- Associated Press - Monday, July 31, 2017

Omaha World-Herald. August 3, 2017

Potential legislative candidates should be aware of office’s obligations

Political parties are busy recruiting candidates for the 2018 Nebraska Legislature elections. Some candidates have already announced their intent to run.

Twenty-four of the 49 seats will be up for election next year - seven open seats so far due to term limits or an incumbent’s decision not to seek re-election and 17 contests with an incumbent up for re-election. The primary will be May 15 and the general election Nov. 6.

Nebraskans who are thinking about running for the Legislature can benefit from understanding some important considerations:

“ Effects on family, work. Although Nebraska has a part-time Legislature (a 90-day session one year, a 60-day session the next), some state senators have found that the Legislature’s demands on their time well exceed what they had anticipated. They’re caught off-guard by how much their family time has been reduced, and complications arise if they also hold a full-time job. Candidates should discuss the impact of their potential legislative obligations with their families.

“ Meeting the voters. If you’re going to run for the Legislature, be prepared to devote a lot of time to getting out and meeting voters, often door to door (more easily done in urban districts, with more compact populations, than in Nebraska’s rural districts, which cover far greater distances). Veteran Legislature-watchers can provide many examples of candidates who stood a chance of winning but lost in part because they didn’t do the necessary legwork to connect with voters.

“ Political combat. Candidates regularly find themselves the target of hard-hitting and sometimes misleading campaign ads and mailers. Some of the attacks can be quite nasty. Candidates need to be prepared for this experience and be ready to react.

“ Dedication to the job. Many Nebraskans elected to the Legislature go to the State Capitol and devote proper energy to the job. They dive into their committee work. They contribute to public hearings. They study the materials involving legislation. They develop constructive relations with fellow senators. But some legislators make little effort on those scores. They focus solely on one or two issues or use their time to deliver cable TV-style rants, or in some cases don’t even show up for committee hearings or floor debate. That laziness and irresponsibility harm the Legislature and Nebraska itself.

“ A changed Legislature. The Legislature traditionally has been a generally nonpartisan institution where state senators were used to great leeway and were encouraged to look beyond party labels. In this year’s session, however, the Legislature moved more toward a Congress-style environment where a conservative majority voted regularly as a bloc, and the Governor’s Office enjoyed increased influence. Nebraskans running for the Legislature need to give much thought to how they would seek to operate in such an environment.

“ The importance of mentors. One of the most important decisions a freshman senator can make involves which incumbent or incumbents to connect with to learn the Legislature’s processes and habits.

Nebraska’s single-chamber Legislature, with 49 members, is the smallest in the nation. It’s crucial that candidates step forward who are willing to serve with the needed energy and constructive mindset.


The Grand Island Independent. August 3, 2017

Drugs must be kept out of prisons

It was another tragic incident in Nebraska’s prisons.

An inmate at the Tecumseh State Prison, Daelan LaMere, 22, apparently had drugs slipped to him by a visitor. When guards went to strip search him, he put a blue pouch of drugs in his mouth and swallowed them, according to an inspector general’s report.

LaMere later became ill and was found unresponsive in his cell. He died at a Lincoln hospital on June 6. It was ruled an overdose of the drugs Ecstasy and methamphetamine.

In a surprise to many, more and more prison incidents seem to involve drugs and alcohol. How inmates get access to drugs and alcohol while in prison is puzzling. A secure location such as a prison should be able to keep drugs out.

It’s an issue that prison officials have pledged to address, strengthening safeguards against drugs and alcohol getting into the prison system.

The LaMere case and other incidents show that it is a major problem, and somehow this pipeline to behind the prison walls must be stopped.

A recent story in the Omaha World-Herald showed that “intoxicant abuse” violations in the state’s prisons increased 37 percent last year to 2,348. The Tecumseh State Prison, alone, saw 700 violations, an increase of 239 percent.

“It’s absolutely a concern,” Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes told the World-Herald. “Any time you see a spike in misconduct reports around intoxicants or substances - violent activities, weapons, cellphones - any of those serious contraband things that can contribute to bad outcomes.”

In fact, the March 2 takeover of a housing unit that left two inmates dead was sparked by the confiscation of homemade alcohol in inmates’ footlockers. The alcohol had been made from bread, sugar and fresh fruit.

Many inmates wind up in prison because of drug problems. Frakes said 80 percent of inmates have a substance-abuse problem. While many are forced by the fact that they are in prison to go drug-free, others make great attempts to obtain drugs.


Lincoln Journal Star.  August 4, 2017

Political discourse must return to civility

Recent events involving the state’s congressional delegation have been woefully short on Nebraska nice.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s town halls in Lincoln were overshadowed by angry protests, interruptions shouted from the crowd and at least one large-scale walkout. Earlier this summer, a sign with a vulgarity was placed in his yard. Within the last three weeks, both of Nebraska’s United States senators reported finding fake blood smeared on the doors of their Lincoln offices.

Civil discourse isn’t dead, but it seems to be in increasingly limited supply in the U.S. Nebraska, which prides itself on Midwestern hospitality and kindness, appears to be suffering from the same shortage of polite, productive conversation to move the state and country forward.

Disagreeing with the stances, actions and votes of elected officials isn’t wrong. In this very space, we do it, too. That’s one of the perks of American democracy; dissenting speech and actions are protected in the Constitution despite not being guaranteed to far too many global citizens.

But with this great power comes the great responsibility of expressing deeply held opinions in a diplomatic manner.

Extreme partisanship is stubbornness, but it’s being worn as a badge of honor. Outrageous stunts, incendiary claims and outright lies get attention. In such an era, being kind to political opponents can be difficult.

To regain the civility we desire, we must return to our roots, remembering that all of us stand beneath the same flags first and foremost. Regardless of whether one claims to be a Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal or any other political identifier, every single one of us is an American and a Nebraskan - both points of pride that trump political affiliation.

When that’s established, it’s easier to work toward a common goal - despite a multitude of paths by which it can be achieved. Accordingly, plenty of people lean on civil means to express opinions to their elected officials. Need some suggestions?

Call or email their offices. Testify before local and state governments. Write a letter to the editor. Organize or participate in a peaceful protest or rally. Campaign for a candidate. Run for office yourself. Above all, exercise your right to vote.

These are just a few ways to create change in government. The rants, threats and vandalism seen recently in Nebraska accomplish nothing but increasing the difficulty of working together in pursuit of a shared result - which is the only way to effectively govern at any level.

Public participation remains a vital component in every step of the political process. But the most effective way to convey a message is through civil means, something Nebraskans must remember - and practice - to stay productive and above the fray in this charged political environment.


McCook Daily Gazette. August 2, 2017

New online system fills need for rural civil legal advice

They say that one lawyer will starve if he’s the only one in town, but two lawyers can make a decent living.

There are much better lawyer jokes out there, but it’s no laughing matter if you need legal advice and none is available.

That’s too often the case, especially for low-income residents in West Central Nebraska.

Eleven counties, including Hayes and 10 others in the Sandhills region, have no attorneys at all.

Frontier, Dundy and Perkins counties have only two each, and Hitchcock County is home to one attorney, according to the latest information from the Nebraska State Bar Association.

The association doesn’t require members to provide pro bono legal advice the way some states do, but members are “strongly encouraged” to provide 50 hours a year, according to Liz Neeley, executive director.

Traditionally, that’s been accomplished by walk-in clinics, where attorneys man a desk in a courthouse for set hours, providing simple civil legal advice to citizens who might otherwise ask court officials who are prohibited from doing so.

You could imagine how slow “business” would be for such a system in a small rural county. But for someone who needs a quick answer to a civil legal matter, it’s no small issue.

Fortunately, the Internet offers a solution that is being implemented in Nebraska this month.

The State Bar Association is now one of 42 states participating in a new pro bono initiative sponsored by the American Bar Association, which takes the walk-in clinic online.

Nebraska Free Legal Answers Online is available at www.Ne.FreeLegalAnswers.org , where approved volunteer lawyers provide information and basic legal advice about specific legal issues to eligible users.

Eligible users must be Nebraska residents 18 or older, have less than $5,000 total assets and total household income less than 250 percent of Federal Poverty Guidelines - and cannot be in jail or prison.

Log in, and you’ll provide information about a civil legal problem to narrow down specific questions, uploading documents or photos for a lawyer to review. You’re limited to three civil legal questions a year.

Volunteer lawyers can view questions according to their expertise, screen for conflicts and learn whether they can answer the user’s questions.

If they decide to respond, it goes to a private queue for that specific lawyer, who has three days to provide an initial response which forms an attorney-client relationship.

The user logs in, views the answer from “volunteer lawyer,” and when it is determined there is nothing further the lawyer can to assist, the question is closed and the attorney-client relationship ended.

NSBA President Jo Bataillon said the state bar is “deeply committed” to expanding access to the justice system, since it is estimated 85 percent of the public’s legal needs go unmet.

“The Nebraska Free Legal Answers website gives people in tough situations the opportunity to understand how the law applies to their particular situation at no charge,” Bataillon said.

The new system doesn’t address the issue of legal advice for low-income defendants in criminal cases, who are often served by harried public defenders without time or incentive to provide an effective defense.

But in civil questions, it’s a win-win situation for low-income people who need legal advice, and attorneys who want an effective way to provide pro bono service.___

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