heartland BCycle. Outside of work, Vondrasek is active in the tenants’ rights group Omaha Tenants United. Vondrasek is a registered Democrat and works with the Nebraska Democratic Socialists of America.

Sen. Sara Howard currently represents District 9 but cannot seek reelection because of term limits.

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PROMISESHIP CHALLENGES PLAN TO AWARD CHILD WELFARE CONTRACT TO KANSAS AGENCY

LINCOLN — An Omaha agency that currently manages child welfare cases in Douglas and Sarpy Counties is challenging state plans to award the new management contract to a Kansas nonprofit.

Ron Zychowski, president and chief executive officer of PromiseShip, confirmed Wednesday that his agency has filed a formal protest with the state purchasing bureau.

“We are confident that our protest will clearly indicate that PromiseShip submitted the superior proposal that will best serve the children and families in our community and best serve the interest of the state,” he said. Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services announced June 3 that they intended to award a five-year case management contract to St. Francis Ministries, formerly known as St. Francis Community Services.

St. Francis, which is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, has subsidiaries in Nebraska and six other states, plus two Central American countries.

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TWO INCUMBENT NEBRASKA SENATORS ANNOUNCE REELECTION PLANS FOR SEATS IN THE LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN — Two state senators, Carol Blood of Bellevue and Dan Quick of Grand Island, have announced their intention to seek reelection to their seats in the Nebraska Legislature .

Blood, a former Bellevue City Council member, was elected to the Legislature in 2016. The 58-year-old registered Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature said in a press release that she is seeking a second term so she can “continue to share the unique voices of the hard-working residents in District 3 and be sure their concerns are taken seriously.”

Blood has focused on issues concerning military veterans and government transparency while in the Legislature.

Quick, a 61-year-old Democrat, said in a press release that he will work for “strong schools, creating jobs that pay well, and finding a more fair tax system for working families” if reelected.

He is a retired power plant worker who served as president of both local and state utility workers unions. During the 2019 session, he won passage of laws that expanded access to early childhood education and raised the legal age to purchase vaping and tobacco products from 18 to 19. 

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NPPD'S CONTROVERSIAL SAN HILLS TRANSMISSION LINE CLEARS FINAL HURDLE

A controversial high-voltage power line planned through Nebraska’s Sand Hills will move forward after the Nebraska Public Power District received federal approval of its plans to protect an endangered insect along the route.

NPPD expects to start building the 225-mile, 345-kilovolt transmission line this fall.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, issued June 12, declined to further hold up the $400 million R-Project over concerns about affected cultural resources or migratory birds. Objections in those areas “do not provide any new or substantive information” to justify extending Fish and Wildlife’s environmental review, the agency’s decision said. The agency generally endorsed NPPD’s plans — outlined in Fish and Wildlife’s final environmental impact statement in February — to minimize impacts on other species and such “cultural resources” as Native American burial grounds and the Oregon-California and Mormon trails.

The R-Project would allow for carrying wind energy, and Fish and Wildlife’s final decision referred to potential future wind farms — the greatest concern of Sand Hills residents — by saying it’s “reasonably foreseeable” that such projects could require federal scrutiny before they could be built.

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NEBRASKA LABOR DEPARTMENT: STATE JOBLESS RATE ROSE TO 3% IN MAY

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s unemployment rate rose again last month despite the record number of people employed, the state said Friday.

The Nebraska Labor Department said the preliminary May rate was 3% — up a tenth of a point from April’s 2.9% and March’s rate of 2.8%. The May 2018 rate was 2.8% as well.

“Nebraska’s number of individuals employed grew to a record level in May (1,034,288), as did total nonfarm employment statewide and in Omaha,” Commissioner of Labor John Albin said in a press release.

Nebraska’s labor force participation rate rose in May to its highest point since April 2016. Because the labor force grew marginally faster than the number of individuals employed, the department said, the unemployment rate went up. The new Nebraska rate was well below May’s national preliminary rate of 3.6% — unchanged from April.

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OMAHA-AREA HEALTH SYSTEMS MAKE PROGRESS IN REDUCING OPIOID PRESCRIBING

Since alarms first began going off about a rising number of opioid-related deaths in the U.S., Nebraska has lowered opioid prescriptions by 32%. Local experts are calling the decline, between 2013 and 2018, a good start.

“Hospitals are listening and paying attention,” said Margaret Woeppel, the Nebraska Hospital Association’s vice president for quality initiatives.

Locally, individual health systems are also reporting signs of progress.

  • CHI Health has reduced or eliminated opioids from a number of surgical procedures. Although numbers vary from procedure to procedure, one official estimated that Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy has reduced the drugs for all surgeries by 50% or more.

  • Methodist Health System scaled back total prescribing across the organization, including inpatient and outpatient, by 750,000 pills from 2017 to 2018, a reduction of 12%. The bulk of reductions have come through its outpatient clinics.

  • At Nebraska Medicine, the number of opioid medication orders per 1,000 patient days decreased by 35% between July 1, 2016, and March 31.

  • Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk tallied reductions in inpatient opioid use of about a third from December through February after launching a new acute pain assessment and management strategy. It de-emphasizes the 1 to 10 pain score patients are familiar with and adds objective signs of pain such as heart and respiratory rates.

Nationally, the number of opioid prescriptions decreased by more than 80 million between 2013 and 2018, a 33% drop, according to a recent update by the American Medical Association. Every state, in fact, has seen a decrease over the past five years. 

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OMAHA SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER MARQUE SNOW ANNOUNCES RUN FOR LEGISLATIVE SEAT

OMAHA - Marque Snow, the president of the Omaha Public Schools board, announced plans Tuesday to run for a seat in the Nebraska Legislature.

Snow, 31, was first elected to the OPS board in 2013 and was reelected last year. He is in his second year as board president.

Snow has a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Dakota and moved to Omaha with his now-husband in 2011. He is currently the program director at the Nebraska Center for Workforce Development.

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LOBBYISTS EARNING MORE FOR ACCESS TO NEBRASKA STATE SENATORS

LINCOLN - Lobbyists striving to influence state lawmakers earned a record $17.8 million in 2018, up from $13.8 million in just four years.

Common Cause Nebraska, in its annual lobby report, said while the growth is due in part to growth in the number of lobbyists and lobbying firms, "it has become generally accepted that if you want something done at the Capitol, you should hire a lobbyist."

In a two-year session, the Nebraska Legislature works on more than 1,000 bills. In 2017-18, 1,136 bills were introduced, 667 in the first session. This year, that first-session list of bills grew to 739.

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DON BACON IS ON LIST OF 10 MOST VULNERABLE REPUBLICAN HOUSE INCUMBENTS

OMAHA - U.S. Rep. Don Bacon has been named to a list of most vulnerable House Republican incumbents, a signal that Nebraska’s 2nd District will once again be a political battleground.

The special Republican effort, called the “Patriot Program,” asks party donors to direct funds to incumbent campaigns. The congressmen also get additional staff and support for more extensive advertising campaigns from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s House campaign arm. Bacon is one of 10 people named to the list.

Of the others on the list, four are from Texas. Josh Blank, the manager of polling at the nonpartisan Texas Politics Project, said Republicans are playing defense in suburban districts that are seeing a big influx of younger, more diverse voters who can’t afford to live in increasingly popular and expensive city centers.

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FRANK LAMERE, LONGTIME WINNEBAGO ACTIVIST, DIES AT AGE 69

OMAHA, Neb. — Frank LaMere, who helped champion the fight to eliminate alcohol sales in Whiteclay, Nebraska and stood as an advocate for generations of the Winnebago tribe and other residents of the Great Plains, died Sunday after a bout with cancer. LaMere was 69.

Indianz.com reported LaMere had recently undergone surgery for bile duct cancer.

"Our father Frank LaMere crossed over to the other side of this river of life," Wrote Manape LaMere, Frank's son. "We'll make preparations for his journey in the coming days."

LaMere was First Associate Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

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PRIVATIZED CHILD WELFARE IN OMAHA AREA HAS BEEN NEITHER WILDLY SUCCESSFUL NOR A FAILURE, REPORT SAYS

LINCOLN — Nebraska officials plan to stick with private oversight of Omaha-area child welfare cases, despite a report that found a decade of privatization has produced outcomes neither better nor worse than state management.

The report was done by The Stephen Group, a government-consulting firm based in New Hampshire.

State Department of Health and Human Services officials hired the firm last year to assess whether Nebraska should continue contracting for private case management in its eastern service area.

The current $71.5 million contract with PromiseShip, an Omaha-based nonprofit, expires at the end of this year.

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NEBRASKA SCHOOLS WILL GET BIG BUMP IN STATE AID, BUT LOWER PROPERTY TAXES AREN'T LIKELY

LINCOLN - Nebraska public schools are about to receive the biggest boost in state aid since stimulus money rained down from Washington 10 years ago.

The 6.5% increase in funding for the state’s school finance formula, which adds up to a $65.5 million hike for 2019-20, could be a game-changer for some local school officials as they spend the summer preparing budgets.

With that bump, Nebraska reaches a milestone in school funding: General fund spending into the aid formula will exceed $1 billion for the first time.

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YOAKUM NAMED NEW COUNTY BOARD MEMBER

LINCOLN - Christa Yoakum was appointed to the Lancaster County Board on Tuesday by a special committee consisting of the county attorney, clerk and treasurer.

Yoakum, coordinator of the "Nebraska is Home" program at Nebraska Appleseed, said she had planned to run for the seat in 2016 before Jennifer Brinkman declared her candidacy for it. Yoakum lost a narrow race in November for a seat on the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

As a county commissioner, Yoakum said she plans to work with county department leaders to accomplish their strategic goals.

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BOOTLEG LIQOUR EYED AS CAUSE OF DOMINICAN REPUBLIC TOURIST DEATHS

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Cops are investigating whether at least seven tourists who mysteriously died in the Dominican Republic were poisoned by counterfeit booze, The Post has learned.

Officials want to know who supplied the alcoholic beverages the victims drank in the minutes and hours before their deaths over the past year — and if the drinks had any dangerous chemicals in them, law enforcement sources said.

The FBI is assisting and will take blood samples from the dead back to its research center in Quantico, Va., a source said.

The Dominican government insists the fatalities are isolated incidents, while reps for both of the resorts where victims have died — the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Bahia Principe — described the deaths as simple accidents.

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FEDERAL PANEL TOLD ROADBLOCKS TO PRISON MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES VIOLATE INMATES' CIVIL RIGHTS

LINCOLN — Some speakers told a federal panel Thursday that the shortage of mental health care in Nebraska prisons is severe enough to violate prisoners’ human and civil rights.

But Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes said he thinks the prison system meets or exceeds the “community standard of care” for mental health, the level required by state law.

“We’ve made great strides,” he said. “We’re continuing to work and improve our processes.”

Frakes was among several people invited to testify at a daylong hearing before the Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The day also included time for public testimony

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NEBRASKA STANDS ALONE WHILE THE REST OF THE U.S. SUES OXYCONTIN'S MAKER OVER OPOID ABUSE

LINCOLN — Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has fought prescription opioid abuse through public education campaigns, worked with lawmakers to tighten up prescribing practices and even demanded documents from the maker of OxyContin. He has said the overdose crisis is ravaging families.

What Peterson has not done is pursue a lawsuit seeking to hold any opioid manufacturer, distributor or pharmaceutical company accountable. That leaves him standing alone among state attorneys general.

Every other state has sued, filed administrative charges or promised to sue the companies blamed for the national crisis, which played a part in the deaths of more than 390,000 Americans from 2000 through 2017. Peterson’s decision to stand on the sidelines, at least so far, has frustrated some who want to ensure that Nebraska is in line to receive its fair share of money under any national settlement.

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'A PROMISE HAS BEEN KEPT': TRUMP IS CHEERED IN COUNCIL BLUFFS AFTER LIFTING ETHANOL BAN

COUNCIL BLUFFS - President Donald Trump did a victory lap with Iowa and Nebraska farmers on Tuesday, touting his administration’s move to lift a ban on selling gasoline mixed with 15% ethanol during summer months.

And he certainly received accolades from elected officials, industry groups and farmers for the move.

“A promise has been made. That promise was made by President Trump. And folks, a promise has been kept,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “And today I say to you, Mr. President, thank you.”

But at the Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy facility, he also heard about his administration’s liberal granting of waivers on ethanol use by oil companies — even by speakers who shared the stage with him.

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DON WALTON: MIKE FLOOD CONSIDERING RETURN TO LEGISLATURE

Mike Flood, who served as Speaker of the Legislature for six years, was a skilled legislator who knew how to make things happen — and how to sometimes prevent things from happening. 

He knew how to resolve a deadlock and how to broker an agreement, often with a closed-door discussion.

If he decides to seek election to the District 19 seat as current Speaker Jim Scheer, also of Norfolk, winds down his second and final legislative term, you could safely bet that Norfolk voters will be returning him to the legislative body that he left after bumping into the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms.

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KANSAS-BASED SAINT FRANCIS MINISTRIES WILL TAKE OVER CHILD WELFARE SERVICES IN OMAHA AREA

The state announced Tuesday it intends to replace the private contractor for child welfare services in Douglas and Sarpy counties with Kansas-based Saint Francis Ministries. 

The $39.2 million annual contract will last five years, with an option for two additional years, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a news release. PromiseShip of Omaha, formerly Nebraska Families Collaborative, holds the current case management contract and was the only other bidder in the request for proposals process that started in January. 

Forty percent of child welfare cases in Nebraska are in the eastern service area. It is the only area remaining in Nebraska with a private contractor, which has been the case since the state privatized the child welfare system statewide in 2009. That caused disruption and dissension and was dismantled several years later. 

Saint Francis Ministries already provides child welfare services in central and western Nebraska, including kinship/foster care homes, adoption homes, family support programs, intensive family preservation and reunification, and family-centered treatment services to youth.

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GOVERNOR RICKETTS VETOES THREE BILLS

LINCOLN – Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed LB 436e, LB 470e, and LB 470Ae. 

“As the Department of Commerce notes in the 2020 Census Complete Count Committee Guide, Complete Count Committees (CCC) are volunteer committees.  The cities of Grand Island, Lexington, Lincoln, Norfolk, Omaha, and Schuyler, Sarpy County, the Karen Society of Nebraska-Lincoln Chapter and the South Platte United Chambers of Commerce have each created local Complete Count Committees,” wrote Governor Ricketts in his veto message for LB 436e.  “LB 436e gives inappropriate authority to a single program within the University system to create a statewide Complete Count Committee without any guidance, parameters, duties or goals from the state.”

The Governor also invited State Senators to join him in encouraging constituents to participate in the 2020 Census.

 “I consulted with the Nebraska Attorney General on whether LB 470e was unconstitutional under the Nebraska Constitution,” wrote Governor Ricketts in his veto message for LB 470e and LB 470Ae.  “Ensuring legislation complies with the limits established by the Constitution is our primary obligation to Nebraskans.  While I have no specific objections to the underlying policy contained within LB 470e, I will not sign a bill that the Attorney General has found violates the Nebraska Constitution.”

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SEN. MIKE HILGERS WILL SEEK SECOND TERM IN 2020

LINCOLN - Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln announced Wednesday he will be a candidate for re-election in 2020.

Hilgers, who has held a number of leadership positions in the Legislature since he was elected in 2016, said he would focus on a second-term agenda that includes continued transportation innovation, lowering taxes, cutting regulations and "developing and seizing growth opportunities" for the state.

Also on his second-term agenda would be efforts to increase access to health care, he said.

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WE PICK THE WINNERS AND LOSERS OF THE 2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

LINCOLN — If you were measuring the success of the 2019 session of the Nebraska Legislature, more than one senator suggested this grade: “incomplete.”

Senators adjourned sine die on Friday — six days early from the 90-day session — without passing a comprehensive bill to provide property tax relief and without updating the state’s main business tax incentive program, two of the biggest issues facing the one-house Legislature this year.

There was even a last-second symbolic move — albeit one that got only seven votes — to continue the session so that senators could keep working on the tax issues.

Compromises were struck on some touchy issues, like expansion of the state’s Right to Farm Act and an effort to derail private wind farms, but a middle ground could not be found on the tax issues, or on bills dealing with medical marijuana and the boundaries of school discipline.

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'NEVER IN 100 YEARS' DID WILCOX FARMER THINK HE WOULD SEE OIL WELLS AROUND WILCOX, HIS FARMLAND

WILCOX — When Nebraskans hear the words “oil wells” they think of west Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and, maybe, Alaska.

But what about Wilcox, Nebraska?

The tiny farming community in a small oil-producing state now is a big fish in a small energy production pond.

The 49,649 barrels of oil pumped last year from nine Franklin County wells south of Wilcox landed the region known as “Luers Field” in fourth place on the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s list of the state’s 25 largest oil production fields in 2018.

Seeing oil wells in fields of corn or soybeans is a surprise, even to the landowners.

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MORE OIL PRODUCTION IN NEBRASKA? OIL-GAS COMMISSION DIRECTOR THINKS SO

KEARNEY — Since the first oil wells were drilled in far southeast Nebraska near Falls City in 1939, approximately 530 million barrels have been pumped.

As the crude oil industry grew during the past 80 years, most production has been in southwest Nebraska and the southern Panhandle. However, Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Bill Sydow of Sidney said scientific advancements in information gathering have made oil exploration and development worthwhile in other parts of the Cornhusker state.

Total production last year was 2,055,550 barrels mined in 19 counties, according to the commission’s 2018 Nebraska Oil Activity summary.

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SO WITH THE LEGISLATIVE SESSION OVER, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

LINCOLN - The 106th Nebraska Legislature adjourned sine die Friday, ending the long session a few days early.

But the people’s work goes on.

The short session of the 106th Legislature will begin in 220 days — not that anyone is counting — and with fewer than 40 percent of the 739 bills introduced this year clearing the hurdles needed to become law, there’s plenty of unfinished business at the Capitol.

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DON WALTON: FIVE VOTES SHORT AND THERE'S A HOSTAGE IN THE ROOM

LINCOLN - It had 28 votes.

That's what this year's major tax reform and property tax relief bill could have commanded in the closing days of the 2019 legislative session, according to a final tally compiled by supporters of the bill.

And that is five short of the 33 that Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk has required sponsors to demonstrate before he'll return a contested bill to the legislative agenda after its first three hours of floor debate.

It's the number needed to bust through a legislative filibuster.

Five votes short is getting closer.

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FORMER NEBRASKA STATE SEN. DON PEDERSON DIES AT AGE 90

LINCOLN - Thanks to the efforts of former State Sen. Don Pederson, Nebraska’s arts and humanities programs have been enriched and its residents have been given incentives to save historic buildings and money for college.

Pederson, who served in the Legislature from 1996 to 2007, was instrumental in passing legislation that established the Nebraska College Savings Plan, the Nebraska Cultural Endowment and a constitutional amendment that encouraged preserving historical buildings using a tax-deferred benefit.

As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, the North Platte senator led the Legislature’s budget-writing process and was known for being calm, efficient and able to look out for the state’s best interests with limited resources.

His legacy as a state senator is being remembered following Pederson’s death Sunday at his home in Lincoln. He was 90.

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TOM BRIESE EMERGES AS KEY TAX REFORM FIGURE

LINCOLN - Tom Briese always wanted to play a role in establishing policy, especially tax policy, and determining priorities for the state.

That sense of purpose was there when he was earning a degree in agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and then when he followed that with a UNL law degree.

And now the Albion farmer has a seat at the table; he's positioned as a state senator with a coveted slot on the Legislature's Revenue Committee.

Briese emerged during the 2019 legislative session as a key player in helping form tax policy and in the acquired skill of leveraging legislative power in pursuit of a goal that is paramount for his fellow farmers and rural constituents.

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RICKETTS SIGNS HEMP FARMING ACT INTO LAW

Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a bill Thursday that will clear the way for farmers to plant hemp as an alternative crop.

The Nebraska Hemp Farming Act (LB657) would recognize the plant as a viable agricultural crop and align state law with federal law — industrial hemp was legalized in the 2018 farm bill — regarding its cultivation, handling, marketing and processing. It would open up new commercial markets for farmers and businesses through sale of its products. 

In debate on the bill, Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, who introduced it, said hemp production was coming, one way or another, and rather than being out of the business for two to three years, it was important that Nebraska get in now.

The bill would set up licensing and fee requirements for farmers who wish to grow hemp, outline reporting and enforcement requirements by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, and create a hemp checkoff program.

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YEAR-ROUND SALES OF GASOLINE MIXED WITH 15% ETHANOL OK'D

The Trump administration is following through on a plan to allow year-round sales of gasoline mixed with 15% ethanol.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced the change Friday, ending a summertime ban imposed out of concerns for increased smog from the higher ethanol blend. The agency had proposed the change in March. The change also fulfills a pledge that President Donald Trump made to U.S. corn farmers, who see ethanol as an important driver of demand for their crops. Oil refineries have been seeking exemptions from government requirements to include ethanol in their fuel mixes.

Environmental groups contend the U.S. Clean Air Act prohibits year-round sales of E15, and court challenges are expected. Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said Friday the agency is prepared to win a court fight.

Wehrum said Friday in a conference call with reporters that if the agency believed the change ran afoul of the Clean Air Act, "we wouldn't have done it."

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GOVERNOR'S VETO OF NEBRASKA MARRIAGE DOCUMENT BILL STANDS

Nebraska lawmakers have declined to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a bill that would have required gender-neutral language on marriage applications, licenses and certificates.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, of Omaha, filed a motion to override the veto Friday but withdrew it later after expressing disappointment over how her measure was handled. Cavanaugh says she was never told about the governor's concerns.

Cavanaugh's bill would have required marriage forms to use the words "Applicant 1" and "Applicant 2" for the two people getting married.

Nebraska's current marriage application form uses "Groom/Party A" and "Bride/Party B." Marriage license and certificate forms use "Groom" and "Bride." Ricketts says he directed the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to change all documents to read, "Groom/Party A" and "Bride/Party B."

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TRUMP ADMINISTRATION WITHDRAWS PROPOSAL TO REQUIRE TWO-PERSON RAIL CREWS

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Trump administration has withdrawn a proposal for freight trains to have at least two crew members, nullifying a measure drafted under President Barack Obama in response to explosions of crude oil trains in the U.S. and Canada.

This is a win for railroad management in a long-running battle between labor and management over mandatory two-person crews.

A review of accident data did not support the notion that having one crew member is less safe than multi-person crews, Department of Transportation officials said.

The department also seeks to pre-empt states from regulating crew sizes.

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NEBRASKA LAWMAKERS END SESSION WITHOUT AGREEING ON PLAN FOR BIG PROPERTY TAX REDUCTIONS

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers headed home for good Friday after passing a few last bills, overriding a gubernatorial veto and receiving thanks from the governor.

The 2019 session was marked by relatively easy passage of a $9.3 billion state budget but major disappointments over property taxes and business incentives.

The budget included a 23% increase in the state's property tax credit fund, which boosted the total to $275 million a year. The credits offset a portion of each property owner's tax bill.Gov. Pete Ricketts touted the record amount in the fund, but many rural lawmakers had argued for bigger reductions in property taxes. As in past years, they came up empty in their search for a solution that could win majority support

But the session also saw lawmakers pass 262 bills and two proposed constitutional amendments. They debated all but five of the measures named as priorities. 

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RURAL STATE SENATORS LEAD MOVE TO BLOCK UPDATE OF NEBRASKA'S TOP BUSINESS INCENTIVE PROGRAM

LINCOLN — Rural state senators kept their word Friday, leading a legislative blockade that sunk a major bill seeking to update the state’s top tax incentive program for business growth.

Lawmakers fell three votes short of halting a filibuster, thus killing the ImagiNE Act for the 2019 session.

“This a blow to our economic development process. It’s a blow to growth in our city,” said Steve Seline, who heads a public policy council for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.The ImagiNE Act, or Legislative Bill 720, was the top priority for state business groups for the 2019 session. But it was targeted for defeat by several rural senators after two property tax relief proposals — rural Nebraska’s top priority — stalled for the year.

It was also the most heavily lobbied issue of the session, pitting special interest heavyweights like the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska State Education Association, who opposed the bill, against the state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene said that Friday’s vote blocking advancement of the ImagiNE Act from second-round debate will force the state’s business groups “to the table” over the summer and fall to work out a solution for both issues, property tax relief and business incentives, as a package next year.

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PROPERTY TAX PLAN GOES DOWN IN FLAMES; SENATORS VOW TO BLOCK BUSINESS INCENTIVE MEASURE

LINCOLN — A last-ditch effort for more property tax relief went down in flames Wednesday night, with rural senators vowing to get even by blocking a tax incentive plan for new and expanding businesses.

Legislative Bill 183 would have increased state property tax credits by about $100 million via new taxes on pop, candy, bottled water and several consumer services. But when it came time to shut off a filibuster of the tax increases and advance the bill, the measure fell far short, getting only 23 of the needed 33 votes.

Rural senators expressed disappointment and a sense of betrayal. Many had dropped their opposition to the incentive bill, the ImagiNE Act, in hopes that it would translate into enough support to advance the property tax relief measure. The idea was that both bills would advance. It didn’t happen.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: BILL ALLOWING TEACHERS TO USE 'REASONABLE PHYSICAL CONTACT' ON STUDENTS HEADED TO FLOOR

LINCOLN - A rarely used “pull” motion passed with the minimum 25 votes Tuesday night, allowing a chance for a floor debate on the controversial issue of physical restraint of disruptive students.

State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte filed the pull motion after his Legislative Bill 147 was deadlocked, 4-4, in the Education Committee, which he chairs.

A lengthy dispute over the motion to pull the bill so it could be debated by the full Legislature included several barbs over who was responsible for the deadlock. There was also criticism that such motions run counter to the tradition of letting legislative committees decide which bills are ready for prime-time debate, and which ones aren’t.

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DOUG KAGAN LOSES 'FAITH' IN PROPERTY TAX BALLOT INITIATIVE, BUT GROUP SAYS IT'S STILL ON TRACK

LINCOLN — One of the major co-sponsors of a tax relief petition drive has dropped out, but others involved said the defection won’t have much impact on the 35% Solution initiative.

Doug Kagan of Omaha, the longtime head of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, said he withdrew his sponsorship of the petition because he disagreed with the management of the effort and didn’t think that it would be successful in qualifying for the 2020 ballot.

“It was kind of a constant argument on the right way to proceed,” Kagan said. “We’ve been veterans of many campaigns like this, and we wanted to wait to start collecting signatures until we raised a lot of money and got a lot of people in place.”

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BLUE BLOOD BREWING CLOSES SUDDENLY AT ROBBER'S CAVE SITE IN LINCOLN

LINCOLN - Blue Blood Brewing, which moved its brewing operation to the site of Robber's Cave and opened a restaurant there three years ago, has closed.

Owner Brian Podwinski could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, but a posting on the company's Facebook page confirmed the closing.

"This is Blue Blood Brewing Company’s Last Call. While we’ve been working toward a sale of the brewery for the past few weeks, our landlord has unexpectedly shut our doors," the post said.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: $9.3 BILLION STATE BUDGET ADVANCES AFTER FIGHT OVER $174,000 IS RESOLVED

LINCOLN - Nebraska lawmakers advanced the main $9.3 billion state budget bill to the final round of consideration Wednesday after spending two hours debating a $174,000 piece of it.

At issue was a study of nursing homes in the state. The study, to be paid for with a combination of nursing home fines and federal funds, is to look at reimbursement, regulations and other issues with an eye to ensuring that Nebraskans can get long-term care when needed.

State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said the study had been approved by the Appropriations Committee but was mistakenly left out of the bill before first-round debate. But some senators took the opportunity to take aim at the size of the budget generally. Among them, Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair said the budget was too big and the 3% increase in state spending was too high.

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STATE SENATORS DIFFER SHARPLY ON WHETHER TAX INCENTIVES HELP OR HURT NEBRASKA

LINCOLN — State senators expressed sharp differences Wednesday about whether Nebraska’s business tax incentives help or hurt the state, with some lawmakers vowing to oppose incentives until the Legislature delivers property tax relief to citizens.

“Nebraskans need property tax relief a whole lot more than we need this incentive package for business,” said State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, who proposed that the two issues become a “package deal.”

Briese and other rural senators are pushing for property tax relief during the waning days of the 2019 legislative session. Meanwhile, the state’s business community is seeking a replacement for the Nebraska Advantage Act, a 14-year-old law that grants tax credits and exemptions for businesses that expand and create jobs in the state.

The proposed replacement, the ImagiNE Act, got mixed reviews during a three-hour debate Wednesday.

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NEBRASKA MEDICINAL CANNABIS BILL STALLS IN LEGISLATURE; BACKERS LOOK TO 2020 BALLOT

LINCOLN — The 2020 ballot looks to be the next stop for proponents of medicinal cannabis after a legalization proposal stalled in the Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday.

State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, who introduced Legislative Bill 110, said she doesn’t think she can find enough votes to end a filibuster against her bill. Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk halted debate on the measure after three hours, based on his policy for handling filibusters.

“It’s very doubtful that I will get 33 (votes),” Wishart said, “so we’re on to the ballot.”

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'STRAIGHT-UP PROPERTY TAX RELIEF FOR ALL': STATE SENATORS OFFERS UP NEW PLAN, RICKETTS REITERATES CRITICISM

LINCOLN — With time running out on the 2019 session, Nebraska state legislators pitched a new, simpler plan for property tax relief on Thursday — one that the governor immediately slammed.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has consistently criticized lawmakers’ proposals for tax reduction, chastised senators for “this newest tax swap plan.”

“Nebraskans want and need tax relief, not tax hikes,” Ricketts said in a press release, adding that past promises of reducing property taxes via a tax shift have failed.

But lawmakers defended the new proposal as less complicated — and less controversial — than a previous plan, Legislative Bill 289, which has stalled because of opposition from the state’s largest school districts, including Omaha and Millard. Most important, they said, it had a better chance of passing this year.

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NEBRASKA SENATORS ASSURED ANOTHER CHANCE TO DEBATE PROPERTY TAX RELIEF

LINCOLN - The Legislature was assured Thursday of another opportunity for property tax relief debate when Sen. Tom Briese of Albion filed proposed amendments to a pending tax bill that's positioned at the second stage of floor consideration.

That removed the urgency of attempting to assure Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk that the comprehensive tax reform bill (LB289), which already has received three hours of floor debate, can command sufficient support to break through a filibuster if the proposal is returned to the agenda.

Briese's proposal, offered as an amendment to a bill (LB183) that would make an adjustment in the valuation of agricultural land, offers a scaled-down version of the committee's bill, relying on elimination of 28 sales tax exemptions to provide revenue to fund property tax reductions.

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NEBRASKA LAWMAKERS FLOAT NEW PROPERTY TAX PLAN THAT WOULDN'T CHANGE STATE AID FORMULA

LINCOLN — A “plan B” has emerged in the great property tax relief debate of 2019, one that a chief author thinks will overcome the opposition of the state’s largest school districts.

The plan seeks a smaller increase in state sales taxes — ¼ cent rather than ½ cent — increases cigarette taxes by a larger amount — $1 a pack — and doesn’t have the elaborate changes in state aid to K-12 schools that are in another proposal, Legislative Bill 289, which failed to advance from first-round debate last week.

Opposition from the state’s largest school districts, such as Omaha, Millard and Lincoln, was a big factor in the failure of LB 289 to get off the launch pad. Gov. Pete Ricketts also spoke out against the bill.

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, one of the co-authors of the new plan, said he pledged to do something about high property taxes this year, and the new proposal is an effort to do that by trying to win the support of the big school districts.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: EX-NEBRASKA SENATORS SAY NEW BUSINESS INCENTIVE PROPOSAL DOESN'T FIX PAST 'MISTAKES'

LINCOLN - Two former senators are slamming a proposed replacement for the state’s main business incentive act as failing to address past “mistakes.”

“There are better ways for the state to focus its resources in terms of economic development,” said former State Sens. John Watermeier of Syracuse and John Harms of Scottsbluff in a commentary distributed by the Open Sky Policy Institute, a think tank that opposes the proposed replacement, the ImagiNE Act.

The two former senators, who both chaired a committee that examined the effectiveness of tax incentives, said the current business incentive law, the Advantage Act, turned out to be much more costly than predicted and didn’t generate the type of high-wage jobs that would support a family. It paid out incentives of up to $208,000 for each job created.

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JACOB CAMPBELL SEEKS LINCOLN LEGISLATIVE SEAT

LINCOLN - Jacob Campbell of Lincoln, a former child abuse investigator for the state and current member of the legislative staff, announced Sunday he will seek a seat in the Legislature in 2020.

Campbell will be a candidate for south-central Lincoln's District 29 seat, which will be vacated by Sen. Kate Bolz, who will be term-limited out of office at the end of her second term.

As a member of the Legislature, Campbell said, he would focus on "protecting vulnerable populations, supporting property tax relief, investing in education, addressing prison overcrowding and helping entrepreneurs and small businesses."

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SENATORS OPT TO SEND MORE MONEY TO PROPERTY TAX CREDIT, LESS TO RAINY DAY FUND

LINCOLN - The Legislature spent most of Wednesday debating and advancing the state's $9.3 billion budget for 2019-21, and on property tax credits and University of Nebraska spending.

In all, seven bills were advanced.

Senators amended the work of the Appropriations Committee on two bills, the focus of which would change one thing: They rerouted $50 million over two years from the state's rainy day fund, and directed it toward property tax credits that Gov. Pete Ricketts wanted in the first place. 

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LAWMAKERS PICK PROPERTY TAX CREDITS OVER RAINY-DAY FUND GIVE FIRST-ROUND APPROVAL TO $9.3 BILLION BUDGET

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers opted to give out larger property tax credits instead of stashing away money for a rainy day before easily advancing a two-year, $9.3 billion budget plan on Wednesday.

By a vote of 28-8, senators amended the budget package to add $51 million a year to the state’s Property Tax Credit Fund.

Lawmakers’ action drew praise from Gov. Pete Ricketts, who had proposed that level of increase in his budget recommendation. The money would boost the tax credit fund by nearly 23% and bring it to $275 million a year. Money for the transfer comes from state tax collections

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CAPITOL DIGEST: NEW IDEAS, NEW DISCUSSIONS COMING ON NEBRASKA PROPERTY TAX RELIEF

LINCOLN - One day after a property tax relief proposal fizzled on the launching pad, state lawmakers worked to rekindle the issue.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the sponsor of Legislative Bill 289, said she’s trying to organize a “road show” across the state this weekend to rally support for the proposal, which would increase sales taxes by half a cent and repeal about 20 sales tax exemptions to pump an extra $500 million into state aid for K-12 education. That would offset what property taxes now finance, delivering an average 20% reduction in taxes paid for schools.

She also said she plans to reach out to the state’s largest school districts, such as Omaha, Millard and Lincoln, which all opposed the bill. Linehan said she was puzzled by their opposition. A lot of senators and interest groups made compromises in drafting LB 289, but the big schools seem unwilling to give an inch, she said.

“And we’re not asking them to give up anything,” Linehan said.

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LINEHAN READY TO NEGOTIATE AFTER INITIAL TAX REFORM DEBATE

LINCOLN - "It's not over," Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said Tuesday.

That was the Revenue Committee chairwoman's upbeat assessment after three hours of spirited debate over the committee's comprehensive tax reform bill exposed an anticipated metro-rural divide over the property tax reduction proposal.

Linehan now faces the daunting challenge of convincing Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk that she can marshal the 33 votes that would be required to overcome an anticipated filibuster. That's what's needed for Scheer to agree to return the proposal (LB289) to the legislative agenda.

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IT'S BACK TO DRAWING BOARD FOR NEBRASKA PROPERTY TAX PROPOSAL

LINCOLN — A much-anticipated debate over a proposal to reduce Nebraska’s traditionally high property taxes ended quietly and with a big question mark on Tuesday.

After three hours of mostly philosophical debate about the urgent need for such relief, state senators moved on to other issues without taking a vote on Legislative Bill 289.

Left in limbo is what’s next for one of the top issues for the 2019 session of the Nebraska Legislature.

The main sponsor of the proposal, which would raise sales taxes to lower property taxes and pump an additional $500 million into state aid to K-12 schools, said she plans to regroup, consider new amendments, and see if she can show support of 33 of the one-house Legislature’s 49 senators necessary to bring the bill back up for debate.

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FORMER TEACHER NEAL CLAYBURN SEEKS LINCOLN LEGISLATIVE SEAT

LINCOLN - Former teacher and coach Neal Clayburn on Monday announced his 2020 candidacy for the Legislature in south-central Lincoln's District 29.

Clayburn said his key priorities would include local property tax relief, job growth, quality education, investments in roads and other essential infrastructure, stewardship of the environment and "strong support for working families and local businesses."

District 29 is represented by Sen. Kate Bolz, who was re-elected in 2016 and will bump into the Legislature's two-term limit.

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DON WALTON: TAX REFORM, STATE BUDGET TAKE CENTER STAGE

LINCOLN - It all begins on the 71st day of a 90-day legislative session that will exit the stage in early June.

The forecast for the multi-faceted tax package that's designed to deliver substantial property tax relief through the vehicle of increased state aid to schools is cloudy and stormy. Lots of thunder and lightning already; gale winds ahead. 

Ricketts has mounted an all-out assault on the proposal, branding it as "the largest tax increase in state history," a plan that he says would be fueling spending growth.

"It is not," Revenue Committee Chairwoman Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn responded in a late-night email message last week.  

"The governor is wrong," she said. 

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COURT TIE-UP BLOCKS KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE CONSTRUCTION IN '19

BILLINGS, Mont. — An executive for the company proposing the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada's oil sands into the U.S. says it has missed the 2019 construction season due to court delays.

TransCanada executive vice president Paul Miller made the statement during a Friday earnings call with analysts. The company also announced it was changing its name, to TC Energy Corp.

Plans to begin construction of the long-delayed pipeline were blocked last November when a federal judge in Montana ordered additional environmental reviews of the project.

President Donald Trump has been trying to push it through. He issued a new permit for Keystone last month.

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RICKETTS, SENATORS DRAW BATTLE LINES ON TAX REFORM PROPOSAL

LINCOLN - The Legislature's gathering tax reform storm is sparking some early thunder and lightning, setting the stage for a contentious showdown when the proposal lands on the legislative floor next week. 

As Gov. Pete Ricketts and Revenue Committee Chairwoman Lou Ann Linehan offered diametrically opposed descriptions of the tax plan proposed by her committee, supporters of an initiative petition drive to impose deep reductions in property taxes held a noon-hour rally in front of the state Capitol to dial up the pressure.

The initiative proposal seeking a 2020 vote of the people on a constitutional amendment to provide a state income tax credit for 35 percent of local property taxes paid is designed in part to push the Legislature to act before voters take the matter into their own hands. 

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NEBRASKA LAWMAKER THINKS MEDICATION ABORTION BILL WILL SURVIVE FILIBUSTER 

LINCOLN — Legislation aimed at helping women who change their minds halfway through a medication abortion stalled Monday in the face of a filibuster.

But State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, who introduced Legislative Bill 209, expressed confidence that she has enough votes to cut off the extended debate and advance the bill.

“Possibly four or five more” votes than the 33 needed, she said.

Albrecht’s proposal is this year’s top priority for abortion opponents. Similar measures have been passed in at least eight other states, she said. Supporters argued that LB 209 could save lives and offer hope to women who don’t want to go through with a medication abortion.

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STATE BUDGET HAS A FEW STICKING POINTS, BUT APPROPRIATIONS CHAIRMAN SAYS IT'S 'RESPONSIBLE'

LINCOLN - The Nebraska revenue forecasting board has not been especially kind in the past year, offering up and down projections for tax collections that nine senators had to then use to shape state spending.

But the Appropriations Committee got it crafted, bound it with a cosmic orange cover and on Thursday delivered a $9.3 billion budget for study by senators on their four-day weekend beginning Friday. Next week, perhaps as early as Wednesday, they will debate the seven bills that make up that budget.

"I think it's a good budget. It's a fair budget. It's a responsible budget," said Appropriations Chairman John Stinner.

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PLAN TO IMPROVE NEBRASKA'S TAX INCENTIVES ADVANCES IN LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN — A bill labeled as a “huge improvement” on Nebraska’s current economic incentive program, the 14-year-old Advantage Act, is ready for prime time.

On a 6-0 vote Thursday, the Legislature’s Revenue Committee advanced Legislative Bill 720, called the ImagiNE Nebraska Act, to debate by the full Legislature later this session.

State Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward said that the ImagiNE Nebraska Act is designed to be easier for businesses to navigate, more transparent and more affordable to the state than the Advantage Act, which has been criticized as too complicated and too expensive. It was initially projected to cost $60 million a year in foregone taxes but has ended up costing $120 million to $150 million a year.

Kolterman said that drafters of the bill, which included state business groups and Gov. Pete Ricketts, heard those concerns and tried to craft a better program, with the goal of “growing Nebraska.”

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CAPITOL DIGEST: REVENUE COMMITTEE LOOKS TO LOWER NEBRASKA'S CORPORATE INCOME TAX RATE

LINCOLN - A state legislative committee not only wants to decrease property taxes, but also lower the state’s corporate income tax rate and fix an oversight in a 2018 tax fix that delivered an inadvertent $22 million tax increase for owners of high-dollar homes.

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s Revenue Committee discussed advancing a bill that would eventually lower the state’s corporate income tax rate, which is now 7.81% on income over $100,000, to put it on par with the state’s highest individual income tax rate, which is 6.84%.

Omaha Sen. Brett Lindstrom, who has pushed the idea, said that it’s been a longtime gripe of business that so-called C-corps, which are some of the largest companies in the state, pay a higher tax rate than other “pass through” companies, which are typically smaller businesses. Lindstrom added that if the corporate rate were lowered, the state would save money by having to pay less in tax incentives through programs like the Advantage Act.

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PROPERTY TAX RELIEF BILL HEADED TO DEBATE BY FULL NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN - After eight weeks of committee huddles and deliberations, the Legislature's Revenue Committee on Tuesday sent a landmark tax reform package targeted to deliver substantial property tax relief to the floor of the Legislature for action. 

The bill (LB289) was advanced from the committee on a 6-0 count, with Sens. John McCollister of Omaha and Curt Friesen of Henderson declining to cast votes.

The proposal, which would raise the state sales tax rate from 5.5% to 6%, wipe out a couple dozen sales tax exemptions and hike the state cigarette tax in order to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax relief, could be on the legislative floor for debate as early as next Tuesday afternoon.

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COMPREHENSIVE PROPERTY TAX RELIEF BILL HEADED TO DEBATE BY FULL NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN — In what a key senator described as a “brave” decision, a comprehensive property tax relief bill was advanced to debate by the full Legislature on Tuesday.

Voices rose in disagreement more than once before the Legislature’s Revenue Committee voted 6-0, with two senators abstaining, to advance Legislative Bill 289, which aims to lower property taxes by increasing sales taxes and by boosting state aid to K-12 schools by nearly $500 million.

“This was a big, brave thing to do,” said State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who chairs the Revenue Committee and was one of the main authors of the bill. “It will be property tax relief for everyone, both urban and rural.”

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LEGISLATURE APPROVES ACCELERATED SOUTH BELTWAY CONSTRUCTION

LINCOLN - The Legislature on Thursday gave the green light to accelerated construction of the long-awaited South Beltway, reducing its completion timetable from eight to three years.

The bill (LB616), which authorizes a new creative financing process that provides for delayed construction payments by the state, was sponsored by Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln and received final approval on a 48-0 vote.

The $300 million four-lane expressway south of the city will link U.S. 77 and Nebraska 2 and is designed to divert truck traffic from Nebraska 2 that now travels though Lincoln.

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REVENUE COMMITTEE'S REVISED TAX REFORM PLAN ADDRESSES BIG CITY, URBAN SCHOOL CONCERNS

LINCOLN- The Legislature's Revenue Committee on Friday made substantial progress in revising its tax reform package to address concerns expressed by its opponents in an effort to fashion a filibuster-proof plan.

In other action, the committee sent to the floor an amended version of Gov. Pete Ricketts' proposed constitutional amendment to place a 3% limit on annual property tax increases after transforming the measure (LR8CA) into a proposed statutory change. Under that proposal, any such increase would need approval by a majority of voters at a special election.

That amended plan cleared the committee on a 5-1 vote.

But most of the action during a three-hour executive session was directed at attempting to develop a package to provide substantial property tax relief that can gain the support of at least 33 of the Legislature's 49 members in order to break through a filibuster waged by its opponents. The measure would then require at least 30 votes to override a certain gubernatorial veto.

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NEBRASKA LAWMAKERS AMEND PROPERTY TAX PROPOSAL TO APPEASE FARMERS, SCHOOL DISTRICTS, OTHERS

LINCOLN — A legislative committee amended its property tax relief proposal on Friday in hopes of reducing opposition to the plan. A leading senator called the changes “significant.”

“This takes a large number of complaints away,” said State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who chairs the Legislature’s Revenue Committee.

The comments came after a divisive committee meeting on Thursday and two days after the panel’s proposal, Legislative Bill 289, was roundly panned during a public hearing. On Thursday, more than half of the eight-member committee said the bill, as written then, was doomed.

“Yesterday was a lot of ‘let’s vent,’ ” Linehan said. “Today, we went back to work.”She said she hopes to advance the bill — perhaps the biggest issue of the 2019 session — to the full Legislature by Monday or Tuesday.

“We need to decide what’s the best policy,” Linehan said. “Once we get there, then we’ll get the 33 votes.”

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ERNIE CHAMBERS' BID TO REPEAL DEATH PENALTY FALLS SHORT; SOME SAY ELIMINATING IT WOULD IGNORE VOTERS' WILL

LINCOLN — State lawmakers fell far short of advancing a bill to repeal the death penalty on Thursday, with only 17 of the 49 senators supporting repeal.

Much of the sometimes contentious debate centered on whether repealing capital punishment would ignore the will of Nebraska voters, who voted in 2016 to overturn the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty.

State Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, the Legislature’s youngest member, said repealing capital punishment now would show “flagrant disregard” for the vote, which restored the death penalty by 61% to 39%.

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RICKETTS VETOES BILL ALLOWING SALES TAX TO HELP GAGE COUNTY PAY BEATRICE SIX JUDGMENT

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill Wednesday aimed at helping Gage County pay off a $28 million judgment owed to six wrongly convicted people.

The governor said he objected to Legislative Bill 472 because it would have allowed the Gage County Board to impose a countywide, half-cent sales tax without taking the issue to voters for approval.

“In Nebraska, we trust the people to make political decisions on a myriad of issues,” Ricketts said. “Despite the claims by supporters of LB 472 to the contrary, I believe the people can be counted on to do the right thing.”

Under LB 472, introduced by State Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, the county board could have approved a new sales tax by a two-thirds vote. The money would have gone toward paying a federal court judgment won by the so-called Beatrice Six.

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RICKETTS GETS EARLY JAB IN AT PROPERTY TAX RELIEF PLAN ON THE EVE OF PUBLIC HEARING

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts got in an early punch Tuesday, jabbing a legislative proposal to reduce property taxes as “the largest tax increase in Nebraska’s history.”

He is the first in an expected long line of opponents of Legislative Bill 289, which is the subject of a public hearing at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the State Capitol.

The bill would lower property taxes by raising state aid to K-12 schools by $540 million via a three-quarter-cent hike in state sales taxes, new taxes on pop, candy and bottled water, and increases in taxes on cigarettes and home purchases. Tax exemptions on services provided by plumbers, movers and veterinarians would also be eliminated.

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SIZING UP PROPOSED PROPERTY TAX RELIEF PLAN AHEAD OF DEBATE

LINCOLN — It’s prime time for property tax relief proposals.

On Wednesday at 4 p.m., legions of lobbyists, as well as their clients, will get to testify at a public hearing on an ambitious plan that aims to lower property taxes. The stated goal is to reduce property taxes that support K-12 schools by an average of 20%.

To do that, the proposal calls for increasing the state sales tax by three-quarters of a cent, to 6.25 cents, and raising taxes on cigarettes and home purchases. The proposal would also impose new sales taxes on pop, candy and bottled water, as well as on services delivered by plumbers, movers and veterinarians.

By increasing state aid to local schools by $540 million, Legislative Bill 289 would adjust property taxes downward by a similar amount and institute a spending lid, based on the consumer price index and new construction in a given school district.

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BUDGET PLAN HALVES PROPOSED PROPERTY TAX CREDIT BOOST, DRAWS CRITICISM FROM RICKETTS

LINCOLN — Legislative budget-writers halved their plans for boosting the state’s Property Tax Credit Fund as they wrapped up budget work Tuesday.

Appropriations Committee members voted 7-2 to add $26 million annually to the tax credit fund, bringing the annual total to $250 million.

The committee chairman, State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, who proposed the move, called it “responsible.” It was coupled with a decision to put $25 million during each year of the two-year budget period into the state’s depleted cash reserve fund.

But the move drew immediate condemnation from Gov. Pete Ricketts and Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who chairs the Revenue Committee

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MEDICAID EXPANSION COULD REDUCE BENEFITS TO SOME 25,000 NEBRASKANS NOW ON THE PROGRAM

LINCOLN — The state’s plan for carrying out voter-approved Medicaid expansion could mean taking away some health care services from about 25,000 low-income Nebraskans.

That’s because Department of Health and Human Services officials intend to switch some people currently covered by traditional Medicaid into a two-tier system being created for newly eligible Nebraskans.

The new system, called the Heritage Health Adult Program, would have different benefits and more stringent requirements than existing Medicaid.

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SPENDING, TAXES AND MEDICAL CANNABIS YET TO BE DEBATED IN NEBRASKA LEGISLATIVE SESSION

LINCOLN — Counting by the calendar, the 2019 session of the Nebraska Legislature is more than two-thirds over, but much of the heavy lifting remains.

Property tax relief, the state budget, business tax incentives and medical cannabis have yet to be debated by the full Legislature, while lawmakers are looking at ways to influence how the state carries out Medicaid expansion.

Meanwhile, senators have been busy working on a host of other bills. As of Thursday, more than half of the bills named as priorities for the session had been debated at least once and about 20 percent had been passed and sent to the governor’s desk.

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NEBRASKA THOUGHT IT FIXED THE STATE'S RELIANCE ON PROPERTY TAXES. IT DIDN'T

LINCOLN — For decades, business leaders proudly proclaimed Nebraska the nation’s “white spot” — standing out on the U.S. map for its lack of general sales or income taxes.

But the state’s farmers considered the distinction a black mark, causing property owners to unfairly bear too much of the burden of paying for state and local government. Farm groups ultimately led a successful petition drive in 1966 that forced the Legislature to usher in the state’s first sales and income taxes.

More than half a century later, the state is once again debating the relative fairness of the state’s mix of taxes. And it’s shaping up to be the biggest battle in this year’s Legislature.

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DOES THE STATE OF NEBRASKA SIMPLY SPEND TOO MUCH? HERE'S WHAT THE DATA SHOWS

LINCOLN - Gov. Pete Ricketts says if lawmakers want property tax relief, they should tackle the problem at its source — government spending. Which raises the question: Is Nebraska a big spender?

The latest Census Bureau data suggest Nebraska is more middle-of-the road.

It ranks 23rd among the states in combined state and local government spending per capita. When it comes to public welfare spending, it ranks 38th.

But there is no question Nebraska historically has not scrimped when it comes to education. It ranks 19th in per-pupil spending in its K-12 schools and 11th in such spending per capita. And it ranks sixth in higher ed appropriations per full-time college student.

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NU IN EARLY STAGES OF PRESIDENT SEARCH; NO INTERIM NAMED

LINCOLN - Nearly a month after Hank Bounds announced he would be stepping down as University of Nebraska president this fall, members of the Board of Regents have launched the search for his successor.

Listening sessions will soon be scheduled to give members of the public a chance to tell regents what they hope the next NU leader possesses in terms of characteristics, qualities and skills.

"The University of Nebraska presidency is one of the best jobs in the country," Board Chairman Tim Clare said in a statement Friday. "The board intends to conduct a timely national search to find the best possible person for the job.

"A successful search requires a good process, guided by feedback and engagement from Nebraskans across the state who care about the continued success of their university," he added. "We're excited to begin a conversation with Nebraskans about how we keep that momentum going."

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NEBRASKA LAWMAKERS SEEK TO EXPAND PROBLEM-SOLVING COURTS, A LESS COSTLY ALTERNATIVE TO PRISON

LINCOLN — A proven, and lower-cost, alternative to a prison sentence would get a substantial boost in funding under a preliminary recommendation by a state legislative committee.

Four existing “problem-solving courts” in the state — including a veterans treatment court in Omaha and a drug court in Saunders County — would be expanded via a $2.4 million a year boost in funding. That would allow 120 additional criminal offenders a year to be treated using strict probation programs rather than being sent to more expensive prison beds.

The move should save money, and could help relieve chronic overcrowding in state prisons that has spawned a federal civil rights lawsuit against the State of Nebraska. The yearly cost of supervising someone in a problem-solving court is $2,865 compared to an average cost of $38,627 for prison, according to state probation office figures.

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EARLY ESTIMATES OF CATTLE LOST IN NEBRASKA FLOODS WERE WAY TOO HIGH, OFFICIALS SAY

OMAHA - Cattle losses in Nebraska from the March flooding will be much lower than previously reported, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture said this week.

Director Steve Wellman said reports of up to a million cattle killed in the natural disaster are not accurate.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had said during a TV interview after the flooding that as many as 1 million calves were lost in Nebraska. That total was later walked back.

“We haven’t come up with a number, but it’s estimated to be closer to thousands,’’ Wellman said.

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MUELLER REPORT SAYS WIKILEAKS EXPLOITED CONSPIRACY THEORIES ABOUT SETH RICH'S DEATH

WASHINGTON — Julian Assange and WikiLeaks exploited conspiracy theories about the murder of Omaha native Seth Rich in an effort to mask the fact that their stolen Democratic campaign materials actually came from Russian intelligence sources, according to the report from special counsel Robert Mueller.

Rich, 27, was fatally shot in the early hours of July 10, 2016, outside his home in Washington, D.C. His parents, Joel and Mary Rich, live in Omaha.

His killing remains unsolved, but authorities have been clear that it most likely resulted from a botched robbery. Friends and family of the civic-minded young man were devastated by his sudden, senseless death.

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RICKETTS BLASTS REVISED PROPERTY TAX RELIEF PLAN THAT HIKES SALES TAX RATE BY THREE-QUARTERS OF A CENT

LINCOLN - The Legislature's Revenue Committee unveiled a revised tax reform package on Wednesday that would increase the state sales tax rate by three-quarters of a cent in order to help fund $500 million in additional property tax relief.

The proposal will be filed as an amendment to a pending tax bill (LB289) and subjected to a public hearing on April 24.

Revenue Committee Chairwoman Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn revealed the revised plan during a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda with the other seven members of the committee standing behind her.  

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EMINENT DOMAIN COMPROMISE RECOGNIZES SANDHILLS' SIGNIFICANCE, UTILITY RIGHT

LINCOLN - Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon won first-round legislative approval Wednesday for an amended bill that states Nebraska's determination to protect its storied Sandhills while recognizing a consumer-owned electrical utility's eminent domain authority in Nebraska.

The amended proposal (LB155) was introduced by Brewer to help provide the Sandhills some degree of protection from the potential proliferation of wind energy turbines that residents fear could scar their stunning landscape.

In supporting Brewer's amended plan, Sen. John McCollister of Omaha described it as "an acceptable arrangement" that provides private wind energy developers with no power of eminent domain while recognizing the eminent domain authority of consumer-oriented utilities operating in Nebraska.

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BEATRICE 6 SALES TAX, TIF CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT PASS FINAL HURDLES

LINCOLN - The Legislature gave final approval to a bill granting Gage County the authority to create a sales tax to help pay a $28.1 million federal jury verdict to the so-called Beatrice 6 on Thursday.

Lawmakers approved a bill (LB472) by Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams that would allow Gage County to create a countywide one-half cent sales tax on a 43-6 vote, sending it to Gov. Pete Ricketts for his signature.

The measure, narrowly tailored to Gage County's circumstances, would allow the judgment and estimated $2 million in court fees to be paid off as many as two years earlier than if the county relied entirely upon property taxes.

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SENATOR CHALLENGES RICKETTS' ANTI-TAX REFORM ARGUMENTS

LINCOLN - Describing the approaching legislative debate over comprehensive property tax reform as "decision time in Nebraska," Sen. Tom Briese of Albion on Thursday directly challenged the opposing arguments mounted by Gov. Pete Ricketts without naming him.

Opponents of a developing tax reform plan "claim it doesn't make sense to raise one tax to offset another," Briese said. "They rail against comprehensive, revenue-neutral tax reform, claiming it's a tax increase.

"They're telling us they don't understand that an adjustment of the tax burden is textbook tax reform," the Albion farmer, registered Republican and member of the Legislature's Revenue Committee said in a written statement.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: LEGISLATURE PASSES BILL ALLOWING SALES TAX TO HELP PAY BEATRICE SIX SETTLEMENT

BEATRICE - Gage County could impose a half-cent sales tax to help pay a $28 million judgment owed to six wrongly convicted people under LB 472, passed on a vote of 43-6 Thursday. The bill was introduced by State Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams in response to a federal court judgment won by the so-called Beatrice Six.

The six, convicted in a 1985 slaying, collectively spent more than 70 years in prison before DNA testing identified another person as the killer. The case was one of the largest examples of wrongful confession and coerced testimony in the nation’s history.

Under LB 472, the county could impose the special sales tax only if its property tax levy was set at the maximum allowed under state law to pay off the judgment. The sales tax could be approved by a two-thirds vote of the County Board. The tax would end when the judgment is paid off, or after seven years, whichever comes first.

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LAWMAKERS UNVEIL MORE AMBITIOUS PROPERTY TAX RELIEF PROPOSAL, RAISING SALES TAX 3/4 OF A CENT

LINCOLN — State lawmakers upped the ante Wednesday, unveiling an even more ambitious property tax relief proposal amid another round of criticism from Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The new tax plan, detailed by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan and fellow members of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, would increase state sales taxes by ¾ of a cent — higher than an earlier proposed ½-cent hike — and raise a handful of other taxes to provide about $540 million a year in property tax relief.

Linehan, who chairs the committee, said the panel’s current proposal is still subject to amendment, but as it stands, it would deliver an average decrease of 20% in local property taxes — taxes that have traditionally ranked among the nation’s highest.

“Property taxes are ridiculous in Nebraska, and we need to fix it,” said the senator, who formerly helped round up votes in Washington, D.C., for Sen. Chuck Hagel.

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FIVE TAKEAWAYS FROM LEGISLATURE'S PROPERTY TAX RELIEF PROPOSAL

LINCOLN - Five takeaways from the property tax relief proposal from the Legislature’s Revenue Committee:

It takes some political guts to propose an increase in state sales taxes. Lawmakers have failed to win re-election for more minor changes, such as upping the state gas tax or giving cities the option of raising their sales taxes. The proposed ¾-cent increase, if passed, would be the first adopted since 2002, when the state rate went from 5% to 5.5%.

While the proposal would eventually increase state aid to schools by $540 million a year, it isn’t all “new” property tax relief. A big portion of the current property tax credit program would be used, and it provides about $224 million in property tax reductions.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: BILL REQUIRING VOTER APPROVAL OF SOME CELLPHONE TAXES STALLS IN LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN - A proposal to require voter approval of local cellphone taxes stalled Wednesday in the Legislature.

Senators debated Legislative Bill 550 for parts of two days before lawmakers moved on to other issues.

State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha introduced the bill, saying he couldn’t understand why Nebraska’s taxes on wireless phone services were fourth-highest in the nation. Requiring a vote to continue local occupation taxes on cellphone bills (the tax amounts to 6.25% in Omaha and 6% in Lincoln) would require cities to justify the levies.

But the bill got plenty of pushback from some senators, who argued that it wasn’t right for the state to tell cities how to handle local tax issues.

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SEN CHAMBERS MAY RUN FOR DOUGLAS COUNTY BOARD TO FIGHT 'YOUTH PRISON'

LINCOLN — State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha may run for the Douglas County Board to fight plans for building what he calls a "youth prison" downtown.

Chambers said Wednesday he is looking at the possibility as a way to bring attention to the controversial juvenile detention center proposal.

"I do not relish the notion of serving in a local governmental position," he said, "but if that is the only way to bring about changes, I've got to give it consideration."

Board members voted last month to ask the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission to issue $114 million worth of bonds for a courthouse annex and juvenile detention center project.  

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CAPITOL DIGEST: ONE DAY LATER, GOVERNOR'S PRESS CONFERENCE WITH VETERINARIANS BACKFIRES

LINCOLN - Before a press conference Monday held by veterinarians and Gov. Pete Ricketts, a proposal to tax vet services had been taken off the table as part of a bill to lower property taxes.

But railing against the tax backfired against the vets and governor. On Tuesday, State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said she’s reviving the idea, in part due to the press conference and in part due to some clarification.

“I like dealing with the facts,” Linehan said. And the fact, the senator said, is that in order to lower property taxes you need additional revenue (from taxing services like veterinary care) to increase state aid to schools, thus relieving the burden on property taxes.

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LEGISLATURE ADVANCES BILL TO LET HEMP BE GROWN IN NEBRASKA AGAIN

LINCOLN — Industrial hemp could be on its way back to Nebraska fields after almost 80 years.

State lawmakers took a major step Monday toward allowing marijuana’s practical cousin to be grown, harvested, processed and marketed in the state.

Despite warnings from some senators, the Legislature gave 37-4 first-round approval to a bill that would legalize industrial hemp and its products, including cannabidiol, or CBD, products.

Legislative Bill 657, introduced by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, provides for licensing and regulation of the new crop. The bill follows the regulation steps spelled out in last year’s federal farm bill. It also creates a Nebraska Hemp Commission to promote hemp and its products.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: NEBRASKA LAWMAKERS ADVANCE BILL TO CREATE LICENSE PLATE FUNDING JOB EFFORTS FOR VETS

LINCOLN - Nebraska drivers could show their support for the troops — and fund employment efforts for veterans — with a new license plate option advanced by lawmakers Monday.

State lawmakers gave first-round approval to Legislative Bill 138, introduced by State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, which makes a number of changes in military-related license plates.

The measure provides for new “Support Our Troops” plates and directs proceeds to a new fund aimed at recruiting and keeping military veterans in the state. Personalized message plates would cost $70, of which $52.50 would go to the new fund. Plates with standard number-letter combinations would cost $5, which would all go to the fund.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: LICENSE PLATES FEATURING SANDHILL CRANES, BIG HORN SHEEP AND MORE GET FIRST-ROUND OK

LINCOLN - Nebraskans would get four new license plate choices, including Sandhill cranes, bighorn sheep, ornate box turtles and prostate cancer awareness, under a bill advanced by state lawmakers Tuesday.

Legislative Bill 356, introduced by Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk, would direct that part of the fees for Sammy’s Superheroes plates go to the University of Nebraska Medical Center for pediatric cancer research.

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee added other provisions to the bill to turn it into an omnibus measure that makes state license plate laws more consistent. It also incorporated provisions of three proposals for new license plates, which would be available on Jan. 1, 2021.

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LEGISLATURE OKS AMENDMENT THAT WOULD GIVE TAX BREAK TO THOSE WHOSE HOMES WERE DESTROYED BY FLOODING 

LINCOLN — The Legislature worked Tuesday to help victims of Nebraska’s epic flooding, adopting an amendment to provide a tax break for people whose homes were destroyed and laying plans to divert $4 million to replenish an emergency fund.

Under an amendment introduced by State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, people whose homes were destroyed by flooding, fire or natural disaster would be excused from paying property taxes on the home until it is repaired.

“This just makes common sense,” Erdman said. Homeowners should not be assessed property taxes on property that no longer can be used, he said.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: BILL EXTENDING BONDING AUTHORITY FOR PAPIO-MISSOURI NRD ADVANCES

LINCOLN - The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District could continue using bonds to speed up flood-control work under a bill advanced Monday by the Nebraska Legislature.

State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said historic flooding across Nebraska last month highlighted the importance of the measure. The NRD has issued $70 million in bonds over the past decade for six projects; an additional eight projects are in the queue.

NRD-built reservoirs and levees were critical in keeping floods at bay along Papillion Creek while the Western Sarpy Clear Creek Levee project along the Platte River helped contain the flooding around Omaha well fields.

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PROPOSED EXPANSION OF NEBRASKA'S RIGHT TO FARM ACT RUNS INTO OPPOSITION

LINCOLN — A legislative attempt to expand Nebraska’s Right to Farm Act, sought by farm groups to fend off lawsuits over farming-related nuisances, ran into questions Monday over whether it would grant immunity from all such litigation.

While rural senators defended Legislative Bill 227 as a way to ease fears among livestock producers when expanding their operations, a University of Nebraska law professor and a fellow lawyer, State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said it was unreasonable to give a farming operation immunity from lawsuits from a neighbor over nuisances like odor, dust and flies.

“We’re going to say the doors to the courthouse are closed (to a neighbor),” Lathrop said. “This is fundamentally unfair and probably unconstitutional, and I gotta tell you, it’s not the Nebraska way.”

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TWO WOMEN, GAYLOR BAIRD AND LAMM, WILL FACE OFF IN MAYOR'S RACE

LINCOLN - For the first time in a Lincoln mayor's race, two women will face each other and ask voters to make one of them the city's next mayor.

Leirion Gaylor Baird and Cyndi Lamm were the top vote-getters in Tuesday's city primary out of five candidates wanting to become Lincoln's 49th mayor.

City attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick came in a distant third.

"I am honored that the voters of Lincoln have confidence in me," particularly since "I was extremely outspent by both my opponents," Lamm said Tuesday night, referring to the much higher campaign spending by Gaylor Baird and Kirkpatrick.

"We're getting more bang for our buck like conservatives tend to do," she said.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: PROPOSAL TO GIVE PROPERTY TAX BREAK TO FLOOD VICTIMS STALLS IN LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN - An effort to provide a property tax break for victims of floods, fires and other disasters stalled after a morning-long debate Friday in the State Legislature.

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard offered an amendment that would suspend property taxes on structures destroyed by flood or tornadoes until they are rebuilt. People currently pay property taxes based on the value of a home or business as of Jan. 1, so even if a structure is wiped out after that, the full property tax bill is owed.

“This is an opportunity to give people a break for something that was out of their control,” Erdman said.

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HEMP BILL READY TO BE DEBATED; SOME FARMERS ARE EAGER TO PLANT THIS SPRING

LINCOLN - Nebraska farmers could have a new crop to grow if a bill that was forwarded by the Legislature's Agriculture Committee gets debated this session and advances.

The bill (LB657), introduced by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne and prioritized by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, would allow growers to get a hemp crop planted this season. At the bill's hearing in February, there were 13 proponents and no one testifying in opposition. It was advanced on an 8-0 vote. 

Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant, and has been used around the world as a fiber and oil seed for industrial and consumer products. It contains much lower levels of THC, the ingredient that gives marijuana its psychoactive properties.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: OMAHA TAX ACCOUNTANT CREDITED FOR PROPOSAL THAT COULD GENERATE $20 MILLION A YEAR

OMAHA - For at least the past two years, Omaha tax accountant Stacy Watson has been urging state lawmakers to start collecting income taxes from out-of-state firms that earn income in Nebraska via charging franchise fees (think McDonald’s or Subway), doing consulting work or selling digital products, like music.

On Wednesday, Watson’s idea — which might help state lawmakers reduce property taxes — got a formal public hearing at the State Capitol.

Amendment 974 is the idea’s formal legislative name, but members of the Revenue Committee have taken to calling it “Stacy Watson’s Bill.”

The amendment could generate as much as $20 million a year in new state tax revenue, which State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said she plans to use as part of the committee’s package to reduce property taxes. The senator said it might also help lower some income tax rates, which has been a longtime goal of the state’s business community.

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IT'S REVERSE ROBIN HOOD': RICKETTS DECRIES PROPOSED SALES TAX ON POP, BOTTLED WATER

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts accused state lawmakers Wednesday of playing “reverse Robin Hood” in their efforts to lower property taxes.

Standing in a supermarket produce aisle, Ricketts joined representatives of the grocery and soft-drink industries in decrying proposals to tax pop, bottled water and some junk food as “regressive” and the wrong way to lower property taxes.

“It’s reverse Robin Hood,” said Ricketts, a conservative Republican. “It’s taking from the people who can least afford it.”

The Legislature’s Revenue Committee is crafting a package of bills to reduce property taxes by as much as $570 million by shifting property taxes on farmland and homes to sales taxes.

Nebraska currently exempts all groceries from taxation. One proposal would end the sales tax exemptions on pop, candy, bottled water and ice.

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BREWER DISMISSES TALK OF 2020 SENATE BID

LINCOLN - Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon on Tuesday dismissed state Capitol chatter that he might be a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate following a recent meeting in the White House initiated by a member of the president's staff.

Brewer said William Crozer, special assistant to the president and deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, told him that "you could do a lot of good things" and "he talked about future events, but he did not get into any politics or positions."

In any event, the first-term state senator said he will not be a Republican challenger to GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, who appears on course to seek re-election to a second term. Sasse will make that decision this summer.

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LEGISLATIVE GRIDLOCK EXTENDS THROUGH A SECOND DAY WITH FOCUS ON APPOINTEE'S SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS

LINCOLN - After a long weekend, the Legislature picked up Tuesday — the first day of all-day debate — where it left off last week.

Gridlocked and, according to one state senator, pugnacious.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, who last Thursday used a pair of confirmation hearings to stall the Legislature, once again stretched out an otherwise routine duty for lawmakers in confirming appointments made by Gov. Pete Ricketts to various boards and commissions.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: LAWMAKERS CLASH OVER REPORTED COMMENTS ON FRESHMAN SENATOR'S SEXUAL ORIENTATION

LINCOLN - Debate got personal Tuesday in the Nebraska Legislature when one lawmaker questioned another about his reported comments that she was transgender “and reminds us of it most every day.”

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha brought up the comments after other senators complained that her social media posts contribute to a lack of civility in the Legislature and invite ridicule of fellow lawmakers.

She said the comments by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, made during a meeting with constituents, show the same type of incivility. The North Platte Bulletin reported that he made the remarks in Stanton, while talking about the freshman senators and the level of professionalism in the Legislature.

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DON WALTON: PRESSURE BUILDING IN THE LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN - The Legislature went home last week for a four-day weekend in a bit of a grouchy mood.

That's clear evidence that senators must be past the halfway mark with all the big challenges and tough decisions looming ahead.

Appropriations, revenue and tax policy, school support, corrections funding and reform, the pace and nature of Medicaid expansion, and more.

And on April 25, it's all probably going to get even harder when the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Board meets and takes into consideration the losses and damage from last month's devastating flooding in its next survey of the economy and the likely impact on state tax revenue.

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PROPERTY, INCOME, SALES TAX PACKAGE STARTING TO TAKE SHAPE IN NEBRASKA'S REVENUE COMMITTEE

LINCOLN — A legislative package making major shifts among property, income and sales taxes continued to take shape Thursday in the Revenue Committee.

Omaha State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the committee chairwoman, said it could take several more sessions to meet her goal of getting a bill to the full Legislature by April 15. She told fellow committee members to be prepared for several late nights before then.

Afternoon hearings ended this week and lawmakers start full-day debate next week, so committees have to squeeze in discussions over the lunch hour or after the day’s debate ends.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: BILL THAT WOULD LEGALIZE HEMP, CBD IN NEBRASKA ADVANCES TO FULL LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN - Nebraska farmers could grow industrial hemp again and cannabidiol, or CBD, products would be legalized under a bill that was advanced without dissent Thursday to the full Legislature by the Agriculture Committee.

Legislative Bill 657, introduced by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, would allow for the cultivation, harvesting, handling, marketing and processing of hemp, as allowed by the recently passed federal farm bill.

The measure defines industrial hemp as strains of the cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that produces the marijuana high.

Wayne said he hopes to land hemp processing facilities in his north Omaha district. LB 657 has been named a priority bill by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth.

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NEBRASKA PRISON CHIEF SAYS LATHROP'S BILL ON OVERCROWDING WON'T SOLVE THE PROBLEM

LINCOLN — Nebraska has possibly supplanted Alabama at No. 1 — not in college football, but in having the most overcrowded prison system in the nation.

That news Wednesday came as Nebraska’s prison chief testified against the Legislature’s most recent attempt to help.

First the overcrowding. State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said the state’s long-overcrowded prisons held 5,502 inmates on Wednesday morning, which would put the system at 162.5 percent of design capacity.

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LEGISLATURE GRINDS TO A HALT AS TRUST ERODES AMONG LAWMAKERS

LINCOLN - The cautious optimism undergirding a spirit of cooperation at the Nebraska Legislature crumbled on Thursday as frustrations over policy disputes exploded into open hostilities between lawmakers.

With 40 days remaining in the 90-day session, the period of relative peace that marked the beginning of the 106th Legislature appears to be over.

Sensing the growing discord in the chamber, Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk offered what he described as a scolding to lawmakers.

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FRAKES, LATHROP AT ODDS OVER NEED FOR BENCHMARKS TO REDUCE PRISON OVERCROWDING 

LINCOLN - Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop, who has expressed abundant concern about the condition of the state's prisons since returning to the Legislature, said Wednesday the committee will develop legislation to address the crowding crisis. 

Lathrop introduced a bill that would allow a more gradual reduction of the prison population beginning in July 2020, stepping down the definition of an overcrowding emergency from being more than 140 percent from July to December the first year, to 135 percent in the six months after that, 130 percent in the second half of 2021, and 125 percent beginning Jan. 1, 2022. 

The bill (LB686), he said, could be developed by the committee as a way to enact policy from various other bills that have been introduced this session to address overcrowding and understaffing at the prisons.

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FILIBUSTER KILLS BILL ALLOWING FOOD STAMPS FOR SOME CONVICTED DRUG USERS IN NEBRASKA

LINCOLN — Political pressure sank a bill Wednesday that would have allowed some convicted drug users to qualify for food assistance.

Legislative Bill 169, introduced by State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, fell short on a filibuster-ending cloture motion. The motion needed 33 votes to succeed, but only 28 senators voted for the motion and 16 voted against it, with five senators abstaining.

Supporters had argued that the bill would help former inmates reintegrate into society and stay out of prison. Opponents said drug users should work rather than get government handouts.

Counts taken by supporters last week showed there were enough votes to overcome a filibuster and potential veto.

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MENTAL HEALTH PROVIDERS SAY NEED IS GREAT FOR CARE AMONG NEBRASKA FLOOD VICTIMS

LINCOLN - A medical provider said Tuesday this is no time for the state to skimp on paying for mental health services, with recent flooding expected to heighten issues such as depression, anxiety, traumatic stress and substance abuse. 

Cathy Phillips, a nurse practitioner from Hastings, told the Legislature's Appropriations Committee that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has noted, even before such a stress-causing incident, higher suicide rates in rural areas, which is a concern for the state along with the opioid crisis and high levels of binge drinking. 

Rural populations have limited provider choices, fewer hospitals and clinics, and longer travel times to access care, Phillips said.

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SENATORS WEDGE SOCIAL MEDIA COMPLAINT INTO DEBATE ON FOOD ASSISTANCE BILL

LINCOLN - Sen. Megan Hunt's bill to allow drug felons who have served their prison time to receive government food assistance came up in the Legislature on Tuesday for the third time in a week. And filibustering delayed it once again. 

It's the Omaha senator's priority bill, and she says not allowing the benefit is a major barrier to success for formerly incarcerated people. Allowing food assistance to those getting out of prison who have been convicted of using, possessing or dealing drugs, she said, can reduce hunger for families and children. 

Opponents say they believe some drug felons would misuse the assistance they get. And Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who said dealers were "despicable," questioned the assertion that food stamps would stop inmate recidivism and reduce prison population. 

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AFTER CONCERNS FROM RURAL SENATORS, BILL THAT WOULD ENHANCE TIF USE IN LOW-INCOME AREAS STALLS

LINCOLN — State Sen. Justin Wayne’s effort to increase the use of an economic development tool, tax-increment financing, in low-income areas within his north Omaha district and elsewhere was derailed, at least temporarily, on Tuesday.

His proposed constitutional amendment, Legislative Resolution 14CA, ran into a wave of questions and concerns from rural senators about TIF and whether future legislators would maintain — or pervert — the goals sought by Wayne.

After not getting to a vote to advance LR 14CA after three hours of sometimes heated debate on Monday and Tuesday, lawmakers moved on to other issues. The proposal could be brought up again later in the session, but it was unclear Tuesday whether that would happen.

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LAWMAKER URGES INCREASE IN MEDICAID PAYMENTS TO NEBRASKA NURSING HOMES

LINCOLN — Nebraska nursing homes are being put in danger by a growing gap between Medicaid payment rates and operating costs, a key state lawmaker said Monday.

State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman, told fellow committee members that the situation has reached a crisis level.

“We as senators are responsible for the safety and well-being of the State of Nebraska. Let’s live up to it,” he said. “If we don’t increase rates, we’re going to fail.

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TIF DEBATE REACHES IMPASSE; SENATOR SAYS NO COMPROMISE AVAILABLE

LINCOLN - A proposed constitutional amendment authorizing lawmakers to extend tax-increment financing benefits for areas deemed "extremely blighted" was shelved after reaching the three-hour limit on debate Tuesday.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne said the change (LR14CA) would allow the Legislature to expand TIF benefits from 15 to 20 years, providing an incentive for developers to take on projects in areas with high poverty and unemployment rates.

Tax-increment financing diverts taxes paid on improved properties to fund infrastructure improvements such as streets, water and sewer lines over a 15-year period, after which the properties return to the tax rolls.

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DON WALTON: TAX REFORM, FLOOD RESPONSE COULD SHAPE FUTURE

LINCOLN - The second half of a legislative session is when all the scoring occurs.

Committees wrap up their public hearings, the Legislature moves into all-day sessions, the big stuff begins to pop up on the agenda, the tough decisions need to be made and now, suddenly, we've got a ballgame.

Lots of big decisions lie ahead in coming weeks, including a daring effort by the Revenue Committee to drive significant property tax relief with a plan for major tax reform.  

And everything — appropriations, revenue, education funding, the pace of correctional reform, the aspirations and quality of the University of Nebraska, funding to implement the Medicaid expansion directed by Nebraska voters — is impacted now by the natural disaster that swept ruthlessly across the state this past week.

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IN FLOOD-DAMAGED NEBRASKA, VP MIKE PENCE OFFERS GOVERNMENT RELIEF: 'WE'RE GOING TO STAND WITH YOU

Amid a chilly dampness that has become all too familiar in these parts, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a message: America is here for Nebraska.

“We’re going to stand with you and be with you until these communities come all the way back,” the vice president said, shielded from rain under the wing of Air Force Two shortly after landing at Eppley Airfield Tuesday. During a three-hour visit that included an aerial survey of floodwaters and meetings with first responders and victims, Pence said the federal government will expedite disaster relief in response to the historic flooding that has affected much of the Midwest.

“Help is on the way,” Pence said.

During his visit, Pence heard from Gov. Pete Ricketts, Sen. Ben Sasse and Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, along with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Sen. Joni Ernst. Pence said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has received a disaster declaration request from Nebraska and is expecting a similar one from Iowa.

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FLOOD DAMAGE ESTIMATE GROWS TO $1.3 BILLION; RELIEF EFFORTS INCLUDE NEBRASKA STRONG DAY

LINCOLN - It will be weeks, even months, before state officials can put their finger on the true cost of the ongoing flooding across eastern Nebraska.

But Wednesday, the latest preliminary estimates of damage to homes and businesses, as well as state infrastructure, topped $1.3 billion, those officials said in a news conference.

Three-fourths of the state's 93 counties have declared an emergency, Gov. Pete Ricketts said, as record crests have been reported on the Missouri, Platte, Elkhorn and Loup rivers in eastern Nebraska.

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PAID FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE BILL STALLS IN NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN — A bill to require paid family and medical leave for Nebraska workers stalled in the State Legislature on Wednesday.

Legislative Bill 311 lacked the required votes for debate to continue, and the issue won’t come up again in 2019 unless sponsors can show they have close to the 33 votes needed to defeat an expected filibuster. That appears unlikely.

It was the first time a paid family leave proposal had been debated by the full Legislature, but it ran into stiff opposition from senators who maintained that it represented a tax increase and a mandate on businesses that was more appropriate in liberal states.

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OPS LEADERS ASK LEGISLATURE TO CONSIDER HAVING STATE TAKE OVER MANAGEMENT OF PENSION SYSTEM

LINCOLN — Omaha Public Schools leaders asked lawmakers Tuesday to explore having the state take over management of the district’s troubled pension system as a small step toward resolving the fund’s $771 million shortfall.

OPS is the only school district in Nebraska and one of few in the country with its own pension system, a “huge burden” for the district’s operations and taxpayers, said Marque Snow, president of the OPS board.

“OPS believes as a district we should be in the business of educating our students, not in maintaining and administering a retirement plan,” Snow said.

The chairman of the Legislature’s Retirement Systems Committee made clear, however, that while he wants to help ease the financial burden of the pension fund on the district, he’s not interested in having the state absorb the massive shortfall. That obligation will remain with the district.

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FLOOD'S EFFECTS ON STATE BUDGET DISCUSSED; SENATORS DEBATE PAID FAMILY LEAVE

LINCOLN- No one yet knows how much repairing damage to public property from the current flooding will cost. But when the bills come due, about 75 percent will come from the federal government; 12.5 percent from the state, and 12.5 percent from local governments, says Sen. John Stinner, chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

That means if there’s a billion dollars in damages to public infrastructure, the state’s share will be $125 million. And where would that money come from? “We have a rainy day fund, obviously, and the other thing would be to look at certain categories where we’re going to have to cut back and use those dollars for emergency dollars,” Stinner said.

Stinner said it could still be a month or two before the state has a full accounting of damages.

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IT WILL TAKE PROPER FUNDING AND MORE TO SOLVE CROWDING IN PRISONS, LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE HEARS

Corrections Director Scott Frakes has made a few trips to the state Capitol this winter to testify on bills and answer senators' questions on crowding in prisons. Monday, he took a seat in front on the Appropriations Committee, which makes recommendations to the Legislature on how much money the Department of Correctional Services should get in the next two fiscal years, 2019-21. 

For the committee, it was an afternoon of dissecting spending and hearing possible solutions to prison crowding, the inspector general, the Supreme Court and Board of Parole.

They heard testimony on a bill (LB625), introduced by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, that would appropriate $5.8 million in the next year for staffing and portable buildings for programming needs for inmates to ready them for re-entry into society.

In spite of the Legislature's and courts' efforts, the number of inmates in Nebraska prisons has continued to rise in recent months, raising a system that is one of the most crowded in the nation to 160.5 percent of design capacity. 

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AG LAND VALUATION CHANGE CLEARS COMMITTEE

The Legislature's Revenue Committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that would change the way agricultural land is valued for property tax purposes. The proposal (LB483), authored by Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, cleared the committee on a 6-1 vote. terms of the legislation, agricultural land would be valued on a productivity-based system rather than the current market-based system.

"This is not a bill for property tax relief," Erdman said in presenting the bill to the committee in February.

"LB483 requires that total agricultural land valuations in 2020 match total agricultural land valuations for 2019," he said.  "Thereafter, agricultural land valuations will be governed by an eight-year average of commodity prices, preventing sudden surges in valuations up or down."

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GAGE COUNTY COMMITTEE RAISING FUNDS TO HIRE LOBBYIST FOR BEATRICE 6 BILLS

LINCOLN- Lawmakers on the Revenue Committee on Tuesday unanimously advanced a proposal allowing counties to establish a sales tax in order to assist paying federal judgments.

The bill (LB472) by Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams was introduced as a way to help Gage County pay an estimated $31 million to six people wrongfully convicted for a 1985 rape and murder in Beatrice.

As introduced, the Qualified Judgment Payment Act would grant county boards, by a two-thirds vote, the ability to levy a half-percent sales tax to raise revenue to pay federal judgments.

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HIGHER MILLIONAIRE STATE TAX SPARKS OPPOSITION

LINCOLN - Arguing that "it is crazy" to tax Nebraskans with incomes of $29,000 at the same rate that millionaires pay, Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha proposed Friday to add a higher state tax bracket for Nebraskans earning $2.5 million or more a year.

Wayne presented his proposal (LB738) to the Legislature's Revenue Committee during a public hearing that attracted wide opposition from Nebraska's business community.

Entrepreneurs are "highly mobile," Ron Sedlacek, vice president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, cautioned the committee.

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LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE EDGES TOWARD SALES TAX INCREASE; TENTATIVE PLAN LIKELY TO EARN VETO

LINCOLN - The Legislature's Revenue Committee appeared to be embarked on a collision course with Gov. Pete Ricketts on Thursday as it began to informally shape a tax reform package during a three-hour executive session.

No votes were taken, no amendments were adopted, but there was general consensus on constructing a tentative proposal that could increase the 5.5 percent state sales tax rate by one-half percent while hiking the state's cigarette tax and wiping out an array of sales tax exemptions.

Also on the table was consideration of a state income tax increase component.

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CAPITOL LOSES 'INDOMITABLE FORCE'; LONGTIME SUPERVISOR OF PAGES DIES

Kitty Kearns had a small desk and simple gray office chair tucked under the balcony and just a few feet from her young legislative pages. It was from there she directed the smooth flow of help to senators and legislative staff during debates. Thursday, the day that Speaker Jim Scheer announced to the Legislature that its beloved decades-long employee had died, a vase of red carnations and baby's breath sat on her desk, and her black-and-white plaid lap blanket lay folded on her chair.  

One more person with all that institutional knowledge, gone. 

Kearns, 72, had left work sick about a month before and never returned, dying Wednesday from recently diagnosed pancreatic cancer. 

She started in the Legislature as a page in 1968 just before her 22nd birthday, one of about a dozen young people making $1.25 an hour. By the time the 1972 legislative session rolled around, she had become the "Page in Charge."Five years after that, she became page supervisor, a job she would keep for decades, guiding, mentoring and befriending about 1,250 young people who helped senators during debates and hearings, about 30 each session.

"They're all good kids when they come in, but they leave better kids," Scheer said. 

Kearns literally gave her life and soul to the Legislature, he said. She took her job seriously. She was fair, competent, respected. A remarkable woman.

"It is a huge loss to our system and our body and she will be very, very missed," Scheer said.

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PRELIMINARY FLOOD DAMAGE ESTIMATES RELEASED FOR NEBRASKA COUNTIES

LINCOLN - The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency has posted estimates of monetary damages from flooding and recent storms across the state. The numbers are updated as local emergency management teams are able to assess the damage across their counties.

Overnight into Wednesday, the number of cities under emergency declarations in response to the devastation from flooding and recent heavy snows increased to 89. So far, 77 counties are under declarations, plus four tribal nations and five special government areas such as unincorporated townships. Declarations cover more than 80 percent of the state, officials said.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE CONSIDERS REQUIRING EDUCATION ON HOLOCAUST, OTHER GENOCIDES

LINCOLN - Holocaust education. As a descendant of Holocaust survivors, Ari Kohen learned about genocide at his grandparents’ knees.

But the University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor worries that future generations will not be able to hear those kind of personal accounts about the concentration camps, mass slaughter and cruelty that aimed to eliminate a whole group of people.

“People who are able to offer first-hand testimony, we simply will not have them with us much longer,” he said.

Kohen, a board member of Omaha’s Institute of Holocaust Education, joined others Monday in backing legislation that would require education in Nebraska schools about the Holocaust and other instances of genocide around the world.

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NEBRASKA PRISON POPULATION HITS NEW HIGH; 'I HOPE IT'S AN ANOMALY,' CORRECTIONS CHIEF SAYS

LINCOLN — Here’s a record Nebraska leaders didn’t want to set: a new high for prison overcrowding.

On Monday, state prisons held 5,515 inmates, the most in history and a surprising landmark in light of several efforts to reduce overcrowding.

“I hope it’s an anomaly,” State Corrections Director Scott Frakes told a panel of state lawmakers.

It means that state prisons are holding 2,140 more inmates than they were designed to handle — about two prisons’ worth — and are at 163 percent of capacity, the second-worst overcrowding in the nation. It also casts even more doubt on whether the state can fend off a civil rights lawsuit from the ACLU of Nebraska and meet a July 2020 deadline to reduce overcrowding to 140 percent of capacity or else start paroling hundreds of prisoners.

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NEBRASKA HOSPITALS CONCERNED ABOUT LAW ENFORCEMENT DUMPING PATIENTS TO AVOID PAYING THE BILL

LINCOLN - It's an interesting question of who pays the hospital bill of an uninsured suspect brought to an emergency department by law enforcement. 

If the person is in police custody, and someone notices the person has frostbite and needs treatment, does that agency pay for that uninsured patient, or the hospital? What if they're dropped off, and the officer says the person isn't in custody, but asks hospital personnel to call after they are treated and ready to be dismissed, and then arrests the patient? 

Does the hospital get stuck with the bill? 

"I brought the bill just so we could find out, well, who really is responsible, and when does custody start and when doesn't it start," said Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward. 

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BILL TO HELP FUND OMAHA SEWER SEPARATION PROJECTS STALLS IN COMMITTEE

OMAHA - An effort to acquire state funding assistance for construction of Omaha's huge, federally mandated sewer separation project stalled Tuesday in the Legislature's Revenue Committee.

The proposal (LB242), introduced by Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, could have transferred more than $2 million a year in estimated state sales taxes assessed on Omaha sewer fees to the city to help fund the massive sewer improvements.

The Omaha project is expected to cost more than $2 billion.

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NEBRASKA LAWMAKERS MAY INCLUDE INCOME TAX CUT IN PROPERTY TAX RELIEF PLAN

LINCOLN — Lawmakers may include a state income tax cut in their property tax relief plan.

Thursday evening during a second closed-door planning session by the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, legislators discussed the possibility of slightly reducing state income taxes, as well as corporate income taxes, to gain more support for their proposed $500 million plan.

Cutting income taxes has long been the top priority of the state’s business groups, like the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They say that the state’s top state income tax rate of 6.84 percent discourages talented workers from locating in Nebraska. Corporate income taxes — which are paid by some of the largest companies — also draw complaints because the rate, 7.81 percent, is much higher than that paid by small businesses, which pay their taxes as personal income tax.

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LIST OF LEGISLATIVE TAX REFORM OPTION GROWS

The Legislature's Revenue Committee conducted a free-wheeling discussion of tax reform during an executive session Thursday evening and when it was done sales tax increase proposals were joined by consideration of income tax reductions and major changes in state aid for local schools.

But the overriding goal continued to be property tax relief, perhaps as great as $500 million at the beginning with some senators focused on eventually achieving a billion dollars at the end.

No votes were taken, no decisions were made and Revenue Chairwoman Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said there will be more discussions among senators and in future committee sitdown sessions.

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ENTREPRENEURS URGE LAWMAKERS TO BOLSTER PROGRAM THEY SAY ENCOURAGES MORE STARTUPS

LINCOLN — Evan Luxon says his small but growing startup company would still be in San Francisco rather than Omaha but for an innovative eight-year-old state program that helps entrepreneurs.

The Nebraska Business Innovation Act, Luxon said, helped persuade him that he could relocate to his hometown and still attract the investment and skilled workers he could easily find in the Silicon Valley area to take his medical equipment firm beyond the idea stage.

Grants from the program, he said, helped leverage private funds and federal grants that led to production of a prototype of a “digital drain,” which automatically clears chest tube blockages following heart surgeries. The invention now has FDA approval and is in clinical trials, and the firm he co-founded, Centese, has 6.5 employees in Omaha.

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BILL TO GIVE MORE PROTECTIONS TO DELINQUENT PROPERTY OWNERS ADVANCES

LINCOLN — State lawmakers gave quick first-round approval Tuesday to a measure designed to better protect delinquent taxpayers from losing their property for pennies on the dollar.

Legislative Bill 463 deals with a legal process in which companies, or individuals, can pay off the delinquent taxes of a property owner and then, after waiting three years, acquire the land or home unless the property owner pays the taxes plus 14 percent interest.

“Families should not lose their legacy, their inheritance, over delinquent taxes,” State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said during debate Tuesday on LB 463.

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HIGHER MILLIONAIRE STATE TAX RATE SPARKS OPPOSITION

Arguing that "it is crazy" to tax Nebraskans with incomes of $29,000 at the same rate that millionaires pay, Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha proposed Friday to add a higher state tax bracket for Nebraskans earning $2.5 million or more a year. Wayne presented his proposal (LB738) to the Legislature's Revenue Committee during a public hearing that attracted wide opposition from Nebraska's business community.

Entrepreneurs are "highly mobile," Ron Sedlacek, vice president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, cautioned the committee.

Millionaire taxes considered by other states are "often ephemeral," he suggested, lasting only short-term after states view the consequences.

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RICKETTS MAKES NEBRASKA ONE OF TWO STATES WITHOUT A CENSUS COMMITTEE 

LINCOLN - Getting an accurate count in the 2020 Census is important to Nebraska for a number of reasons, not the least of which is money.

One study suggests that for every person who fails to be counted, Nebraska misses out on $21,000 in federal funding over the next decade, a figure that can easily add up to millions of dollars if the count is short.

Despite such implications, Gov. Pete Ricketts has rejected forming a statewide “complete count” committee, a best practice the Census Bureau has encouraged among states to help ensure a full count. His decision makes Nebraska one of only two states to reject doing so.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: HIGHER ED REPRESENTATIVES OPPOSE BILL ON CAMPUS SEXUAL ASSAULT RESPONSE 

LINCOLN - When Anna Marie Stenka was sexually assaulted by a fellow student two years ago, she sought help from her University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor.

Instead of offering help filing an official report and providing information about counseling and other resources, she said, the professor advised her to be more careful how she presented herself so as not to give others the wrong idea.

“During one of the most terrifying and traumatic times of my life, I felt completely and utterly alone with no assistance,” Stenka told members of the Education Committee on Tuesday.

She and other assault survivors told their stories in support of Legislative Bill 702, the Campus Safety Act, introduced by State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha.

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SENATOR WHO LOST WIFE TO PANCREATIC CANCER SEEKS $15 MILLION FROM STATE FOR UNMC

LINCOLN - State Sen. Mark Kolterman hopes the state will allocate $15 million and private donors will provide another $15 million to fight the disease that took his wife’s life.

Suzanne Kolterman died in November 2017 of pancreatic cancer, a disease that crept up on her with little notice. By the time it was diagnosed, she had advanced cancer and only 18 months to live.

The senator said his legislative bill, which was heard Tuesday by the Appropriations Committee, isn’t about him. He already endured his wife’s death and there’s no going back.

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DON WALTON: BUSINESS INCENTIVES, TAXES AND TWO NEBRASKAS

LINCOLN - Some members of the Legislature feel trapped by business development tax incentives.

They are costly and they eat away at future state revenue, but many senators — and no doubt most — believe the state can't afford not to play that game. Nebraska is in competition for business development with other states in this high-stakes, high-cost recruiting game.

So you heard a lot of senatorial blowback at a hearing on legislation to build a new tax incentive program to replace what we have now.However, to put all that criticism in perspective, take a look at the bill and you will see 22 legislative sponsors.There were 23, but Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln withdrew his name last week. You gotta pay to play, the Legislature's Revenue Committee was told last week.

"Without this, the phone will stop ringing," David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, told senators. "If incentives disappear, so will economic development in the state."

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OMAHA WORLD HERALD EDITORIAL: THE LEGISLATURE NEEDS TO REACH PRUDENT AGREEMENT ON BUSINESS INCENTIVES

LINCOLN - Nebraska lawmakers this session need to be practical problem-solvers. One key issue they need to address: properly structuring business incentives so Nebraska can compete effectively against other states. The Legislature’s Revenue Committee kicked off discussion of the issue last week with hearings. Legislative Bill 720, which would revamp business incentives in important ways, received particular attention.

The legislation, introduced by State Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, deserves passage. Testimony by supporters from Omaha and other Nebraska communities made clear the practical value of business incentives in helping specific projects, with important benefits to communities across the state.

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PROPERTY TAX BARGAINING BEGINS IN LEGISLATURE AS PETITIONS CIRCULATE ACROSS STATE

LINCOLN - Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, sponsor of this year's property tax relief plan that is supported by most of the state's major agricultural organizations, says "it's going to be a long haul."

The informal show of agreement during an executive session of the Legislature's Revenue Committee one evening last week was "a 100,000-feet-up discussion of what are the main principles," Friesen said during an interview in the legislative chamber. 

"The devil is in the details." he said. "This is a tough issue; it's complicated. We've been here before."

Friesen has sponsored a bill (LB497) that aims for $520 million in property tax relief by phasing in 50 percent state funding support for local schools over three years, money that would allow districts to lower their property tax rate. 

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GRIEVING OMAHA FAMILY ASKS LAWMAKERS FOR BETTER SAFETY MEASURES FOR ROAD CONSTRUCTION

LINCOLN — The grieving family of a City of Omaha public works employee killed in a work site accident in 2017 are asking state lawmakers to force the city to update its safety standards. At a public hearing on Tuesday, family members and friends of Salvatore “Sammy” Fidone testified in favor of a bill that would require Omaha to review and update its safety standards for road construction every year.

Right now, they said, the city relies on federal standards that haven’t been updated since 1999, as well as a 13-page addendum adopted after Fidone was struck and killed.

Legislative Bill 520 was introduced by State Sen. Mike McDonnell, who said that the 13-page addendum was inadequate and that the city should be required to update its safety standards every year to keep up with changing traffic patterns and safety measures.

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U.S. SUPREME COURT WILL NOT TAKE UP BEATRICE 6 CASE, LETS $28.1M VERDICT STAND

BEATRICE - The United States Supreme Court will let stand a Nebraska federal jury’s $28.1 million verdict against Gage County for a cold-case investigation that sent six people to prison for another man's brutal slaying of a Beatrice woman in 1985.

In November, the county asked the nation's highest court to review the federal civil rights case — its last legal option — arguing the sheriff’s investigators at the head of the 1989 investigation should be judged on what was known then, not now.

Years later, DNA testing on blood and semen evidence left in Helen Wilson’s apartment tied Bruce Allen Smith, who died in an Oklahoma prison in 1992, to her rape and murder.

By then, Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden had spent a combined 75 years in prison.

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BASS PRO SHOPS CLOSING DOWN OPERATION IN SIDNEY, OSHKOSH

SIDNEY - Bass Pro Shops said Thursday that it plans to shutter the Cabela's distribution center in the western Nebraska city in the next couple of months.

"This action is being taken as a result of an extensive review of all Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s operations, including independent analysis by global logistics experts and shipping companies," the company said in a statement.

It said the analysis showed that the 77-year-old Sidney facility handled less volume than all of its other distribution centers.

Bass Pro said it is restructuring its distribution network to provide faster shipping and better compete with e-commerce companies such as Amazon. The move also will result in the closure of a merchandise return center in Oshkosh, which is about 40 miles northeast of Sidney.

Closing the Sidney center will result in the loss of 121 jobs, while 41 jobs will be eliminated at the Oshkosh facility.

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NEW STATE ECONOMIC INCENTIVE PROPOSAL GETS OFF TO A ROCKY START IN THE LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN — A proposal to update and modernize the state’s main economic incentive program had a rocky take-off in the State Legislature on Wednesday.

While state business leaders and owners said that thousands of jobs would not have been created without the state’s current economic incentive programs, Legislative Bill 775 and the Advantage Act, others questioned whether the billions in exempted taxes have been worth the benefits.

The opponents of Legislative Bill 720, known as ImagiNE Nebraska, included a former state senator who led a 2016 performance audit of the hard-to-pinpoint costs and benefits of such programs.

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FEMALE SENATORS TALK ABOUT WHY THEIR PERSPECTIVE IS IMPORTANT IN THE NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN - The Nebraska Legislature had two women among its members when it became the second state in the nation in 1972 to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

The next year, with one female senator — Shirley Marsh — the Legislature voted 31-17 to withdraw that ratification, even with some question as to whether that withdrawal meant anything.

The hearing on the resolution to withdraw, sponsored by Speaker Richard Proud of Omaha, drew 1,000 people, mostly women. Proud told them the amendment would wipe out laws that protect women.

Nebraska has been working to get equal representation since the unicameral Legislature came to be. With the 2018 election, the state achieved a record number of 14 women becoming state lawmakers — still not equal — and it's taken 82 years to get there.

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DON WALTON: STATE SPENDING, TRUMP AND A MOONSHOT

LINCOLN - Once upon a time, the Legislature used to determine needs and then raise or shape the revenue required to fund them. Now, that process is reversed.

That's ceding a ton of power to an unelected board whose estimates cannot help but be shaped by personal characteristics of pessimism or optimism and perhaps even by individual views about government spending.

It also depends on where you live.

Rural members of the board were more pessimistic than urban members, an understandable division when you consider the challenges faced in rural Nebraska at the same time that the urban complex of Lincoln, Omaha and Sarpy County is experiencing both population and economic growth.

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SENATOR SEES POTENTIAL PROPERTY TAX BREAKTHROUGH

LINCOLN - Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, who has authored major property tax reduction proposals two years in a row, said Tuesday that the sense of unanimity and cooperation displayed during a Revenue Committee sitdown Monday evening could mark a breakthrough moment for property tax relief.

It looks like there could be committee agreement on a legislative proposal that might provide as much as $500 million in property tax reduction, Briese said during an interview in his Capitol office.

And, he said, don't count out the possibility that a consensus plan could attract the 33 votes that would be needed to clear a filibuster and sail to enactment.

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AG ISSUES 400 SUBPOENAS SEEKING RECORDS FROM CATHOLIC CHURCHES IN NEBRASKA 

LINCOLN - Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson issued more than 400 subpoenas to Catholic churches and institutions across the state Tuesday to compel officials to turn over information on child sexual assault and abuse within the church.

The legal summonses seek all records or information related to any assault or abuse that has occurred by those employed or associated with each church or institution, whether previously reported or not, according to a news release.

Thus far, the state's three dioceses have cooperated with Peterson's investigation, which sought 40 years of internal investigative records.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: TESLA TRYING AGAIN TO SELL CARS IN NEBRASKA

LINCOLN - Current state law prohibits auto manufacturers from selling directly to consumers, so Nebraskans who want to buy a Tesla — which sells directly to consumers — must arrange the purchase through outlets in Colorado, Missouri and other states.

Tuesday, State Sen. Tony Vargas argued that current state law is antiquated and anti-competitive, and that Nebraskans should be able to avoid the hassle.

“The fact is, consumers are going to purchase these cars. The question is, can they purchase them in Nebraska?” Vargas said.

His proposal, Legislative Bill 51, would allow Tesla to establish stores and service centers in Nebraska, Vargas said, without disturbing the traditional dealer-franchise relationship used by other automobile firms.

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REVAMP OF AMERICANISM LAW ADVANCES AFTER CONTROVERSY ABOUT 'RAG' COMMENT

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers advanced a bill updating the state’s Americanism law Tuesday after ending a filibuster in which Omaha State Sen. Ernie Chambers called the American flag “a rag.”

Legislative Bill 399, introduced by Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, cleared the first of three rounds of consideration on a 42-3 vote.

The vote to advance came after lawmakers voted by the same margin for a debate-ending cloture motion. Chambers was joined in dissent by Sens. Megan Hunt and Justin Wayne, both of Omaha.

The bill would revamp a state law dealing with civics education and American government that dates to 1949. The changes are aimed at modernizing language adopted at a time when Americans were concerned about the spread of communism and the country had just finished a war with the Nazis.

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BILL WITH REQUIREMENTS FOR SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS ADVANCED BY COMMITTEE

LINCOLN - The Legislature's Judiciary Committee voted Friday to forward a bill governing school resource officers to the full Legislature on a 6-0 vote. 

Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth was present not voting at the executive session and Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers was absent. 

The bill (LB390), introduced by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, would mandate memorandums of understanding that delineate the role of the officers and require training and data collection to evaluate the program. It would require a minimum of 20 hours of training for law enforcement officers and at least one administrator and teacher at each school.

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NEBRASKA HHS HINTS AT MEDICAID EXPANSION CURBS

LINCOLN - The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services on Friday opposed a proposal to create a legislative task force to help track implementation of Medicaid expansion while signaling that eligibility for new benefits may be tied to "pathways to engagement."

Matthew Van Patton, director of the Division of Medicaid and Long Term Care, suggested benefits for the estimated 94,000 Nebraskans who will be eligible to participate in the expanded program may be coupled with "incentives to engage in more wellness activities" and factors associated with "wellness and life success."

"A go-live date (for implementation of the new program) has not yet been set," Van Patton said during an appearance before the Legislature's Executive Board.

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NEBRASKA WINS GRANT TO GET PEOPLE IN MENTAL CRISIS TREATED SOONER

LINCOLN - Nebraska has received a $150,000 grant to pilot a registry designed to help get a patient having an acute psychiatric emergency into an inpatient mental health treatment center sooner.

The grant will create a centralized database showing in real-time where area inpatient beds are available, Health and Human Services spokeswoman Julie Naughton said in a news release Thursday.

Nebraska was one of 23 states and the only one in the Midwest to receive the grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, the release said.

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PROPERTY TAX EXEMPTION NEEDED BY HOSPITALS

LINCOLN - On Jan. 22, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte introduced LB529, which would remove the property tax exemption for not-for-profit hospitals in Nebraska. This bill would reduce the exemption for each hospital to the percentage of the “gratuitously” provided services of the hospital. It is scheduled for a public hearing in the Legislature’s Revenue Committee on Feb. 28.

On behalf of our 95 Nebraska hospitals, the more than 44,000 individuals we employ and the 10,000+ patients cared for each day in our state, we firmly oppose LB529 for the reasons stated below:

Hospitals provide significant financial benefits to our Nebraska communities.

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SANDHILLS-RELATED EMINENT DOMAIN BILL NARROWLY DEFEATED

LINCOLN - The morning debate ended in disappointment for the 40 or more Sandhills residents who came to the Capitol on Wednesday to see how a "property rights" bill would fare.  

The bill (LB155), introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, would have taken away the ability for a private enterprise to piggyback on a government right to eminent domain. It went down on first reading on a 23-8 vote, with 14 senators present, not voting. 

The bill needed 25 votes to advance.

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RICKETTS ADDS HIS PROPERTY TAX PLAN TO REVENUE COMMITTEE ALTERNATIVES

LINCOLN - Gov. Pete Ricketts presented his two-pronged property tax relief plan before the Legislature's Revenue Committee on Wednesday, positioning his proposals for consideration when the committee begins to try to fashion a tax reform package next week.

Ricketts told senators LB303 would fund an immediate increase in direct property tax relief by establishing a statutory floor of $275 million in the state's property tax credit fund.

Meanwhile, LR8CA would offer a pathway to "sustainable tax relief" by offering voters an opportunity to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would cap property tax increases at 3 percent a year, Ricketts said.

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'EARN WHILE YOU LEARN' APPRENTICESHIPS CALLED AN ANSWER TO NEBRASKA'S SKILLED WORKER SHORTAGES

OMAHA - An apprenticeship system popular in Germany might be one answer to Nebraska’s skilled worker shortage, state and business officials said at a Sarpy County event Wednesday.

Two German companies with American headquarters in Nebraska — CLAAS of America and Graepel North America — signed a pledge to implement a dual study apprenticeship program through the Industry Consortium for Advanced Technical Training.

In these apprenticeships, youths or others seeking job training can work and earn money while also receiving training through Metropolitan Community College.

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FARMER WHO LEFT NEBRASKA BECAUSE OF HIGH PROPERTY TAXES SAYS HE LIKES RICKETTS' TAX MEASURES

LINCOLN — Frederic Oltjenbruns’ family had made a living tilling Nebraska’s soil for 150 years until last year.

That’s when he become a “refugee,” selling his Ceresco, Nebraska, farm and moving to Warrensburg, Missouri, to escape high property taxes.

He told a panel of state lawmakers on Wednesday that more farmers may be making the same move, given that his property tax bill fell from about $50,000 on 585 acres in Nebraska to $1,143 on his new 855-acre farm along the Blackwater River in Missouri.

“I hated to leave Nebraska, but they’ve created such a hostile (tax) environment for farmers and ranchers, I don’t think we had a choice,” said Oltjenbruns. “When the county makes more money off your farm (in taxes) than I did, it’s a problem.”

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BILL THAT WOULD END PRIVATE WIND FARMS' USE OF EMINENT DOMAIN FAILS IN LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN — A bill portrayed as stifling private wind energy development fell two votes short of advancement Wednesday during a sometimes hot and personal debate.

State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon promised repercussions after his Legislative Bill 155 failed to advance from first-round debate on a 23-8 vote, two short of the needed majority to advance.

The measure would have prevented public power districts, like OPPD and NPPD, from using their eminent domain power to obtain right of way for “feeder” transmission lines from private wind farms.

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KEY STATE OFFICIAL OPPOSES TASK FORCE TO OVERSEE VOTER-APPROVED MEDICAID EXPANSION

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s top Medicaid official argued Friday against creating a special task force to oversee how his agency carries out the voter-approved Medicaid expansion. Matthew Van Patton, the Department of Health and Human Services Medicaid director, told lawmakers that the proposed panel would not help and could even hinder work on expanding Medicaid coverage to an estimated 94,000 low-income Nebraskans.

But State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who introduced Legislative Bill 631, said Van Patton’s testimony and his responses to questions illustrated the need for outside oversight.

“There were a lot of questions and, to be honest with you, I didn’t hear a lot of answers,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that we don’t know about, and it’s a big system.”

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GAGE COUNTY RESIDENTS URGE LAWMAKERS TO EXPAND OPTION FOR PAYING BEATRICE 6 JUDGMENT

BEATRICE - Gage County will pay roughly $3.8 million a year for the better part of a decade to six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 murder in Beatrice.

Seeking justice for the so-called Beatrice 6, who spent a combined 75 years in prison after a county-led investigation violated their civil rights, has created another injustice, Gage County residents told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Right now, Gage County can only collect more in property taxes to pay the $28.1 million judgment and $2 million in attorneys' fees awarded to the six by a U.S. District Court jury in 2016.

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FIX PROPOSED FOR 'SERIOUS GAPS' IN NEBRASKA'S PROCUREMENT PROCESS

LINCOLN - Nebraska officials fired a pair of technology companies last December after it became clear they couldn't complete two upgrade projects to essential software systems.

But not before $12 million in state funds was spent on the projects.

Likewise, in 2007, state officials awarded a $50 million Medicaid Management Information System project to an Arizona company with 75 employees over the protest of a larger company with 20,000 employees and a track record of completing similar projects.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: COMPROMISE WITH BUSINESS GROUPS BOOSTS BILL TO HELP FORMER INMATES GET WORK

LINCOLN - Nebraskans with criminal records would have a better chance of finding work under a bill advanced Wednesday by the Legislature.

Legislative Bill 254 cleared first-round consideration on a 39-2 vote, after supporters reached a compromise with the business groups that opposed the original legislation.

As introduced by State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, the bill would have prohibited most employers from asking people about their criminal history when they first apply for a job. The “ban the box” proposal would have expanded on a 2014 law that applies only to public employers.

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LAWMAKERS HEAR TESTIMONY ON HOW TAX DEDUCTION CAPS HAVE LED TO UNEXPECTED INCOME TAX HIKES

LINCOLN — Some Nebraska taxpayers are getting an unwelcome surprise this year because of President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law: an unexpected increase in their state income taxes.

On Wednesday, a state legislative committee took testimony on two proposals that would attempt to fix that.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha said constituents and tax accountants began calling her after noticing one of the unexpected changes.

Under the federal tax changes, a cap of $10,000 was placed on how much local and state taxes could be deducted from federal income tax liability, and because state tax law follows federal tax law, a $10,000 cap on deductions of such taxes also applied to state income taxes.

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NEBRASKA SENATOR TARGETS 'SPOOFED' PHONE CALLS BY TELEMARKETERS, SCAM ARTISTS

LINCOLN — Exasperated by phone calls from scam artists using fake telephone numbers, Larry D. TeSelle came to the State Capitol on Tuesday to ask lawmakers to do something.

The retiree from Milford, Nebraska, said he’s gotten calls that show up on his caller ID as originating from a state office, the county clerk and from Medicare, asking for his Social Security number and other personal information. But none of the calls were legitimate, he said.

TeSelle was a victim of “neighborhood spoofing,” the practice of telemarketers and scam artists using what appears to be a local phone number that shows up on someone’s caller ID to fool them into answering the phone call. In some cases, the scammers obtain valuable personal data.

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HALLORAN, QUICK PROVIDE LEGISLATIVE UPDATE AT CHAMBER EVENT

GRAND ISLAND - Community members were able to hear from two Nebraska state senators on current legislative bills during an event Friday morning.

The Grand Island Chamber hosted a “Coffee With Your Senators” event with Sens. Dan Quick of Grand Island and Steve Halloran of Hastings giving a legislative update to about 20 community members in attendance. Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, said the organization hosted the event as a way for people to listen to the senators and ask questions. This is the first time the chamber has hosted a Coffee With Your Senators event.

One bill Halloran discussed was LB343 or the “School Safety Rapid Response Option Act,” which would allow school employees to carry a concealed handgun upon the school’s building, grounds, vehicles or school-sponsored activity or athletic event as long as such employees, as authorized, are in compliance with the Concealed Handgun Permit Act.

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FARMERS, NEIGHBORS AND GOV. RICKETTS ZONE IN ON LATEST CHICKEN FARM PROPOSAL IN DODGE COUNTY

DODGE COUNTY - An Omaha-area family is trying again after twice failing to hitch their Dodge County land to northeast Nebraska’s growing poultry business.

They hope that their third proposal — for an eight-barn chicken farm instead of a county-record 10 barns — charms at least two of the Dodge County Board members who rejected the project in January because of its size.

Lee and Pamela Camenzind go before the Dodge County Planning Commission on Tuesday with the reworked proposal for their son, Case, and daughter-in-law, Joscelyn, who would live on and farm the land near Nickerson.

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DON WALTON: LEGISLATIVE PRESSURE, DEMOCRATS

LINCOLN - That vote by a five-member majority of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee not to attach a "pro-life" or anti-abortion message or restriction to its recommended health care funding appropriations this year looked like a declaration of independence.

Such a restriction was attached last year at the urging of Gov. Pete Ricketts and it provoked a lengthy battle on the floor of the Legislature about whether policy decisions on contentious issues should be part of the appropriations bill.

Appropriations Chairman John Stinner said he believed the committee should avoid that battle this year; there are enough contentious appropriations issues to be resolved within the budget recommendations, he told the committee.

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DEBATE OVER SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS MOVES TO LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN - A debate that began last spring when Lincoln Public Schools added school resource officers to middle schools has moved to the Legislature.

The shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, a year ago that mobilized a group of Lincoln parents to push for more school resource officers led to an interlocal agreement between the city and LPS to address several school safety measures — including more school resource officers.

But adding school resource officers became a sticking point. The NAACP, ACLU of Nebraska, gun control advocates and other opponents argued SROs contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” exacerbating well-documented disparities in school discipline and referrals to law enforcement agencies that unfairly affect students of color and those with disabilities.

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GOV. PETE RICKETTS PLANS TO HOIST DRINK IN PROTEST OF HIGHER BEER TAXES

LINCOLN — Craft brewers are planning a protest against higher beer taxes, and the state’s chief executive says he’ll drink to that.

Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Wednesday that he will join the craft brewers in a March 1 “raise glasses, not taxes” event to protest proposals pending in the Nebraska Legislature that would about triple state excise taxes on brew.

Ricketts, a conservative Republican, said he opposes any tax increases, including the increases in beer, wine and liquor taxes proposed in two bills designed to help lower property taxes.

The bills, if enacted, would give Nebraska the highest state excise tax on beer in the nation, raising it from 31 cents a gallon to $1.38 a gallon.

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MAJOR TAX REFORM PROPOSAL STIRS OPPOSITION

LINCOLN - The Legislature's Revenue Committee on Thursday took a deep dive into the politically volatile issue of major tax reform at a marathon hearing centered on competing proposals for immediate and substantial property tax relief. 

What will follow will be weeks, and perhaps months, of committee dialogue that attempts to forge consensus on a package that can command the 33 votes required to overcome a filibuster by its legislative opponents.

Beyond that lies the challenge of a probable gubernatorial veto of any proposal that would raise taxes to fund immediate property tax relief. It would require the votes of at least 30 of the 49 state senators to override a veto.

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FIVE TAKEAWAYS FROM MAJOR HEARING ON PROPERTY TAX REFORM IDEAS

LINCOLN — If you want to draw a crowd at the Nebraska Legislature, propose a bill that does away with tax exemptions or that raises taxes.

That was true again on Thursday, as representatives of dozens of organizations — from tobacco companies to soda pop providers, from massage therapists to remodeling contractors, from lawyers to brewers — deluged a legislative committee with complaints about proposals that would raise new tax revenue from their customers to allow reductions in the most unpopular tax: property taxes.

The complaints left some members of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee frustrated and wondering where to turn in addressing the property tax issue, one of the leading issues during the 2019 session.

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BILLS TARGET POLICE IN SCHOOLS: ONE WOULD SET GUIDELINES, THE OTHER WOULD BAN THE PRACTICE

LINCOLN — Dozens of schools in Nebraska have school police programs, citing concerns about school safety. Critics say those programs can fuel a “school to prison” pipeline.

One bill heard Thursday before the Judiciary Committee would outline requirements for having school resource officers in schools. Another bill would ban them entirely.

There are about 75 school resource officers — or police officers in schools — in Nebraska, according to a December report by the ACLU of Nebraska.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks introduced a measure, Legislative Bill 390, that would require that each law enforcement agency that has officers in schools create a “memorandum of understanding” with the school district.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: STATE TAX COLLECTIONS $35 MILLION LOWER THAN EXPECTED FOR THE YEAR

The Nebraska Department of Revenue released a report Thursday showing that net tax collections were 7.6 percent, or nearly $32 million, less than anticipated for the month. Collections were 1.3 percent, or about $35 million, lower than projected for the fiscal year that began July 1.

“We’re missing the numbers fairly dramatically,” said State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman. “It’s a big concern.”

The numbers detailed in the new report understate the financial issues facing legislative budget-crafters.

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BILL MOVES FORWARD ALLOWING CITIES TO USE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT FUNDS FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

LINCOLN - Lawmakers advanced a bill adding early childhood education and day care centers to the list of projects available for economic development grants or loans to second-round debate on Wednesday.

The bill (LB160) by Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island would allow cities and towns to provide a portion of sales or property tax dollars to child care businesses under the Local Option Municipal Economic Development.

Quick said the bill would help Nebraska cities and towns address a lack of those services, which would help bring and retain new businesses and employees to the state.

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GOOGLE ANNOUNCES PLANS TO BUILD DATA CENTER IN NEBRASKA; SIGNS POINT TO OMAHA AREA

OMAHA - Omaha’s growing sector of data centers will add a major name to its ranks now that Google has announced plans to bring a data center to the state.

A map on the tech giant’s website indicated the center will be in the Omaha area. The Nebraska facility was announced as part of a national expansion plan by Google, which will invest more than $13 billion in 2019 in data centers and offices across the country, according to a statement.

The company said those investments will allow Google to hire tens of thousands of employees and create more than 10,000 new construction jobs in Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia

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BUSINESSES TELL NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE THAT ENDING TAX BREAK WOULD HAMPER STARTUPS

LINCOLN — Dozens of business owners and groups lined up Wednesday to oppose the elimination of an $85-million-a-year tax break they portrayed as critical for growing the state and others called a loophole that benefits only a few wealthy Nebraskans.

The Open Sky Policy Institute, as well as a University of Nebraska-Lincoln tax law professor, said the tax break is unusual, with fewer than five states offering similar policies.

Renee Fry of Open Sky said 80 percent of the tax break went to about 600 taxpayers with incomes of $1 million or more who are shareholders in Nebraska businesses structured as limited liability companies (LLCs) or S corporations — entities in which the shareholders pay taxes instead of the company.

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LEGISLATURE TESTS PROPERTY TAX FIGHT, DECIDES TO WAIT FOR BIGGER BILLS TO COME TO FLOOR

LINCOLN - State lawmakers skirmished over a plan to shift the burden for repaying school bond issues from agricultural landowners to homeowners and commercial properties. The opening salvo in what promises to be a prolonged fight over how to provide meaningful property tax relief ended with a temporary truce Tuesday morning.

Sen. Tom Briese's proposal (LB183) would reduce the valuation of ag land from 75 percent to 1 percent for the purpose of repaying school bonds, keeping the valuation of homes and businesses at 100 percent.

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ROAD SIGNS WOULD HONOR CRASH VICTIMS, PROVIDE ALTERNATIVE TO SPONTANEOUS MEMORIALS

LINCOLN - Roadside memorials honoring those killed in car crashes have become a common sight along many roadways. The sometimes elaborate memorials have drawn concern, however, that they are distracting and pose a safety hazard.

Bayard State Sen. Steve Erdman has introduced a measure, Legislative Bill 612, that would provide a new option for mourning family and friends who would like to put a memorial at a crash site: official road signs. The legislation would apply to Interstates and state highways. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. The signs would allow for a more permanent, safer alternative to spontaneous memorials, Erdman said, and would simultaneously honor victims and raise awareness of driving safely.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: NEW PROCESS WOULD ALLOW LINCOLN'S SOUTH BELTWAY TO BE BUILT MUCH MORE QUICKLY

LINCOLN - A four-lane bypass to divert truck traffic around growing south Lincoln would be completed in three years, rather than eight, under a plan unveiled by state and local officials on Monday. Under the plan, the $300 million, 13-mile-long project — the largest single project ever undertaken by the Nebraska Department of Transportation — would be bid out as one job, instead of five separate projects done over a longer period. The winning bidder would be paid over eight years, officials said.

Construction is slated to begin in early 2020 and be completed by the end of 2022. Gov. Pete Ricketts praised the innovative approach, pointing out that waiting eight years for the beltway to be completed didn’t make sense. He also said that making it one project instead of five could save $20 to 25 million in lower earth-moving and bidding costs.

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EDUCATORS SPLIT ON BILL THAT WOULD ALLOW PHYSICAL RESTRAINT AGAINST VIOLENT, DISRUPTIVE STUDENTS

LINCOLN — The words “physical force” were gone from this year’s version of a bill protecting teachers who use physical restraint against violent and disruptive students. But the change did little to mollify opponents. School administrators, disability rights advocates and advocates for children all lined up against Legislative Bill 147 at a hearing Monday before the Education Committee.

On the other side was the Nebraska State Education Association, which represents teachers, and State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who chairs the committee and introduced the measure. He said the proposal, like a similar one two years ago, seeks to protect teachers so they can maintain order in their classrooms to promote education. He said teachers now fear the consequences of using physical means to deal with violent and unruly students.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: CIVICS BILL CLEARS COMMITTEE AFTER LAWMAKERS REACH COMPROMISE

LINCOLN - Nebraska students could learn a civics lesson from the compromise reached to advance a bill revamping the state’s Americanism law. The compromise allowed the formerly controversial Legislative Bill 399 to get out of the Education Committee on an 8-0 vote Tuesday.

As introduced by State Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, the bill would have required all public schools to give students the same civics test that immigrants take for citizenship. The provision was a sticking point for opponents, including the State Board of Education, who said it would infringe on local control and doesn’t represent good teaching.

Under the compromise, districts could choose from among three options: giving the naturalization test, requiring students to go to a government meeting followed by a paper or project, or doing a project or paper and class presentation about a person or events commemorated by selected holidays named in the bill.

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DOUGLAS COUNTY PILOT PROGRAM AIMS TO INCREASE MENTAL HEALTH CARE FOR YOUTHS IN DETENTION

DOUGLAS COUNTY - Youths in Douglas County detention would more quickly undergo psychiatric assessments and receive more ongoing mental health care under a pilot program that’s about to launch.

The Douglas County Board voted Tuesday to allocate $31,000 for the Behavioral Health Screening and Assessment Pilot Program at the Douglas County Youth Center. The vote was unanimous.

The county is partnering with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Creighton University and Charles Drew Health Center on the effort. Two doctors — one a child psychiatrist, the other a specialist in addiction and mental health — will work at the county’s juvenile detention center for a half-day each week. Additional people will help connect youths and their families, if needed, to ongoing care in the community after the youths are released from detention.

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CITING MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS, SARPY COUNTY BOARD APPROVES $1 MILLION LAND PURCHASE FOR CENTER

SARPY COUNTY - Citing an “unmet mental health crisis” in Sarpy County, the County Board on Tuesday approved a purchasing agreement for a $1 million plot of land for a future mental health crisis center.

The center is expected to serve as a short-term emergency provider where people voluntarily go to receive mental health and substance abuse assessments. It will provide law enforcement officers with a dedicated facility to bring people who don’t belong in jail or a traditional hospital.

The $1.05 million, 6.6-acre plot is on the southeast corner of 25th Street and Highway 370, just east of Nebraska Medicine-Bellevue. The county expects to use cash on hand to pay for the land, though the payment isn’t finalized; board members have four months until the money is owed.

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OMAHA WORLD HERALD EDITORIAL: NEBRASKA LAWMAKERS NEED TO WORK OUT A BALANCED APPROACH ON 5G TECHNOLOGY

LINCOLN - Nebraska lawmakers have an important choice to make this session on how the state should manage the next-generation telecommunications technology known as 5G. The Legislature should be wary of stripping Nebraska’s elected town and city officials of the ability to assert basic control in this matter.

The debate focuses on Legislative Bill 184, which would accede to wireless companies’ key demands on the approval process and fees for placement of 5G devices on utility poles and street lights. But approval of LB 184 as currently written would come at too steep a price: It would remove local municipalities’ control over the placement and fee-setting for 5G equipment in public rights of way.

The best approach is to amend the bill and strike a prudent balance that retains a measure of local control while encouraging a sensible advancement of this wireless technology, soon to be the highest telecommunications standard here and worldwide.

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COMMITTEE DEBATES BILL TO LOOSEN ADOPTION REQUIREMENTS

LINCOLN - Nebraska lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow adoption by two people regardless of marital status.

LB426, introduced by Bennington Sen. Wendy DeBoer, would allow two persons jointly, regardless of marital status, to adopt a child without requiring the child’s first parent to relinquish his or her parental rights. Lawmakers debated the bill in the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

DeBoer said the best interests of the child always should be the primary concern in adoption cases.

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INPUT NEEDED IN HALL CO. TO HELP IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FOR CHILDREN

GRAND ISLAND - Grand Island works to make sure young kids who need mental health services don't fall in the gap. The Hall County Community Collaborative (H3C), along with Grand Island Public Schools and Head Start are trying to assess the needs for social-emotional support as well as mental health services for kids from birth to 8-years-old and their families in Hall County.

They are doing this through the Rooted in Relationships initiative grant that partners with communities, home and center childcare providers, and private preschools in Hall County by providing them with training and coaching at the start of the full year grant in July.

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SUPPORTERS OF BILL TO BAN WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION OF LGBTQ WORKERS EXCEED OPPONENTS

For 90 minutes on Thursday afternoon, the Legislature's Judiciary Committee heard people testify — most for three minutes each — on their support for passing a law that would prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity. They were people from the LGBTQ community of Nebraska, their parents and siblings and friends.

Opponents to the issued were at the podium for a combined 35 minutes. They mostly talked about religious freedoms, business freedoms and the right of women to not have to share safe or private spaces, such as bathrooms, with members of the opposite sex.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who herself has a son who is gay, introduced the bill (LB627) that would make it unlawful for an employer, employment agency or a labor organization to discriminate against a person on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

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TRANSCANADA SAYS KEYSTONE LIKELY SOURCE OF MISSOURI OIL LEAK

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — TransCanada Corp. believes its Keystone pipeline is likely the source of an oil leak near St. Louis that Missouri officials have estimated at 1,800 gallons, a spokesman for the company said Friday.

Sections of both the Keystone pipeline and Enbridge's Platte pipeline were closed as crews sought to find the source of the leak, which was discovered Wednesday in St. Charles County.

"Following overnight activity and excavation, preliminary investigation has led TransCanada to believe that the oil discovered in St. Charles County likely originates from the Keystone Pipeline system and we will continue to conduct our activities accordingly," TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said.

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BILL WOULD INCREASE AMOUNT OF MONEY FAMILIES COULD MAKE AND STILL QUALIFY FOR CHILD CARE SUBSIDIES

LINCOLN — More struggling Nebraska parents could get help with child care costs under a proposal heard Friday by a legislative panel.

State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said Legislative Bill 329 would increase the amount of money families could make and still qualify for child care subsidies. The bill also would give families more time to ease their way off subsidies as their incomes increase.

LB 329 would allow people to qualify for subsidies while making up to 165 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or $27,159 for a single parent and child. Once they qualify, parents could keep the subsidy until they reach 200 percent of poverty.

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OMAHA ATTORNEY'S NOMINATION TO FEDERAL JUDGESHIP ADVANCES TO FULL SENATE

WASHINGTON — Omaha attorney Brian Buescher is a little closer to a seat on Nebraska’s federal bench.The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced his nomination Thursday on a party-line vote.

That move comes after Buescher faced pointed questions last year from Democrats about his views on abortion, religious liberty and environmental regulations. Democrats on the committee expressed skepticism that Buescher, who made an unsuccessful 2014 bid for Nebraska attorney general, would set aside his conservative convictions to handle cases impartially.

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LAWMAKERS HEAR TEARFUL TESTIMONY FROM WOMAN WHO COULD LOSE HOME OVER UNPAID TAXES

LINCOLN — Fighting back tears, Lindsay Brinson told a group of state lawmakers on Friday that she may lose her $108,000 home because she couldn’t afford to pay her $2,500 property tax bill in 2013. A private company, which paid the tax bill and her unpaid taxes in subsequent years, acquired the title to her home in Eagle, Nebraska, under a legal process designed to get people to pay their delinquent taxes.

At a legislative hearing Friday, Brinson said the process was a nightmare for her and doesn’t give homeowners like her proper notice that a company could soon take away their home.

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OMAHA, SARPY COUNTY WILL PARTNER IN ENLARGING HARRISON STREET; PUBLIC MEETING PLANNED

OMAHA - That tight drive along Harrison Street from about 147th to about 157th Streets is about to get better. The City of Omaha and Sarpy County are partnering to widen the one mile stretch from two lanes to four lanes.

Local officials say the $10 million project will improve public safety and speed travel. Some work already has been done: tree removal, erection of sound barriers and reconfiguration of the intersection at 156th and Harrison Streets.

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RICKETTS SAYS HE'S NEVER SMOKED MARIJUANA, SEES DANGER IN USING IT AS MEDICINE

WAHOO, Neb. — Gov. Pete Ricketts says he’s never smoked marijuana despite having friends in college who did, and he sees danger in legalizing its use as medicine.

“I never had the desire to smoke marijuana. I never thought it was the cool thing to do,” Ricketts said.

The 54-year-old governor, a married father of three who attended college in Chicago, has issued statements in opposition to a legislative bill that would legalize cannabis for medical uses.

When asked about his views last week after a town hall meeting in Wahoo, Ricketts said he’s looked at the data, and sees concerns, particularly in the lack of medical evidence that medicinal marijuana works.

“There’s no major medical organization that says smoking marijuana is any way to deliver (health) benefits,” he said.

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MORFELD FOCUSES ON SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH OF MEDICAID EXPANSION

LINCOLN - Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln is pushing for an early launch of the expanded Medicaid coverage in Nebraska directed by voters last November, but he recognizes that it might not occur until early next year.

"I would like to see earlier implementation than that, but I understand there are a lot of moving pieces and I'm willing to work to assure that it's effectively accomplished," he said during an interview.

The Department of Health and Human Services is looking at a start time early in 2020, Morfeld said.

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THERAPY AIMED AT CHANGING SEXUAL ORIENTATION WOULD BE BANNED FOR MINORS UNDER NEBRASKA BILL

LINCOLN — If fear and shame had been enough to make him straight, Adam Witte never would have suffered through 15 months of therapy aimed at changing his sexual orientation.

Instead, as a 16-year-old in 1998, he sneaked out of his parents’ house twice a week for treatment that involved getting increasingly powerful electric shocks while being shown arousing pictures.

His last treatment knocked him unconscious, and he awoke to find that he had bitten off a portion of his tongue.

But none of it made him stop being gay, the Omaha man told members of the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

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LAWMAKER GIVES ULTIMATUM TO CITY OF OMAHA: ACT ON SUBSTANDARD RENTAL PROPERTIES, OR THE STATE WILL

LINCOLN — State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha issued an ultimatum to the City of Omaha on Wednesday — get moving to bolster inspections of substandard rental properties, or he’ll push forward with a legislative solution.

Wayne told fellow state lawmakers that he’s asked that first-round debate on his proposal, Legislative Bill 85, be delayed for two to three weeks to allow the city a chance to introduce an ordinance to solve the problem locally.

“We have to step up to protect our most vulnerable citizens,” the senator said.

An aide to Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said later that several ideas are being considered by the City Planning Department and City Council members in hopes of coming up with an ordinance to introduce.

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NEW UNEMPLOYMENT TAX INITIATIVE UNVEILED BY GOVERNOR, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR

LINCOLN - The goal of the plan is to make financial room for businesses to seek new employment in 2019. Ricketts said the unemployment tax rate for businesses will be the lowest it’s been in the last decade, dropping 0.6 percent to the new rate of 0.7 percent.

The governor said the reduced amount of taxes for employers will continue to have a positive effect on job growth, with a big potential for quick, new jobs.

“Going back to 2011, that rate was 3.33 percent. In 2019, it’s going to be 0.7 percent," Ricketts said. "That’s a significant decline in that unemployment insurance tax, which allows companies to reinvest that money back into creating jobs.”

Department of Labor Commissioner John Albin also said the re-employment plan that has been in use by the state has significantly reduced unemployment fraud.

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EFFORTS BEING MADE TO DECREASE USE OF OPIOIDS

GRAND ISLAND - In the past, people in the medical community and Americans in general were told you can prescribe as much opioid pain medication as you want, and people won’t get addicted to it.

But that is not true. Research has shown otherwise, says Dr. Kartic Rajput of Grand Island.

People are often introduced to those medications when doctors prescribe a short-term use of opioids, Rajput said.

Some of those taking opioids also wind up using benzodiazepines, which are anti-anxiety medications. One example is Xanax.

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PROPERTY TAX BILL CALLS FOR MASSIVE SHIFT IN TAXES OFF AG LAND AND ONTO SALES TAXES

LINCOLN — A coalition of farmers rolled out its plan to reduce property taxes on farmers on Tuesday, arguing that increasing sales taxes is the best course for solving the state’s most vexing tax problem: high property taxes.

Detractors say the plan, released by a group called Fair Nebraska, is too weighted to benefit farmers. Perhaps as a result, no senator was willing to introduce it in the Nebraska Legislature this year — a year in which addressing high property taxes is a high priority.

But Fair Nebraska members say that dramatic changes are needed for the state’s No. 1 industry, agriculture.

“We’re not only not competitive with other states, we’re not competitive with our neighboring school districts,” said York farmer Doug Nienhueser, one of the leaders of the group.

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MEDICAL MARIJUANA BACKERS TAKE NEXT STEP IN LEGALIZATION EFFORT, CRAFT LANGUAGE FOR BALLOT INITIATIVE

LINCOLN — Backers of legalizing medical cannabis submitted their proposed language Tuesday for a ballot initiative that would allow Nebraska voters to decide whether to join 33 states that already allow medicinal marijuana.

The group, Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, submitted its proposed medical marijuana initiative to the Nebraska secretary of state, who must review the language before signature gathering can begin.

If the group collects what’s expected to be upwards of 130,000 signatures, the measure would be placed on the ballot in 2020.

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TARGETED JOB CREATION INCENTIVES BILL HITS SNAG

LINCOLN - Legislation designed to spur creation of high-wage jobs and capital investment in low-income and rural areas in Nebraska triggered a series of challenges Monday about its effectiveness and its costs.

Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, sponsor of the bill (LB604), told the Legislature's Business and Labor Committee that he stands ready and willing to consider changes in the proposal, recognizing that there are "things we can work on" to improve the legislation.

"Nebraska has to have incentives to compete" for business investment and job creation, Lindstrom said, but he also is aware of the state's current revenue squeeze and would be willing to consider implementation at a later date.

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SOME BUSINESSES OPPOSE BILL THAT WOULD PREVENT ASKING ABOUT CRIMINAL HISTORY ON JOB APPLICATIONS

LINCOLN - Sean Miller is 38, married with two children and has a bachelor's degree in which he could qualify as a paralegal. 

But when the nine-year Nebraska resident has applied for certain better-paying jobs, he has been turned down, he said, because of a criminal conviction at age 16. 

Miller was asking the Business and Labor Committee on Monday to send a bill (LB254) to the full Legislature that would create the Fair Chance Hiring Act, requiring a prospective employer — those with more than 15 employees — to evaluate a job applicant's qualifications, without first knowing about the applicant's history of criminal law violations.

Omaha Sen. John McCollister, who introduced the bill, reiterated it would not prohibit an employer from asking about criminal history, but would just not allow it on the job application.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: BILL ON EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION FAILS IN NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN - Nebraska lawmakers killed a bill Monday that would have required cities and towns to consider early childhood education needs when developing comprehensive plans. Legislative Bill 66 fell six short of the number needed to advance, with 23 senators voting against the bill, 19 voting for it and six abstaining.

State Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln introduced the measure as a way to ensure that parents’ needs for child care are taken into account.

Lawmakers passed a similar requirement last year as part of a legislative package. Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the legislation because he objected to another part of the package.

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AT NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE, WIRELESS COMPANIES AND CABLE PROVIDERS SPAR OVER TECHNOLOGY KEY TO 5G

LINCOLN — The ticket to getting higher-speed 5G Internet service in cities like Omaha and Lincoln is passing a bill to ease approval and installation of small-cell wireless antennas, state lawmakers were told Monday.

“I can tell you, Nebraska is losing ground to other states and cities” on readiness for fifth-generation wireless services, said State Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson.

The senator joined representatives of wireless Internet firms in blaming high fees and foot-dragging by cities for stunting the deployment of small-cell wireless, which was portrayed as “setting the table” for 5G.

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STUDENT JOURNALISTS TESTIFY IN FAVOR OF BILL THAT WOULD GIVE STUDENT PUBLICATIONS GREATER FREEDOM

LINCOLN - Nebraska high school journalists are well aware that the stories they write must be acceptable to their school administrators.

“It’s not about whether it’s accurate,” said Gracia Lantis, an editor of North Platte High School’s newspaper. “It’s about whether or not the story is good for my school’s image. Knowing that schools are supposed to teach democracy and civics, this makes no sense to me.”

Lantis and other students, along with journalism teachers, testified Friday before the Nebraska Legislature in favor of a measure introduced by State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln.

Legislative Bill 206 would establish greater independence for high school and college newspapers from their schools’ administrations.

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BILL WOULD LET NEBRASKANS MAKE DECISIONS ABOUT THEIR MENTAL HEALTH CARE IN ADVANCE

LINCOLN — Nebraskans now have a couple of legal options to determine the treatment they want — or don’t want — when they can’t speak for themselves.

They can make out a living will or name someone as their health care power of attorney, giving them the ability to make decisions about their care.

On Friday, lawmakers considered a new kind of legal document, one aimed at allowing people with mental illnesses to spell out what treatment they want if they become too sick to make competent decisions.

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DEMOCRAT ANN ASHFORD ANNOUNCES CONGRESSIONAL BID FOR NEBRASKA'S 2ND DISTRICT

OMAHA - Nebraska’s 2nd District will see an Eastman versus Ashford rematch in 2020 — but this time around, progressive Kara Eastman will face Ann Ferlic Ashford, the wife of her 2018 Democratic primary opponent.

Ann Ashford, 58, said Friday evening that she intends to seek the congressional seat her husband held during the 2015-16 session, representing Douglas County and western Sarpy County.

Ashford, an attorney who recently left her job at Clarkson Regional Health Services, said her top issues include jobs and the economy and standing up for marginalized people.

She also said she wants to bring people together and appeal across the aisle.

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CATHOLIC HEALTH INITIATIVES FINALIZES MERGER WITH DIGNITY HEALTH

OMAHA - Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health announced Friday that they have completed the process of combining the two health systems under the new name CommonSpirit Health.

The new nonprofit Catholic health system spans 21 states, 700 care sites and 142 hospitals. Catholic Health Initiatives is the parent of CHI Health in Nebraska and Iowa.

The merged organization, which will be headquartered in Chicago, has about 150,000 employees and 25,000 physicians and advanced practice clinicians. CHI and Dignity combined had $29.2 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2018 and provided $4.2 billion in charity care, community benefit and unreimbursed government programs.

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BILL ADVANCES TO ENSURE AIRBNB-TYPE RENTALS CAN'T BE PROHIBITED 

A bungalow in Bethany that sleeps four and rents for $100 a night on Vacation Rentals By Owner, aka VRBO, is frequently booked — already reserved for more than half of February. 

A two-bedroom apartment near downtown, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Memorial Stadium sleeps four for $41 a night, and is usually full-up through Airbnb. 

Those and other short-term rentals in Lincoln and around the state, booked on popular internet sites, would be protected in a bill (LB57) advanced Friday to a second round of consideration.

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ONLINE SALES TAX REVENUE UP FOR GRABS IN LEGISLATURE

LINCOLN - Round One of this year's battle over property tax relief unfolded Thursday in the Legislature's Revenue Committee.

Competing bills to provide for collection of state sales taxes already owed for online purchases presented the committee with a decision as to whether to recommend allocation of the anticipated revenue for property tax relief or inclusion in the state's general fund budget.

Along with three bills presented at a public hearing came stark disagreement between the legislative fiscal analyst's office and the Department of Revenue over whether the legislation would result in any additional revenue beyond what already has been anticipated and factored into construction of the state's upcoming biennial budget.

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FORMER PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSIONER, STATE DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIR ANNE BOYLE DIES AT AGE 75

OMAHA - Anne Boyle served nearly 20 years on the Nebraska Public Service Commission, and an entire lifetime trying to serve the public, especially those marginalized by society.

Boyle, the former state chair of the Democratic Party, died Saturday at her home in Omaha. She was 75.

Boyle had been in hospice care at home since she suffered a stroke on Monday. She died surrounded by family.

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DON WALTON: LEGISLATURE ROLLING TOWARD SPRING SHOWDOWN

LINCOLN - It takes awhile to get this train rolling. But after a slow and smooth start, the 2019 Legislature is moving down the track now. 

And so they're off and running and headed toward what is likely to be a revenue/spending showdown sometime after a long winter turns into a welcome, glad-to-see-you spring.

Freshman senators are beginning to make their presence known and this appears to be an independent bunch. Reminiscent of the 2015 crop that defied all the initial assessments and expectations.

The mindset expressed by cautionary flags planted on the floor of the Legislature at the end of last week is that the end product will need to be squeezed and shaped to fit into what is likely to be a declining revenue forecast. 

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LACK OF BROADBAND IN RURAL NEBRASKA CREATING A 'DIGITAL DIVIDE'

LINCOLN - The importance of broadband internet in Nebraska can be illustrated in the tale of two businesses.

Jessika Benes moved to Juniata in Adams County to start Mid-Plains Mobile Vet and Animal Chiropractic, a veterinary clinic on wheels, hoping to utilize broadband internet speeds comparable to the Iowa community where she previously lived and worked.

While the local internet service provider purported to offer a similar connection, at least according to the Nebraska Broadband Mapping Project, in actuality, the download and upload speeds were much slower.

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CAPITOL DIGEST: BILL WOULD CONCEAL PENSION INFORMATION FOR OPS EMPLOYEES FROM PUBLIC

LINCOLN - The public would no longer be able to see pension information for teachers, administrators and other Omaha Public School employees under a bill given the first of three rounds of approval in the Legislature on Tuesday. 

Before the vote, State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte raised concerns about that portion of Legislative Bill 33, saying the change would reduce government transparency. He said it means taxpayers could no longer find out which retirees get $100,000 a year in pension payments or know how much the average retiree received.

Groene pointed to the recent World-Herald series about the Omaha School Employees Retirement System, which went from being one of the top-performing pension plans in the country to being one of the worst, as an example of the value of transparency. 

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WHO'S LIABLE WHEN A SELF-DRIVING CAR RUNS YOU OVER? LEGISLATIVE BILL ATTEMPTS TO CLARIFY THAT

LINCOLN — Who’s liable if you get run over by a self-driving car?

On Tuesday, a state senator attempted to clarify that question about the fast-growing technology.

Under a legislative bill introduced by State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, the manufacturer of the self-driving technology would be liable in a crash involving a vehicle that was capable of “the entire driving task” and operating in autonomous mode.

In the case of a vehicle operating “in concert” with a driver — such as a car with lane-centering technology that required a motorist to touch the wheel every so often or take control when making a stop — the driver would be liable.

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WOMEN, THE MAJORITY, NEED TO WAKE UP, CHAMBERS SAYS, AND DEBATE ENSUES

LINCOLN - A day after more than 1,000 people from across Nebraska took to the streets in the third annual Women's March, an exchange about women's "need to wake up" made its way to the floor of the Nebraska Legislature.

It started with Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers praising U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi for standing up to President Donald Trump over the State of the Union address.

As he talked, his speech moved into the need for women to wake to the fact that they are a majority of the population, and don't have to be whining or begging men for anything. 

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CAPITOL DIGEST: NEBRASKA FARM BUREAU BACKS A PROPERTY TAX RELIEF BILL

LINCOLN - A legislative heavyweight. The Nebraska Farm Bureau has picked its horse in the race to obtain property tax relief. The state’s largest ag group will back a multifaceted proposal from State Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson. Legislative Bill 497 aims to end the inequity in K-12 school financing across the state and eventually make the state cover 50 percent of all basic educational costs.

Right now, 150 of the state’s 244 school districts receive less than 10 percent of basic education funding from the state, according to the Farm Bureau, which picked the bill over those introduced by Albion Sen. Tom Briese. But Briese is among a dozen co-sponsors of LB 497 and has said it doesn’t matter which property tax relief proposal is passed, as long as one is.

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NEBRASKA'S CRAFT BREWERS OBJECT TO BILLS THAT WOULD INCREASE TAX ON BEER TO HIGHEST IN U.S.

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s craft brewers are in a froth over two bills that would increase the state’s excise taxes on beer to the highest in the nation.

Lawmakers sponsoring the proposals say that the hike would translate into only about 10 cents per mug of beer and that increasing taxes on beer, wine and liquor is part of the solution to lowering property taxes.

But a craft brewers group, representing 49 small breweries across the state, say the tax increase could cause layoffs and could end some operations if they are forced to absorb what amounts to a 345 percent increase in the tax. They have been inundating state senators with complaints, which might be the first of many they hear about ideas to raise some other taxes to lower property taxes.

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NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE AGAIN CONSIDERS MAKING STUDENTS TAKE SAME CIVICS TEST AS NEW CITIZENS

LINCOLN - The push for a Nebraska civics test is back on.

And there is pushback against it.

Lawmakers on Tuesday will take testimony on a bill requiring Nebraska school districts to administer a civics test to students by eighth grade and again no later than 11th grade.

LB 399 specifies testing students with the civics portion of the naturalization exam of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Questions from the 100-item civics examination are given to immigrants seeking citizenship in the United States.

A student’s score would be provided to parents.

The bill would also substantially amend the Americanism law, doing away with the term “Americanism” and replacing it with “American Civics.”

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BILL WOULD UNLEASH 5G IN NEBRASKA

LINCOLN - Over the last two decades, the power and connectivity of mobile devices have taken unimaginable strides.

Whether you use a smartphone to shop online, track your exercise regime with a smartwatch, make a doctor’s appointment or play music using Wi-Fi-connected speakers, these devices have revolutionized the way we live, play and work. And it’s just the beginning.

The next generation of wireless technology, called 5G, will unlock new possibilities in medicine, transportation, construction, communication and countless other areas of life. Upgrading the nation’s wireless communications infrastructure to 5G will mean lower latency and broadband speeds at least 10 times faster than what today’s 4G networks offer.

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DRILLERS EASE OFF THE GAS

Some of the companies responsible for flooding the U.S. with natural gas are dialing back on drilling amid worries that supplies of the fuel are outpacing demand and potentially sending already depressed prices into a tailspin.

Pittsburgh-based EQT Corp. on Tuesday became the latest big gas producer to say it will spend less on drilling this year than it did last year, and that it aims to maintain its present level of output rather than increase it. Gulfport Energy Corp. outlined a similar strategy earlier in the month, saying it would use the cash that it saves from drilling less this year to buy back $400 million worth of its own shares.

Antero Resources Corp. trimmed its 2019 drilling budget by more than 10% in response to languishing prices, a move that should translate to up to 40 fewer wells completed on its land in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The announcements represent a major shift in an industry not known for tapping the brakes and follow a chorus of investors urging shale drillers to stop boosting production while prices are low.

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NEBRASKA TO CONSIDER CRACKDOWN ON ROBOCALLS, FAKE NUMBERS

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Scam artists who use local phone numbers to trick consumers into answering their calls could soon have a tougher time operating in Nebraska, if one state senator has his way.

The new proposal in the Legislature would add Nebraska to the growing number of states trying to clamp down on "neighborhood spoofing," the practice of making distant calls appear as local numbers on caller IDs.

"Nebraskans are tired of receiving these calls," said Sen. Steve Halloran, of Hastings. "It's not respectful of people's privacy. They don't expect to be misled when they see a call coming in."

Halloran introduced a bill last week that would ban callers from sending bogus caller ID information to phones "with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value." Violators would go before the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which could impose a fine as large as $2,000 for each offense.

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STEP UP TO QUALITY AIMS TO IMPROVE DAY CARES, EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

GRAND ISLAND - Nebraska day cares and early childhood education programs are able to prove they are quality programs while receiving support thanks to a statewide program.

Step Up to Quality is a joint effort between the Nebraska Department of Education and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services that aims to help day cares and early childhood education programs excel and improve to offer the highest quality programs to children.

Lauri Cimino, Step Up to Quality director, said the program is Nebraska’s quality rating and improvement system. Currently, she said, there are more than 350 programs that have been rated since its implementation in 2014. There are approximately 650 programs that have begun the Step Up to Quality process to be rated.

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DON WALTON: INDEPENDENT LEGISLATURE MAY PROMPT GUBERNATORIAL VETOES

LINCOLN - Vetoes appear to lie ahead.

Trying to understand a new Legislature in its opening days is virtually impossible, but early on this looks like it could be an unpredictable one. 

There's some independence already on display.

Too early to know how this all plays out, but there might be a growing willingness to at least consider some bills that would increase state revenue.

And that might even present an opening for some kind of grand bargain between senators who want to raise sufficient revenue to adequately fund designated state programs and services while replenishing the state's cash reserve and senators who want substantial and immediate property tax relief.

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BILL WOULD ALLOW EMPLOYEES TO CONCEAL, CARRY WITH PERMIT ON SCHOOL CAMPUSES

HASTINGS, Neb. — After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, a local legislator says he is taking action to try to protect students.

A bill that would authorize schools to allow concealed carry on campus is a hot issue.

That discussion was on the table at "Coffee with Senator Steve Halloran" in Hastings.

Halloran of the 33rd District met with constituents on Saturday and discussed several bills including whether or not school employees should be allowed to conceal and carry in the classroom.

"So my question is, 'What would you do if a shooter makes it into your school and is shooting at your students?,'" Halloran said.

LB 343 was introduced last week that would allow school boards to authorize those who have conceal carry permits to carry on the school campus for purpose of protection.

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BILL INTRODUCED IN THE LEGISLATURE WOULD INCREASE ALCOHOL EXCISE TAX

KEARNEY, Neb. — As locals attended McCue's Tap Room Take Over Saturday, many business owners and establishments like McCue's are reacting to the news of LB314, a bill that could potentially help with the statewide property tax issue. 

However, the craft brewer community and places like McCue's aren't that happy about the proposal. The bill introduced by Nebraska State Senator Tom Briese would potentially increase the alcohol excise tax which would affect businesses in the alcohol industry like breweries.

Sen. Briese said he's not trying to single out the craft brewers. There are more parties involved within the bill.

"The craft brewers claim they're being singled out, that's not true," said Sen. Briese. "LB314 increases the alcohol excise tax on the manufacturers, distribution of all alcohol in Nebraska, not just the local brewers."

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Links of Interest

Nebraska Government

nebraska congressional delegation

National Organizations

Nebraska Newspapers

Nebraska Elections

National Lobbying Resources