- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

Omaha World-Herald. Nov. 5, 2015

A welcome turnaround.

Access Nebraska Program.

One of the most criticized and disappointing programs in Nebraska state government in recent years is something called AccessNebraska.

The State Department of Health and Human Services set up the program in 2008, aiming to process public assistance cases more quickly and efficiently. Programs handled by AccessNebraska include food stamps, child care subsidies, heating assistance and Medicaid.

Under the 2008 changes, the state began to reduce its number of staff positions by 225 and switch to using call centers and online tools. Before long, HHS said, the state would start seeing savings of around $8 million a year.

There were some savings, but also repeated complications and frustrations. AccessNebraska became a poster child for government overpromising and inadequate follow-up.

A 2013 report from the Legislature’s Performance Audit Committee was unsparing in describing a host of problems, including some horrendously long wait times.

These failures have wound up costing the state financially, since its poor performance meant Nebraska was no longer awarded federal bonuses for adequate performance.

As The World-Herald’s Martha Stoddard reported, Nebraska ranked last during the first six months of 2014 for processing applications for the supplemental nutritional assistance program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

There’s some encouraging, important news of late, however.

A welcome series of new efficiencies has begun to lift AccessNebraska out of the morass.

In September, the average wait time fell below 5 minutes. “That marks the shortest wait time in the past three years and is down from a peak of more than 23 minutes in June,” Stoddard reports.

The changes also have improved accuracy in processing benefits applications and renewals.

There’s still a way to go in boosting Nebraska’s performance, but the progress thus far is significant and laudable.

Credit should be extended to HHS and to Felix Davidson, who oversees efficiency efforts as the state government’s chief operating officer, a post created this year by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

“One of our state’s most important duties is to help our most vulnerable citizens,” Ricketts said at a press conference in announcing these improvements. “What we’re working on is making government work for Nebraska.”

Indeed so. May the improvements and positive spirit continue.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Nov. 7, 2015

Credit Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska and a host of ranchers, farmers and other Nebraskans for a grassroots campaign that scored a historic victory Friday when the Keystone XL pipeline was rejected Friday by the Obama administration.

While the Nebraskans were concerned about local issues like protection of the state’s groundwater, they also were part of the national effort that turned the pipeline into a symbolic rallying point in the fight against climate change.

The decision by the Obama administration that the pipeline “would not serve the national interest” puts an end, at least for now, to TransCanada’s attempt to build a 1,179-mile pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska.

As President Obama said in his statement, the pipeline for years has occupied “an overinflated role in our political discourse,” used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter. “And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others,” the president said.

In fact, during the seven years that the administration dithered on a pipeline permit decision, Canadian oil sand production continued to rise to around 2 million barrels a day as oil companies turned to rail to transport the crude.

Nebraska had more at stake than most of America. On the plus side, construction of the pipeline would have created hundreds of temporary jobs and a handful of permanent jobs. It also would have pumped millions of dollars in property tax revenue into local governments near the pipeline route.

On the negative side, the pipeline would have introduced a new risk of groundwater contamination.

One important legacy of the Keystone XL pipeline controversy is that it finally awakened Nebraskans to the need to exercise more control over the siting of pipelines in the state.

The first route proposed for the pipeline would have cut a scar through Nebraska’s fragile Sandhills. TransCanada changed the route after Gov. Dave Heineman called a special session of the Legislature. The state now has in law an approval process for such pipelines, even if it is under attack in the courts. That new oversight authority may be altered in coming years, but it undoubtedly will endure.

National media gave primary credit to Bill McKibben’s 350.org for turning the pipeline into a rallying point for people who wanted to fight global warming. Nebraskans did their part, joining national rallies in Washington against the pipeline.

Demand for oil-sand crude has slackened due to a worldwide glut. Expansion projects have been put on hold because of the low price of oil. When and if prices climb, the pipeline battle may renew.

In the wake of the pipeline rejection, an important question looms. What issue will the activists who fought it so ferociously turn to now? It would be best for the struggle against climate change if they found a cause of more than symbolic value.

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The Grand Island Independent. Nov. 6, 2015

G.I. playing big role in cultural visitations.

Promoting better international relationships one handshake at a time has long been the goal of the Grand Island Council of International Visitors.

Over the past six weeks they have had ample opportunity to extend Grand Island hospitality to people beyond our shores with visitors from Morocco, Belgium and Pakistan. The U.S. State Department has long recognized the quality of Grand Island as a host site and has been sending visitors here for many years. The CIV has literally put Grand Island “on the map” as a site where foreign guests can learn about any topic related to life in our Midwest state. Perhaps most important, the Grand Island CIV has shown that it can make guests feel really welcome and “at home.”

The CIV has a very effective program because the community of Grand Island opens its doors and hearts to our visitors. The mayor’s office is the beginning of every official program and then visitors are taken to sites related to the goals of their official visit. Guests have had the opportunity to learn from “local experts” in topics that include agriculture, industry, education, law enforcement, judicial system, government and multiple social and cultural issues.

Foreign visitors usually begin their travels in the United States with visits to Washington, D.C., and/or other large urban areas. After exposure to life in more populated areas, their travel plans often bring them to places like Grand Island where they get to experience the “good life.” Shared meal experiences in homes and communal locations are part of Grand Island hospitality. Reviews submitted by visitors after they return home always identify Grand Island as the site where they experienced true friendship and felt the love of extended family.

The latest group of visitors was eight women from Pakistan who are studying female leadership in government, business and society. Pakistan recently gave the world the youngest Nobel Prize winner in Malala Yousafzai, who almost died from an assassin’s bullets because she publicly promoted gender equal educational opportunities. With numerous opportunities to share women’s issues with very capable female leaders in Grand Island, hopefully our guests will return to Pakistan inspired to carry on their “women’s movement.”

We applaud the work of the Grand Island Council of International Visitors and the many citizens of the Grand Island area who so successfully share our community with foreign visitors. The Grand Island Council of International Visitors is a totally volunteer organization. Their only discretionary budget comes from the dues members pay. They welcome new members.

Conflict and war seem to go on forever. In our troubled world trillions of dollars are spent on preparations for war. We can only hope that these visits bear fruit and help make our world more peaceful. As we prepare to honor the service and sacrifices of our veterans on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, we are reminded that programs that build international goodwill and understanding are essential.

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The McCook Gazette. Nov. 6, 2015.

Marijuana latest vice for tribes to exploit?

The Omaha Tribe is considering a new tactic to strengthen self-reliance and cultural identity.

Or, it’s attempting to capitalize on the “growing” tolerance of marijuana, depending on your point of view.

Tribal members Tuesday to legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational use and to grow industrial hemp. Leaders are now considering reservation land in western Iowa for growing the plant.

It’s nothing new for tribes to capitalize on our vices, operating casinos near areas where they are not allowed.

But it’s hard to fault tribes for trying to improve their lot, especially after considering the White Clay beer sales and economic conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

If the Omahas do proceed with the marijuana enterprise, it may be because they saw more good than harm in the Flandreau Santee Sioux’s marijuana resort about 45 miles north of Sioux Falls, S.D.

Omaha Tribe officials can’t say whether their Blackbird Bend casino could be expanded into a similar resort.

They say they’ll work with attorneys and law enforcement agencies in Nebraska and Iowa to avoid legal problems.

Wehona Stabler of the Carl T. Curtis Health Education Center in Macy says wild hemp flourishes on the Omaha reservation, and marijuana offers a welcome link to the tribe’s heritage.

“Western medicine that we promote now is not ours,” Stabler said. “This was forced on us by the government - the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

She says tribal members would benefit from medical marijuana as an alternative treatment for cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.

If Nebraska’s experience with Colorado is any guide, marijuana crossing exiting the Omaha reservation will join the issue of beer entering the Pine Ridge as problems to be solved.

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