- Associated Press - Monday, October 23, 2017

Omaha World-Herald. October 18, 2017

Legislature must clarify board roles, benefits

Sometimes the Nebraska Legislature, with good reason, frees state agencies from the fiscal and administrative authority of the Governor’s Office.

But such moves, especially when poorly designed or executed, occasionally create unintended consequences. They can leave state agencies without a clear chain of command or appropriate oversight, spurring new and different problems.

A recent example is the state Board of Parole, which was made independent of the Nebraska Department of Corrections under the previous administration after the Legislature learned of gubernatorial pressure to release more inmates than the board could vouch were prepared.

Now, however, lawmakers might need to clarify the roles and personnel benefits of Parole Board members, given a recent legal opinion from the attorney general and the findings of a related state audit.

Confusion arose after the Parole Board paid three of its departing members a total of nearly $58,000 in unused sick and vacation time.

State Auditor Charlie Janssen and his staff noticed the payments and questioned them. Parole Board chairwoman Rosalyn Cotton, who approved the payments, defended them as appropriate, citing similar past practice.

On Oct. 6, Attorney General Doug Peterson issued a legal opinion that Parole Board members are not considered state employees under state law, so they are not owed sick or vacation pay, which are employee benefits.

This is where the Legislature needs to step in. It should clarify whether members of the Parole Board - appointees who are paid more than $70,000 a year - should be treated differently from members of other state boards and commissions.

Other state agencies have faced similar growing pains after the Legislature converted them to independent agencies.

The Nebraska Tourism Commission, for example, failed to properly monitor its executive director. They fired her after a series of concerns surfaced, including spending over the agency’s budget without the board’s approval.

The Legislature flirted afterward with moving the agency back underneath the governor-controlled Department of Economic Development but chose to give the agency time to right the ship.

With the Parole Board, lawmakers could side with the attorney general and existing state law. Or they could consider authorizing a Parole Board executive director so the chair doesn’t have to handle management duties, which is how the board operates today. Or they could decide to make the board chair or board members state employees.

Nebraska lawmakers should resolve the confusion by studying and debating these competing ideas, then provide the clarity and guidance the Parole Board needs to do its job in a fiscally prudent way.

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Kearney Hub.  October 17, 2017

Thieves will find your keys if left in the car

If a car is stolen anywhere in Nebraska outside metro Omaha or Lincoln, you can bet the thief probably had no special skills, such as the knowledge to hot-wire the vehicle and speed away. No, there’s very little chance that the theft involved much sophistication.

There are not that many car thieves in Nebraska who can bypass the ignition and security systems, then take off.

There are, however, quite a few thieves in Nebraska who are opportunistic. They are alert to opportunities, such as doors left unlocked and keys conveniently sticking in the ignition. Why wouldn’t a thief pounce on such an opportunity?

With older vehicles, built between the 1960s and 1980s, it’s even possible, with a little luck, to start a vehicle without its key, say police, who hate to see people allow themselves to be victimized because they carelessly leave their keys in the ignition.

It’s also easy for thieves to grab cars with the engine left running. With cold winter weather approaching, more Nebraskans will start their engines and allow them to warm up before driving.

Guess what, a running car is another red carpet welcome for the thief. He just needs to jump inside, slip the transmission into gear and go. It sure beats walking home on a cold winter night.

A vehicle owner who is careless enough to leave the car unattended with the engine running could someday return to the parking spot and make a painful, humiliating discovery. And don’t think that locking the doors with the motor running is the answer. If a thief is bold enough, a swift strike on a window will gain access.

That’s when the real misery begins, because the thief might take the car for a joy ride and severely damage its body and suspension. Another worry: If the car keys were in the ignition, what other keys might have been on the ring? House, office or business keys? Get ready to spend some money replacing door locks.

The thief might also spend a few minutes looking in the car for wallets and purses or anything of value. If the thief is an addict, the unsuspecting victim just bought the criminal his next dose of dope.

We cannot imagine the horrible feeling of discovering your car has been stolen. What could be worse, except explaining to the police and insurance agent that you rolled out the red carpet by leaving your keys in the ignition.

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Grand Island Independent. October 17, 2017

UNK is taking good approach to budget challenges

University of Nebraska at Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen is taking a proactive approach to the university’s budget problems, and what he is doing is a good example of what should be done throughout government.

UNK is facing a $2.68 million budget shortfall this year, and that is forecast to grow to $3.4 million next year. Several factors have led to the budget gap. Mainly, state appropriations have been reduced as state government deals with its budget problems. On top of that, revenue from tuition is lower than expected and the cost of salaries and benefits is increasing.

All of that is leading the university system statewide to take a hard look at what it is doing.

At UNK, all open positions are examined. Since 2016, 30 have gone unfilled.

This is a good step. Not filling open positions is a good way to reduce a workforce and avoid having to lay off people who are doing good work. That’s not to say it is easy. When a position goes unfilled, it results in others having to pick up a larger workload and services are reduced.

Secondly, UNK leadership is examining the cost-benefit of all programs, services and staffing. Their recommendations will be released in January or February of next year.

“We are going to have to look at some strategic ways to change the way we spend and to staff us correctly. To do this, we’ve asked that everything get put on the table,” Kristensen said.

This is the proper way to approach it. All programs need to be evaluated to see if they are still relevant and cost effective. Changes in technology and interests can reduce enrollment in some areas and increase it in others. Just because a certain program was important decades ago, doesn’t mean that it still holds as much significance.

This evaluation process is much better than just arbitrarily cutting programs and staffing. A cost-benefit analysis can give a clearer picture of what programs can be reduced and avoid reductions where there is growth.

And a key point, the UNK chancellor made, was that while looking for reductions they will still continue to increase staffing in areas of growth. For example, he said, health sciences programs have seen a 21 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment this year. That is important because Central Nebraska, as well as elsewhere in the country, is facing a shortage of workers in the health area.

Lastly, Kristensen said some changes will be made in recruiting as UNK has seen slight dips in enrollment the last two years. Much of that, he said, is due to the fact that there are fewer high school seniors in Central Nebraska as the population in some communities is shrinking.

UNK, along with other colleges and universities, are facing many challenges. At UNK, though, Kristensen has laid out a good vision for addressing those challenges.

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Lincoln Journal Star. October 17, 2017

Prisons’ toll on families worth closer look

The United States has the world’s largest incarcerated population. Nebraska’s prisons capacity is among the highest in the nation.

For every person who enters a local jail, state penitentiary or federal prison, the ripple effect of that person’s absence stretches far beyond the facility’s walls. And possibly no population on the outside is more affected than children whose parents are sentenced to serve time behind bars.

As prison populations nationwide have increased, it’s worth taking a closer look how Nebraska handles its parents and their children, given that nearly two-thirds of the roughly 9,000 state inmates are identified as parents. An interim study resolution, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, is taking a needed look at this vulnerable yet important group.

Among the nine points explicitly enumerated in the resolution are examining policies on visitation and calls, locations where certain parents serve their sentences, reducing recidivism among parents and creating child-friendly programs, both within correctional institutions and programs for families.

The conversations in Pansing Brooks’ resolution, which picked up three conservative co-sponsors, must be had. A growing body of data highlights the thin line an ever-growing number of children must walk.

A Pew Center study in 2010 estimated that more than 2.7 million children - one in 28 - have at least one incarcerated parent. That figure, still cited today, came after a 2007 U.S. Department of Justice survey placed the figure at 1.7 million. It followed yet another 79 percent increase between 1991 and 2007.

A University of Pittsburgh summary of outcomes for children of incarcerated parents noted that the interactions in prisons and jails have critical impacts down the road.

Those whose visits to their parents aren’t paired with interventions or atmospheres to make a difficult place more inviting trended toward negative results. Conversely, increased child-parent contact and more child-friendly environments yielded better outcomes for both parties.

Another 2014 study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine found children with a parent in prison or jail were significantly more likely to suffer from poor physical and mental health. This is compounded by a body of evidence showing that the incarceration of a parent has significant, obvious negative impact on family’s socioeconomic status.

Official names for many jails and prisons stress their ultimate purpose of inmates atoning for crimes committed - corrections, reformatory, penitentiary. Nearly all who enter a prison one day leave it. They come out changed, but their responsibilities as a parent remains the same.

All the while, the vital job of parenting waits outside prison walls. Nebraska must seek the best outcomes to ensure parents serving time and their children have the best chance to succeed despite a difficult separation.

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