- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

Omaha World-Herald. May 24, 2015.

Welcoming young people to Nebraska

Some population numbers point to challenges for Nebraska. Depopulation figures are a major worry.

But other population numbers for the state reveal surprises. Some reveal positive trends.

One surprise came in recent World-Herald reporting that Nebraska has a higher birth rate than all but four other states.

“Nebraska’s higher-than-average birth rate cuts across all major ethnic and racial groups and just about any other demographic you can think of,” staff writer Henry Cordes explained. “Overall, the state’s birth rate is 16 percent higher than the U.S. average.”

In fact, young couples in many instances are returning to the state to start their families. A growing number of Nebraska communities are pursuing outreach strategies to attract such families.

Two related developments: Nebraska is seeing an increase in its number of farmers in their 20s and 30s. And a large portion of Nebraska young people surveyed say they’re interested in returning to their rural communities.

Here are some details:

- Town-population trend. Number-crunching by University of Nebraska-Lincoln economists last year revealed the encouraging finding that a number of rural Nebraska counties are experiencing a notable net in-migration of 30- and 40-somethings. In many cases these are young couples and young professionals.

The UNL analysis found such in-migration in 22 of Nebraska’s “small-town counties” (those lacking a population center of 2,500 or more) and in 28 “frontier counties” (those with a population density below six people per square mile).

- Outreach efforts to young people. Here are just a few examples of forward-looking efforts across the state on this score:

Holt County in north central Nebraska has seen significant success as a result of its well-done outreach work to young families.

The Center for Rural Research and Development at the University of Nebraska at Kearney works with Nebraska communities to attract young professionals with Nebraska roots.

Norfolk draws on a database of native sons and daughters and has programs to make newcomers feel welcome.

UNL Extension is helping Nebraska rural communities learn to market themselves through specially tailored programs.

Young professionals are being surveyed in the Omaha area to check the pulse on their key concerns and interests as part of the “Campaign for a Greater Omaha.”

- Young farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that during 2007-12 the number of active Nebraska farmers ages 25 to 34 increased by 44 percent, going from 2,975 to 4,291.

That’s a big contrast with Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. In each of those states, the 25-to-34 farmer age group fell slightly during 2007-12.

These numbers connect with an observation about rural development made to The World-Herald this year by State Sen. Kate Sullivan, a Boone County banker and chairwoman of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “In banking,” Sullivan said, “we see some brilliant examples of young farmers and producers doing cutting-edge things and coming back to their communities.”

- Young people’s interest in returning. The Nebraska Community Foundation surveyed 5,927 students in 40 Nebraska middle and high schools in rural areas and turned up encouraging results.

Eighty percent of the students rated their hometown as average or above for a young person to live, and 51 percent said they could picture themselves living in their home area in the future if career opportunities are available.

Curt Arens, a farmer from Crofton, was right when he wrote last year at FarmProgress.com that it makes great sense to “ask high school students, college students who will be moving home after graduation and young families what their preferred future would be in our community.”

When a community seeks such input, he wrote, “it paves the road for the future of rural communities and gives young farmers and ranchers and other young families another good reason to return home to make their lives and livelihood.”

Nebraska has population challenges, but it also has population successes. These successes, made possible by forward-looking leaders and communities, deserve to be understood and applauded.

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The Grand Island Independent. May 24, 2015.

Death penalty stirs emotions across the state

Nebraska is in the national spotlight as the state Legislature and governor wrangle over future of capital punishment. Out of the 32 states with capital punishment, Nebraska is at the low end of the scale with just 11 waiting execution. The U.S. houses approximately 3,020 inmates on death row with 743 residing in California prisons, 403 in Florida and 276 in Texas.

Florida and Texas have been aggressive in performing executions, while California has carried out executions so infrequently that a federal judge ruled last year that the constant threat of execution over time violated the Eighth Amendment proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

This week the Nebraska Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty. Gov. Pete Ricketts has promised to veto the repeal. Will the repeal stand?

Nebraskans are very much split on the question of repeal. The governor has traveled the state extensively over the past year and a half and he asserts that the majority of Nebraskans favor keeping the death penalty. Opponents believe the majority favor repeal and so apparently does the Legislature.

The state of Nebraska spends $50,000 per year on each of the 11 condemned men on death row. The governor makes a strong case for the diseconomy of spending $550,000 a year to keep hardcore criminals incarcerated for an undetermined length of time.

The protracted uncertainty allows inmates to stretch out their legal options in appeal. Each appeal is painful for the affected families and they must relive the greatest nightmare of their lives. The appeals layer enormous additional costs on taxpayers.

Of the 11 inmates on death row, only three have exhausted their appeals.

The calculated taking of a life as the ultimate penalty levied on those guilty of committing the ultimate crime is a matter of personal conscience, morality, religion, and justice - the interpretation of which is most often left in the eye of the beholder.

Certainly, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption are core Christian beliefs that extend to the most violent and conscienceless members of society. Understandably, there is no grey area for many of the faithful and others who abhor violence in any form.

Consider though, the surviving friends and relatives of a murder victim, the members of law enforcement who place their lives on the line to protect society, the judges, attorneys, juries, and other authorities who are left to wonder about the consequences of the weakening resolve to render punishment in proportion to the most heinous of crimes.

A case in point is that of Nikko Jenkins, the career criminal who was released from prison early and then summarily murdered four people in cold blood after telling prison officials that he would do so. Jenkins will be the next convicted Nebraska killer to face the death penalty.

Prosecutors will also push for the death penalty against Roberto Martinez-Marinero, who is accused of the recent drowning his 4- year-old brother in the Elkhorn River, throwing his 11-month-old brother in a dumpster, and brutally murdering his 45-year-old mother.

If the death penalty repeal stands, the maximum penalty would then become a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Is life in solitary confinement more humane than termination? Which is the better moral or ethical imperative?

Nikko Jenkins suffered from mental illness. Because of his violent and unpredictable behavior he spent most of his time in solitary confinement. His mental state worsened. At one point before he went on his killing spree, he begged to be executed. The effect of long-term close confinement on the mental state of prisoners is a growing concern of corrections officials and the mental health community.

Conclusive evidence that the death penalty works as a deterrent is lacking, nonetheless, it is a proven and effective bargaining chip for the court system to use to secure convictions.

Just how in synch is the Legislature with the sentiments of Nebraskans on the question of the death penalty? Only a referendum placed before the voters would answer that question. It is an issue of great importance that is being discussed in every part of the state and ultimately a choice that rests with each person’s conscience.

___

Lincoln Journal Star. May 22, 2015.

A lapse on open meeting law

The herky-jerky way state officials violated the state’s open meeting law on a Board of Parole meeting could be called a comedy of errors if it did not involve a serious principle.

One reason for the violation might be that the Department of Correctional Services is still reeling from the chaos of the May 10 prison riot.

But the episode also revealed that some key personnel appear to be uninformed about the legal requirement that Parole Board hearings be open. Steps should be taken to ensure that the violation does not recur.

The law is clear. Parole Board hearings are open to the public. Maintaining that openness is essential. It’s not uncommon for victims of crimes to appear to testify on whether convicts should be granted parole.

The board makes the point itself on its website, saying, “The testimony of the victim is an important contribution to the Board of Parole’s decision making process before parole is granted or denied.”

In accordance with state law, the Parole Board had advertised that public hearings on requests for parole from Calvin Jones, Brandin Nelson and Antonio Wooden would be held at 9:30 a.m. May 18 at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. That was one week after officials regained control of the prison from inmates.

A Journal Star reporter emailed the prison’s public information officer to say she’d be attending the Parole Board hearing and to try to set up a couple of interviews for the same day.

But on Monday morning, the reporter was refused admittance to the prison when she arrived in the reception area. In fact, the Tecumseh prison’s public information officer, Jessica Houseman, relayed information through the prison employee there that the hearings had been postponed until June 22.

That turned out to be untrue. The reporter learned quickly that the meeting was still on by calling a Parole Board employee from the prison parking lot.

The board did in fact meet, and told the three inmates by video conference that their hearings were being deferred for a month.

The Journal Star reporter and any member of the public who had showed up at the Tecumseh prison should have been admitted to the hearing. That’s the law.

To be sure, the violation can be considered minor, because anyone who wants to testify on whether the men should be granted parole will have another chance next month.

Parole Board Chairwoman Roslyn Cotton said the board will consult with the attorney general’s office and “immediately” remedy any problems in compliance with state law.

In order to truly remedy the problems, a training session might be needed for correctional department employees. They must be aware of what they need to do to comply with the requirement that public hearings be public. There should be no repeat of this week’s mistakes.

___

Scottsbluff Star-Herald. May 19, 2015.

Bikes: Nebraska’s cycling friendliness rankings are only getting worse

National Bike Month (May) hasn’t been kind to Nebraska the last couple of years. It’s coincided with the League of American Bicyclists’ annual rankings of bicycling friendliness by state and we haven’t fared well. In fact, our ranking has gotten worse.

Last year, the league ranked Nebraska 45th out of 50, and this year we fell two more spots to 47th. Only Kansas, Kentucky and Alabama scored lower.

The league’s criteria includes: policies and procedures, infrastructure and funding, and evaluation and planning, all of which saw us scoring as low as possible. We scored slightly higher in education and encouragement and legislation and enforcement, but still in the bottom category.

Each state gets its own “report card,” which you can view at bikeleague.org, where recommendations are made for improvements.

A few of the league’s recommendations for Nebraska:

- Add bicycle safety as an emphasis area in the state Strategic Highway Safety Plan and aggressively fund bike safety projects.

- Adopt a statewide Complete Streets policy. The National Complete Streets Coalition has a model state policy and a variety of other resources to ensure adoption and implementation.

- Hold a state bicycle summit with opportunities for professional development, contact with elected officials, and networking.

We’ve seen marginal improvements locally for cyclists. The city of Scottsbluff and NEXT Young Professional’s plan to install bike racks downtown is a promising development that could lead to more people pedaling downtown to eat, drink and shop.

It may seem obvious to some, but cyclist are good for the community. As long as people are cognizant of them and adhere to basic good-driving practices, bikes cut down on car traffic, take up very little parking space and are a healthier and more environmentally friendly form of transportation.

The Star-Herald asked Garrett Olsen, president of the Western Nebraska Bicycling Club and avid cyclist, if he had any thoughts on problems cyclists face and how to improve our state’s ranking.

“What I see is just interaction with other traffic,” he said. “Bikes and cars coexisting in the same space is one of the biggest issues out here against riding on the road.”

Olsen said he hopes the area improvements will lead to growing bike culture.

“With the racks installed I would think the next logical step would be bike lanes,” he said. “A little bit of paint is really all that you need.”

Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha proposed two biking-related bills this session, LBs 38 and 39. LB38 would recognize that when a car hits a bicycle the damage is much more severe and try to address the difference between that and a car versus car crash. It would increase the penalties for motor vehicle homicide.

LB39 would make it more clear what a person needs to do to pass a cyclist on the road. LB1030, passed in 2012, already mandates that a 3 feet buffer zone be provided when possible when passing a person on a bicycle, foot, or motorized wheelchair. LB39 would also repeal a law that says cyclists are required to use “sidepaths” when available.

But neither of these changes are likely to occur. LB38 has been held over in committee until next session and LB39 died an early death.

Nebraska cyclists are in a bit of a Catch-22. The laws aren’t likely to change to protect any cyclists any time soon unless more bikes are on our roads. And who wants to ride their bike in a state that ranks so poorly in safety and friendliness?

It really is a missed opportunity. Our oft-maligned flat terrain should be perfect for developing a bike culture that could help us stay fit and bring in tourist dollars. We certainly can’t say our weather isn’t nice enough to be ranked higher.

The second-highest scoring state in the Bike League ranking? A much colder place: Minnesota.

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