- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2016

Omaha World-Herald. Apirl 10, 2016

Keep an eye on pensions.

Governments have a crucial obligation to manage public pensions responsibly. When they fail in that duty, taxpayers can pay a terrible price.

Look at Illinois. Its state retirement debt totals $111 billion, yet its four public-employee retirement plans are only 42 percent funded, and that’s down from 60 percent a decade ago.

In California, pension costs were a key factor compelling the cities of Stockton and San Bernardino to seek bankruptcy protection. State and local unfunded pension liability in California totals an estimated $435 billion.

States and cities are watched closely by bond rating agencies for how well pensions are managed. That’s a central reason why the Omaha city government has devoted considerable attention in recent years to strengthening its pension finances.

Over the years, Nebraska generally has avoided major problems with its state-level pension plans, making adjustments as needed through negotiations involving the legislative and executive branches and retiree groups such as teachers, judges, state employees or the State Patrol.

Financial experts recommend that as a general rule, retirement programs be at least 80 percent funded. The current numbers for state-level retirement plans in Nebraska are encouraging.

As of mid-2015, the judges’ retirement plan was 97.1 percent funded; school retirement fund, 88 percent; and State Patrol plan, 86.9 percent.

Not every public employee pension plan in Nebraska has fared so well, however. The retirement programs for some local governmental entities have been a particular concern.

In 2011, for example, the retirement plan for Douglas County employees was only 61 percent funded; Omaha civilian employees, 59 percent; and Omaha fire and police, 43 percent.

In 2014, Nebraska legislators changed state law to promote pension transparency and push local governments to improve their retirement plan management. That change took the form of Legislative Bill 759, sponsored by Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha.

LB 759, now a state law, requires that an annual report be filed with the Legislature’s Retirement Systems Committee by a political subdivision if its defined benefit retirement plan is less than 80 percent funded, or if it fails to meet the actuarially recommended level for annual contributions.

The report is to include an analysis of the conditions and recommendations for corrective actions.

The law empowers the Legislature’s Retirement Systems Committee to call a public hearing to examine the details of an individual retirement plan. If a report isn’t provided by the annual deadline, the state auditor can audit the plan.

The Retirement Systems Committee recently held a hearing at which the Omaha Public Power District provided information on its retirement plan. In 2015, the plan was 72.4 percent funded.

Each year, the committee assembles the key findings on the issue, and the report for 2015 sheds light on improvements as well as challenges.

On the positive side, from 2011 to 2015 the plan for Douglas County employees rose from 61 percent funded to 66.8 percent funded.

During 2011-15 the plan for Omaha police and fire personnel, the report says, went from 43 percent funded to 50 percent funded - still below the recommended 80 percent threshold but with a trend line moving in the right direction. The improvements reached through negotiations in recent years have been significant, with the long-term prospects greatly improved.

Annual contributions to the Douglas County employees plan in 2014 were 104 percent of the actuarially recommended level. Yearly additions to the Omaha police and fire plan in 2015 were 96 percent of the recommended level, up from only 44 percent in 2011.

Nebraska has an important obligation to monitor its public pension plans and promote their responsible management. It’s encouraging to see that an appropriate oversight process is in place to make sure we don’t fall into the same hole as Illinois.______

The Grand Island Independent. April 7, 2016

Government has means to control prescription costs.

There is consensus among citizens of all political leanings that a major function of our national government is to provide security and protection to the people and their property.

To this end, the federal government budget for the military defense of the U.S. is, by a great margin, the largest in the world. But in addition to military spending, there are other federal government programs intended to enhance the quality of our lives and individual benefit.

Recently, one such program has come to our attention that displays a window into failure or neglect to our detriment as citizens.

One of the largest financial burdens we face is the rising cost of health care - in particular, drug therapy. Our country is a world leader in the advancement of drug therapy through our medical research programs at universities and private labs. Since the 1940s, the federal government, administered by the National Institute of Health, has provided taxpayer federal monetary grants to encourage research into medical advancement. In 1980, to further promote medical research, Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which gave to the discoverers of medical innovation the exclusive rights to sell or license title to the patent for their discovery.

Bayh-Dole, however, sets forth that if the medical invention, financed by the federal government, is determined to be critical to the public interest, the government retains the power to extend the patent/licensing privilege to makers of lower priced copies of the medical discovery.

Recently, a drug, Xtandi, has been very successful in the treatment of prostate cancer. This drug was developed at the UCLA medical teaching facility and the development was financed in part by a government grant. Pursuant to Bayh-Dole, UCLA sold the patent rights to a private company for $1.4 billion. In 2015 Xtandi sales totaled $1.9 billion worldwide.

This cancer treatment drug is obviously a benefit to all. Under Bayh-Dole, access to the drug would be considered critical to the public interest, particularly to U.S. taxpayers who paid money through the government grant to develop the drug. But treatment with Xtandi costs $129,000 in the U.S., while it only costs $39,000 in Japan and $30,000 in Canada.

Bayh-Dole should be enforced by the government for the public interest of U.S. citizens and the government should extend patent/licensing rights to other companies in order to lower the cost. Logic infers that the drug company is not losing money by selling cheaper in Canada and Japan, so the high cost charged to U.S. patients is difficult to defend.

There is movement in the U.S. Senate to rectify this and we would urge Sen. Deb Fischer and Sen. Ben Sasse to become involved.___

McCook Daily Gazette. April 6, 2016

Cyber criminals finding success in lower profile.

Major hackers like those involved with the Panama Papers, Anonymous or WikiLeaks get all the attention, but others are cashing in by keeping a lower profile.

These hackers do it by infecting computer networks to make them inaccessible, then selling the owners the cure.

They get away with it because it’s cheaper to pay these cyber pirates than to try to find a solution elsewhere.

Infecting a computer network is as simple as clicking on an infected link.

Hospitals are a prime target because of the reams of private data they handle, with municipalities and agencies vulnerable as well.

Hackers demanded about $740, paid in the cyber currency bitcoin, from Plainfield, New Jersey, population 50,000, after its computer system was infected.

After an employee clicked on an infected link, city officials rushed to pull servers offline, but didn’t get to three of them in time, leaving about 10 years of documents and emails inaccessible because they were encrypted by the malware.

The criminals prey on people’s willingness to click on the latest viral video, Facebook link, email or Twitter.

Most of the burden of avoiding becoming a cyber hostage falls on system administrators, who need to perform regular scans, keep operating systems and anti-virus software up-to-date as well as back up data.

They have the additional task, however, of training - make that nagging, browbeating, cajoling or threatening - users to avoid bad habits like clicking every inviting link that appears on their desktops.___

Lincoln Journal Star. April 8, 2016

Involve public on license plates.

The lesson that should be learned from Nebraska’s latest license plate controversy is that it’s best to get the public engaged early in the selection process.

If Gov. Pete Ricketts administration had taken that step, it surely could have avoided the embarrassment that came with the discovery that the outline of the sower on the new plates came from a bas relief sculpture on the bell tower at Michigan State University.

That revelation led Ricketts to suspend production of the license plates until the mistake could be remedied. There’s no estimate yet on how much this will cost the taxpayers.

If the design had been unveiled as a proposal and the public given a chance to weigh in before the selection was final, the mistake could have been caught. And perhaps the administration would have reconsidered if it realized that some people would insist on seeing sexual imagery in the outline.

Another important reason for involving the public is that people care.

And let us disabuse the haughty among us that somehow this is a uniquely Nebraskan obsession.

License plate designs are frequently controversial, especially when they are changed.

In South Dakota the unveiling of a new design drew complaints that Mount Rushmore was portrayed incorrectly. A letter to the Argus Leader complained that “The new South Dakota license plate is ugly and wrong. … George Washington’s face does not face off to the left. This art work is disrespectful to the original piece.”

Officials insisted that the portrayal was correct, that Mount Rushmore just was presented from a different perspective than earlier versions. By law South Dakota license plates must include a representation of the memorial.

The license plates unveiled in New York several years ago drew praise from some for a retro look, with blue letters on a golden background that reminded motorists of plates used from 1973 to 1986.

Not everyone was pleased, however. Here’s one sample: “The ‘new’ New York State license plate evokes nothing - not a touch of nostalgia, just more lamentable design running through streets,” George Lois, an influential art director and advertising guru, wrote in an e-mail message to the New York Times city room blog.

Probably the easiest way for elected officials to avoid controversy would be to never change the plates. Some states go for decades without change.

Where’s the fun in that?

Embrace the debate. Next time let the public have a say before the selection is final.___

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