- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2017

Omaha World-Herald. February 17, 2017

Legislature wise to put off fight over filibuster

Nebraska lawmakers for weeks have donned boxing gloves and come to the legislative chamber each morning ready to fight. The protracted battling - not over legislation but over filibuster rules - has been ugly, undisciplined and for the most part, grossly unproductive.

A conservative bloc did land a powerful blow in Round 1 on the opening day, ousting several incumbent committee chairs and installing new leaders, even placing freshmen in some of the spots.

No one has scored a knockout, though. Except for the opening-day pounding by conservatives, it’s been mostly a draw. That’s because lawmakers in the minority have used their opportunities to block the conservatives’ attempt to change the filibuster rules.

The result has been weeks of angry flailing and minor point scoring, with little accomplished on the legislative floor.

Things finally settled down this week when Speaker Jim Scheer, after an unsteady performance as referee, convinced his colleagues to get back to debating bills while negotiators work to produce an acceptable compromise on the filibuster issue.

Some conservative lawmakers have sought to weaken the minority’s filibuster power because a lot of proposals lie ahead that are sure to be hotly debated - on tax relief, school aid, the motorcycle helmet law and much more - and it’s not clear whether the conservative bloc dominating the Legislature will have enough votes to end potential filibusters.

The current rules require 33 of 49 votes to end such delaying tactics.

Supporters of the current rules say they’re determined to go toe to toe on the issue because the filibuster is the central tool they still retain at a time when their influence otherwise has been minimized under the Legislature’s changed operating culture.

With the rules-fight fisticuffs halted at least till April 5, senators need to make the most of the time remaining this session.

The first priority is for the committees to be conscientious in scrutinizing and honing the legislation they send to the floor. When poorly prepared legislative proposals have to be reworked via floor debate and negotiation, delays begin to accumulate. That’s the last thing the 2017 session needs.

As it is, there’s a good chance that some of the 49 senators’ priority bills won’t get debated because time is going to run out.

All senators should be encouraged to participate. Every lawmaker in the current Legislature, regardless of philosophy or party, has life experiences, knowledge and abilities that can make a positive contribution to the process, both in committee and during floor debate.

The Legislature will be making a major mistake if individual senators are sent the signal that they’re regarded as second-class members because of party affiliation or because they voted a certain way during the political fracas on opening day.

In the wake of the past weeks’ bickering and rancor, senators have considerable work to do in building relationships and promoting trust. Several lawmakers commendably emphasized that point during floor debate on Wednesday.

A final need is for senators to use sound judgment in deciding when to launch filibusters. A central concern this session is that lawmakers will leap at nearly every opportunity to delay a bill they don’t like. Speaker Scheer has warned his colleagues against yielding to that temptation.

Some hot-button bills obviously and legitimately will spur fierce opposition, with filibusters the result. That’s to be expected. But Nebraska lawmakers should be wary of how often they resort to that time-consuming weapon.

Each resort to such delaying tactics will heighten tensions in a session in which relations in the Legislature are already strained and time is running short.

Nebraska lawmakers soon will be donning the boxing gloves on issues big and small. They can serve the state best by choosing wisely when it’s time to come out swinging in a filibuster.

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Lincoln Journal Star. February 17, 2017

County needs to fully fund bridge repairs

Eleven bridges in Lancaster County are now closed over concern that water has scoured away rock and sediment around their supports. Forty-seven more are considered scour critical. It’s not hard to foresee that a couple of strong spring storms could wash away the rock and sediment, forcing engineers to close more bridges.

That alone makes it imperative that the Lancaster County Board loosen the purse strings and sufficiently fund the county’s Engineer’s Office so those bridges can be repaired and roads around them either reopened or never closed.

Last year, County Engineer Pam Dingman requested a $9 million increase in her budget but the board, which approves county budgets but does not operate the offices headed by elected officials, only gave her $1 million of that requested increase. The Engineer’s Office has a total budget of about $32 million, $7.2 million of which comes from property taxes.

That cut in her request, understandably, created a contentious relationship between the board and Dingman - with some board members overreaching to suggest hiring a consultant to help her and speculating she was closing bridges to get a budget increase.

Dingman rejected the call to hire a consultant. But she has developed a priority system for road and bridge repair, ranking them by traffic count with an emphasis on scour-critical bridges.

The ranking system means bridges on paved roads typically will be repaired before bridges on gravel roads, adding more inconvenience to people who live on or frequently travel on gravel roads and forcing farmers to drive field equipment on heavily trafficked paved roadways. But putting the money where the most traffic happens is the best policy for multiple reasons.

More than 70 percent of bridges in the county were built before 1979 and many have received little or no upkeep in the past four decades. Repair or replacement of many of those bridges is inevitable and unavoidable without closing roads.

Estimates are that 76 bridges are ready for replacement. But that’s not the only issue facing the county - 93 miles of paved roads need attention and 32 miles of gravel roads have traffic counts that warrant paving.

There’s not enough cash in county coffers to address all of those issues at once. But the board should work with Dingman to come up with a plan to fund more bridge and road repair. That, as any driver who uses the county roads where bridges are or are likely to be closed, would be a wise expenditure of tax dollars for today and for the future.

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Kearney Hub. February 14, 2017

Ethanol still big player in renewable energy game

There has been so much buzz about solar energy the past couple of weeks in Kearney that some among us may have forgotten about one of the most dominant and well established sources of renewable energy - ethanol.

Across the United States, about 70 percent of all gasoline burned in everyday vehicles like cars and light trucks is blended with ethanol, and of that ethanol, about 2 billion gallons is produced by the state’s 25 plants right here in Nebraska using corn produced right here.

We in farm country are big on ethanol because we know that using Nebraska corn to make it creates a higher demand for the grain harvested in our fields. Ethanol plants operating in Nebraska consume about 700 million bushels of corn per year.

That’s such a significant demand that it now is difficult to imagine what might happen to the price of corn if ethanol plants weren’t distilling the grain into ethanol. Ironically, some of the critics of ethanol claim that using so much corn to make fuel is driving up the cost of food, but that’s untrue. Corn used in ethanol doesn’t land on our dinner table. It’s used for many other things, and one of the byproducts of making ethanol - distillers grains - is a fantastic feed for livestock.

There’s very little waste from the Nebraska-grown corn that goes into ethanol.

We’ve said a lot about the merits of ethanol, but what’s most important is that it’s a clean-burning fuel that reduces emissions almost 80 percent, and it does that by boosting octain without harming engines.

Easy to recycle

If you live in Kearney and are considering becoming a recycler, the city of Kearney makes it easy. Just phone the Sanitation Division at 233-3206 to order your recyclable container. From the city’s website, here are the top 10 reasons to recycle:

1) Recycling saves natural resources.

2) Recycling re-uses valuable resources.

3) Recycling reduces sanitation landfill costs.

4) Recycling improves the Sanitation Division’s efficiency.

5) Recyclable sales are a source of revenue for the Sanitation Division.

6) Recycling extends the landfill’s life.

7) Recycling helps families manage waste.

8) Recycling is easy. Recyclable containers are free.

9) Residential recyclables are collected twice per month.

10) Recyclable collection is free

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The Grand Island Indepependent. February 14, 2017

Tax debate headed in the right direction

Gov. Pete Ricketts is attempting to take the state’s tax policy in the right direction, however, how to accomplish his goals is a challenge.

Ricketts is right to seek to lower the state’s income tax rate and to lower property taxes. He’s also limiting the growth of the state budget, which is particularly needed since state tax revenue is falling short of projections.

Ricketts proposal would lower the state’s top income tax rate from 6.84 percent to 5.99 percent. This would be done in eight steps. A step would only kick in during years when projected state revenue goes up by more than 3.5 percent.

The governor is right to try to lower income taxes to make Nebraska more competitive as Wyoming and South Dakota have no income tax and Kansas and Missouri have lower rates. Iowa in the only bordering state that has a higher rate.

There are concerns, though, with the automatic method of reducing rates by tying it to state revenue. What would be preferable would be for state senators to assess the state’s situation each year and then decide whether to adjust the rate.

With the automatic reduction, the state’s tax rate could be going down when there are some pressing needs as is being seen in the state’s Department of Corrections this year.

In addition, the state’s economic situation could change dramatically during a year and a rate cut might not be the wisest move at the time.

One option to consider is to raise the income level where Nebraska’s top tax rate kicks in. Now those levels are $29,800 for a single taxpayer and $59,700 for married couples. Those income levels are way lower than they should be for the top tax rate.

The governor also has a promising proposal that would lower property taxes on agricultural land. Under the plan, the state’s property tax valuation system would be switched from one based on land sales to how much income land could produce. This would take into account drops in commodity prices. This would give a much more accurate picture of the land’s value.

Ricketts said in a recent column, “Income potential is a much fairer measure, and will slow the growth of ag land valuation increases. If this system were in place for 2017, it would have reduced ag land valuations by about $2.2 billion.”

The governor said similar income-potential valuation systems are being used in North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

As the governor says, it’s time for Nebraska to join these other ag states and have a more realistic way of assessing the value of ag land.

The lingering question in all the tax debate, though, is how lost revenue would be made up for school districts and other entities.

There’s a lot to sort through in adjusting tax policy, but Ricketts has the discussion moving in the right direction.

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