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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

January 14, 2019 GMT

Omaha World Herald. January 8, 2019

Nebraska Legislature needs to start building back the state’s cash reserve

Over the past three years, the cash reserve for Nebraska state government has fallen significantly. At the start of 2016, that “rainy day fund” exceeded $700 million. Now, as lawmakers begin the 2019 session, the fund stands at only $300 million.

A new report from a legislative committee warns that the fund needs to be built back up in order to provide a cushion for the state when it faces a future recession and a fall in state revenues.

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The Legislature and Gov. Pete Ricketts approved the withdrawals over the past three years to help balance the budget and to help fund some one-time expenditures. The fund’s decline to the current level “is most disturbing,” the Legislature’s Planning Committee says in its new report, “and should it be permitted to continue, a fiscal crisis will ensue.”

The committee calls on the Legislature to build up the cash reserve over the next four years so that it could cover two months of general fund spending. Based on the current fiscal 2018-19 revenue forecast, an average monthly revenue would be $400 million, so two months would be $800 million. Such action, the committee says, “is absolutely essential if the state is to meet its obligations.”

The goal of covering two months of general fund spending is in line with a recommendation from the Government Finance Officers Association for state governments.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, in a World-Herald interview, says he supports an increase to $500 million. Negotiations lie ahead this session to determine the specific number, but the general priority — making a solid start to rebuilding the cash reserve — should be clear.

No question, lawmakers face challenges in building up the cash reserve, given the heavy demands on the budget. The Legislature this year will try to enact significant property tax relief and a major revamp of school aid — while also meeting the state’s obligation to fund needs including prisons, the University of Nebraska, social services and, starting this year, Medicaid expansion.

Past experience shows the danger in allowing the cash reserve to fall too low. That was the painful lesson in 2001: An economic slowdown hit, and lawmakers discovered that the meager amount available in the rainy day fund — $45 million — was far short of what was needed to close a $220 million budget gap.

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Nebraska lawmakers have a lot on their plate this session. As they work to meet the challenges, they mustn’t forget to start replenishing the cash reserve.

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Lincoln Journal Star. January 9, 2019

When U.S. Sen. George Norris in 1934 crisscrossed Nebraska to promote a unicameral state legislature, a radical political experiment, he appealed to his fellow citizens’ fiscal conservatism.

His proposal to eliminate a house of government, he wrote to the editor of the Lincoln Star at the time, “is first a proposition to reduce taxes and second a proposition to improve government.” That cost savings certainly propelled the constitutional amendment to success with voters wearied by the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

But the lasting legacy of Norris’ campaign stretches far beyond the reduced rate of government still enjoyed today. Nebraskans enjoy a statehouse that is designed to be exceedingly transparent - with a public hearing on all bills and no conference committee - and further removed from party politics because of his insistence making the legislative branch nonpartisan in nature.

As the 106th Nebraska Legislature takes the oath of office Wednesday, the Journal Star editorial board urges the newly convened state senators to embody Norris’ vision for the chamber.

The state’s lone legislative body is unlike those in the rest of the country - which is a very good thing. In theory, senators shouldn’t have to answer to party bosses or whips about votes because they’re supposed to be voting their consciences and what’s best for their constituents.

In recent years, though, that admirable tradition of independence from political parties has eroded - especially in the last Legislature. A seemingly preordained slate of candidates, overwhelmingly conservative, was elected to leadership positions, while the minority liberal contingent voted frequently as a bloc to sustain filibusters.

All but one of our state senators identify as a Republican or a Democrat. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the last thing this state needs is the hyperpartisanship that’s seemingly infiltrated every other aspect of government in this country to pollute the Nebraska Legislature.

Nebraskans deserve thoughtful governance from their lawmakers, an ideal that requires them to place their ideals over a party’s ideologies.

This independent spirit reappears occasionally on controversial topics. Partisan affiliations of senators were indiscernible, for instance, during tight votes in 2014 to increase the state’s gas tax and in 2015 to repeal the death penalty.

We hope to see more of that type of independence going forward. Voters studied candidates’ principles before electing them to office. Those personal platforms, not their party identification, earned senators a seat in the Nebraska Legislature.

Thirteen new senators will be sworn into that very body Wednesday, joined by 11 colleagues who won re-election. As they enter the chamber, we encourage them to see whose name adorns it.

We hope they embody the lofty legacy this man championed for the Legislature.

Its namesake? George Norris.

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Kearney Hub. January 8, 2019

Water keeps crops green, but tourism also benefits

Nebraska’s tourism economy received a shot of encouragement last week when it was reported at the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District meeting in Holdrege that Lake McConaughy is holding a lot of water — about 80 percent of capacity — and that Wyoming snowpack upstream is a bit better than average.

Provided snow continues to accumulate at an above-average pace in the high country, 2019 could be a good year for Big Mac and for Nebraska tourism. Last week’s announcement by CNPPID’s civil engineer Cory Steinke bolsters tourism because Lake McConaughy consistently is Nebraska’s No. 2 attraction behind the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha.

At nearly 36,000 surface acres, McConaughy is a large body of water with fantastic fishing, spacious beaches and plenty of accommodations for visitors who enjoy water sports. In 2018, according to Nebraska Travel and Tourism figures, about 1.8 million visitors got sand between their toes at Big Mac.

That many visitors creates a ripple in the regional economy. In fact, it’s hard to drive through Ogallala or Oshkosh and not see evidence of Big Mac’s influence. Eateries, motels, beverage outlets, and boating, camping and fishing supply shops are open because of Big Mac.

But don’t believe McConaughy leaves its mark only in the Ogallala area. Water stored in the huge reservoir irrigates crops in south-central Nebraska and also feeds a number of recreational attractions along the way. Among them are Johnson Lake and Elwood Reservoir near Lexington and Elwood.

Follow the Platte River eastward, and you see other top tourism and recreational attractions made possible by Nebraska’s watery wealth.

Water is the common thread connecting so many of our state’s tourism and recreational magnets, including Mahoney State Park, Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area, Ponca State Park, Branched Oak State Recreation Area, Platte River State Park, Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area, Harlan County Lake and Louisville State Recreation Area.

Nebraskans understand that abundant water makes our state’s agricultural wealth possible, but let’s also acknowledge the undeniable attraction water has for boaters, campers, anglers and others who seek recreation and always leave behind their share of tourism dollars.

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