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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

Omaha World Herald. April 11, 2019

Legislature should work out urban-rural agreement on school aid

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan has an apt phrase for what the Nebraska Legislature faces in deciding aid to public schools. "Every year," the Elkhorn area lawmaker says, "it's a dogfight between the schools."

The school-aid debate grew so heated a few years ago at the State Capitol that the legislative process stalemated outright amid angry eruptions in floor debate. Supporters of large, medium and small school districts in 2013 were so split over how to divide the funding that the Legislature deadlocked in a protracted impasse over what to do. The standoff ended only through concerted effort by legislative leaders.

This session, the Legislature has the potential for a similar standoff, given the far-ranging changes proposed in school funding. State senators need to be fully awake to the possibility of stalemate and work to head it off through dialogue and constructive negotiation.

The central issue is what adjustments should be made to the formula that allocates state aid to schools. The state currently provides equalization aid — the main form of state support to schools — to only 69 of Nebraska's 244 districts, given how the formula calculates districts' ability to meet their needs. A large contingent of rural lawmakers this session seeks changes to the formula, so that every district will receive some aid.

But the state's largest urban districts have legitimate interests, too. Those districts have high growth and student populations with a large portion of low-income students and English as a second language learners. Some rural-backed changes would remove or modify provisions important to the large districts.

Given this collision of competing school interests, it's entirely possible that Nebraska lawmakers could stalemate on this issue. That would be a major setback for a legislative session whose central theme is addressing the big issues.

The best way forward lies in compromise that seeks a practical balance between these differing interests. By definition, that means no one side gets everything it wants. Lawmakers need to understand that, and so do the school districts.

Dogfights at the Legislature over school aid are common, but this session needs to be different. Urban-rural cooperation can provide the solution.

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Lincoln Journal Star. April 9, 2019

Pay raise key to guarantee a Legislature of the people

Since 1989, the consumer price index has more than doubled - but an important position in Nebraska has seen its salary unchanged for three decades.

The annual wage for a Nebraska state senator has been stuck on $12,000 for that long. Had that salary merely matched the Consumer Price Index, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that members of the Nebraska Legislature should be making $25,048.

Such a delay is ludicrous. It's beyond time for members of Nebraska's legislative branch to be paid commensurate with the importance of their jobs.

Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas is again leading the charge to put a pay raise for senators on the ballot in the November 2020 general election to take effect in 2021. His proposed constitutional amendment will prevent future lawmakers from having to go back to the people in search of a raise by tying it to half of the median household income for the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As things stand now, the resolution would bump up senators' salaries to roughly $27,000 - a much more reasonable number that still falls behind the national average Vargas places at $35,000.

This topic matters because stagnant pay has prevented the citizen Legislature envisioned by George Norris from being truly representative of the state's citizenry. Long hours and little pay have dissuaded many qualified candidates from seeking office, and the composition of the body accordingly skews toward the retired, young and independently wealthy.

Yes, this is technically a part-time job, given the 60- and 90-day sessions. But work outside of those settings is common, with committee and other special assignments year-round. This sacrifice in the name of public service is a profound one for those who choose to undertake it, especially for those who hold down another job while representing their districts.

Furthermore, 11 senators have signed onto Vargas's bill as cosponsors. What's noteworthy is that the laundry list of backers encompasses the entire political spectrum. Their involvement proves the need for a legislative pay raise transcends political ideology.

When Vargas introduced an identical measure last session, several conservative senators told their peers that they'd voted against previous pay hikes for the Legislature as fiscal prudence, only to realize their error once they began serving in it.

The Journal Star editorial board hopes their words don't fall deaf ears, should this measure advance to the ballot. But history has not been kind to the idea of legislative pay raises in Nebraska, which saw all 93 counties reject the last iteration to reach voters in 2012.

Nebraskans want qualified, capable individuals to help write their laws and policies, yet abysmal pay is frequently cited as an impediment for those considering these positions.

Nebraska voters should give their senators a raise after three decades at $12,000 a year.

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Kearny Hub April 12, 2019

Recovery moving ahead with eased rules

Gov. Pete Ricketts and his administration have earned a thank-you from Nebraskans for their leadership during the state's recovery from the flood of 2019. The Ricketts team has energetically stayed on top of the myriad details necessary to secure federal assistance, maintain public safety, protect flood victims against scam artists, establish priorities and keep everyone informed.

The result has been orderly progress as individual Nebraskans navigate a maze of challenges that include determining whether they're eligible for federal assistance and, if they are eligible, how to apply for the help.

In addition, local and state officials have been bringing together mountains of information and making scores of decisions that will allow the state to move forward with electrical power restoration, a plan for road and bridge reconstruction, and maintaining essential basic services when resources are stretched to the limit.

The leadership we're receiving from Lincoln has been reassuring and encouraging. Of course, there is a sense of urgency. Nebraskans without electrical service would like to be reconnected, and for those of us blocked in because roads and bridges are washed out, what a relief it will be someday when we can return to the daily routine of driving to work along familiar paths.

There also is an urgent need to clean up some of the unspeakable losses after the flood, but state officials have been reasonable and extended deadlines, knowing exhausted flood victims can move only so fast.

Collecting and disposing of livestock carcasses takes time, but Ricketts on Thursday announced that by executive order, he it is temporarily suspending length and weight restrictions so larger trucks can be used to haul away animals' carcasses. Also, truckers helping with recovery efforts legally can work longer hours to transport urgently needed equipment, materials and supplies.

These responses and others will aid Nebraskans by sparing them from red tape at a time when progress is more important than regulations. Temporarily easing rules also communicates that officials are willing to trust citizens to do what's right and not abuse the leniency.

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