- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

Kearney Hub. July 15, 2015

Nebraska, Ricketts need more trade successes

Gov. Pete Ricketts described his recent trade mission to Europe as a success, but if the governor intends to Grow Nebraska by promoting exports around the globe, he could be facing a tough challenge. It is becoming more difficult to market Nebraska-produced products overseas.

Nebraska’s export sales slowed through the first quarter, according to the Nebraska Economist, and that raises concerns about economic growth in a state that has become increasingly reliant on export activity. The Economist notes that the largest export declines are hitting the state’s manufacturing sector, which is a primary contributor to the state’s overall export activity.

Agriculture ranks No.1 for Nebraska exports. Recent efforts such as Ricketts’ trade mission to Denmark, Italy and Belgium bolster Nebraska’s image overseas as a state that produces high-quality ag products. Ricketts was wise to bring with his group family farmers to illustrate that 95 percent of Nebraska farms are family owned or operated, dispelling European concerns that corporate farming has gripped all of American agriculture.

While it is key to build upon advancements in ag exports, our state leaders need also to focus on developments in the manufacturing sector, a source for well-paid jobs that also broadens and diversifies our state’s tax base.

According to The Economist, export sales in Nebraska have increased since the late 1990s. The real value of the state’s manufactured exports more than doubled from $2.6 billion in 1997 to $6.5 billion in 2014.

That’s growth of 149 percent. Two-thirds of those export sales typically come from the state’s top five manufacturing industries: food and kindred products, machinery, chemicals, transportation, and electrical equipment.

Although food processing, the state’s largest manufacturing industry, has seen sustained growth in most major export markets, machinery, chemicals and transportation equipment - the state’s three next-largest manufacturing sectors - have experienced significant declines in sales, reports The Economist, which is produced quarterly by the Omaha Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City,

Of concern are recent declines in exports to Canada, which is a strong trading partner. The nation to the north generated one-quarter of Nebraska’s manufactured export sales in 2014. Other significant markets are Europe, Japan, Mexico and China. Although The Economist’s observations outline some of Nebraska’s challenges, we need to remember our best advantages, and they include our extremely strong work ethic, high quality and lower costs. Markets might be getting tighter, but our state’s manufacturers can deliver what the export market desires.

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Lincoln Journal Star. July 15, 2015

In search of transparency

When it comes to complying with the state’s open meetings law, University of Nebraska officials seem to be slow learners.

In the latest case, NU officials were advised by the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office that they violated the law while conducting the search for a new NU president.

At issue was the question of whether an outreach committee and a selection committee were allowed to have closed sessions prior to the disclosure of the names of four finalists.

“We have determined that the university has violated the Open Meetings Act,” Attorney General Doug Peterson wrote in a letter responding to Deena Winter, who had filed a complaint on behalf of Nebraska Watchdog.

Rather than completely barring the public from meetings involving the screenings of applicants, the process could “have been done primarily in open session, with closed sessions permitted to discuss discrete issues meeting the statutory requirements,” Peterson wrote.

“We would suggest that there are ways to mechanically screen applications in open session without having to disclose the names of applicants,” he wrote. One way suggested by the attorney general would be to identify each applicant by a number.

We take the argument the Board of Regents made before the Legislature the past two years at face value, that they believe a less transparent search will yield better candidates and that they are trying to improve an outcome rather than conceal a process. But based on the lack of traction legislation to change the process has gained, Nebraskans clearly prefer transparency.

While it’s disappointing that selection committees broke the law, it should be pointed out - at the risk of seeming sarcastic - that at least the presidential search was not as blatantly illegal as the last time NU tried to find a new president.

In that 2004 case, NU officials sought to evade public notice by meeting candidates in Kansas City. Trying to keep a straight face, NU officials said they were simply “meeting” the candidates - not “interviewing” them.

There’s always been a tendency for public bodies to push the limits when trying to do public business behind closed doors, and NU is no exception. Gil Savery, managing editor of the Lincoln Journal, recalled in a Local View column that in the 1940s, NU regents tried to sneak away to Chicago for a meeting on the selection of a new chancellor, which at the time was the top position at NU. The Journal arranged to have the meeting covered by the Chicago Daily News.

Readers of the Journal Star’s opinion page know that the editorial board is largely supportive of the university efforts to serve Nebraskans. The board is cognizant of the vital role NU must play as Nebraska competes in the global economy.

It’s fortunate that the attorney general opined that the NU transgressions did not warrant criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit.

Unfortunately, we and other Nebraskans find ourselves once again rolling our eyes at NU’s penchant for secrecy. By now, NU officials ought to have learned they need to do their homework. Maybe one day they’ll get it right.

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McCook Gazette. July 17, 2015

Rural moods improve with rain, other factors

We’ve heard farmers talk about a “million-dollar rain,” but you don’t have to be a farmer to appreciate moisture in Southwest Nebraska, where we’re just now coming out of a drought.

Rural Nebraskans’ moods are better than they have been in years, according to the latest University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll, and part of it can be credited to Mother Nature.

“Things have been going well in Nebraska of late,” said Randy Cantrell, rural sociologist with the Nebraska Rural Futures Institute. “A long drought has essentially ended and unemployment is really quite low,” he said. “Beyond that, and despite the occasional dip, reported optimism has generally been trending upward.”

Fifty-three percent of poll respondents said they were better off this year than five years ago, up from 50 percent last year, the highest proportion in all 20 years of the study, matched only in 2008. Only 15 percent said they were worse off.

Nearly half of us think we’ll be better off in 10 years, and the proportion of us who think we’ll be worse off is down to 17 percent.

Your optimism depends on your situation, of course.

If you have a lower household income, are older or less educated, you’re more likely to be pessimistic about the present and future.

Education especially makes a difference; 37 percent with a high school diploma or less feel powerless to control their own lives, while only 19 percent with at least a four-year college degree feel that way.

On the other hand, Rural Nebraskans continue to be most satisfied with their marriage, family, friends, religion / spirituality and the outdoors. They are less satisfied with job opportunities, current income level and financial security during retirement.

We also are satisfied with our ability to afford our residence compared to last year, but a little more worried about clean air and water.

Rural residents tend to be more connected to the natural environment than our city cousins, so it’s not surprising that changes in the weather can have such an effect on their mood.

But it’s also clear that ongoing economic development efforts designed to increase employment and improve housing will help.

With a lot of hard work and a little luck, perhaps we can have the best of both worlds - country living with city opportunities.

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Omaha World-Herald. July 9, 2015

State, cities can do more on recycling

Nebraskans could recycle more of their trash, as a World-Herald examination of the recycling rates of Nebraska and its neighbors found.

Analysis by staff writer Henry Cordes also found potential economic and environmental benefits for Omaha and the state if public officials step up their promotion of recycling.

Only about 17 percent of Nebraska’s trash gets recycled. The national average is 29 percent to 34 percent. Reasons for that gap vary - from cheaper access to landfills in the Midlands to inertia among public policymakers.

Experts make a sensible argument that Omaha’s recycling is held back by its continued reliance on smaller, 18-gallon recycling bins. Cities that have switched to larger, lidded 65- or 95-gallon carts with wheels are recycling much more material, Cordes found.

When North Carolina moved to the larger carts, recycling in major cities rose 10 percent to 68 percent. That seems a reasonable path for Omaha to study and perhaps pursue.

Today, Nebraskans throw about $34 million a year away on landfill fees to dispose of recyclable material worth $87 million.

It’s a shame that Omaha recently renewed its trash and recycling contracts with Deffenbaugh Industries without pursuing some recycling changes.

In the 1970s, Omaha was a national leader in recycling. That is no longer the case.

Mayor Jean Stothert said she sees room for improvement, and she’s right. The city should more vigorously promote recycling again - doing its best until it can consider using the bigger carts.

The city saves a $25 gate fee for every ton of trash kept out of the landfill. Even now, with less-than-aggressive efforts, recycling saves taxpayers about $400,000 a year.

That’s real money.

Recycling industry experts make plain that about 15 percent of people have no interest in recycling household or business waste. And recycling comes naturally to about 10 percent to 20 percent of the population, many of whom would haul their recyclables away on their own.

Cities need to focus on that big group in between, the sometime recyclers.

“When there hasn’t been an influx of new energy in a while or messaging going to residents, they feel it’s not a big priority,” said Karen Bandhauer of the Recycling Partnership, a Virginia-based, industry-funded advocacy group.

The partnership says the most effective promotion is working neighbor-to-neighbor through civic organizations. Public awareness campaigns are a legitimate response, too, in traditional and social media. As is seeking out industry and donor funds to help.

The state has a role as well, perhaps by taking the time to develop a recycling master plan.

It appears Nebraska recycles less - and throws away more - per capita than every neighboring state, Cordes found.

Iowa, for one, made it a statewide priority in the late 1980s to cut city landfill tonnage by 25 percent. Its incentives helped spark innovation. Now Iowa is a national leader in pay-as-you-throw waste programs, trash hauling that charges people based on the weight of the trash they toss.

That might not be Nebraska’s path, but the state should have a plan for doing better. (Omaha, in particular, is barred by state law from charging for trash pickup.)

Rural recycling often proves difficult and costly because of communities’ sparseness and distance from processing centers.

That doesn’t mean it should be ignored. It means new approaches might be necessary, such as establishing a regional network to get recyclable material to market.

Recycling is a sensible practice that should be encouraged and, where appropriate and affordable, incentivized.

Otherwise, Nebraska is throwing money away.

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