- Associated Press - Monday, March 20, 2017

Omaha World-Herald. March 17, 2017

Serious work on drought

Nebraskans know a thing or two about drought. Brutally hot and dry conditions pounded Nebraska in 2012 in one of the most dramatic droughts in recent memory.

Lake McConaughy shrank to only 54 percent full, with an additional decline in 2013. Many ag producers saw groundwater levels fall, in some cases in dramatic fashion.

There’s good news of late, though.

Groundwater levels in much of the state have made major progress from 2012 due to robust precipitation.

The Platte River valley, the Panhandle and the eastern third of Nebraska have seen significant groundwater gains, the University of Nebraska- Lincoln’s Conservation and Survey Division recently reported.

Not that all is well.

Water stress returned in 2016 to some areas of central and western Nebraska, the UNL scientists reported, based on survey results from nearly 5,000 wells statewide.

A few days after the UNL researchers issued that report, another institution on the UNL campus - the National Drought Mitigation Center - put forward its inaugural annual report.

The center, now in its 22nd year at UNL, works closely with institutions such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report describes 24 drought-focused projects and 76 events the center has pursued either within our country or abroad.

Monitoring and early warning projects spearheaded by the center have focused on the needs of specific geographic areas, including U.S. regions, tribal areas in South Dakota, the Caribbean, a set of Middle Eastern nations and a long list of countries including the United Kingdom, Egypt, India, Vietnam and Australia.

These Nebraska-based institutions are making laudable contributions to local and global understanding of drought and options for coping with it.

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Lincoln Journal Star. March 13, 2017

Why relief is imperative on farm land

Republican governors in Nebraska have become accustomed to relying on support from voters who live in the sun-dappled, wind-swept fields of farm country.

This year it’s much different. When it comes to tax reform, farmers are engaged in a stare-down with Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Both the Farm Bureau and the Farmers Union, and their ally, the Nebraska State Education Association, want the governor to focus on property tax relief. The governor is pushing for income tax cuts, with an accompanying proposal for modest property tax relief.

The governor’s proposal for changing the valuation method for agricultural land was termed “smoke and mirrors” by Bruce Rieker, Farm Bureau vice president of governmental relations at a meeting at the Schuyler fire station last month.

“After talking to Ricketts I came to the conclusion that he will never do anything major on property taxes, and furthermore, I no longer believe he cares to,” wrote Dennis Schuster of Steinauer, a retired farmer and member of the Lewiston School Board (LJS, Local View, Feb. 26).

This uncustomary face-off has some people scratching their heads. The complexities of modern farming can be baffling, considering the interplay between taxes, commodity prices, government programs, crop yields and the vagaries of weather.

Perhaps it would help to focus on just a few sets of figures.

First, take a look at recent changes in the valuation of agricultural land, according to the annual Nebraska Farm Real Estate Market survey by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In 2011 the weighted average of agricultural land went up 22 percent. In 2012, it was up 32 percent; 2013, 25 percent and 2014, 9 percent.

Finally, there was a reversal. In 2015 the average went down 2 percent. In 2016 the average went down 4 percent.

Next take a look at the prices that farmers get for the grain they sell to pay the bills. Starting in 2011, farmers had three great years. In 2011 the calendar year average price for a bushel of corn was $6.01. In 2012 it was $6.67, and in 2013, $6.14. Then the price fell back to earth, $4.11 in 2014, $3.71 in 2015 and $3.48 in 2016, about 52 percent of the high in 2012.

Soybean prices went through a similar cycle: $12.53 in 2011, $13.96 in 2012, $14.07 in 2013 and $12.47 in 2014. Then prices dropped to $9.49 in 2015 and $9.40 in 2016, about 67 percent of the high in 2014.

So when farmers say they are being squeezed in a vice, they have a valid point. The increase in the price of their land, and the taxes they must pay on it, are not even remotely close to the changes in the price of the products they sell.

To the uninitiated, a rise in the value of land means the owner has become wealthy. However, to access that wealth, the owner has to sell. Most farmers want to keep farming, and the high taxes are just another cost of production.

Now that many farmers think the governor is standing in the way of property tax relief, the mere fact that he has an R behind his name doesn’t provide automatic protection.

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McCook Daily Gazette. March 14, 2017

Broader issue may be lost amid online sales tax debate

Independent retailers say they are at a disadvantage when it comes to collecting state sales tax, and government and other officials decry the loss of tax revenue from online sales.

Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes the advancement of LB44, State Sen. Dan Watermeier’s priority bill, which would enforce the collection of online sales tax, saying it would put Nebraska’s budget on “shaky grounds.”

Both sides miss a broader point about Nebraska taxes made by the WalletHub organization - they are too high.

According to WalletHub’s newest tax survey, Nebraska ranks 50th in overall effective state and local tax rates - only Illinois has higher taxes, and the District of Columbia is included in the count.

Based on the median U.S. household income, Nebraskans pay taxes at a rate of 13.8 percent, or $7,493 in state and local taxes on the median U.S. household income.

That’s 28.75 percent more than the U.S. average rate. We pay $6,589 in annual state and local taxes based on the median state household income, and get a bit of a break based on the overall cost of living in Nebraska, but we’re still 38 places above the lowest state.

Nebraskans are already required to pay sales tax on online purchases, but a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibited sales taxes on Internet purchases.

“Enforcement of online state sales tax is an issue that must be addressed, but it can only be handled properly by Congress at the federal level or a change in direction from the Supreme Court,” Gov. Ricketts said. He said the state would continue to work to bring online businesses into voluntary compliance - and the biggest player, Amazon, already began collecting sales tax this January.

LB 44 attempts to put some teeth into collection of online sales taxes, assessing a $5 fine for each failure to notify buyers that sales tax is due, and a $10 penalty for sellers who fail to notify Nebraska purchases the total amount of purchases made the previous year.

Watermeier estimates LB 44 would increase revenue to the state by $30-$40 million conservatively, or as much as $100 million.

Ricketts noted that state-level measures like LB 44 have been found to be unconstitutional as recently as last week, with other cases pending.

Instead of scrambling to find new revenue like online sales tax, however, it would be more appropriate for Nebraska governments at all levels to find savings such as employing the same technologies online retailers use to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

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The Grand Island Independent. March 16, 2017

Time to address state’s prison violence is now

One could just feel the reaction from across Nebraska: not again.

This was after another prison disturbance earlier this month left two inmates dead at the Tecumseh State Prison.

Inmates started fires and numerous inmates were injured in the disturbance, with two left dead.

This came less than two years after a riot at the same Tecumseh prison caused $2 million in damage and threatened staff members. Two inmates were also killed in the nine-hour takeover of the prison in 2015.

It is clear that something is going on at the Tecumseh prison that state corrections officials just can’t get a handle on.

Union officials have said that low wages and no reward for experience create constant turnover among prison staff, leaving inexperienced guards to handle difficult situations. They also point to short staffing and mandatory overtime leading to problems. There are currently 53 job vacancies at the prison.

Whatever the reasons, the state must do something to fix the situation at Tecumseh. Four deaths in two years is unacceptable.

Most of the state has been patient with Corrections Director Scott Frakes and Gov. Pete Ricketts. They inherited a terrible situation. The prisons are greatly overcrowded, staffing is a problem and corrections officials were miscalculating release dates.

Frakes has fixed the release dates miscalculations, but changes to state law have not had a significant impact on prison populations. Prison officials said changes made after the 2015 disturbance kept the recent riot from spreading. That is good and it is important that staff members were kept safe.

Ricketts also has asked the Legislature for $95 million in additional funds to hire more prison officers for Tecumseh and other prisons. In addition, the governor is seeking the building of a new inmate treatment center that will help ease overcrowding. Nebraska prisons are holding about 1,900 more inmates than they were designed to house.

Despite the lean budget times, the Legislature must address the prison needs. More funding for more guards and better pay for experienced staff is badly needed at Tecumseh and the other prisons. It can’t wait for another year.

Lawmakers and corrections officials also should examine what it is about the Tecumseh facility that is leading to the deadly riots. Tecumseh is about an hour’s drive away from Omaha and Lincoln, which makes it more difficult to attract staff. However, other states have prisons in isolated locations and deal with it without any problems.

Is there a configuration at Tecumseh or a way that prisoners are grouped that is leading to problems? Is there a problem with the schedule? Or have the prisoners just become emboldened by the past disturbances and the talk of an inexperienced staff?

Whatever it is, state officials need to get to the bottom of it for the safety of the prison staff and of inmates. Nebraskans don’t want to say “not again” one more time.

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