- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

Lincoln Journal Star. Sept. 18, 2014.

More money than ever flowing into campaigns

The billionaires and millionaires have pulled out their checkbooks. The advertising agencies and polling firms have crafted their products. Television stations and cable operators have booked the time.

Now the ads, positive and negative, have begun to fill the airwaves, selling their product with smears and cheers and forcing consumers to try to sort out the truth, the best or at least their favorite among the choices.

But the advertising isn’t selling pizza or peanut butter or pop. It’s hawking candidates for all levels of office, but primarily for top positions: governor, U.S. Senate and Congress. And it’s happening across the country.

The use of advertising and public relations techniques to promote politicians is far from new. The late Joe McGinniss detailed how those techniques were used by Roger Ailes, who now runs Fox News, to elect Richard Nixon in 1968 in his classic book “The Selling of the President.”

But more money than ever is pouring into campaigns this year, the result of a pair of Supreme Court decisions - 2010’s Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, in which a 5-4 split court allowed corporate spending on elections, and April’s McCutcheon ruling, in which the same conservative/liberal split struck down limits on individual campaign spending.

“If Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision, we fear, will open a floodgate,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in his dissent, which he read from the bench five months ago.

Breyer has already been proved prophetic.

According to the Washington Post, 310 donors gave a combined $11.6 million more by this summer than would have been allowed before the ruling.

Not surprisingly, those contributions favored Republican candidates and committees over Democratic ones by 2 to 1.

The cash has continued to flow and is fueling a never-ending onslaught of television commercials that often dirty up the process by attacking candidates with distortions and exaggerations and, at best - when they’re positive - overstate the candidate’s virtues.

That makes an undecided voter’s choice more difficult and drives elections to be ever more partisan and divisive.

The flood of money won’t stop before November - or at all as 2016 presidential campaigns are already gearing up.

The biggest hope is that a direct correlation between spending and votes doesn’t become the electoral norm. If that occurs, the big money really will have purchased the democratic process.

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Scottsbluff Star-Herald.

National Guard: Action by Congress allows training and paychecks for units to continue

Congress rarely does anything these days, let alone do anything right. But in the case of coming up with funding for National Guard training, it did both.

A $101 million shortfall in the Army National Guard’s personnel budget was expected to force units in Nebraska, Iowa and elsewhere in the country to delay weekend drills for several weeks because they couldn’t afford to pay their troops. The shortfall, blamed in part on the ongoing budget sequestration, would have meant delayed paychecks for tens of thousands of Army National Guard soldiers, including local troops. In addition, more troops were home instead of overseas after some planned National Guard deployments were called off because of the troop drawdown in Afghanistan. For reasons that make sense only in Washington, troops in training and troops on deployment are paid from different funds. Lawmakers signed off on a plan to move money around and pay for the drills.

The National Guard’s 1057th Light Medium Truck Company, with about 100 troops in crews in Sidney, Scottsbluff and Chadron, had postponed some drills as a result of the shortage.

“Whenever you have to postpone a unit’s drill, it’s going to cause an impact on soldiers and their families,” said Maj. Kevin Hynes, a spokesman for the Nebraska National Guard. “We’re doing our best to minimize it.”

He said at least 20 Nebraska units - about half of those in the state - would be delaying drills until the last weekend of this month.

Now, Nebraska and other Army National Guard units will be able to go forward with drills as planned.

“We were pretty hopeful that this would be the ultimate outcome, so obviously we’re pretty happy,” said Hynes. “The bigger key message for us is that we really appreciate the flexibility that the soldiers’ families and employers that were affected by these postponements exhibited.”

Guard units played key roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their preparation is essential to the nation’s security, especially with a renewal of Islamist aggression in the Mideast. Seeing that they get trained and paid is the right thing to do, and a welcome change from the needless gridlock that continually stymies progress in Washington.

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Omaha World-Herald. Sept. 21, 2014.

Another problem in the prisons

The State of Nebraska delivers critical services. But as an employer, the state sometimes has problems with mandatory overtime.

That practice can force too few employees in important jobs to work too many hours, risking the safety of employees and those they serve.

The state knows it needs more hands on deck, and it has the Legislature’s approval to hire them.

A handful of state agencies fall short in the recruitment and retention of employees. New options need to be explored, and lawmakers should be open to new and unusual approaches.

Yet in situations that seem to repeat themselves every few years, the state has failed to do what is necessary to hire needed help.

One example came to light with the poor treatment of some developmentally disabled patients at the Beatrice State Developmental Center. Workers had complained loudly that mandatory overtime was a driving force in staff fatigue.

New employees quit soon after realizing they had little control over their schedules, forcing longtime employees to pick up the slack. This led to burnout and unacceptable treatment of some patients. The World-Herald’s Paul Hammel found a similar problem growing in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

The system recorded a dramatic year-over-year increase in the amount of mandatory overtime prison employees worked. The department spent $4.5 million on overtime in the most recent fiscal year, up 32 percent from the previous year.

This might sound like a win for those employees who wanted the extra hours and pay, but even for them, it is not. It is an increased cost to taxpayers and an increased risk to prison staff and inmates. Prison work, like health care, requires practitioners at the top of their game.

Former prison employees told Hammel that orders to work overtime were made daily at many of the state’s prisons. And where staffing problems are the most troublesome, at the Tecumseh State Prison, the entire night shift often was told to work their shift and the eight hours after.

That’s a dangerous recipe. The roots of the problem seem clear. The state can’t seem to find enough of the prison employees the Legislature says it can hire.

The prison system is authorized to hire about 1,250 corrections officers and caseworkers, roughly the same as in 2006, despite a 17 percent jump in the number of inmates they are guarding.

As of June 30, the system had 159 vacant positions, although prison officials say the number of openings now is about 100. This past week, the prison system said it would seek approval from the Legislature to hire 195 more employees, and it might need them.

Prisoners are staying longer after sentence recalculations. Employee turnover rates also are high: 23 percent at the Tecumseh prison, 20 percent at the women’s prison in York and 17 percent at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

Given the number of prison positions going unfilled, officials should look at employee recruitment incentives, possibly even the $15.15-per-hour starting pay for guards. Staffers and state officials say the bigger issue is problems attracting workers to smaller places like Tecumseh, the same complaint heard about Beatrice.

The need to consider the available pool of workers should be a central consideration for the state going forward in any decisions on where to locate new prisons and major public facilities.

The administration and the Legislature also should examine incentives for employee retention, such as college loan payoffs after years of service.

They do not have to cost a lot of money. And it may be possible to scale back the number of new hires to afford such incentives while filling slots and keeping employees. One key to solving the problem of mandatory overtime is showing the employees who show up every day for this difficult work that they are valued.

Get those guards some help before the combination of crowded prisons, mandatory overtime and short staffing comes home to roost.

They aren’t guarding choir boys.

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McCook Daily Gazette. Sept. 19, 2014.

Skills, education best investment for state’s workers

While fast-food workers nationwide are campaigning for $15 an hours, there’s a more modest drive under way in Nebraska, a ballot issue to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.

Nebraskans for Better Wages released a study in support of the change, saying one out of six workers in the state would receive a raise as a result.

More than 64,300 children have a parent who would receive a raise at the new $9 rate according to the study, which claims it would also generate $73.9 million in new economic activity and create more than 400 new full-time jobs as businesses expand to meet increased consumer demand.

We saw nothing in the group’s news release to address the issue of jobs that could be cut back because of the higher rate, or eliminated as businesses continue replacing human employees with technology.

The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce produced statistics last week that could be used to make the argument that the state’s labor shortage is making the minimum wage a moot point.

Roberta Pinkerton, executive director of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Nebraska program, said manufacturers are having trouble finding qualified workers in the state, thwarting expansion plans.

Nebraska’s low unemployment rate, 3.4 percent in August for the state, 3.1 percent for Red Willow County, shows that most of the state’s employable people already have jobs.

The state chamber pointed to the Nebraska Intern Program, which has connected 700 students at two- and four-year colleges with more than 370 Nebraska companies since it was started by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development in 2011.

Students in the program earn an average wage of $13 an hour, and about half of them end up taking full-time positions, which receive some wage reimbursement through the program.

A $9 minimum wage might make a small difference for some workers in the state, but the real solution lies in investing in the education and skills that make them more valuable workers.

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