Scottsbluff Star-Herald. March 5, 2015.
Doctors: Student loan relief would help ease the health care shortage in small-town Nebraska
We noted in an editorial the other day that the University of Nebraska enjoys hundreds of millions of dollars in annual support from taxpayers. During a hearing in Lincoln last week, the university itself was a bit more specific.
NU asked the Appropriations Committee for a 5 percent increase in state funding for its operational budget, with an additional $20 million spread across the biennial budget to support a roster of projects. In all, that's an increase of 8 percent. NU's total state funding request for 2015-16 is $587.4 million, an increase of about $47.4 million. The request for 2016-17 is about $636.3 million.
As with most state government spending, granting the request would entail a fairly massive redistribution of income from taxpayers living all around Nebraska to state government employees, and the economy, in and around Lincoln. In the university's case, that also includes similar benefits for Omaha and Kearney, where the system operates other campuses, and a few research outposts around the state, including the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff — for which we are, of course, very grateful.
In addition to funding for the operational budget, NU is requesting a lump sum of $10 million each year to support a new biomedical institute, Rural Futures Institute programs, the National Strategic Research Institute, the health science complex under construction in Kearney and the new strategic plan calling for increased faculty hiring at the Peter Kiewit Institute. That $10 million for the Rural Futures Institute, a fraction of the overall expense, suggests at least a meager return to the hundreds of small Nebraska communities that don't have a university presence.
We bring all this up not to pick on the university but to offer a bit of political perspective to urban lawmakers as they digest a proposal to offer student loan reimbursements to doctors who agree to begin their practice in rural areas of Nebraska. LB 196, introduced by Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, would offer medical residents who choose to work in small Nebraska communities up to $120,000 in relief — $40,000 a year — from the burden of student loans. The bill applies to medical, dental, master's level and doctorate-level mental health and physician assistant students. Beginning professionals who receive the reimbursements would work for one year in an approved program in under-served parts of the state and would be required to accept Medicaid patients.
Urban lawmakers are likely to object that their constituents need medical care, too, and that a program that benefits only rural residents is unfair. There are several reasonable responses to that objection.
As noted above, a lot about the effect of state government spending on local economies is unfair, or at least vastly uneven, and medical shortages are an issue that only government action is likely to remedy.
Another answer is that the reimbursements are unlikely to trigger a stampede of newly minted doctors to back-roads villages. A blessed few doctors enter the profession to be healers and go where their calling takes them. Others, well ... don't. For those willing to practice in rural areas, a little less worry about how they'll make ends meet might be enough to encourage them to set down roots.
Also, 11 of the state's 93 counties don't have even one primary care physician. If that's bad for residents, imagine how it would be for the only doctor for miles around, being on call for 24 hours a day. If the incentive program encourages another doctor to hang out a shingle next door, you might face some competition. You might also be grateful to work out a handshake agreement that would allow you each to get a decent night's sleep.
Finally, lawmakers are often swayed by the argument that Nebraska suffers in comparison to surrounding states. In this case, neighboring states have programs similar to the one being proposed. Passing it will make it less likely that we'll educate doctors here who'll end up treating patients over there.
Like grocery stores, schools, churches and post offices, doctors can make the difference in whether a small town survives. If Nebraska can afford hundreds of millions for the salaries of faculty and bureaucrats in its biggest cities, it ought to consider setting aside some funding that would help keep doctors practicing in its smallest rural towns.
Lincoln Journal Star. March 6, 2015.
Replace the death penalty
One of the reasons that support for the death penalty is eroding was evident at last week's legislative hearing on the latest attempt to replace the death sentence with a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Some family members of murder victims say the seemingly endless appeals in death penalty cases traumatize them again and again, and give unwarranted notoriety to the killer.
Miriam Thimm Kelle's brother was murdered by cult leader Michael Ryan almost 30 years ago.
Without the death penalty, Kelle said, Ryan would more likely have spent the past three decades in obscurity.
Her family should be united in memory of her brother, Kelle said. Instead it is divided between those, like her, who want the penalty changed to life without parole and those who still hope to see him executed.
That may never happen. Ryan has terminal brain cancer. Kelle said he may not survive the year. "He's going to cheat the executioner," said Sen. Ernie Chambers, who introduced LB268 to replace the death penalty.
There was a time when the death penalty was an issue that divided liberals and conservatives.
Now there is considerable support among conservatives for doing away with the death penalty, as shown by the fact that seven Republican state senators are co-sponsoring Chambers' bill.
The conservative argument against the death penalty is rooted in the view that government is too prone to error, too arbitrary and too inefficient to apply such an irreversible sanction.
There's little doubt that the government's effort to use the death penalty is costly. Study after study has shown that death penalty cases are more costly. The average cost of an execution in Nebraska is estimated to be $15 million, according to Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
As retired Lincoln police Capt. Jim Davidsaver said in a Local View in the Journal Star last year, "The United States Supreme Court has dictated capital cases must be handled differently, so they are especially complicated and time consuming.
"The millions of dollars we've spent on the death penalty would have been much better invested in more police officers, additional resources or training for our current officers. The cheaper, more intelligent alternative for our state is life without the possibility of parole. Repealing the death penalty does not mean we are 'soft' on crime. It means we are smart on crime." Davidsaver also submitted written remarks to the Legislature.
The arguments in favor LB268 are objective, factual and overwhelming.
On more than one occasion in recent years, a majority of state senators has supported replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole, only to be defeated by a filibuster or a veto. The Journal Star editorial board hopes this is the year the majority prevails.
Omaha World-Herald. March 9, 2015.
Livestock issue spurs debate
Last fall, some University of Nebraska- Lincoln economists issued a report that said Nebraska has fallen behind its neighbors in expanding various livestock sectors.
This is a significant economic development issue, and it would serve the state well to discuss options to encourage expansion, their report said.
A proposal for one such option, backed by the Nebraska Farm Bureau, the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Association of County Officials, recently came before the Legislature's Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
The hearing, which featured strong disagreements among Nebraskans, was highly useful.
The bill's supporters explained the economic potential and pointed to inadequacies of current arrangements.
Opponents championed the importance of local control and the need to avoid rigid state mandates.
Sponsored by Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, Legislative Bill 106 would require county boards to consider a state-developed scorecard on such issues as odor control, setback from other dwellings and manure disposal plans before deciding whether to approve or deny a permit for a hog confinement facility, feedlot or dairy.
In the midst of vigorous debate among Nebraskans who testified, the committee has done a commendable job in advancing the bill, via a 5-2 vote, to the full Legislature after adding amendments that attempt to find a sensible balance.
Among other things, the amendments would specify certain factors to be used in judging proposed projects; adjust language to reduce some complications for local zoning authorities; and give counties flexibility in some regards.
The committee's adjustments set the stage for what could be a worthwhile debate on this ongoing issue for agriculture and local communities.
The hearing shed light on key points to be considered. Steve Wolfe of Kearney County testified in favor of the bill. He focused on the dairy sector, pointing to numbers mentioned in the UNL report.
From 2003 to 2013, Nebraska dairy cow numbers fell 17 percent while nearby states saw increases. In Kansas, the number rose from 20,000 head to 132,000; in South Dakota, up 8,000 head to 92,000.
Other LB 106 supporters noted that neighboring states have grown their hog numbers at far greater rates than Nebraska. Over the past decade Nebraska's hog inventory grew by 14 percent, matching the national average. But that number was 53 percent in South Dakota, 30 percent in Iowa, 25 percent in Minnesota and 22 percent in Missouri.
Nebraska's pork industry generates around $888 million a year; the dairy industry, around $231 million. The 2014 UNL report projected significant gains from potential livestock expansion.
"A base expansion scenario that includes a 25 percent increase in market hogs, a doubling of dairy cow numbers, a 10 percent increase in fed cattle production and a tripling of egg production, along with the associated processing industries, has the potential to provide an additional 19,040 jobs, with labor income of almost $800 million and value-added activity of over $1.4 billion," it said. "This activity has the potential to generate over $38 million in local tax revenue."
Some members of the Government Affairs Committee voiced agreement with the bill's opponents, who warned against undermining local control and imposing a one-size-fits-all approach in a state with widely varying conditions of geography, economics and even wind patterns.
Orval Stahr, who runs a zoning-policy consultancy business in York, opposed the bill but also discussed shortcomings that sometimes arise now.
"We know what the issues are on this," Stahr said, listing: Lack of consistent standards among counties, which Stahr called "a real problem;" lack of clarity and understanding of the rules; failure of counties on occasion to follow their own rules.
Those concerns, as well as the committee's amendments, offer ideas for constructive discussion once Sen. Watermeier's bill reaches the floor for debate on this important economic issue.
McCook Daily Gazette. March 5, 2015.
Keeping politics, emotion out of marijuana debate
While the Nebraska Legislature considers legalization of marijuana for medical use, Nebraska, Kansas and even Colorado sheriffs are suing the state of Colorado over the state's 2012 legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
County attorneys from Kansas and Nebraska have joined in the suit, which says the law violates federal law and shouldn't be permitted.
Nebraska and Oklahoma have already appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Colorado's legalization of pot, and a group of Colorado citizens have filed their own federal challenge, saying marijuana reduces property values.
Proponents of legalized marijuana, for whatever reason, say that laws prohibiting the drug only increase its popularity and profits for producers and traffickers. The War on Drugs, they say, was created by politicians seeking votes by being tough on crime.
They say creating legal supplies of the drug will lower the cost and not increase the demand, while opening up new sources of revenue.
They point to alcohol, tobacco and even junk food as legal products that are more harmful to the public than marijuana.
Opponents say the state should not be involved in the distribution of substances much of the population considers to be harmful or immoral, and making drugs more easily available would create more consumers.
Drugs are addictive, they say, rob the user of free will and prevent users from making an informed and rational decision about their use or many other activities.
Marijuana is a gateway drug, and its legalization sends the wrong message to children, that drug use is acceptable.
It is impossible to separate politics and emotion from the debate over marijuana for either recreational or medical use, but that it what we must do.
While there are few pharmaceutical companies promoting the medical use of marijuana, a way should be found to allow it to stand or fall on its actual merits.
Applying the same standards to recreational marijuana, however, would be next to impossible. In that case, the costs and benefits of enforcing today's marijuana laws would have to carry more weight.
In the meantime, the federal government should take the lead to prevent spillover problems resulting from Colorado's law.