- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

Omaha World-Herald. February 21, 2017

Strengthen penalties for sex trafficking in Nebraska

The coercion of young adults and children into prostitution is an especially abhorrent crime. A worthwhile proposal before the Nebraska Legislature to toughen the penalties for sex trafficking deserves lawmakers’ consideration.

Legislative Bill 289, by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, would increase the felony classifications for forcing individuals into commercial sexual activity. The proposal would build on legislation passed in 2015.

About 900 individuals were advertised in one month as “escorts” in communities across Nebraska on Backpage.com, a classified advertising website, according to a new report by the Human Trafficking Initiative, a research group.

Nationwide, a substantial portion of escorts are forced into committing sex acts for money, law enforcement authorities say.

Data for the report was compiled by Creighton University’s Heider College of Business. Researchers’ software looked for indicators of coercion and trafficking, including signs that the individual was underage or a part of a larger group of people.

More than 70 percent of ads included at least one indicator of human trafficking, the report found. Fifteen percent showed multiple indicators, the World-Herald’s Mara Klecker reports.

More than 1 in 10 of the ads promoted someone under 21 years old, and 1 in 5 said the individual was “very young.”

Half the individuals in the Backpage ads for Nebraska communities were African-American, even though only 5 percent of the state’s population is black.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on Pansing Brooks‘ proposal Thursday. Committee members need to deliberate over the specifics of LB 289, honing it if needed to prepare it well for floor debate by the full Legislature.

Terry Clark, co-director of the Human Trafficking Initiative, is right that the report from his group can help strengthen the understanding of the sex trafficking situation in Nebraska. The Human Trafficking Initiative is supported by the Women’s Fund of Omaha and funded by the Sherwood Foundation.

State Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, now speaker, introduced legislation on the sex trafficking issue in 2015 in coordination with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, telling his colleagues, “Human trafficking is not an issue that is foreign to Nebraska. It treats the vulnerable as a human commodity.”

Scheer is among the 10 senators co-sponsoring Pansing Brooks‘ legislation.

A positive step in Omaha on this issue is SAFE-T, a Salvation Army initiative providing a 24-hour hotline for trafficking victims and improved case management services for them. The effort is supported by a $1.5 million federal grant to the Salvation Army and the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.

It’s encouraging to see Nebraska make strides in addressing this issue in recent years. LB 289 provides a welcome opportunity to explore the options for further progress.

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Lincoln Journal Star. February 24, 2017

Delegation should hold town halls

It’s disappointing that no one in Nebraska’s congressional delegation scheduled a town hall meeting during the current weeklong recess.

As we have said at various points through the years, town hall meetings are a grand American tradition, a valuable access point at which constituents can meet face-to-face with their representatives.

They are particularly important in the current media age in which voters and their elected representatives can all too easily isolate themselves in echo chambers where they hear only those with whom they agree.

Admittedly, those town hall meetings can be noisy, confrontational events. The potential was in evidence Tuesday in Lincoln, when protesters left the public sidewalk to enter a building where Sen. Deb Fischer was speaking to the Lincoln Independent Business Association.

The protest was organized in part by the local Indivisible Lincoln organization, one of more than 4,000 offshoots across the country inspired by the “Indivisible Guide” written by former congressional staffers on how to “resist the Trump agenda.”

According to multiple sources, some of the protesters banged on interior windows, stomped in the hallway and created a ruckus that made it difficult for those in the LIBA meeting to hear what Fischer was saying. The senator left through a different door and avoided protesters and the media.

When Sen. Ben Nelson was in office, he continued to hold town hall meetings despite repeated noisy confrontations with Tea Party types and other critics while Congress was considering health reform legislation. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry also has braved noisy constituents. In a 2014 town hall meeting in Lincoln it was difficult for those in attendance to hear the questions, and at one point, Fortenberry had to admonish one speaker to “stop yelling.”

Typically, the most common time for town hall meetings is in August, when Congress frequently has a long recess.

But this week, with a new occupant in the White House, was a prime opportunity for members of Congress to gauge what their constituents back home think about what’s going in Washington. Only 21 Republican and 27 Democratic federal lawmakers scheduled town hall meetings this week, according to the Roll Call news organization.

In Iowa, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst held town hall meetings that attracted big crowds. The Des Moines Register reported that Grassley’s appearance in the small town of Garner “was civil,” though at times heated. “When it ended, protesters thanked Grassley for coming and taking their questions,” the newspaper reported.

The next time Congress has a recess, the Journal Star editorial board hopes members of the Nebraska delegation invite the public to town hall meetings. It also hopes everyone who attends will be civil and allow open dialogue to take place.

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Kearney Hub. February 22, 2017

Nebraska tax policy should be fair to all

We hope Nebraska lawmakers were watching this week as Kansas legislators worked to undo the economic damage done in their state by ill-conceived tax policy. For the past several years, state government in Kansas has struggled and so have Kansans who depend upon the government while the Sunflower State suffered the fallout of a strategy that began with the promise of economic prosperity but has proven the inescapable need for balance - in spending, in distributing the cost of government, and in what people should expect from their government.

Several years ago, with the urging and reassurance of Gov. Sam Brownback, state income taxes were sharply reduced. According to the governor, the big drop in taxes would supercharge the Kansas economy by allowing Kansans to keep more of their earnings and by attracting investment in the state. It all sounded reasonable and logical, but the big tax cuts went mostly to the higher earners, while average Kansans received very little benefit.

According to one study, the result was a net tax increase for people making less than $42,000 annually, while Kansans who earn more than $500,000 averaged a $25,000 tax break. Meanwhile, lawmakers attempted to plug revenue gaps by hiking state fees and property and sales taxes - again, increasing the burden on average Kansans.

The economic boom that Brownback promised never materialized, and so the middle class carried an even higher burden while the state government failed to serve the truly needy and vulnerable.

The lesson for Nebraskans is three-fold.

First, cut taxes for the right reason. Do it because Nebraskans desperately need a break, especially from high property taxes.

Second, don’t cut taxes without accompanying cuts in government spending. It’s a wise balancing act that, in the long run, unburdens taxpayers and delivers the assurance that relief is more than a one- or two-year phenomenon.

Third, be certain that the tax cutting and spending reductions are fair. The people who most need a break must receive it.

Complementing tax cuts with spending reductions and fairness is the key that Kansas missed. If Nebraska really wants economic growth, it begins by tending to the needs of the state’s hardworking, loyal residents. Give Nebraskans reduced taxes and a fair break and the economic growth will follow naturally.

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The Grand Island Independent. February 24, 2017

Fonner set to continue its success

Fonner Park is scheduled to start its 64th season of live horse racing today, although the weather could forestall opening day, and it’s good to see the thoroughbreds and the horsemen back in Grand Island.

Fonner Park and the horses continue to be an important part of Grand Island’s economy and culture. While over the last few decades horse racing has declined in Nebraska and the U.S., Fonner Park has a successful meet every year.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t major challenges. For Fonner, every year its success hinges on the weather. A prolonged winter can be hard on attendance and wagering numbers.

In addition, Fonner found out last year that the horse industry must be vigilant in keeping disease from spreading. Last year, a barn and about 200 horses had to be quarantined for three weeks after the equine herpes virus appeared on the grounds.

And, of course, horse racing is competing against expanded gambling facilities throughout the country.

Still, Fonner keeps holding its own.

A lot of that has to do with good management. Bruce Swihart has entered his second year as executive director of Fonner Park, but he has been involved in the racing season for 41 years. He has the experience to know what makes for a good meet.

The early season also has always helped Fonner. It starts before some other Midwestern tracks, making it a good training area for horses to get into shape.

Horse racing also is different from other forms of gambling. There is a whole industry behind it. Horses are bred and trained. They must be cared for and exercised. They need feed and barns. In other words, there are a lot of people employed taking care of the horses as well as money spent for supplies.

Even more people are employed during the live race season, taking the wagers, providing security and selling concessions. Visitors from out of town also will eat at restaurants, stay at motels and go shopping in Grand Island.

Fonner Park also succeeds because it has diversified over the years. It has added the Heartland Events Center, which host events such as concerts, the Nebraska State Cheer and Dance Championships and the Heartland Hoops Classic, which have been held there the last two weekends.

In addition, the Nebraska State Fair’s location there has added facilities that prove popular for events year-round. Numerous livestock shows and other events draw large crowds.

So Fonner Park is more than just a horse racing track. Still, the live season is an important part of Grand Island’s vibrancy and heritage. It has been built upon year after year.

As the horses burst out of the starting gate today (or Saturday, depending on the weather), here’s hoping that Fonner has a successful live racing season for the 64th year.

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