- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

The Grand Island Independent. April 15, 2015

Giving young immigrants driver’s licenses a win for state

Gov. Pete Ricketts has announced that he will veto legislation granting driver’s licenses to young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. Some members of the Nebraska Legislature are choosing to challenge the governor on this issue. The governor apparently finds it necessary to remain loyal to his political base. The members of the Legislature who support granting the driver’s licenses to the young immigrants have the economic and ethical high ground on this issue. Granting legal driving privileges to the young immigrants has multiple positives for Nebraska as well as the young people involved.

The 2,700 Nebraska young people involved in this issue, the so-called DACA program, will not be deported any time soon, if ever, and certainly not before the 2016 presidential election. Nebraska has already invested significantly in these youth. The state of Nebraska educates all youth without consideration of their immigration status. The state has spent many dollars to educate these youth and can now have these young people as part of the work force as well as the consuming public.

Everyone wins when young people can drive to work or school as well as to retail areas where their earnings can be spent. While living in this state, these same young people have undoubtedly used Nebraska health care facilities. As with education, health care is provided to both documented and undocumented people.

The ability to use an automobile is important across this country. Particularly in a state as large and as sparsely populated as Nebraska, the use of an automobile is essential. A driver’s license is also part of obtaining the automobile liability insurance necessary to be a responsible driver. Our highways will be safer with legal drivers who are properly insured. To participate fully in the culture, particularly in Nebraska, involves the use of the automobile.

These young people did not choose to come to this country; that choice was made by their parents. Their parents chose to immigrate for the same reasons that immigrants, legal and illegal, have chosen to come to this country for centuries, opportunity as well as freedom. People vote with their feet to come to the United States, that is the ultimate indicator of a great country. A country that can provide that kind of opportunity should not choose to punish young innocents.

While the status of undocumented people remains a politically divisive issue, the individuals involved have continued to do what they can to improve their lives, particularly the lives of their children. They are an integral part of many Nebraska communities. We should grant them the right to do what every 16-year-old citizen can do, legally drive a car.

According to published reports, Nebraska is the last state to grant that privilege. This measure should be passed before these young people whom we have educated and kept healthy decide to take their Nebraska acquired skills and work ethic elsewhere.

These young innocents should be able to obtain citizenship in a “fast track” process making moot this entire issue. Unfortunately the road to citizenship for these youth will take many years, involve great expense and extensive bureaucracy. This newspaper believes that the Nebraska Legislature should pass this measure and the governor should sign it.

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Lincoln Journal Star. April 19, 2015.

The goals of prison reform

Prison reform seems to have gone off track in the Nebraska Legislature.

The outcome should not be to allow violent criminals to make an early return to the streets.

Yet that would be the impact of legislation introduced in the name of prison reform, according to Attorney General Doug Peterson, Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly and other prosecutors.

Echoing those concerns are politicians ranging from Gov. Pete Ricketts and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert to U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford, who was leading prison reform as a state senator before it was a popular thing to do.

Prison cells should be reserved for the really bad guys, Ashford told the Journal Star, and elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences would mean dangerous criminals would spend less time behind bars.

Peterson described the changes as implementing “early release by design,” in an apparent reference to last year’s scandal in which hundreds of inmates were released early by mistake because their sentences were calculated incorrectly.

The package of reform bills appears to go beyond the goals of reform urged by the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, which worked with state officials, judges, attorneys, court administrators and law enforcement to produce recommendations for Nebraska.

The report suggested that prison space should be reserved for people convicted of violent felonies, and probation should be used to manage people convicted of lower-level offenses.

The report showed the way to accomplish both the goals of reducing costs and overcrowding, and keeping the public safe. Senators need to work toward both goals.

Some of harshest criticism from prosecutors was aimed at LB173, which prosecutors said would remove mandatory minimums for some violent crimes and restrict the use of laws lengthening sentences for habitual criminals.

Only 182 inmates are doing time for convictions as habitual criminals. Nonetheless, under the pending legislation only seven would qualify as habitual, Peterson said.

Under LB605, judges would be deprived of the discretion to hand down a minimum sentence greater than one-third of the maximum. “The Council of State Government has stated that this new language is inconsistent with its recommendations as they cannot model its effect on reducing overcrowding,” Peterson said.

When LB605 was given first round approval earlier this week, Omaha Sen. Heath Mello promised to make changes to meet objections from prosecutors.

As Mello noted, it’s important to give inmates incentives to apply for parole so they can be supervised after release. But those incentives can be designed and implemented without lowering penalties for the worst crimes.

Mello’s promise to work on changes in the legislation is welcome. A primary purpose of Nebraska’s prisons is to keep violent criminals off the streets. Let’s keep it that way.

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Omaha World-Herald. April 17, 2015.

Elected leaders should decide school aid

Nebraskans regularly debate the best way for the state to distribute financial aid to K-12 schools.

That’s no surprise: There’s a wide variety of legitimate school interests across the state, each has its supporters, and there’s no clear consensus about how best to structure the funding formula.

Proposals were being floated in the Legislature this session for an outside panel - a school finance commission - to study and make recommendations on how the funding policy should be recast. This week, the Legislature’s Education Committee sent the right signal by saying that’s not the way to go.

Instead, the committee recommended that a panel of state lawmakers should study the issue in depth, then forge agreement on a comprehensive recommendation to the full Legislature.

That approach illustrates a vital principle: On matters this important, responsibility rests with the people’s representatives, not an unelected panel.

It’s true that at times, the Legislature has turned to outside advisory bodies to study specific issues and offer recommendations. It happened last year, when experts from the Council on State Governments were invited in to examine problems in the Nebraska prison system.

When it comes to tough questions, soliciting input from a wide range of perspectives is healthy.

But the emphasis belongs on input. Lawmakers shouldn’t defer decision-making to unelected advisers. Regardless of the issue, it should always be clear that elected state senators take the lead in setting state policy.

In some cases, an outside panel might become an advocacy tool itself, used as a lobbying instrument to try to compel lawmakers to take a certain course. Senators shouldn’t put themselves in the position of thinking, “There’s nothing to debate. The experts have spoken.”

This is of particular concern in an era of term limits. A large percentage of Nebraska lawmakers is pushed out every two years. More than one-third are new this year. Such turnover gives new opportunities to activists and interest groups - who remain as lawmakers come and go - to exert pressure.

The situation surrounding school funding is complex. The aid formula itself is complicated, there are calls for property tax relief, and many school districts have voiced dissatisfaction with the amount of aid they receive.

Understandable concerns, all.

But it’s a different question whether an appointed commission is the best way to address them.

At Education Committee hearings on the outside commission idea, senators heard repeated claims that such an advisory body would take an independent, detached stance, look beyond parochial concerns to address the issue comprehensively and promote buy-in. Funny thing, though. Many of the panel’s members would have ties to the wide array of educational entities with a direct stake in how state aid funds are distributed.

There’s a key reason why state policy needs to rest firmly in the hands of Nebraska’s state senators: They are elected and directly accountable to the people. Advisory panels aren’t.

And unlike an advisory commission focused on a single policy question, state senators must take the wider view that encompasses the entire state budget. They must weigh competing spending obligations. They must take into account shifting revenue conditions. They must balance school needs with those of prisons, child welfare, the university, Medicaid and more.

Advisory panels can be helpful. But decision- making belongs with the people’s representatives.

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McCook Daily Gazette. April 16, 2015.

Mail-in ballots popular, may be good compromise

Sworn government officials make contact with nearly every voter six days a week in Nebraska, so why not put them to work when it comes to making our democracy function?

Why not indeed, according to the latest information from the Nebraska secretary of state.

McCook is getting in on the trend as well, opting for a mail-only special election when we decide whether or not to renew our local option sales tax.

Of the 16 special elections set so far this year in Nebraska, only five will be the traditional type where voters have to visit the polling places.

“You have to look closely to see the trend,” Secretary of State John Gale said. “Simply because there is no rhyme or reason to the number of special elections held in any given year. County election officials conduct them as necessary.”

It proved to be “necessary” 26 times in 2008, 49 times in 2009, only 18 times in 2010 and back up to 52 times in 2011.

There were 17 special elections in 2012, 33 in 2013 and back to 10 last year.

“Taking into account that yo-yo effect, we noted that if you studied the trend of how people are voting in those special elections, based on odd or even years, the number of elections held at the polls is dropping.”

Special elections held at polls in even years numbered 19 in 2008, 9 in 2010, 9 in 2012 and 4 in 2014. The same trend holds true in odd numbered years: 27 in 2009, 26 in 2011 and 15 in 2013.

“To me, that indicates that when given the choice, more county election officials are moving away from elections held at the polls,” Gale said. “By opting to hold elections by mail, they can avoid the challenges of finding appropriate ADA compliant polling places and the costs associated with training and staffing polling precincts.

All-mail ballots can be used only for non-candidate issues under current law, and recalls and vacancies must be conducted at the polls.

Gale, who would like to change that part of the law, noted that turnout was good in 2014 special elections — 50 percent compared to 29 percent for the four special elections held at the polls.

Republicans in particular are under criticism for pushing voter ID bills, which Democrats say are unnecessary and, by the way, hurt turnout that often benefits their party.

Requiring an established mailing address is at least a small move toward fighting any possible voter fraud, while at the same time improving voter turnout through mail-in ballots seems like a good compromise.

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