The Grand Island Independent. April 13, 2014.
Civic engagement important during election season
With the May 13 primary election fast approaching, voters face a daunting challenge to select from a confounding number of candidates in state and local races, including a broad field of seven candidates for the U.S. Senate and eight for governor.
Nebraska is, indeed, blessed to have so many strong, qualified leaders willing to serve in public office.
Nebraska is a closed primary state which means only voters registered as Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian can vote.
In addition to the high profile races for U.S. Senate and governor there are other important races for state auditor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, three races for U.S. Congress and a host of other local and regional offices. Again, this election season has drawn a stellar batch of candidates across the board.
Republicans dominate the ballot in the two major Nebraska races and voters are finding it difficult to simply keep all the names straight, let alone develop meaningful insight into the relative differences and core values of each candidate. With so many candidates vying to advance through the primary, debates, campaign stops, press conferences and, of course, campaign advertising have become an omnipresent part of life this spring.
The clutter of campaign advertising messages on the airwaves does little to enlighten the electorate, but certainly serves to cause would-be voters to either tune out or react emotionally. Campaign strategists often bank on negative advertising to get their candidates elected. Many studies have been conducted to gauge the impact of negative or attack advertising; however, no conclusive results have proven the effectiveness of this type of advertising. In fact, political ads are simply too nuanced to be neatly categorized as either positive or negative.
As a general rule of thumb, the coveted voter reacts with revulsion upon viewing an attack ad about his or her candidate, but sees wisdom and enlightenment in an equally negative ad directed at an opposing candidate. We believe that Nebraskans are more skeptical of negative advertising than voters in the urbanized parts of the country and that they are more engaged and fiercely independent.
Civic engagement is enormously important in our free society. The best choices are made by informed voters. The flood of negative political advertising tends to polarize and disenfranchise the electorate. We urge Nebraska citizens to look beyond the polished and pointed messages; pay close attention to the candidate's background, what they stand for, and what they are saying. Then, go to the polls and exercise the great privilege of deciding who will lead. The future of Nebraska rests with those who take their civic responsibility seriously.
Scottsbluff Star-Herald. April 12, 2014.
Innovation: Ag, science team up to extract more value from Nebraska farm products
In Nebraska, agriculture is the engine that runs the state's economy. It requires land and water. Because new sources of either are unlikely, the greatest opportunities for growth come from making the most of what the industry already has.
There's a lot of good news on that front.
Bioenergy industry officials expect this to be a breakout year for production of cellulosic ethanol, which uses crop waste and non-edible plants. Although the first commercial production of cellulosic ethanol began more than a decade ago, biomass plants in Iowa and Kansas will be expanding capacity, making use of corncobs, leaves, husks and stalks that pass through combines during harvest. Two plants in Iowa that cost more than $225 million each to build will begin making 20 million to 30 million gallons of ethanol annually.
Present practices use corn as raw material. Although distillers' grains, a major byproduct of ethanol production, is used as cattle feed, the industry has come under fire for increasing demand for corn, which raises the price of cattle feed, and for growing crops for fuel instead of food. Cellulosic ethanol answers those concerns by deriving more value from materials that would otherwise go to waste.
But another industry has its eye on the same resource. Pellet Technology USA, a biorefinery startup in Gretna, is developing a process to convert the same leftovers, known as corn stover, into feed pellets for livestock, based on a research trial administered at University of Nebraska-Lincoln research feedlots. It will provide a readily available, low-cost feed option to livestock producers, making them less dependent on feed grain markets.
"Because of shifts in forage availability and corn prices and the increase in corn yield, we believe this is the greatest opportunity for beef cattle producers in Nebraska and surrounding states," James MacDonald, associate professor and beef cattle nutritionist in the department of animal science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told the Omaha World-Herald.
Pellet Technology USA is also looking at ways to use the material to produce cat litter pellets and energy pellets that can be burned with coal to generate electricity.
Another Nebraska company, Laurel BioComposite LLC, uses a byproduct of ethanol production to produce an additive used in plastics that replaces petroleum-based materials.
A single corn plant is about 50 percent grain by weight, meaning about half of the plant has little value except as post-harvest browse for cattle. Such "value-added" use of ag products opens doors for significant economic growth in rural Nebraska communities.
Unfortunately, our own government sometimes stands in the way of rural economic progress. The Associated Press recently reported that a new federal proposal would make it more difficult for beer breweries to provide spent grains to nearby farmers to use as cattle feed. Similar to the distillers' grains produced in the ethanol manufacturing process, spent grains are cheaper than corn or hay and have a higher protein content. It makes cheap and nutritious cattle feed for ranchers and feedlots, and the breweries no longer have to pay to have the spent grains hauled to a landfill.
The Food and Drug Administration wants to force brewers to meet the same standards it requires for livestock and pet food manufacturers. They'd have to take on new sanitary handling procedures, record-keeping and other food safety processes. Breweries say they'd have to hire additional workers to dry and package the feed before distributing it to farmers. The FDA said the proposed regulations will improve the safety of animal food and prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses in animals and people, although the Brewers Association industry group says there's no evidence that spent grains pose any danger to animals or humans.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a dramatic reduction in the required production of ethanol, including from biomass, which would hit the budding cellulosic ethanol industry just as it begins to gain traction. The agency is proposing a 16 percent reduction for ethanol and a biodiesel target 500 million gallons below 2013 production. In January, the Iowa Legislature approved a resolution saying the EPA proposal "will cause a substantial reduction in the long-term investment in biofuels infrastructure and a reduction in investments in further energy innovation."
Agriculture is often criticized for demanding taxpayer subsidies and import restrictions from the government that distort markets and raise prices for consumers. In this case, the nation would be better off if government regulators would get out of agriculture's way and let farmers and scientists develop dynamic new ways to make the most of every acre and every gallon of water.
Omaha World-Herald. April 13, 2014.
Legislators looked down the road
State legislatures often look only to the short term, sometimes no further than the next election. But the Nebraska Legislature this year commendably has taken a long-term look at some key issues while keeping the state budget on an even keel.
Those issues: Prisons. Water sustainability. Long-neglected maintenance needs involving state parks as well as the State Capitol.
First, lawmakers took the first steps in a much- needed reset of prison policy, beginning a process aimed at diverting some nonviolent offenders from prison to free up beds for violent criminals and relieve overcrowding. Mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as job training, also will receive new attention.
The decision to involve the Council of State Governments in helping plan and carry out needed changes was widely viewed as a key step in building consensus next year on future reforms. Lawmakers, however, regrettably failed to address the "good time" problem that automatically cuts an inmate's sentence in half.
Second, sound stewardship of water — one of Nebraska's enduring public policy challenges — also received front-burner attention. Lawmakers expressed widespread agreement on creating a selection process to identify practical projects that promote water sustainability.
Third, lawmakers at last broke the frustrating stalemate over how to fund maintenance needs for state parks. It was encouraging, too, to see needed funding move forward for some long-delayed maintenance at the State Capitol.
With the recession receding and state revenues on an upswing, the 60-day "short session" began with a wide array of requests for new spending and tax cuts. The Legislature responded with sound judgment in setting budget priorities (which required saying "no" in many cases) and keeping spending and tax cuts at levels that won't bust the budget.
The Appropriations Committee, under the chairmanship of Sen. Heath Mello, demonstrated an impressive bipartisan spirit and made pragmatic budget adjustments that won widespread support.
The cash reserve was held to a reasonable level (a bit under $700 million), a reminder that having a healthy reserve proved invaluable during the recession.
The committee rightly insisted on the key guidepost that withdrawals from the cash reserve be used only for one-time projects.
Gov. Dave Heineman was justified in opposing the effort to begin a $200 million highway bonding program, and the state's pay-as-you-go tradition was protected when the proposal failed.
Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, chairman of the Revenue Committee, faced tremendous pressure as tax-cut demands poured in. Hadley showed balanced judgment and resolve in leading the committee to set sensible priorities while providing tax cuts at a fiscally sound level.
The 2014 session was marked by approval of other notable steps forward. The creation of publicly funded guardian positions should help prevent troubling financial abuses of vulnerable individuals. Nebraskans will soon have the option of same-day voter registration.
— Child welfare. Lawmakers approved legislation to allow alternate response (a more flexible approach) on a pilot basis. Also approved were services for young people who age out of the child welfare system, to help them make the transition.
— Enterprise zones. This is a statewide initiative to promote investment in economically burdened areas. Impoverished parts of Omaha can benefit, for example, and this new law complements local land bank efforts, promoting neighborhood stabilization and economic development.
— Nebraska Advantage. It's important for the state to adjust these tax incentives to meet the changing needs of the marketplace, and the Legislature made some practical adjustments this year.
— Suicide-prevention training for teachers. The teen numbers have been troubling in Nebraska and Douglas County, and this training will help educators be more aware of danger signs.
Filibusters and the threat of them were used more frequently during what was at times a contentious session. It remains to be seen whether the filibustering will become a pattern, since each election shifts the ideological and partisan mix.
The bottom line is that under Speaker Greg Adams' management, lawmakers commendably got all their key business (budget, taxes, prison reform, water policy) done in a session that looked long-term and set important initiatives in motion for Nebraska's future. Valuable service, indeed.
McCook Daily Gazette. April 9, 2014.
State's central issue headed for a solution?
Native Americans called our region "flat water" when, after being pushed westward by European settlers in the 18th century, they encountered the Platte River.
In 1714, French explorer Etienne de veniard, sieur de Bourgmont — perhaps his friends called him "Spike," — adapted the Otoe or Omaha word and called it the "Nebraskier River," a name later applied to the state.
Three centuries later, water continues to be a central issue for our state, and for the past half century or more, fair and effective ways to use that resource remain as mysterious as the land was for the first explorers.
The Legislature has a good opportunity to bring some order to what has been a piecemeal, chaotic issue over the decades.
Like most successful legislation, there are some things about LB1098 that neither side like.
Sen. Tom Carlson, a Republican candidate for governor, sponsored the bill after leading a state water sustainability task force last summer.
It is expected to generate $32 million for a new water sustainability fund by next year. It would also expand the Natural Resources Commission from 16 members to 27 to involve more stakeholders such as groundwater and surface water irrigators, cities, public power districts and wildlife conservation groups.
It would also require natural resources districts and the state to work together on river-basin management plans.
As Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said, the bill would require the many different groups to get together to work out a solution.
Outstate interests are unhappy with a provision which would set aside 10 percent of the state's annual water funding for an Omaha sewer upgrade, mandated by the federal government.
Gov. Heineman and others have argued that Nebraska shouldn't have to pay for Omaha's problem. Eastern interests, however, may argue that they shouldn't have to pay for problems with the Republican River.
Southwest Nebraskans argue, however, that the state signed the 1943 Republican River Compact with Kansas and Colorado, making it a statewide issue.
A perfect solution? Of course not. We'd rather see even more unified control of the Republican River basin, perhaps even across state lines.
But LB1098 seems like a good step in the right direction.