- Associated Press - Monday, February 3, 2014

Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Feb. 2, 2014.

Parks funding: It’s time for the Legislature to make up for neglect of our public lands

Two dozen Nebraska state recreation areas and five state historical parks were shut down last fall and aren’t supposed to open until May. They include three Panhandle sites: Oliver and Walgren lakes, and Ash Hollow State Historical Park.

The state said it couldn’t afford to keep them open. The State Game and Parks Commission said the closures were necessary to tackle more than $30 million in deferred maintenance work. Given the state of the nation’s economy over the past few years, some slippage might be understandable. But Nebraskans saw a recent $5 hike in the price of annual park permits. The governor and others said repealing a statewide ban on alcoholic beverages in the parks would boost attendance and solve some of the system’s financial woes, which have been ongoing. Over the past few years, the commission laid off 20 percent of its workforce. At some sites in the Panhandle, mowing and garbage pickup has been cut back.

The good news is that Game and Parks Commission officials testifying at the Nebraska Legislature last week heard almost unanimous support for plans to spend an additional $3.2 million a year for deferred maintenance and compliance projects at state parks. That money would come from directing sales taxes on purchases of motor boats and personal watercraft from the general fund to Game and Parks, as well as redirecting sales taxes on all-terrain vehicles used for recreation.

About the only opposition to the plan came from State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has vowed to gum up any Game and Parks progress until lawmakers agree to end a recently approved mountain lion hunt.

Game and Parks representatives said they face a backlog of maintenance projects at the aging parks as well as $13 million in work to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. That’s not really the fault of boaters, jet skiers and ATV owners, who would see their taxes go toward rectifying the state’s neglect of its parks system.

As we noted recently, Nebraska has the lowest percentage of public land of any state in the nation. It has only eight state parks. Altogether, Nebraska’s state parks and 59 state recreational areas, including water, total only about 200,000 acres. Tourism is Nebraska’s third-largest industry. With 9 million visitors per year, the state ought to make maintaining its limited park land a higher priority.

Current funding sources aren’t keeping up with the need for funding. Only 70 percent of the park system’s operating budget comes from user fees, mostly park entry permits. Some of the maintenance backlog could be paid for from the state’s cash reserve; thanks to a recovering economy, it’s projected to grow to $726 million by June 30, which would be a record amount. And since some lawmakers see booze as part of the parks’ salvation, perhaps diverting part of the state’s liquor tax to help fund parks services (trash pickup comes to mind) wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

It’s time for the state to stop charging more and offering less. Parks fuel business in nearby communities, and park visitors expect well-maintained facilities. They don’t expect to see themselves locked out of Nebraska’s scarce public lands. It’s time for the Legislature to be a better steward of our parks.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Jan. 31, 2014.

Peddling influence by the rules

Rep. Adrian Smith is drawing the wrong kind of attention to Nebraska.

A story in the New York Times provided a few details of the 3rd district representative’s swanky fund-raising weekend in Vail, Colo.

The story began: “After some time in the hot tub, an evening cocktail reception and a two-and-one-half-hour dinner in a private dining room named Out of Bounds, Representative Adrian Smith made one last stop, visiting the lounge at the Four Seasons Resort Hotel to spend more time with the lobbyists and other donors who had jetted in from Washington, D.C., to join him for the weekend getaway.”

From one perspective, Smith just had the bad luck to be spotlighted by the national newspaper doing something that has become all too common.

As the story reported, this is the way the game of Washington politics is played these days.

It’s not just Republicans. Democrats also enjoy “destination fund-raisers” in such locales as Puerto Rico and Beverly Hills during the Grammy Awards.

You may remember that in 2007 Congress passed legislation with strict rules against lobbyists giving gifts.

Times passes, and Beltway insiders figured out a way around the law. Now the weekend events like the one featuring Smith are the norm.

Here’s the money trail. Corporate executives and lobbyists give money to political action committees and campaign organizations. Those organizations turn around and pay the expenses for events like Smith’s weekend in Vail.

According to the Times, such events usually are attended by about 50 to 100 donors and lobbyists, who donate between $1,000 and $5,000 apiece and pay their own hotel bills and airfare. So, by the letter of the law, no gifts are exchanged.

A typical event would have expenses of $25,000 and raise $75,000.

“This is a good way to raise some funds,” Smith told the Times.

It certainly sounds that way. The meal included Wagyu strip steak, bacon-wrapped prawns and kimchi Brussels sprouts, washed down with $60-a -bottle red wine.

While the new system is perfectly legal, it wreaks the same harm on good government as the old system of outright gift-giving.

It allows special interests to ply lawmakers with fine food, drink and fancy trips.

History shows that as the battle to stop lobbyists from influencing lawmakers in unsavory ways is never-ending. A round of reform may stop influence-peddling temporarily, but after voter outrage dissipates, the old game resumes in an altered form.

So Smith might simply be doing what everyone else in Washington is doing. But that certainly doesn’t make it right. The system needs reforming - again.

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Kearney Hub. Feb. 2, 2014.

Athletic fairness tough to achieve

This speck of wisdom - “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” - from Major Leaguer Yogi Berra applies well to the fairness issue state Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber tries to address in LB1081. Karpisek alleges that Nebraska’s parochial schools enjoy a competitive advantage over public schools, and thus are winning more than their share of state high school athletic championships. The lawmaker’s proposal would have perennial district and state contenders bumped up one class in what he believes is a system that would level the playing field, but it’s going to take more than Karpisek offers to achieve the perfect world he seeks.

That’s because Karpisek has proposed a simple solution to an infinitely complex issue. Recruiting and enrollment size, which he cites as major advantages for parochial schools, are just two of the many factors that contribute to successful teams. Coaching, parental support, facilities - they also have a bearing, but how can they and a host of other factors be addressed in a legislative bill?

Consider the range of responses to Karpisek’s idea. Some people agree with Karpisek’s plan while scores more offer their own, such as handicapping parochial schools by multiplying their enrollment by a factor of 1.3. That’s how Illinois and Indiana do it. Another idea is factoring in the number of students on free- or reduced-cost lunch or in special education classes. Those students, say advocates of a rules change, are common in public schools but don’t usually participate in athletics. These non-athletes are counted when determining in which class a school will compete. Parochial schools are likely to have far fewer non-athletes, or so the argument goes.

The deeper you dig into the issue, the more it is apparent that it would require a far more intricate approach than Karpisek’s to achieve sustainable, absolute fairness. Also apparent in the debate is how willing Nebraskans are to generalize on this topic. They think they know all about it, but how much is really fact?

If Nebraskans truly want to level the field, it might require a law as complex as the 2,300-page Affordable Care Act to account for every circumstance. For example, some teams are successful because, for a few years, they are gifted with exceptional athletes, but after those key players exit with diplomas, 12-1 records often turn into 3-9 the next season, when LB1081 would bump up the team one class size.

Here’s an idea, why not consider individual player’s scoring potential or the number of pancake blocks they recorded in the prior season?

The senator for Wilber has caused quite a debate, but it’s hard to imagine what effects his legislation might have. As Berra once said, “Making predictions is tough, especially about the future.”

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McCook Daily Gazette. Jan. 29, 2014.

Unexpected industries grow from legalization

We’ve all heard the arguments about legalizing marijuana and made them ourselves. It will lead to the use of harder drugs, it isn’t worth the social consequences.

It’s not as bad as alcohol - a view shared by President Obama, who definitely inhaled it during his youth, but tells his daughters now that it’s a “waste of time.”

It will create new sources of revenue for local governments, leave room in prisons for more dangerous felons and free up law enforcement resources to deal with more serious crimes.

It’s too early to speculate what the consequences of recreational marijuana use will be_- other than level the playing field in Sunday’s “Stoner Bowl” between Denver and Seattle.

In recent days, however, we noticed a couple of sprouting industries most of us hadn’t thought of.

One is the appearance of marijuana listings in the stock market, totaling about 35 and worth about $5.5 billion.

They’re probably not something you would like to invest your IRA in, although some have soared 1,700 percent in recent weeks.

Like all new, low-priced segments of the market, they tend to attract shady characters and are not something you want to own if you have a low threshold for drama.

If you want to get more involved than just owning stocks, a new Colorado-based tour operator is offering “luxury cannabis tours” to the Rocky Mountain state.

The company says its high-end tours are “created in the same spirit as an exclusive Napa Valley wine vacation” and offer participants to “learn more about a fascinating cult industry that has been repressed and contained for decades.”

They’ll also throw in stays in a five-star hotel, fine dining and excursions to other conventional Colorado activities.

Who knows what’s next? More legal “paraphernalia” and retail shops? Smoke-shrouded night clubs (but how would that mesh with anti-smoking laws?).

As the young folk singer who once introduced marijuana to his four new friends from England once wrote, “the times they are a-changin’.”

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

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