- Associated Press - Monday, March 24, 2014

Omaha World-Herald. March 20, 2014

Welcome alternative on child welfare

It’s no secret that Nebraska has made some big mistakes on child welfare in the past.

In 2009, the state leaped abruptly into privatizing the system, triggering tumult and confusion. Time and again, the executive branch and the Legislature have clashed over child welfare policy.

Nebraska in the past few years has made progress on some child welfare needs, though challenges remain. It’s encouraging now to see a sensible consensus for the state to begin exploring a new approach known as “alternative response.”

Alternative response aims in selected cases to help families in problem situations early on, using a less adversarial approach with parents before things escalate into turmoil.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services estimated last year that alternative response could be used in about 40 percent of the state’s child welfare cases, with the remaining portion being addressed through the traditional investigative approach.

Experience in other states has shown that if properly implemented, alternative response can help stabilize families and reduce the number of children taken into state custody.

This is why the federal government is giving permission to individual states to devote a share of their federal funding to that purpose - if the states put forward a well-developed proposal.

The Nebraska HHS received such permission last October, pending approval by the Nebraska Legislature this year. Legislative Bill 853, sponsored by Sen. Colby Coash, would give that go-ahead and has received first-round approval.

The Nebraska HHS has consulted with Nebraska nonprofits and developed a prudent path on this issue. Rather than leaping ahead without proper planning, the department would test the waters through pilot projects in five counties (Sarpy, Lancaster, Hall, Dodge and Scotts Bluff).

Researchers with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln would evaluate the results and report back in 2015.

Under alternative response, the state works with parents on a plan for moving forward. An interdisciplinary team would provide support services.

In cases where safety has been identified as a concern, the state would continue to use the traditional approach. There would be a formal investigation with the participation of law enforcement.

There are challenges that Nebraska leaders should address. Under alternative response, the child is not interviewed separately. But Nebraska nonprofits say such interviews have value.

No formal report is filed under alternative response. But if the state is to have accountability and oversight, some type of report is appropriate.

Overall, however, alternative response is well worth testing on a pilot basis in Nebraska. It’s good to see the state’s leaders pursuing this approach in a collaborative, practical way.

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Lincoln Journal Star. March 20, 2014

Time for a rule change

Now that a minority of state senators has beaten back the attempt to expand Medicaid in Nebraska, perhaps next year the Legislature will be more open to lowering the number of votes required to end a filibuster.

Supporters of expansion were able to muster only 27 votes on Wednesday in favor of ending the filibuster, far short of the 33 votes required under the Legislature’s current rules.

The Journal Star editorial board is on record in support of lowering the number of votes required to end debate to 30, which is also the number of votes required to override a gubernatorial veto.

Our objective in promoting this rule change is not to provide an advantage to any particular political group.

We just don’t want the Nebraska Legislature to start operating like Congress, where the system has become so degraded that even the threat of filibuster is enough to make the system grind to a halt.

To be sure, there is some advantage to requiring a supermajority on a vote to end debate. Giving a minority a bit of leverage has often proved useful in restraining the majority from extreme measures.

But setting the number of votes needed at 33 means that it takes only 17 members to put a halt to action.

One lesson that can be drawn from action on LB887, the Medicaid expansion bill introduced by Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, is that the minority of opponents to this sensible and practical bill didn’t need to keep the limit at 33.

Thirty votes would have been sufficient to protect the ability of the minority to continue filibustering.

Next year there may not be as much fear of political fallout from expansion of Medicaid in Nebraska. But this year on the state and national level, Republicans hope to use public antipathy to the Affordable Care Act as a campaign hot button to regain seats in Congress.

So maybe it was the wrong year to make a legislative rule change that could have resulted in an embarrassment to foes of the ACA.

Maybe next year, after that political game has played out, state senators will be more willing to agree to a reasonable reduction in the number of votes required to end a filibuster.

In the long run, the move would help keep the Legislature functioning at a high level and, overall, more likely to pass legislation that is in the state’s best interest.

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The Grand Island Independent. March 19, 2014

Guardian bill will help state’s less fortunate

The Nebraska Legislature is on the verge of rectifying a situation that has jeopardized some of the state’s most vulnerable residents for too long.

LB920 has reached final reading and would create the Office of Public Guardian. This office would give legal guardianship for elderly and disabled residents who lack other options.

Nebraska is the only state without a guardianship office. Many would hope that such a government office wouldn’t be needed. That families or friends would serve as guardians for people unable to make decisions for themselves.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it is in society today. Families are often spread throughout the country. In some cases, there may not be any close family. Friends often aren’t willing to take on the responsibility.

“Nebraskans take care of their own,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln. “But as the last state, what we’re going to find is a growing need (for volunteers) and a diminished capacity.”

What the state has found, unfortunately, is that the current system left the courts no choice but to appoint guardians from private services who had no connection to the person and were doing it for profit.

For example, Judith Widener of Scottsbluff was named guardian for 688 people in 60 counties. Providing the needed attention to these 688 cases was impossible. In fact, Widener appears to have been taking advantage of the system and has been charged with embezzling $600,000 from her clients.

LB920 would help rectify this with oversight of the state’s guardian system. In the new office would be a director, deputy public guardian and up to 12 associate guardians. Of course, these 14 people couldn’t handle all of the cases in the state. But they would provide education, training and support to current and future guardians. They also would serve as guardians when no one else could be found.

Guardians would help make decisions on health care and living arrangements.

It’s important that Nebraska adopt such a system, even though it is adding to state government and will cost an estimated $880,000 in the first year.

Nebraska can’t leave disabled people and elderly who don’t have the capacity to make decisions for themselves to the whims of people looking to take advantage of the system. Guardians need oversight to make sure they are acting in the best interests of the individual.

To do otherwise, leaves the most vulnerable among us in danger. Nebraskans care too much about others to let that happen.

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Scottsbluff Star-Herald. March 18, 2014

Bad bet

Before Nebraska lawmakers make a decision on a proposal to let Nebraskans bet on recorded horse races, somebody should have them read a recent edition of the Omaha World-Herald.

It included a report about the woes of the greyhound racing industry in Iowa. The Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs is losing about $9 million a year on dog racing. Betting peaked at the track at $123.3 million in 1987. Last year, bettors laid down only $4 million in wagers.

The casino isn’t too worried about it, however. A measure introduced this year would allow the Horseshoe and the Mystique Casino in Dubuque to drop greyhound racing, after paying the greyhound industry, which complains that getting rid of the tracks will put almost 1,400 people out of work, a cool $70 million to just go away. They’d then be free to focus on their more profitable enterprise: slots, card games and other forms of gambling. The 10 acres of greyhound facilities would be developed as hotels and eateries for high rollers.

Dog racing is the reason the casinos opened in the first place. In 1995, a change in Iowa law allowed racetracks to expand into casino gambling. By the time big-time casino operator Harrah’s bought Horseshoe and Bluffs Run in 2001, the decline in popularity of dog racing was already underway. Although casinos take in millions fleecing the gullible, Greyhound supporters argue that the casino bosses now are deliberately letting the greyhound track go to the dogs; it’s become run down and seedy and unattractive to the casino crowd.

Proponents of the change, including Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh, say it’s time the dog racers realize they’re a dying breed.

“I understand that they have been in a position where they have earned a living in the dog racing business, but business has changed. Businesses have life cycles, and the life cycle for dog racing is over,” he said.

Why should the Nebraska Legislature be concerned about that?

Because Legislative Resolution 41CA has passed two rounds of debate on its way to passage. It would amend the state constitution to allow gambling via video terminals at the state’s licensed horse tracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Columbus and Hastings. Bettors would wager on previously run horse races. They’d be given information about the horses’ past performances but not the horses’ names or the dates, places or times of the real races. Proponents are selling the idea as a boost to the state’s horse racing industry, which, like Iowa’s dog tracks, has seen interest plummet in the face of competition from casinos. Let the video gambling in, they argue, and Nebraska can save jobs connected with the racing industry.

Don’t bet on it.

Despite numerous strategies to open up gambling in Nebraska, the Legislature and voters have repeatedly turned them down. Over the past decade, Nebraska voters have rejected four ballot measures aimed at legalizing expanded gambling. Nebraskans are sensible folks, and they realize that the potential problems connected with habitual gambling outweigh the benefits. Nebraskans can buy lottery tickets and visit keno parlors if they have a few bucks to wager. If they can afford to drop big money in casinos, the opportunity isn’t hard to come by. Colorado and South Dakota are a few hours away, or they can hop a flight to some of the flashier joints in Nevada. Cobble up a cinder-block casino in every mid-sized Nebraska town and the problems would stay right here while the profits go to Vegas and the taxes go to Lincoln.

Anyone looking for an example about the hazards of gambling addiction need look no further than former State Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha, who lost her seat after she was charged in both state and federal courts after using money from her campaign funds for casino gambling. Closer to home, several cases of embezzlement have been linked to problem gambling.

Selling limited gambling expansion as a lifeline for horse racing is a ploy that would no doubt follow the same track as those Iowa greyhounds: Once they have their hoof in the door, they’ll argue for different types of gambling. And when the horses become a drag on the operation, they’ll come back touting all those casino jobs and betting that lawmakers will let them send the real ponies out to pasture. It’s not hard to imagine the mayors of Omaha or Lincoln offering comforting words about the need for horse owners to face reality about their dying industry.

No, thanks.

The Legislature has considered bills on recorded horse races three times in the past six years. They all failed. It’s time for that idea to ride off into the sunset.

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