The Grand Island Independent. April 5, 2015.
No easy solution to funding road work in state
Nebraska, like most other states, faces a dilemma when it comes to road and bridge repair and maintenance. Every state has fallen behind in infrastructure work, leading to fears of crumbling roads and collapsing bridges.
Estimates are that $2 billion worth of work needs to be done on substandard county bridges alone in the state. But where does that money come from?
Twenty-six senators voted Wednesday to get a jump on that funding by increasing the state's gas tax by 6 cents, to be phased in over four years. Included among the proponents voting to advance LB610 were Sens. Mike Gloor, Curt Friesen and Les Seiler of Central Nebraska.
The increase would bring in $75 million a year in additional funds that would be distributed in equal thirds to counties, cities and the state.
Opponents, though, including Gov. Pete Ricketts said that Nebraskans want tax cuts, not more taxes. Ricketts wants to wait until he is done searching for a new roads director, who will then be tasked with taking a fresh look at roads funding and suggest alternatives.
What those possible alternatives are the governor hasn't said. Ricketts, however, has said he would like to explore public/private partnerships. Most people would take that to mean toll roads, but it remains unclear.
What is clear is that no one wants to take more money from the state's general fund for road construction. There are too many other needs in the prison system, health and human services and education. Also, the Appropriations Committee is looking at adding $60 million each of the next two years to a property tax relief fund.
That leaves the gas tax. The proposed 6 cent increase would raise Nebraska's gas tax to 31.6 cents per gallon. Nebraska's current gas tax of 25.6 cents per gallon ranked 26th highest nationally as of Jan. 1.
While the price of gas has dropped about 90 cents per gallon over the past year, fuel costs still take a significant part of a family's budget each month. For many families, the gas tax increase will make lean budgets even tighter.
And while 26 senators voted to advance the bill, that is short of the 30 votes that would be needed to overcome a veto. There were 13 senators who didn't vote on the measure and whether there would be enough votes there to override a veto isn't known. Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids was one of 10 senators to vote against the bill.
Perhaps because of those factors, a compromise needs to be reached. Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said he would seek to amend the bill for only a 2-cent gas tax increase and earmark all the revenue to counties. Another possible solution would be to scale back the increase to 3 cents or a penny in each of the next three years.
The state, counties and cities also need to make sure that roads funds are well managed and that waste and inefficiencies are eliminated.
Everyone wants smooth roads and safe bridges, but there are no easy solutions on how to fund the needed work. At least it's good the Legislature is taking up the issue. The problem has, can one say, been pushed down the road for far too long.
Lincoln Journal Star. April 2, 2015.
Farm subsidies continue to gush
The House, the Senate and the U.S. Department of Agriculture labored for months to reduce wasteful farm subsidies.
In the end, all the work amounted to only a minor trim.
At issue is the definition of "actively farming." The intent of the effort was to reduce the number of Americans who receive farm subsidies but don't do any of the work.
People have been complaining about the loopholes in the farm subsidy program for years. The Environmental Working Group in a 2013 report pointed out that those receiving subsidies included Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
A report the same year from the Governmental Accountability Office pointed out that more than half a billion dollars a year is paid to multiple people who claimed to manage the same farm. The report described one instance in which 11 people claimed $1 million in subsidies, although several "appeared to have little involvement in farming operations."
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry succeeded in limiting the number in legislation that passed the House. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa succeeded in putting a limit in the legislation that passed the Senate.
It's exasperating that the limits were left out of the farm bill by House-Senate conferees.
The new regulations proposed last week by the USDA would require that managers document that they put in 500 hours of substantial management work or 25 percent of the time necessary. However, family-owned entities would be exempt. The USDA said only about 1,400 farming operations would lose eligibility.
Grassley reacted this way: "With the median income in America at about $52,000 a year, potentially paying more than a million dollars over the life of a farm bill to couples who aren't even farming doesn't meet the common-sense test."
Since big farm operations collect most of the subsidies — 10 percent of farms collect 75 percent of the subsidies — critics contend that young and beginning farmers are at a competitive disadvantage, chiefly because the big operations can pay more for land.
Meanwhile, a report from the University of Missouri projected that the 2014 farm bill will be the most expensive ever. The report predicted that two new types of crop insurance coverage will cost about $2.4 billion more than the direct payments they replaced.
The Center for Rural Affairs said the USDA's proposed rule change does not meet the definition of reform, and criticized the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for "taking a pass" on the opportunity to close a farm subsidy loophole.
The most positive thing that can be said about the proposed rule change is that it represents a "tiny step forward," as the Environmental Working Group put it. The public deserved more.
McCook Daily Gazette. April 2, 2015.
Local, state control question raised again
Local control is good.
Local control is bad.
We've been wrangling with the issue since before the United States was a country, but we're still trying to find the balance.
The latest example is a bill to simplify the permit process for establishing or expanding large feedlots.
Proponents point to Nebraska's status as a top beef producing state, saying it will encourage an important industry.
Opponents say it takes local control away and leaves counties and local communities out of the decision-making loop.
Each Nebraska county has the power to set its own standards for feedlot permits, but Sen. Dan Watermeier's bill would create a state-level board that could hear appeals of county-level decisions.
That idea has divided even rural senators, like Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala who supports statewide regulation to encourage livestock development, and Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who at first opposed the bill, but then worked with the sponsor to allow mediation between producers and counties.
In the end, the bill advanced with a compromise, which would create optional statewide standards, created by the state, county and university that the county could use as guidelines in granting permits.
If the bill makes it into law, it will likely be more useful in litigation over denied permits than satisfying either pro- or anti-livestock development constituencies.
In the end, answering the local vs. state control question will have to wait for another day.
Kearney Hub. April 4, 2015.
How should parents tell kids not to use alcohol?
It's during the spring — prom season — when a parent's thoughts turn to alcohol and teenage children. Naturally, the questions arise, how do I talk with my teenager about the risks, and what should I do to ensure that prom night produces happy memories, not the tragic variety?
Well, if you're waiting until prom season to talk with your high schooler about using alcohol, you're probably too late.
Here in Nebraska, risk assessment surveys of school students uniformly reveal that a good many middle schoolers — about 30 percent or so — have already tried alcohol. With each advancing grade, the percentage of those who have tried it rises until, by the senior year, about 80 percent have tried the stuff and about half are regular users.
Waiting until your child is in high school to talk about alcohol may be too late. It's wiser to talk early, when children are third- or fourth-graders, when a parent's word still carries weight and it's likely your child hasn't been baited by friends or older kids into trying a drink.
What do you say? Tell your child that until they've reached the legal age, their use of alcohol is forbidden. Those risk assessment surveys that teens take reveal that when parents lay down the law, it helps teens say "no." That's what it's all about when parents take action to prevent their kids from becoming underage drinkers. Teens need to say "no" to friends and to a culture that glorifies drinking as the route to good times and growing up.
Sometimes, through their own tough experiences, parents learn the hard way that boozing isn't all that it's cracked up to be. It contributes to a host of bad decisions and foolish actions. Teens drive too recklessly, they get too sexually active, get riled up too easily. Crashes, unplanned pregnancy, fights and a host of other undesirable by-products — poor grades, stifled brain development and a tendency to try other drugs — can all be traced to using alcohol at too young of an age.
Here's a shocker. Among eight "social harms" listed in a study, parents ranked drinking seventh behind other concerns that often involve alcohol, including the life-changing problems we already listed. Parents who think underage drinking isn't a serious problem are fooling themselves.
Also, they're fooling themselves if they think one talk with their child about the risks of drinking will fill the bill. Winning the battle begins by setting an example at home. Kids who watch parents using alcohol recklessly will follow suit. Delivering a consistent message that underage drinking is forbidden begins with being a positive role model at home.