- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

Omaha World-Herald. November 25, 2016

Nebraska pension plans well managed.

Nebraska continues to benefit from sound management of its state-sponsored retirement plans for school personnel, judges and the State Patrol.

Financial experts recommend that as a general rule, public-employee pension programs should be at least 80 percent funded. Nebraska’s state-level numbers from 2015 are all encouraging.

The judges’ retirement plan was 97 percent funded; school retirement fund, 88.1 percent; and State Patrol plan, 86.9 percent.

Nebraska lawmakers received word this week that the responsible handling of the state’s pension obligations will provide a bit of relief on the upcoming two-year budget.

An actuarial report presented to the Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee said the state’s required contribution will be $28.7 million less than previously projected because of the pension programs’ general health.

That finding reduces the state’s estimated two-year budget shortfall to about $867 million for the two-year budget period ending June 30, 2019.

The three programs are defined benefit plans, with a designated payment to retirees. Proposals to shift toward defined contribution plans, such as a 401(k) approach, sometimes arise at the State Capitol and are likely to do so again.

Nebraska’s state pension management won praise this year from the Mercatus Center, a free- market think tank at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. The think tank examined the budget situations of the 50 state governments and concluded that Nebraska’s overall fiscal management was better than all but one state (Alaska), with pension oversight an important factor.

On average, state pension plans across the country are only 74 percent funded. Nebraska’s plans are funded at an overall 85 percent.

Compare that to Illinois, where pensions are funded at only 46 percent. Not surprisingly, that state scored 47th overall for handling its budget.

Nebraska’s three state-level pension funds are funded by contributions from the public employees themselves and from general fund dollars.

Managing the retirement programs is an ongoing duty requiring regular monitoring and adjustment as economic conditions fluctuate. Needed changes are made through negotiations among the legislative and executive branches and representatives for the retiree groups.

The key need is for conscientious participation by all parties and a willingness to reach sensible agreement.

Nebraska deserves congratulations on its state pension management, but the work is never done.

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The Grand Island Independent. November 25, 2016

A month of remembering, thanking, giving.

Central Nebraskans give thanks this week for family and friends, good health, and the many blessings of our free society and way of life. Our lasting gratitude was expressed on Veterans Day to the men and women who selflessly put their civilian lives on hold to wear the uniform of national service.

The outpouring of respect and honor was everywhere evident by people of all ages as our veterans of past and present service were recognized on a bountiful, beautiful day - Nov.11.

A free election was held that same week. Though there are many who see the end result as reason to question our democratic process, no one can legitimately deny that the large turnout of people of all ethnic and racial origins exercised a privilege and right that came at a high price 240 years ago. Lest we forget our heroes and she-roes, the sacrifice in defense of that right over time has not wavered. Despite the political, geographic, religious and ideological differences, America stands as one nation united.

The citizens of Hall County have also been heroic, giving generously to honor our veterans through the Hall County Hero Flight program. Now in their sixth year, a dedicated group of volunteers have raised nearly $1 million by collecting scrap iron, hosting concerts and karaoke nights, selling t-shirts and ice cream, passing a bucket at sporting events, hosting pancake feeds, banquets, accordion jamborees, motorcycle rallies and dozens of hamburger nights at the United Veterans Club. Money has been collected through donation jugs placed around the county and through raffles, auctions and contributions from organizations and businesses such as The Grand Island Independent, the Grand Island Community Foundation, the Corvette Club, Patriot Riders, Case New Holland, McCain Foods, Hornady Manufacturing, SuperSaver, the Alpha Sigma Holiday Tour of Homes, and a long list of others.

The committee has also organized parades and veteran memorial services, as well as sendoff and welcome-home celebrations.

It has been heartwarming to see the large number of school kids who have also been actively involved by serving at the food nights, attending veteran events and participating in penny drives and other class projects. We applaud the teachers and administrators who have emphasized this important connection between generations and discussed the chapters of American history that have shaped our nation and who we are as a people.

There are a great many charitable causes to support this holiday season and thousands of people in need. If there is a common unifying quality about the people of Central Nebraska, it is their generous, caring nature and abiding respect for veterans.

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Lincoln Journal Star. November 25, 2016

HHS shows subtle signs of success.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has been hemorrhaging tax dollars for years because of mistakes and mismanagement.

Last week HHS officials themselves put a price tag on the total for the past five years. It was a jaw-dropper - $57 million worth of fines and penalties paid to federal agencies.

Let your mind ponder the implications.

That amount of money could have paid for bridge repair; there wouldn’t be as many roads closed in rural Nebraska. Fifty-seven million dollars could have provided a meaningful amount of property tax relief. Heck, every man, woman and child in Nebraska could have an extra $30 in their pockets.

However, things are improving in HHS, officials told state senators on the Approriations Committee.

We want to believe them.

And, to be fair, Courtney Phillips, the new CEO brought in last year by Gov. Pete Ricketts, deserves a chance to turn things around in the sprawling department.

Some of the payments go back for mistakes made more than a decade ago. One of the biggest - payment of $14.2 million - goes back to the bungled attempt to privatize the state’s child welfare system.

It has been an open secret for years that money was being wasted at HHS. In 2013 then-State Auditor Mike Foley complained that HHS staffers did not “understand their own rules.”

Foley said that Nebraskans send about $20 billion a year to Washington. “When it does come back to Nebraska, shouldn’t we be spending it properly?” he asked.

There is, however, a subtle change in the latest revelations of waste at HHS. For years it has been people outside the department sounding the alarm and raising the red flags.

This time it was the department itself.

The department has gradually been increasing the size of an internal audit team that began in 2011 with one person. Now internal auditor Garet Buller has a seven-member team. The department has been digging into its operation to make sure that federal tax dollars are being used in accordance with federal rules. “The longer these things go on, the more it costs,” Phillips said.

Other steps toward improvement include more staff training on how to manage and document federal contracts and grants, and doing more follow-up to ensure that front-line workers make corrections outlined by auditors.

The necessary focus on bookkeeping and paperwork should not obscure the fact that the department is charged with programs to help the most vulnerable Nebraskans, like children who are wards of the state and developmentally disabled Nebraskans who are unable to care for themselves. That’s an important mission.

The small signs that the department doing more things the right way are encouraging. We hope they continue.

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McCook Daily Gazette. November 22, 2016.

Recruiting rural lawyers important for region’s future.

They say one lawyer will starve to death in a small town, but two lawyers will each be able to make a living.

There are better lawyer jokes, but it’s true that lawyers are becoming a rare commodity in many rural Nebraska communities.

That puts rural residents at a disadvantage, should they need legal help.

It might be as simple as drawing up a will or real estate contract, which would require only one lawyer.

In the case of a divorce or custody battle, for example, the number of attorneys needed quickly multiplies and that requires costly mileage fees.

Ten counties have no lawyers at all, and in some counties, the only one is the county attorney.

Too often, that leaves low-income defendants in crimes without adequate representation, forced to accept an unfair plea bargain.

It takes a special person to start a professional practice in a rural area, and the best place to look for one is the rural area that needs their skills.

Taking a tip from the medical community, the Nebraska Bar Association is offering 15 scholarships and guaranteed acceptance into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law to rural students who keep their grades up and score well enough on the entrance exam.

The program is patterned after the Rural Health Opportunities Program, which has been successful in recruiting rural students to become small-town doctors.

The scholarships are offered to high-school graduates to attend Chadron State College, Wayne State College or the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

UNK calls its program the Kearney Law Opportunities Program. Students can major in any program with an emphasis in pre-law, encouraged to take courses in criminal justice, political science, business and others. If selected for KLOP, they receive full tuition for up to 125 credit hours.

Imperial attorney Tyler Pribbeno spoke at a recent Nebraska Community Foundation banquet in McCook and was interviewed by NET News/Harvest Public Media.

He said the opportunity to be part of the community and not be pigeonholed into a legal specialty drew him away from the bright lights of the city.

While deprived of some advantages of big-city living, there has been no shortage of legal work, he said.

Besides the scholarships, RLOP participants visit Nebraska Law for guest lectures, special court proceedings, observation of classes and networking activities.

Between their junior and senior years, RLOP students have the opportunity to participate in rural Nebraska internships.

Most of us who live in rural Nebraska do so because we prefer the lifestyle it offers. To be able to continue to do so, however, all of us at times will need professional legal representation. The Nebraska Bar Association’s efforts, with the help of the state colleges, is helping make that possible.

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