- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

Kearney Hub. Feb. 22, 2014.

Crowded prisons, dangerous communities

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is mostly correct in his assertions that too many Americans are locked up in prison too long for non-violent offenses - namely drug trafficking violations - but his call to “break our prison habit” is simplistic and fails to take into account the real-world issues of crime, punishment and rehabilitation.

Nonetheless, our nation is spending mountains of money keeping about 5 percent of our population behind bars. Nebraskans built a new prison at Tecumseh a decade ago, and to no avail because today our penitentiaries are at 140 percent of capacity. We can build prisons as rapidly as we please, but unless we take seriously the nugget of truth in Holder’s assertions, the next prison we build will fill to the brim before we can afford another one.

Getting tough on crime sounds good in campaign commercials, but voters who bite on that line had better be ready to shell out taxes when stiffer sentencing laws lock up criminals forever. Holder may be right that we’re locking up too many people, but it’s not easy deciding which inmates can safely be released. Prison officials must be exceedingly careful, as the catalyst for Nebraska’s current debate on “good time” early release demonstrates. When the wrong prisoner gets out, the results can be deadly.

Another example involves the choking death last week of a Scotts Bluff County jailer at the hands of a teenage prisoner. Another teen is charged with coaching the suspected killer how to choke the guard. The second boy had been at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney three times and was destined for a fourth stay, but if the allegations are true, he needs to be behind bars.

Youths are sent to YRTC because authorities believe they might respond to rehabilitation. It’s a noble gesture, but how do we predict which of these young offenders poses too much of a risk?

A small parade of former convicts goes before the Nebraska Pardons Board each month. As convicted criminals, they forfeited their rights to vote and to own firearms. Once they have paid their price to society, many are eager to hunt and fish again, and so they seek pardons. Some even are excited about voting again.

Hopefully, as these ex-convicts work their way back into society they do so with the realization that crime is a dead end occupation, even if it’s a non-violent offense, like the drug trafficking for which Holder would soften sentencing laws.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Feb. 21, 2014.

React wisely to pipeline ruling

State lawmakers and Gov. Dave Heineman should resist the temptation to try a quick legislative fix in the wake of the ruling striking down the law used to approve the route for the Keystone XL pipeline.

The legal situation is complex. It would be better to let the case work through the courts so that there is more clarity on how Nebraska can best regulate pipeline routes.

Premature action by the Legislature would make the legal situation even murkier than it already is.

It’s instructive to note that the law ruled unconstitutional Wednesday by Lancaster County District Judge Stephanie Stacy was itself an attempt to fix a law passed in a special session called for the purpose of strengthening Nebraska’s pipeline approval process.

Stacey said in her 50-page ruling that the Nebraska State Constitution puts the “evaluation and approval” of a pipeline route through Nebraska under the authority of the Public Service Commission.

LB1161 passed in 2012 established a second option for pipeline companies to go to the governor for approval of a pipeline route.

Whether upper courts will agree with Stacy’s interpretation of the constitution and the state law in question remains to be seen. Attorney General Jon Bruning said he plans to file an appeal.

The 10-day period for bill introduction in this session is past. But a new bill can be introduced with approval of 30 senators. The other option for quicker legislative action is in a special session like that called in 2011 by Heineman.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the court battle, there’s no doubt that the current route for the Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska is better than the original route because it avoids the environmentally fragile Sandhills, as officially designated.

In her ruling Stacy wrote, “As the Nebraska Supreme Court has explained: When a statute is adjudged to be unconstitutional, it is as if it had never been.”

It would surprise no one if TransCanada chose to apply to the PSC for approval of its route under the old statutory and constitutional framework. According to the commission’s rules it would issue a ruling seven months after application was made.

Meanwhile all parties wait to see how the Obama administration, which is nearing a decision on a permit, will react to the latest development.

Once the legalities are clarified in court, however, we hope lawmakers don’t give up on the attempt to give Nebraskans a more robust and effective review process for pipelines in Nebraska. The need is just as great as it was before anyone ever heard of the Keystone XL.

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Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Feb. 19, 2014.

Secrecy: Open government is the best defense against accusations of corruption

By a 5-2 vote, members of the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee rejected Legislative Bill 1018, which would have concealed information from Nebraskans about finalists for the University of Nebraska system’s president, vice presidents and campus chancellors.

We argued against that bill, alongside other state newspapers. Committee members were persuaded that in a state with a unicameral statehouse, where the people are presumed to be a branch of government, there’s no place for the sort of “trust us” backroom dealing advocated by NU regents and others who insisted that NU would be best served by keeping details of its job searches secret.

While that’s a dead issue, at least for now, the matter of government secrecy never goes away. A reminder of that is the ongoing flare-up over the state’s decision to relocate the Central Nebraska Veterans Home from its longstanding site in Grand Island to Kearney. A proposal under consideration in the wake of that fight, Legislative Bill 935, would take away the governor’s authority to relocate major state institutions and give it to the Legislature. It would apply retroactively to the pending move.

In a recent editorial following a hearing on the bill, the Grand Island Independent made it clear that community leaders believe they got cheated by a selection process that scored Kearney higher than Grand Island. It challenges the notion that the process was fair and open. It alleges that Kearney leaders were secretly given access to information that wasn’t available to other cities interested in bidding for the facility. It says Kearney and state officials held secret discussions about the process months before it began. It questions the rankings used, and the categories utilized to achieve them. It says factors that would have favored Grand Island were ignored.

“Why,” the newspaper asks, “wasn’t the process conducted in the same open manner as the relocation of the Nebraska State Fair?”

The Kearney Hub newspaper also had a few things to say about the bill. It defended the process and challenged the notion that Grand Island should “get a do-over on the veterans home.” It says the process was open and fair, with legislative oversight and approval, including $47 million in funding for the move. It says community leaders had “a clear view of Kearney’s advantages and vulnerabilities, and so they meticulously addressed each category in the veterans home bid.”

We have friends in both places and believe both are good cities. We aren’t prepared to take a stand on where the veterans home belongs. If we had anything to say about the issue, it might be that we believe Nebraska would be better off with a policy of spreading around state money and jobs and rejecting the idea that every state facility has to be in Lincoln. (For example, the Game and Parks Commission could function just as effectively in, say, the Mountain Time Zone, where a great deal of the state’s best hunting and fishing is.) Wyoming avoids some of this sort of rancor by scattering its Capitol, prisons, state fair and other job-producing facilities into various communities around the state.

That said, we bring the matter up to point out that even the appearance of secrecy is polarizing and divisive. When it exists, it’s unwelcome, mostly unnecessary and, in most cases, illegal in Nebraska. That’s how it should remain.

Nebraskans ought to be leery of any attempt to dismantle the state’s open meetings and open records laws, or of assertions that when an argument can be made that it would be beneficial to conduct business out of the public eye, politicians know best. The first victim in such a fight is confidence in government. The next is often public checkbooks, which are tapped to pay for legal bills and severance checks after secrecy starts to unravel, as it nearly always does.

The Independent noted in its editorial that George Norris, the father of Nebraska’s unicameral government, had this to say about open government: “Every act of the legislature and every act of each individual must be transacted in the spotlight of publicity.”

Open government works. It isn’t always comfortable for those sitting on the hot seat, but comfort is for kings and despots, not elected officials in representative government. When politicians start showing insecurity, the people need to be able to ask why. The salvation of the state, as they say, is watchfulness in the citizen.

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The Grand Island Independent. Feb. 19, 2014.

Governor’s race crowded, wide open

When Attorney General Jon Bruning jumped into the governor’s race, most of Nebraska’s political analysts quickly made him the front-runner. They did this even though many of the other candidates have been out campaigning for the last six months.

Bruning as the front-runner probably is accurate as he is the most well-known of the candidates, having run several statewide campaigns. He also has been able to use his office to promote himself through various consumer protection campaigns and joining several lawsuits against the federal government.

However, no one should consider Bruning a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. Five other strong candidates are also seeking the nomination. Bruning also failed in a bid for the U.S. Senate two years ago when he lost to Deb Fischer in the primary. It was shown in that race that he has vulnerabilities.

No one should begrudge Bruning’s late entry into the race. There’s nothing that says a candidate has to campaign for a year or more. In fact, voters might find it refreshing to have a candidate who doesn’t campaign for a year before the election. Of course, Bruning can afford to do that because of his name recognition.

Overall, this is a strong field for the governor’s race. For the voters, the more candidates the better. It gives them more choices and forces candidates to define their positions better.

The Republican field for governor is loaded. Besides Bruning, there is:

- Pete Ricketts, an Omaha businessman, was considered the leader before Bruning’s entrance. Ricketts’ family founded TD Ameritrade. He previously ran for the U.S. Senate against Ben Nelson and is known throughout the state.

- Mike Foley, the state auditor, made it official that he is not backing out of the governor’s race despite Bruning’s entrance. Through his state office and campaigns, Foley is familiar to voters and could make a surprise showing.

- State Sen. Beau McCoy has had a lot of ads run by American Future Fund touting him as a successor to Gov. Dave Heineman. He also has this legislative session to push his conservative credentials.

- State Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege has the advantage of being the only candidate from the 3rd Congressional District. His knowledge of ag and water issues also is attractive to the farm community.

- Bryan Slone, an Omaha business executive who served in the Reagan administration, has an impressive record on tax policy and also is a close ally of Heineman.

On the Democratic side, the lone candidate is Chuck Hassebrook, the former director of the Center for Rural Affairs and a former University of Nebraska regent. Hassebrook has a solid background on agriculture issues and could gain backing in rural communities.

It’s not just the governor’s race that is full of candidates. There’s also a crowded Republican field seeking the U.S. Senate seat now held by Mike Johanns, who is retiring. A number of candidates have also filed for state auditor and for attorney general, now that Bruning is running for governor.

Nebraska voters have a lot to digest before the May 13 primary as the fields are now being set.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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