Omaha World-Herald. March 2, 2015.
College 529s do their job
Remember President Barack Obama's about-face on his ill-advised idea to tax earnings in 529 college savings plans?
Or the GOP-led Congress' swift response to expand the accounts to cover more education-related costs, such as computers?
Both represent the rare admission that a federal program is popular for the best reason — it works.
As of September, people with 529 plans nationally had saved more than $240 billion for theirs kids' education. A program that effective should be protected, not penalized.
These plans allow parents, friends and relatives to sock away up to $14,000 per student each year without triggering the federal gift tax. The money accrues interest and investment income that helps families offset the ever-rising costs of college.
This is not the domain of the rich. Many working moms, dads, grandparents, uncles, aunts and others set aside money for kids, Nebraska State Treasurer Don Stenberg says.
"The biggest thing that tells me, at least in Nebraska, that this is a middle-income, middle-class plan, is that the average account balance is $16,667," he told The World-Herald.
That's good enough for about a year of in-state tuition, fees, books, room and board at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Nebraska families have opened more than 65,000 college savings plan accounts through the State of Nebraska. Nationally, families have opened more than 225,000 accounts using Nebraska's plans.
In Stenberg's four years as treasurer, Nebraska has added about 20,000 new accounts a year. As of December, the state's 529 plans had more than $3.8 billion in total assets, while Iowa's plans held $4.2 billion.
Both Nebraska and Iowa offer information about 529 plans through their State Treasurer's Offices and websites. Investors decide for themselves the amount of risk they can accept.
The plans help thousands of working families scrape together enough money to help students attend college — or at least go into less debt.
"If it was just the '1 percent,' you wouldn't have had the political opposition to the president's proposals," Stenberg said, rightly.
Nor would Congress have acted so quickly — and correctly — to protect the plans and offer ideas for expanding them.
This is a bipartisan rarity in Congress, and a positive outcome.
McCook Daily Gazette. Feb. 26, 2015.
Should school buses have seat belts?
Seatbelts have been required in American cars since the early 1960s, but not in school buses.
That's what Dawn Prescott of Fremont wants to know, urging Nebraska lawmakers to adopt LB373, offered by Sen. Robert Hilkeman of Omaha, which would require public school buses purchased after Jan. 1, 2016, to come equipped with lap-shoulder belts. Schools would have to demonstrate twice a year how to properly wear the belts.
Prescott is entitled to her opinion. She was a chaperone when a school bus careened off a bridge and into a creek bed on its way back from a band trip to Omaha in 2001.
She survived by hanging on to an overhead luggage rack during the crash. Her seatmate, who was another parent, and her 14-year-old son, Benjamin, and another passenger were killed.
"The bus driver that day was the only person on the bus with the option to buckle up," she said. The driver survived.
The state already requires seat belts on buses that weigh less than 10,000, but a school board lobbyist argued that national research hasn't shown whether seat belts improve safety on larger school buses.
A Bellevue school official raised other concerns, such as evacuation during a fast-moving fire, and the inability of drivers to keep all students buckled up.
But we've heard the same arguments against car seatbelts, from people fearful of becoming trapped following an accident. Yes, that is possible to become trapped, but the chance of escape is considerably better if a driver isn't knocked unconscious or otherwise incapacitated in a crash because he wasn't buckled in.
If it passes, Nebraska would become the seventh U.S. state to require seat belts for school buses, behind California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas. The Legislature's fiscal office estimates it would cost school districts between $8,000 and $15,000 per bus.
We're not convinced seatbelts would actually make school buses safer, and would like to see more concrete data in addition to anecdotal information.
But at the very least, having seatbelts in school buses might help enforce discipline if students are required to stay buckled in.
Lincoln Journal Star. March 2, 2015.
Ruling bodes well for future
The ruling handed down last week by the U.S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit filed by the state of Kansas means that all the tough irrigation restrictions implemented by Nebraskans in the Republican River basin paid off.
The decision was a valid reason for Nebraska officials to celebrate. The livelihoods of hundreds of farmers and a chunk of the state's economy were at stake.
As Don Blankenau, the outside attorney hired by Nebraska, said, it was a win-win for the two states.
Consider the circumstances. Kansas filed the lawsuit because Nebraska irrigators were using so much water that the flow of water in the river at the state border was below the amount set in a 1943 compact.
Under the ruling Nebraska still had to pay $5.5 million for violating the terms of the compact. Kansas, however, initially had sought $80 million. The settlement exceeded Kansas's legal cost by only $1 million. Importantly, the ruling excluded water that migrates from the Platte River into the Republican River basin from calculation of damages.
The high court's ruling upheld the findings of a special master who in 2013 wrote that Nebraska "began turning over a new leaf in 2007 and thereafter, planning for compliance with more care and urgency."
In a 2013 report, the three Natural Resource Districts in the basin reported that allocations of water for irrigation had dropped an average of 25 percent. The NRDs also agreed to reduce groundwater pumping volumes 25 percent by this year. They had already made considerable progress toward that goal in 2013.
"Rules and regulation have helped produce rising aquifer levels in some regions, stabilized levels in others and significantly slowed the rates of decline in other areas," the NRD's reported. Of the three, the NRD in the worst shape is the Upper Republican NRD in the southwest corner of Nebraska, where groundwater levels have been declining for decades.
Terms of the settlement give Nebraska a sharp monetary incentive to continue to conserve.
The $5 million check Nebraska will write to Kansas includes a $1.8 million "disgorgement" payment for "unjust economic gains."
The court said, "Nebraska's new compliance measures, so long as followed, are up to the task of keeping the State within its allotment. And Nebraska is now on notice that if it relapses, it may again be subject to disgorgement of gains.
"That, we trust, will adequately guard against Nebraska's repeating its former practices."
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said he was confident the decision would allow the state to "leave the past where it belongs — in the past." Let's hope he's right. The steps Nebraska has taken to meet the terms of the compact also put the state closer to its goal of sustainable water management.
The Grand Island Independent. Feb, 25, 2015.
Lawsuits often stifle innovation in agriculture
Last week, it was announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that farm income was down 16 percent last year, and the expectation is that it will drop another 32 percent in 2015. Farmers are experiencing financial stress. Farm equipment sales are down — combine sales, which definitely affect the local economy, were down approximately 25 percent from last year across all brands.
Much of the financial stress in the farm economy is due to lower commodity prices. Corn, for instance, which sold for over $8 per bushel in 2012, sold for less than half of that price during the harvest season of 2014.
Commodity prices have fluctuated for as long as there have been commodity markets. The reasons for the fluctuation are not always clear, but nearly always boil down to the basic laws of economics — supply and demand. Rising corn prices over several years' time were the result of the increased demand for corn products such as ethanol production, corn sweeteners and cattle feeders' demand for distillers grain (a byproduct of ethanol production) among others.
As prices rose, production increased as well. The United States now produces somewhere between one-third and one-half again more corn than was grown here 10 years ago. Demand for corn has now softened somewhat, production continues, and so that ever-changing balance between supply and demand has driven prices down again.
The market for corn — like the market for oil, steel, cotton, or most other commodities — is now a world market, however. Domestic production and domestic uses are intertwined with the international market.
For instance, the United States now produces much more crude oil than it imports. Because of the world market for oil, though, local gasoline prices made from crude oil fluctuate almost daily. Often this fluctuation is due to economic pressures which seem quite removed from Central Nebraska.
Considering the world market for corn, the recent class-action lawsuits brought against an innovative seed corn producer (Syngenta) seem particularly misplaced. The basic argument of the lawsuits is that this company produced a strain of corn which was not acceptable to the Chinese government, a large purchaser of corn on the world market. Because the Chinese would not buy American corn contaminated with their strain, the argument continues, corn prices crashed. The follow-on, according to the lawsuit, is that this company should now be held liable for the financial stress local farmers are feeling due to lower corn prices. Interestingly, prices for many other agricultural commodities such as soybeans fell simultaneously, and they were not contaminated with this new strain of corn.
Lawsuits can be but one reaction to financial stress, but they should have a basis other than frustration. If the Chinese did not buy American corn, they were buying corn from another country — just as they might seek out other sources of crude oil. The overall market for corn was likely largely unchanged by this one buyer.
Agriculture is a fundamental basis of our local economy, in no small part because of the outstanding record of innovation of agricultural businesses. A lawsuit which risks the long-term spirit of innovation to appease the short-term frustration of corn producers would appear ill-conceived.