- Associated Press - Monday, January 20, 2014

Omaha World-Herald. Jan. 19, 2014.

Don’t ignore long view in tax cut debate

A study of state finances by George Mason University describes Nebraska as the nation’s best-prepared state to pay its financial commitments.

Responsible management of state dollars is a Nebraska tradition, which officials have enhanced since the dark days that followed the 9/11 attacks.

Then, even pay-as-you-go Nebraska was ill-prepared for the sharp economic downturn that followed. State leaders raised taxes and cut government spending. The books stayed balanced.

As things stabilized, leaders and lawmakers placed a new emphasis on building and maintaining a sensible cash reserve. They did so largely by restraining the pace at which state spending grew.

More recently, the tax dollars the state squirreled away - and a resurgent farm economy - helped Nebraska survive the Great Recession better than most states, without unnecessarily destabilizing either tax rates or spending.

Such restraint remains a sound guiding principle. Most job creators, when asked, say they prefer tax predictability to splashy tax cuts that prove unreliable or temporary. Business owners know the importance of being able to plan.

This year, though, Nebraska’s cash reserve is expected to grow beyond what even the most conservative estimates show the state needs, to $726 million by June 30. That’s why Gov. Dave Heineman and legislative leaders are right to discuss tax cuts aimed at economic growth.

But they should only make changes the state, with its long-term needs, can afford to maintain.

At first blush, it will be up to the governor and supporters of his three-year, $500 million tax cut proposal to show taxpayers how the cuts would be sustained over time. The long-term spending implications need to be fully analyzed.

The debate will consider tax cuts as part of the state’s mix of competing needs. The key will be to make responsible budget judgments that allow the state to meet its ongoing obligations, such as school funding and child welfare, even as lawmakers debate new spending for such items as prisons and Medicaid expansion.

The right kinds of tax cuts can spur economic growth. So there is merit in the governor’s proposed income tax rate cuts for those in Nebraska’s top tax bracket. In Nebraska, that’s not the “1 percent.” The top tax bracket kicks in at $29,000 for individuals, not exactly high-rollers.

Many Nebraskans work for small businesses, and many business owners pay their business taxes through the income tax, at the top rate. These are the Main Street businesses from McCook to South Sioux City that employ thousands.

Getting more money into the hands of employees and entrepreneurs should be the goal of tax changes. The goal is similar with adjustments to state programs that shift the burden of local property taxes onto state sales and income taxpayers.

The governor’s support for cutting the property valuations of agricultural land to 65 percent from 75 percent of full value would benefit the vital economic engines of rural communities, farmers and ranchers. That’s a good thing.

But it also would pull the windfall of increased land valuations away from schools and local governments, which must provide needed services to often-shrinking communities.

Local spending on schools, roads, law enforcement and fire protection drives property taxes, which rose by more than 5 percent in 70 counties last year. The only lasting way to restrain property taxes is to restrain local government spending.

The proposed ag-land valuation change could wind up being a tax shift, not a cut. And it could commit state taxpayers to increased state aid to education for some land-rich, people-poor rural school districts.

In the end, local governments would have to live within their means or raise property tax rates. So there is a chance this change could wind up increasing property taxes on some homeowners.

And what if land values level out or drop?

Still, it is hard to imagine tax relief of any kind passing the Legislature without some sort of property tax offset. The Tax Modernization Committee heard how strongly Nebraskans feel about that.

But senators will need to make sure any tax changes outweigh the potential consequences.

Nebraska already has the nation’s third-lowest unemployment rate, and it weathered the Great Recession better than most. While sustainable tax cuts are welcome, there is no shame in standing pat if the alternative is adopting changes that would be jettisoned in the next downturn.


Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Jan. 19, 2014.

Inequality: Gender disparity in child custody awards is a judicial relic that needs to end

“Inequality” has become a modern political buzzword, usually used in the context of an outrage that demands legislative correction.

Lately the gap in pay between men and women has raised a few hackles. Critics say that although women make up approximately half of all workers in the United States, they earn on average only 77 percent of what the average male makes. Others point out that African Americans and Latinos are imprisoned in the United States in ratios disproportionate to the overall population.

Those discrepancies are often regarded as clear evidence of bias. But an inexplicable and unfair gap in child custody awards draws little attention from the media or outrage from those who demand a strictly level playing field in other cultural arenas.

In Nebraska, district court judges decide custody and parenting time in contested cases. The best interest of the children is supposed to be their primary concern. But the Nebraska Administrative Office of the Courts recently reported that from 2002 to 2012, mothers were awarded sole or primary custody in 72 per cent of child custody cases. Fathers were awarded sole or primary custody only 13.8 percent of the time. Joint custody with shared residence - essentially equal parenting time - was awarded in only 12.3 percent of cases. Non-custodial parents got to see their children only 5.5 days per month.

Writing Friday in the Omaha World-Herald, family law attorneys Chris Johnson and Amy Sherman said “most non-custodial parents have access to their children less than 20 percent of the time, a shockingly low number.”

The difference in custody awards isn’t explainable by factors such as domestic violence, which was verified in only 5.9 percent of custody cases, or extreme levels of conflict between divorcing couples, which the study found in only 12 percent of cases.

“These figures are import ant because mental health research shows children have significantly poorer outcomes when they have insufficient parenting time with either parent. Children are less likely to finish school, more likely to engage in high-risk activities and more likely to be involved in criminal behavior than if they have two parents actively involved in their lives, regard less of whether their parents are living together,” the lawyers wrote.

Over the years we’ve heard many mothers complain that the fathers of their children fail to pay child support. Indeed, “deadbeat dads” are a serious problem in America. The justice system goes after them in a variety of ways, including wage garnishment and seizure of assets.

But men often complain that their ex-wives ignore custody rulings, failing to make children available for visits or even moving away to prevent contact between them and their children. When they take those complaints to court, they often fall on deaf ears.

Only four of the state’s 12 state judicial districts have adopted parenting time guidelines, all of which are different and none of which are research-based. Cases are “often decided based on presumptions used by individual judges, which vary greatly and are rarely research-based,” the lawyers wrote.

Of the 3,400 Nebraska divorces involving children in 2011, 28 percent resulted in joint custody, and 60 percent resulted in sole custody for mothers. In about 10 percent of cases, fathers were granted sole custody. In Judicial District 12, which includes the Panhandle, the Nebraska Administrative Office of the Courts analysis found that mothers were awarded sole custody 75 percent of the time.

A judge can reduce a man’s future role in his children’s lives to little more than a convenient checkbook. With divorce so tragically common in modern family life, you don’t have to look far to find cases in which loving fathers have been evicted from their homes and cut off from their children. Some dads are deadbeats, but that doesn’t justify the bias in custody cases. Men as well as women are capable of providing stable homes and sound parenting.

A bill up for consideration in the current session, Legislative Bill 22, would require courts to provide joint legal custody and maximum parenting time for both parties, as long as judges determine that it’s in a child’s best interest. In cases where conflict between parents is detrimental to children, a judge could still decide that exclusive custody is justified.

Children need both parents in their lives. In cases where parents can’t remain together, fathers deserve better justice than they’re getting. This is the 21st century. Judicial whim ought to give way to clear, research-based standards that support custody awards based on parental fitness, regardless of gender.


Lincoln Journal Star. Jan. 18, 2014.

Milliken positioned NU for future

Critics of J.B. Milliken’s 10-year stint as president of the University of Nebraska were few and far between this week.

Waves of accolades rolled across the state after Milliken announced he would be leaving to become chancellor of the City University of New York.

The unanimity of approval was in contrast to his selection, made by the NU Board of Regents after some its members publicly supported a different candidate and one member suggested restarting the search.

That rocky start is only a fading memory as Milliken departs, and it’s a testament to the level of his success.

Enrollment at NU reached a 20-year high and the NU Foundation took in a record $236.7 million in donations last year.

His most important and perhaps most lasting achievement as president may be less tangible.

Milliken helped develop and sharpen a vision for NU as a global leader in the science of food production and water conservation, and helped marshal resources to reshape the university in alignment with that vision.

Creation of the Water for Food Institute with a $50 million donation from Robert Daugherty, founder of Valmont, put UNL on the map in the global effort to feed a world population projected to hit 8 billion by 2025.

Milliken worked with UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and others for the creation of Innovation Campus on the former state fairgrounds. The campus now taking shape will include a food, fuel and water research facility.

The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources last year announced plans to fill 36 tenured or tenure-track positions.

Other Milliken priorities included keeping an education at NU affordable for Nebraska students. The “Collegebound Nebraska” program promises that any student who qualifies for a Pell grant will receive other grants equal to the cost of tuition.

Milliken also helped establish the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, which promises to reap rewards for the state in the burgeoning field of improving childhood education in the early years when their brains are developing.

Milliken’s departure for New York will bring a certain symmetry to his family life. Milliken’s wife, Nana Smith, is a New York native, and Milliken, a Fremont native, went to law school in New York and practiced law on Wall Street.

There’s no doubt that Milliken left NU in better shape and better positioned for the future than he found it. Whoever may replace him as NU president will join a university that has momentum for improvement.


The Grand Island Independent. Jan. 19, 2014.

Prison reforms come with costs

“Good time” would become “earned time” under a prison reform plan proposed by Gov. Dave Heineman, Attorney General Jon Bruning and Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh.

Heineman, Bruning and others are trying to address an issue that arose last year after Nikko Jenkins allegedly killed four people in Omaha after he was released early from prison.

State law gives inmates a one-day reduction in their sentence, or good time, for each day served in prison. Heineman and Bruning want that good time to be given to prisoners convicted of violent crimes only for good behavior and completion of rehabilitation programs, which is done in 31 other states.

While Heineman’s proposal has a lot of merit, the issue is muddied by several issues that can be laid at the governor’s feet. First, at a press conference last week the governor made a demeaning and petty comment.

Heineman said those who oppose his plan are “soft on crime” and “stand with the criminals of the state.” How ridiculous.

The governor was pointing the finger at two critics of the state’s prison system - state Sen. Ernie Chambers and State Ombudsman Marshall Lux.

The governor seems to think that anyone who has the audacity to be critical of his administration deserves to be belittled. Just because someone is critical of the state’s prison system doesn’t mean they are “soft on crime” or “stand with criminals.” In reality, it’s just a ploy to deflect attention away from the Heineman administration’s failings that were on display in the Nikko Jenkins case.

In fact, Lux has raised a lot of strong points that need to be addressed. First, a change in the good time law is going to make overcrowding at the state’s prisons even worse. The state’s prisons now are holding 1,700 more inmates than their design capacity.

To his credit, Heineman acknowledged this in his State of the State speech. He proposed using county jails and a state prison work camp in McCook to relieve overcrowding, hiring 59 more corrections officers and looking at alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

The point the governor ignores is that in his 10 years in office he has done little to nothing to solve the prison overcrowding problem.

Second, Lux said that 1 in 7 inmates, or 700, were on waiting lists for rehabilitation programs. That raises the question of how the state can make good time contingent on completion of rehabilitation programs when the state fails to fund the programs at an adequate level.

A change to “earned time” would have to provide funding that would allow that time to be “earned.”

Most Nebraskans would agree with Heineman and Bruning that violent criminals should have to earn reductions in their prison sentences. That only makes sense.

However, they would also say that the state can’t afford to neglect adequately funding the prison system or more Nikko Jenkins cases will arise.



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