- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

Omaha World-Herald. January 12, 2017

Police, public making a dent in Omaha homicide rate

Picture a city where the police work closely with neighbors to improve public safety.

Think of a community where neighborhood activists tackle key contributors to crime, including jobs and job training, instead of simply criticizing police conduct.

Visualize a city where homicides dropped significantly.

That’s a picture of Omaha in 2016.

Last year still delivered its share of heartbreak. Twenty-nine families lost loved ones to violence, and that’s 29 too many. And the city has already recorded three homicides in 2017.

But the 29 total homicides in 2016 represented the city’s lowest tally in 13 years. That was 10 fewer than the average during the past decade. Omaha rebounded from a record 50 homicides in 2015, a spike that many worried might become the new norm.

Nonfatal shootings also were down, with 135 in 2016. That has generally trended downward since 2007, when 247 were shot and wounded.

The hard work of police and prosecutors, the courage of witnesses and the strength of community groups merit the city’s gratitude.

Police-community relations continue to improve under Police Chief Todd Schmaderer. “We have a police chief now who’s been there for four years,” said the Rev. Greg Ashley of St. John Baptist Church. “What he’s done is change the culture. There used to be this code of silence. Now we have professional policing.”

Schmaderer, in turn, credits community groups such as the Empowerment Network and Omaha 360 for helping. These groups reach out to young people to show them a way out of gangs and how to overcome generational poverty. “Omaha deserves this,” he said.

So do police. The homicide unit cleared 86 percent of its cases last year. The department made creative use of gang unit officers, including assisting with homicide investigations; deployed shot-spotting technology; and built and improved community ties.

Programs such as the Police Athletics for Community Engagement make a big difference. The low-cost youth sports league serves more than 2,000 local players and fosters positive relationships between young people and police officers.

Such efforts, on the job and away from work - the beat cop who talks to a neighbor, the volunteer who tells a kid’s mom when he’s up to no good - helped make Omaha a safer place in 2016.

For that, the community can be grateful.

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Kearney Hub. January 12, 2017

Redesign, simplify flag, but don’t do it in a hurry

Nebraskans aren’t surprised their state flag is one of the nation’s five worst designs. Owing to our endless string of license plate flubs, we Nebraskans know a bad design when we see one. But let’s not rush to redesign our flag, as state Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha suggests. He said 2017 - our state’s 150th anniversary - is a great time to roll out a new look.

We say slow down. We should retool our flag, but Harr’s idea leaves too little time. He should have proposed the redesign last year. Let’s delay the redesign until we can do it right.

Our flag is basic and yet over done. Its large field of blue is simple and doesn’t argue with the U.S. flag when the two are flown or displayed together. However, the gold state seal is a dud. It’s cluttered with images of a steamboat, train, blacksmith, settler’s cabin, sheaves of wheat, and the state motto, “Equality Before the Law.”

The overly intricate seal brings to mind fashion advice from Coco Chanel. When dressing for the evening, she laid out her clothing and accessories and then removed one item. “Elegance is refusal,” she said. That would be sound advice for Nebraska’s flag, but uncluttering the design requires multiple take-aways to achieve simplicity and convey the right message.

One approach would be to clear everything from the seal except the motto, “Equality Before the Law,” then add a drawing of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, whose trial in Omaha ensured civil rights for Native Americans.

That’s one suggestion. No doubt Nebraskans have others. Let’s take the time to hear them.

Run with the Lopers

A Hub report last week on Nebraska’s new license plates left some readers believing they could acquire Loper plates for their cars. That’s not so - at least not yet - said Kelly Bartling, assistant vice chancellor for Communications and Community Relations at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Before the UNK plates can be produced, 250 buyers need to apply and prepay $70 per set. Bartling said that so far, 80 people have paid and signed up. That’s not enough to crank up the production line, but it’s a good start. With the interest drummed up by the Hub’s license plate article, handsome white, blue and yellow Loper plates soon will be turning up in all corners of Nebraska as UNK supporters put their Loper pride on display.

If you’re ready to run with the herd, visit www.unk.edu/loperplates for the application form and payment instructions.

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Lincoln Journal Star. January 13, 2017.

Ricketts’ budget fits the times

The low-growth, two-year state budget from Gov. Pete Ricketts is appropriate at a time that state revenues are consistently failing to meet projections.

It would be shocking if the Legislature added any spending to the bottom line that the governor presented to state senators Thursday. In fact, the final sum could be lower if revenue continues to fall.

It’s been 11 months since tax receipts hit projections from the state economic forecasting advisory board, and the string continued last month even after the board lowered its prediction.

Winners. The most generous outlays in Ricketts’ biennial budget, which calls for an overall average annual increase of 1.7 percent over the two- year period, were for corrections and K-12 education.

Corrections, which had been neglected for decades, deserved to be first in line. Public safety is at stake. Ricketts wants the department to get a 6.8 percent increase in the biennium. In the future additional attention should be focused on programs that help inmates find jobs and stay out of prison after they are released.

Public education, which Ricketts wants to receive a 5.4 percent increase, is also a deserving recipient.

Higher education. In contrast to K-12 education, higher education takes a hit in the Ricketts budget. This is a concern. Employers in Nebraska are screaming for skilled workers. The biggest cuts - 3 percent a year - are aimed at community colleges, which traditionally attract more students during economic downturns.

Property taxes. A major legislative initiative from Ricketts would change the method by which agricultural land is valued. Currently tax values are based on recent sales. Ricketts wants to move to a system which in part bases tax values on the land’s income-producing potential. It’s complicated, but many other farm states have moved to similar methods.

The proposal won’t satisfy the Farm Bureau and other advocates who want bolder action, but the idea is worthy of serious consideration. It might avoid recurring problems in the long term.

Regulatory relief. As the editorial board has said previously, the effort to reduce the requirements for occupational licenses, pushed by advocates like the Platte Institute, is a worthy cause. Requirements for hundreds of occupations are unjustifiably more onerous in Nebraska than in other states.

Income tax cuts. Ricketts and a host of fellow travelers want to make income tax cuts more palatable by tying implementation to future revenue growth. Senators should be wary. Congress is in a disruptive mood. Tax changes at the federal level would have unknown impact on state government. As many have pointed out, income taxes are already the shortest leg of the three-legged stool in Nebraska’s tax structure. This is no time to make a commitment. Look over the border at Kansas to see how bad things can get.

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McCook Daily Gazette. January 13, 2017

Successful or not, Ricketts plan worthwhile effort

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ budget proposals were just as predictable as the response.

Faced with a projected $267 million shortfall in the current budget and the potential for a $900 million gap through 2019, Ricketts did what most of us do when our paychecks won’t make it to the end of the month.

He looked for places to make the taxpayer-provided “paycheck” stretch - the equivalent of searching through the couch cushions.

Ricketts’ plan would cut spending and use money already stashed in a variety of cash accounts, as well as pull money from the state’s emergency cash reserve, draining it from a projected $630 million to about half a billion.

He would make major cuts in state aid for individuals, from the University of Nebraska and community colleges, put increase funding for child welfare services, K-12 public education and the state prison system.

A land parcel’s earning potential, rather than its market value, would begin being used to calculate property taxes starting in 2019, but state aid to schools would be automatically increased in future years.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau doesn’t think Ricketts goes far enough, preferring that the Legislature would increase the state sales tax and eliminate sales tax exemptions to offset property taxes.

Americans For Prosperity called Ricketts’ plan “right on target” and a needed response to unsustainable “years of unchecked spending.”

Others, of course, say he wants to go too far, such as Rebuild Nebraska, which calls it a “tax cut for the wealthy. One that will result in cuts for the programs and services that hard-working Nebraskans rely on. The reality is that middle-income Nebraskans would see little tax relief - enough for, maybe, one night at the movies.”

“When faced with a tight budget, hard-working Nebraskans don’t ask for a pay cut or fewer hours; they take on a second or third job to make ends meet.”

Do we really want to compare government assistance with a paycheck? Taking a second or third job just to keep on spending? No thanks.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb accused Ricketts of attempting to model Nebraska after Kansas, pulling ideas from extremist groups and failing to “deliver any bold plans” on education, health care, clean energy and prison overcrowding.

Ricketts is unlikely to achieve all the points he advocates, if many.

Attempting to hold the line, and even reducing taxes, is a worthy effort at any level of government.

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