Articles of Interest

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