- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

Omaha World-Herald. Dec. 31, 2015

Watchfulness gets a boost.

Look up as you approach the main entrance of the Nebraska State Capitol, and you’ll see these words: “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen.”

In 2009, Nebraska lawmakers put that principle into practice by requiring that all state agencies and the University of Nebraska submit checkbook-level financial information for publication on StateSpending.Nebraska.gov, a transparency website managed by the State Treasurer’s Office.

Visitors to the site can search for dollar amounts budgeted and spent by state agencies. Information also is provided on state government contracts.

Now State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha are proposing that this financial openness be extended to quasi- public agencies created by the state government.

It’s a sound idea, one that’s fully in the spirit of how Nebraska government should operate.

“I strongly believe they should have the same level of transparency as do state agencies and constitutional offices,” Stenberg said in announcing the proposal.

McCollister will be introducing the legislation. At a press conference with Stenberg, the Omaha lawmaker noted that quasi-public agencies “are a large and important part of state government operations. As such, their decisions and budgets should be open to public viewing and scrutiny.”

Nebraskans, he said, “can only oversee government action if their right to obtain information is unfettered and secure.”

Exactly right. The precise number of agencies affected is still being sorted out, but the number is estimated at between 10 and 20. Examples include the Wyuka Cemetery Board of Trustees, the Environmental Trust Board, the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority and the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office.

Under McCollister’s legislation, such agencies would be required to submit all expenditures of state receipts, whether appropriated or not. This would include grants, contracts, subcontracts and aid to political subdivisions.

The Nebraska State Fair Board deserves a salute for voting to support the legislation and beginning work to prepare for compliance. “Members said, ‘We need to be on that website,’ ” reports the fair’s executive director, Joseph McDermott.

That commendable response serves the public interest. Cooperative reactions from Nebraska’s other quasi-public boards would be most welcome.

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The Grand Island Independent. Dec. 30, 2015

Make government more open.

State Treasurer Don Stenberg and state Sen. John McCollister are proposing legislation to make Nebraska state government more transparent and open.

The proposal would require quasi-public agencies to submit financial information that would appear on the state website www.statespending.Nebraska.gov/. These would be agencies such as the Nebraska State Fair Board, the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority and the Environmental Trust Board.

The more transparency and openness in which public agencies conduct business, the better it is for everyone. There is accountability; there is a watchfulness to prevent fraud and financial impropriety; and citizens can see what public boards are doing.

Where is the downside? There isn’t any.

Quasi-public agencies have always had a hybrid relationship to state government. Board members are often appointed by the governor and receive some public funds and grants but don’t always receive funds from the state general fund.

A press release issued by the treasurer’s office said state entities would be required to submit all expenditures of state receipts, whether appropriated or non-appropriated, including grants, contracts, subcontracts, aid to political subdivisions, tax refunds or credits that may be disclosed under existing laws, and any other disbursements of state receipts in the performance of an entity’s functions.

A good aspect of this plan is that it would put some definition to these agencies.

Most of these quasi-public agencies are open to being part of the website. For example, the State Fair board approved a motion last week to participate in it. The board members are appointed by the governor and the State Fair receives public money from the state lottery for operational expenses that can’t be directly met from the revenue the State Fair brings in.

“Transparency fosters accountability, increases public engagement, and improves efficiency in government,” Stenberg said.

And, one might add, it increases trust in what the government and appointed boards are doing.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Dec. 31, 2015

The viaduct of frustration.

A mighty cheer is warranted for the opening last week of the new viaduct on Southwest 40th Street.

When it comes to frustration caused by delay, the viaduct project is in a class by itself.

Maybe government officials could use the $17.9 million project as a case study on how to avoid red tape in the future.

The Lancaster County Board closed the railroad crossing ten years ago with the expectation that it would be replaced by 2008.

The closure created a major inconvenience for people who live in West Lincoln.

Without the viaduct, the only way motorists could cross the BNSF railroad tracks was on Highway 77 or a county road near Emerald, about three miles west of Highway 77.

For an entire decade motorists could only glance longingly over the railroad tracks and think about the minutes they were losing during their commutes. As the years rolled on the minutes turned into hours and perhaps even into days,

The lack of a viaduct also made the county’s new jail less efficient. The new viaduct was supposed to help deputies transport prisoners from court and law enforcement offices downtown without being delayed by trains.

Partners in the project were the city, the county, the Railroad Transportation Safety District and the federal government.

Much of the delay can be attributed to the federal government. In fact at one point five years ago, City Engineer Roger Figard said, “I’m not sure we can afford federal aid anymore,” and added, “This has been the most frustrating project of my career.

The federal government required revision of the environmental impact statement, which took 18 months. Then, after Congress approved the federal stimulus program, other projects were pushed ahead of the viaduct in priority. That was followed by a bureaucratic change in the way the Federal Highway Administration builds projects in partnership with local government.

And then the BNSF asked the RTSD to redesign the bridge spanning the railroad track to eliminate a concrete wall connecting support piers so that railroad workers could drive under the overpass. Local officials agreed, but the revision added months to the project.

Members of the County Board once admitted that in hindsight that it was a mistake to close Southwest 40th Street before the plan for the viaduct was finalized. It turned out that it apparently would have taken an act of Congress to reopen the street, county board members said.

Let’s hope the lesson is not quickly forgotten.

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McCook Daily Gazette. Dec. 29, 2015

New cooperative paramedicine system common-sense idea.

A charity, a hospital, a clinic and the city are stepping forward to take care of residents who too often fall through the healthcare cracks.

Community Paramedicine will see no more than 10 patients a month, 120 a year, but the program, funded by the Community Hospital Health Foundation with partners Community Hospital, McCook Clinic, and the City of McCook, should improve healthcare for certain patients as well as reducing overall costs to the system.

In Nebraska and other states, especially where Medicaid has not been expanded under Obamacare, many uninsured patients rely on expensive emergency departments for basic medical care.

In small towns like McCook, EMTs and paramedics get to know their community and who is likely to need medical care.

The new program will take advantage of that knowledge to reduce ambulance calls to the emergency room.

Visiting about once a week, EMTs or paramedics will do “some basic assessment, blood pressure, vital signs, doing some education with them if we need to,” said Marc Harpham, McCook fire chief.

Everything will be well within duties paramedics and EMTs are allowed to perform, he said.

Not only can the preventive visits save time and money, they can be performed during regular hours, freeing up emergency response for more immediate emergencies. And, the program can provide employment for trained, experienced personnel who may no longer want or be able to serve on the “front lines” of emergency care.

Congratulations to everyone involved for finding a creative, common-sense response to an ongoing problem.

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