- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Dec. 18, 2014.

Johanns, Hagel: Both Nebraska statesmen have served their nation well

As the year draws to a close, so will the political careers of two important Nebraskans.

U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns served as a county commissioner, Lincoln City Council member and mayor of Lincoln before running for governor in 1998. Although he began his political career as a Democrat, he defeated a couple of socially conservative Republican candidates, the state auditor and a congressman, to advance to the general election, which he won in a landslide. He was re-elected for a second term with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

Although his education was in law, he began life on an Iowa farm and always understood the challenges faced by farmers and ranchers. As governor, he led international trade missions. Although he agreed to tax increases on cigarettes and gasoline, he was a staunch opponent of most government spending and approved significant property tax relief during his term. He balanced the budget, provided tax relief and vetoed many bills that he didn’t like.

During his second term he was recruited to become secretary of agriculture by President George W. Bush, who cited his support of ethanol and biodiesel and knowledge in foreign trade, calling him “a man of action and of complete integrity.”

In 2008 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, replacing outgoing Sen. Chuck Hagel. Unlike Hagel, he avoided the television talk show circuit but remained a deficit hawk, pointing out repeatedly that the government’s failure to balance the budget would have devastating consequences for the economy. No one needs to be reminded how that turned out.

Although he often voted along party lines, he always ran fair, clean, pragmatic campaigns that focused on issues rather than accusations. Even people who didn’t always agree with his politics would have to concur that he never once embarrassed Nebraska or brought dishonor upon himself. He didn’t insult or shun Democrats; in fact, he joined some of them in a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who tried to find common ground to negotiate a federal deficit reduction agreement. He didn’t need western Nebraska to win elections, but he spent a lot of time out here and frequently stopped by the Star-Herald to talk politics and policy. On one visit when he was short of time, he invited Editor Steve Frederick to ride along with him to an appearance in Banner County to provide interview time, and then arranged a ride back. We’ll remember him as a straight shooter who set a fine example of service, leadership and integrity for the future politician who serves in any of the offices he held.

Hagel, who recently resigned as secretary of defense, was another straight talker who was often ahead of his time.

As a boy, he lived in several Panhandle towns and later became a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He served as a staffer for Nebraska Congressman John Y. McCollister early in his career and was later deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration during the Reagan administration. He returned to Nebraska in 1992 and ran for the open U.S. Senate seat created by the retirement of Democrat J. James Exon in 1996. He was often on the right side of issues before others even recognized problems. Although he was pro-business and a reliable conservative vote in the Senate, he ran afoul of Nebraska conservatives for his criticism of the war in Iraq - although, like Johanns’ warnings about the deficit, what he said turned out to be true. He questioned the strain that multiple deployments were putting on the nation’s armed forces and its troops and was one of only four Republicans to oppose onerous government intrusions into privacy included in the Patriot Act. He advocated raising the level of analysis and political discourse in American politics, and opposed dumbing down complex issues, mocking science and deriding intellectual achievement.

As President Barack Obama’s choice to succeed Leon Panetta in 2013 as Defense Secretary, he was the first enlisted combat veteran to lead the department and one of few to serve a president of the opposite party. As such, he was known as a spokesman for the troops, not just the brass and the defense contractors that thrive on our nation’s military spending. He cared about pay, housing allowances, commissary policies and health care coverage. Taking over at a time when budget constraints called for a smaller, more efficient military, he reportedly became frustrated with the White House decision-making process, national security policy and “excessive micromanagement” by Obama staffers.

Given their energy and expertise, both Johanns and Hagel should have no trouble keeping busy writing books or serving on think tanks or boards of directors, if that’s what they choose to do. If they choose to simply retire and relax, they’ve earned it. Both served Nebraska and their nation with distinction.

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Omaha World-Herald. Dec. 22, 2014.

Rural, urban work together

Applause is due three Nebraska organizations that have joined together in a new initiative promoting agricultural education - in the city.

Starting in January, high school and college students as well as adults interested in studying agriculture will have a chance to do so in Omaha. Those who want to complete the entire program will be able to get an associate degree in agriculture production systems from the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA).

This joint effort - by the NCTA in Curtis, the Omaha Home for Boys and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension - is a positive in three important ways:

- It shows the important opportunities that open up when educational institutions move beyond status-quo thinking and work flexibly and creatively.

- It provides a great example of how urban and rural organizations in Nebraska can work together.

- It shows how organizations were commendably attentive to the public need - in this case, for additional ag education options - and came up with an innovative approach to meet it.

Says Ron Rosati, dean at NCTA: “The joint effort between NCTA and the Omaha Home for Boys is a pilot project for anyone in the Omaha area. It is designed to support locally produced food, produce job-ready agricultural graduates, and foster social and economic development for youth and adults.”

Much of the instruction will take place at the Home for Boys’ 117-acre Cooper Memorial Farm on Mormon Bridge Road three miles north of downtown Omaha.

In addition, the Douglas/Sarpy Extension Office on West Center Road will host a class on agricultural entrepreneurship, and one on carpentry will be offered at the Omaha Home for Boys campus on North 52nd Street.

Classes in this new initiative will include instruction on organic and alternative agriculture; livestock evaluation; plant propagation; seed stock preparation; and preparing livestock for public exhibits.

Plus, the Omaha Home for Boys will host the Benson Farmers Market on its campus, starting in May.

These steps reflect well on Nebraska Extension’s responsiveness and on the Omaha Home for Boys’ forward thinking.

Announcement of this initiative comes at a time of notable growth and progress at NCTA. This fall, the Curtis-based college, the University of Nebraska system’s smallest campus, saw a big jump in enrollment - a 28 percent increase to 384 students.

That increase stems from several factors. NCTA adjusted and improved its programs to meet current real-world needs; a key example is irrigation technology. The college has made sound investments in its facilities and programs. It’s received tremendous support from Curtis residents and businesses. And its partnerships with private businesses in the ag sector have helped it stay up-to-date in its programming and resources.

It’s encouraging whenever residents and institutions in rural Nebraska step up to tackle key ag needs, and it’s even better when urban Nebraskans show the vision to join in the effort. Kudos to NCTA, the Omaha Home for Boys and UNL Extension for providing a stellar example.

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Lincoln Journal-Star. Dec. 22, 2014.

Look at Kansas for a lesson

As Nebraska lawmakers consider possible tax changes next year, they should take a long look over the border at what happens when a state enacts tax cuts that are too drastic and poorly planned.

Kansas is a mess because of deep income tax cuts put in place a few years ago.

Earlier this month state officials were told they will need to deal with a shortfall of $280 million in the current fiscal year. And the shortfall next year could top $600 million.

The tax cuts were supposed to spur economic growth. Under the theory pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican lawmakers, the tax cuts would, in effect, help pay for themselves.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Things are so bad that Brownback has proposed covering the shortfall by shifting $100 million in road funding, and taking money from pension funds, state agencies and various programs.

The state has taken so much money from the Kansas Department of Education that lawmakers have begun jokingly referring to the department as “the bank of KDOT,” according to the Lawrence Journal-World.

Kansas is struggling to fund its schools. A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released earlier this year showed that Kansas made the fourth-deepest cuts in state funding for public schools since the Great Recession that started in 2008.

When adjusted for inflation, spending on education in Kansas is down 16.5 percent, the nonprofit research organization said. (The same study showed that Nebraska is among 17 states that have increased K-12 funding, with an uptick of 1 percent.)

Schools in Kansas have laid off teachers and support staff, boosted classroom sizes and eliminated some course options.

The school funding crisis led to a lawsuit. The Kansas Supreme Court recently declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional because it created inequities among school districts. The lawsuit also seeks an increase in funding, but the high court did not address that issue when it sent the case back to a lower court to determine the proper level of funding.

Apologists for the tax cuts argue that they have not been in place long enough to demonstrate the promised economic growth.

But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to trust in the theory that tax cuts will pay for themselves.

A good transportation system is necessary for economic growth. A state can’t expect businesses to prosper if the road system is crumbling. And good schools are essential for a workforce that has the skills that employers need in the global economy of the 21st century.

Brownback and his allies thought they were turning Kansas into a low-tax paradise. It looks more like they’re digging the state into a hole.

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McCook Daily Gazette. Dec. 18, 2014.

Lessons learned from incidents with Korea, Cuba

It was quite a day in international relations, but what are the lessons?

First, there was the surprise announcement that the United States and Cuba would swap prisoners and begin the process of normalizing relations that have been frozen since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, punctuated by the Bay of Pigs disaster, Cuban Missile Crisis and U.S. sponsored attempts on the dictator’s life.

The change was a long time coming - Americans seem to have no trouble maintaining diplomatic relations with Vietnam, site of a conflict that divided our nation and undermined our national standing, or buying products from China, built by what is basically slave labor.

But political considerations have extended the embargo far longer than it might have been otherwise - the Cuban expatriate vote has been a force to be reckoned with in Florida and national politics.

Complete normalization will require action by Congress, but Secretary of State John Kerry will soon go to the island nation to work out details.

If all goes as planned, Cuba is likely to become a popular cruise destination as well as home to a booming economy. The benefit to the U.S. economy is harder to predict and will be more difficult to judge.

Another international incident isn’t all that difficult to draw conclusions about.

Struggling with fallout from a major hack attack by North Korea, Sony canceled release of a spoof movie “The Interview,” centered on an assassination attempt on the hermit kingdom’s ruthless leader, Kim Jong Un.

To be fair, the company is proceeding with utmost caution, reluctant to play a part in terrorist attacks, as well as dealing with mushrooming embarrassment and financial consequences from the hacking attack.

But where will it end?

Will we allow any radical group to rob us of our rights by threatening violence? Unfortunately, the answer so far has been yes, for anyone who’s been forced to endure the indignity of a TSA search and wasted hours it takes just to board an airliner.

One longs for the bravery of a Charlie Chaplain making “The Great Dictator” in 1940, Walt Disney with “Der Fuehrer’s Face” - or even Danish comedian and pianist Victor Borge, who earned a spot on Hitler’s enemies list by mocking the German leader.

President Obama, for his part, echoed President Bush’s post 9-11 sentiments, urging Americans to go about their business, including a trip to the movies.

Unfortunately, “The Interview” won’t be among their choices for the time being.

We have always looked to others to be brave on our behalf, whether it be the military, law enforcement or our elected leaders.

In the end, it is up to all of us to preserve our liberties, even if it just involves purchasing a theater ticket.

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