- Associated Press - Monday, January 2, 2017

Omaha World-Herald. December 28, 2016

Abused kids: a call to action

Nebraskans expect children to be in safe hands when the state removes them from home for abuse, neglect or criminal justice and places them into state care.

But Nebraska’s inspector general of child welfare found 36 cases over three years of alleged sexual assault of children in state care. Most involved state wards in foster homes, adoptive homes, state-licensed residential care facilities and the juvenile probation system.

A strong response is needed in the wake of these failures. The state must take reasonable steps to decrease the risks of sexual assault to these children. It’s welcome news that the inspector general plans to study what changes to state policy and law might help.

Her report cites haunting examples. Among them: The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services placed a 13-year-old state ward with an ex-convict in Omaha who raped and impregnated her. A mental health practitioner is charged with sexually assaulting a boy in her care being held at the state’s youth center in Kearney.

These cases certainly warrant a deeper examination of state policy and practices by Inspector General Julie Rogers. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Chief Justice Mike Heavican and private service providers should make sure that she can freely question the leaders and front-line workers of HHS, the probation system and private, contracted providers of child welfare services to explore what went wrong and whether policies and procedures were followed. Rogers’ findings, scheduled to be delivered to the Legislature in September, could spur needed changes.

State systems have to improve for these children, removed from home because of the actions of the adults in their lives or criminal behavior.

Lawmakers for years have discussed the pros and cons of paying foster families more and whether state background checks are strong enough to identify child sex predators. Those are discussions worth continuing. At minimum, the inspector general’s efforts will shine a necessary spotlight on the safety of kids in state care.

Nebraska might benefit from studying the State of Florida’s child welfare data system. Florida uses a nationally praised approach whose software helps the state check for common risk factors involving potential harm to a child.


Kearney Hub. December 29, 2016

Sputtering ag economy motivation for change

If Nebraskans were uncertain how tightly intertwined their state’s economy is with agriculture, all doubts were erased in 2016 when low commodity prices, a heavy tax load and costly federal regulations dominated headlines. The downturn for Nebraska farms and ranches crept into small town main streets across the state.

It’s little wonder that the downturn in the ag economy was the story of the year for 2016, according to the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

“One out of every four jobs in Nebraska is generated from agriculture and agriculture businesses. It’s impossible for the state’s broader economy not to feel the impact of a third straight year of decline in farm incomes,” said Axtell farmer Steve Nelson, president of Nebraska Farm Bureau.

Nelson predicts the low prices for corn, cattle and almost everything else produced in rural Nebraska will remain low for a while. It’s bad news for farm and ranch families and a challenge to all Nebraskans, especially policymakers who must address the need to ease tax and regulatory burdens on Nebraska’s No. 1 industry.

While 25 percent of Nebraska jobs are tied to agriculture, so is the support for the governmental services Nebraskans rely upon. Roads, bridges, law enforcement, social welfare and many other services aren’t possible without tax support. That’s an obvious fact, but how Nebraska policymakers ease the tax and regulatory burdens may not be so simple, given the gravity of the problem.

For example, much of the $1 billion revenue shortfall facing state government can be traced to Nebraska’s weak farm economy. And it could get worse before it improves. USDA believes profitability on Nebraska farms and ranches in 2016 will drop to half of what it was in 2013, declining from $7.5 billion to just over $4 billion.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s in the growing awareness that costly government regulations stunt the ag economy. That reality fueled several successful efforts in 2016 to put the brakes on government red tape.

Rural Nebraska needs more of the same progress against over reach and to create some breathing room on taxes.

It’s time for the Nebraska Legislature and Gov. Pete Ricketts to rein in spending, consolidate and contain long-term costs, and find a strategy to shift the burden away from property taxes, especially on farm ground. We can think of no better motivation for lawmakers and officials than our sputtering state economy.


Lincoln Journal Star. December 30, 2016

Amazon does right on taxes

The playing field for Nebraska’s brick-and-mortar retailers will become more fair on Jan. 1, when online giant Amazon.com starts collecting state and local sales tax for purchases made by the state’s residents.

Give the innovative company some credit for the move. It’s been under increasing pressure for years to collect the tax, but it made the move voluntarily, rather than kicking and screaming until it was forced to do so.

Nebraska State Tax Commissioner Tony Fulton said Amazon is “exhibiting responsible corporate citizenship.

“The tax is owed,” he said. “So the announcement will just help Nebraskans to comply with the existing law.”

Consumers are supposed to report and pay sales tax on online purchases, but hardly anyone does.

The number of states to which Amazon remits sales tax will top 30 when Nebraska and Iowa join the ranks starting in 2017.

The change means tens of millions more in tax revenue for state government, and hundreds of thousands more for Lincoln city government and other cities that have a local sales tax. Interim Lincoln Finance Director Don Herz estimated the city might collect an additional $500,000 to $900,000 next year.

A report done for the American Booksellers Association estimated that in 2015, sales to Amazon alone equated to $18.3 million in lost revenue for Nebraska state government and $4.4 million in local sales tax.

A few years ago the Nebraska Retail Federation estimated that state government was losing about $37 million in sales tax revenue to Amazon and the host of other smaller online retailers due to a loophole that allows them to avoid collecting the tax unless they have a brick-and-mortar presence here.

The unfairness of the situation has been evident for years. As Sen. Deb Fischer said in 2013, “Government should not be in the business of picking ‘winners and losers.’ By giving online sellers a free pass from collecting state sale tax, the federal government is actively undermining millions of small business owners who invest in our communities and create jobs.”

The truth and strength of that argument, however, has never carried the day in Washington, where Congress has been mired for years in self-defeating partisan games.

Next year, when Republicans control the presidency and both houses of Congress, one of the items on the agenda should be to pass a version of the Marketplace Fairness Act that has been bogged down for years.

Amazon is so efficient and profitable it can afford to do the right thing voluntarily. Other online sellers need the federal government set the same rules for everyone. For the sake of local businesses, the loophole should have been closed long ago.


The Grand Island Independent. December 29, 2016

Nebraska must do even more to protect children

The Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare is undergoing an important review of sexual abuse cases involving state wards or those in the juvenile probation system.

Inspector General Julie Rogers said there have been 36 sexual abuse cases reported in the last three years in the child welfare system.

While one case is too many, 36 is a disturbingly large number that calls for this review and stronger measures to protect these children, who are essentially in the care of the state.

Rogers said the review will look at what may be wrong with the state’s system that is failing to prevent this abuse.

“How can we improve the system in Nebraska so our kids who are abused and neglected and vulnerable and have gone through trauma already are not subjected to more abuse or exploitation?” Rogers said.

That one question accurately sums up what the state must do. Most of the children in the state’s custody have suffered enough, through no fault of their own. They have been neglected by parents, many of whom were on drugs.

They were placed in state custody for their protection. For them to then be sexually abused while a state ward just heaps one tragedy upon another.

State officials, however, do face a difficult challenge. Many have heavy caseloads that make it impossible to provide the proper monitoring.

In addition, finding foster families to look after these children is not easy. It is a huge commitment on the part of these families to take in these children.

However, potential foster families must be thoroughly screened to prevent the placing of a child with a possible abuser.

Should requirements for foster parents be toughened? That is one consideration, but it may be hard considering how great the need is now.

Many in the state were surprised to learn that convicted felons can be foster parents as long as their crimes didn’t involve murder, sex offenses or child abuse. That may be one area where the state’s policy needs to be changed. A person who has committed a serious crime, probably shouldn’t be placed in charge of a vulnerable child.

Employees at state-licensed residential care facilities also must be thoroughly screened.

Rogers said she will be looking at patterns in the sexual abuse cases and make public recommendations by September.

So far, state officials seem open to the review, as they should. The state must do all it can to protect these children. This not only involves the Department of Health and Human Services, but also the state probation system.

Children, who are under the care of the state, must feel protected and safe if they are to recover from the trauma that they have already faced.

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