December 7, 2015 Updated: December 7, 2015 at 8:01 am
Omaha World-Herald. Dec. 3, 2015
Answers to property tax concerns aren't easy.
A legislative tax study committee this week recommended nothing. It's not hard to see why.
If there were easy answers to these questions, somebody probably would have found them by now.
The "supercommittee" spent months looking for ways to reduce Nebraska's reliance on property taxes to pay for schools. Its final work session ended without clear-cut proposals, although ideas were aired that may get future consideration.
Historically, Nebraska has relied heavily on property taxes to fund public schools. This latest panel followed a 2013 Tax Modernization Committee, which recommended, among other steps, that Nebraska increase state aid to schools to reduce the property tax burden.
It remains easier said than done.
The tax system that pays for all levels of government in Nebraska relies primarily on local property taxes, sales taxes and state income taxes. In 2012, according to a study by the Lincoln-based Open Sky Policy Institute, property taxes accounted for 36 percent of all tax revenues in the state, sales taxes 31 percent and income taxes 25 percent.
Lower one of those three taxes and the options left usually are to either reduce spending for a program many people want — or raise another tax that many people pay.
Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher summed this up in a seasonally eloquent way: "It's great to play Santa and say, 'Let's cut property taxes.' But where do we play Scrooge?"
A lump of coal for the 2016 legislative session comes from the state's forecasting board, which recently concluded that the current two-year budget could come up $132 million short. So the first priority facing state leaders will be looking for spending trims. Compounding the difficulty are other priorities, such as state prison reforms.
This latest tax committee did find some ideas. One would be to limit the growth of assessed property values, an idea that lawmakers say Gov. Pete Ricketts is considering. Another would be to tighten budget lids on school districts. A third would be to eliminate a requirement that school districts charge a minimum property tax levy or lose some state aid.
Another is to let Nebraskans know that the state has enacted some property tax relief — $204 million a year for a property tax credit fund — a credit of $141 for a $150,000 home. Lawmakers fear many taxpayers don't know about it.
It would be easy to be cynical about these repeated tax studies. But that would be unfair.
Nebraska has done a relatively good job balancing its books. A recent national study ranked us fourth among the 50 states in terms of overall fiscal soundness.
Next year is an election year, and candidates and lawmakers should avoid over-promising.
The key will be finding a tax approach that offers fairness, balance, transparency, predictability and sustainability without creating the kind of massive revenue shortfalls seen in some other states.
That's sober, practical budgeting in the Nebraska lawmaking tradition.
The Grand Island independent. Dec. 4, 2015
Renewable fuel law should be followed.
The Environmental Protection Agency tried to reach a compromise Monday on the Renewable Fuels Standard but still came up short of what is the proper level.
The EPA said it will require that 18 billion gallons of renewable fuels, mostly ethanol, be used in 2016. This is an increase from what the agency had said in May that it would require. However, it is still 4 billion gallons less than what the 2007 Renewable Fuels Standard law required by this time.
So, essentially, the EPA is throwing the ethanol industry a bone in increasing the level while at the same time ignoring the law by not setting the standard at the level required in the law passed by Congress.
The EPA is once again overstepping its bounds by ignoring the level set by Congress.
"Nebraskans can't ignore the law, and neither should Washington," Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said. "Reasonable people can argue about the RFS and the appropriate place to do that is Congress. Our state's farmers never had an opportunity to vote for or against any of these bureaucrats but that's not stopping the EPA from acting like a super-legislature. I am deeply concerned that, over and against the views my letter voiced this spring, one of Washington's most powerful agencies is again unilaterally rewriting the law."
Sasse is right. If the level set in the 2007 law is to be changed, it should be done by Congress, not by the EPA.
The EPA has said that it fears the supply of ethanol is too low to meet the law's level and questions whether the demand is there. However, that is a false argument.
"Despite record corn harvests showing the supply exists, the EPA continues to undermine consumer choice at the fuel pump through arbitrary regulations," Rep. Adrian Smith said.
In other words, the corn supply is there to meet the RFS level set by the law, but the EPA appears to be trying to appease the oil companies and ethanol critics.
Perhaps ag interests should just be satisfied that the EPA raised the level from last year. But there is the fundamental question of whether a law passed by Congress should be bypassed. As a country of laws, the law should be followed.
The EPA adjusting and readjusting the RFS level also makes it impossible for the ethanol industry to plan and build capacity. Companies are hesitant to invest in ethanol plants if the EPA keeps changing the RFS level. That's a point Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts made.
"Today (Monday), the EPA made formal a policy decision that is already negatively impacting future investment in Nebraska's biofuels industry. By lowering the Renewable Fuels Standard figures committed to in legislation almost a decade ago, the EPA has broken a promise to Americans and created an uncertainty that investors will not soon forget," Ricketts said. "The decision to lower the RFS will hamper investment in existing businesses, as well as in research and development of the next generation of biofuels. In Nebraska, we've already seen the impact. News of the plan to decrease the RFS earlier this year caused a major biofuels company operating in Nebraska to cool a proposed expansion project."
It also makes it difficult for farmers to determine what crops to plant and how much to plant. The EPA's actions play with the commodity markets and have suppressed corn and soybean prices the last couple of years.
So while it's good to see the EPA increase the level for next year, it should be following the law so the ethanol industry can have some stability.
McCook Daily Gazette. Dec. 4, 2015.
Better prison education system a good investment.
Education is not the final answer for all of our problems, but it is definitely one piece of the puzzle.
Prisons have their share of well-educated inmates, but educational opportunities should be a good investment for convicts who are truly trying to turn their lives around.
Advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed is trying to make that point, releasing a report Wednesday urging the state to increase funding for the corrections department's vocational and life skills training program.
Of the 5,348 inmates in Nebraska's correctional system, nearly 2,100 do not have a high school degree. And, according to the report, the Lincoln prison has a waiting list of 80 inmates for educational classes, with about 30 in correctional centers in Omaha and Lincoln.
While some may balk at "rewarding" inmates with a free education, better programming makes sense for Nebraska. More than 90 percent of Nebraska inmates will return to society, and our state has a low unemployment rate — we need the workers.
Appleseed recommends better use of federal funding to finance education programs, eliminating waiting lists for Adult Basic Education and GED classes, expanding college offerings for males and making them available for female inmates.
Not that the state hasn't been trying, the report did commend the department of corrections for reviving the vocational program.
And, a corrections department official said a partnership is being launched with York College to provide more courses for female inmates, as well as making computers available for inmates without risking security.
Education has been a traditional emphasis at McCook's Work Ethic Camp, and McCook Community College has initiated efforts like the Center for Applied Science and Technology — CAST — welding training, with potential for more.
Education isn't the final answer for Nebraska's overcrowded prison system, but it is certainly a better investment that sending the same people to prison over and over again.
The Lincoln Journal Star. Dec. 3, 2015.
A watchful eye on LPS graduation rates.
The graduation rate at Lincoln Public Schools dropped for the first time in years in 2015, dipping 2 percentage points, to 85.2 percent. In raw numbers, 1,911 students graduated in 2015 compared to 1,940 the previous year.
That decline, as small as it may be, concerns LPS officials and should be troubling to a community that prides itself on education and wants to see no child left behind in a way that goes far beyond mandatory testing.
There's no easy explanation for the drop. Graduation requirements increased for the class of 2015, with 15 more credit hours required, including algebra, geometry, chemistry and oral communications.
That could be one reason for the drop. So could the fact that the number of students still attending school even though they didn't graduate in four years increased from 154 to 170. That's 16 students, more than half of the raw numbers drop.
In any case, LPS officials acknowledge that the decline is a move in the wrong direction, taking the district a little further away from its admittedly ambitious goal of a 90 percent graduation rate.
But what is important is not the numbers, but the students behind those figures. Each of those who didn't graduate — and those who appear to be on that track for the class of 2016 — has unique needs and presents a unique challenge to the educators.
And, it follows, that the higher the graduation rate, the more work comes down to identifying and helping each of those at-risk students, finding a way to engage them in their education.
There is, for example, hope that new Career Academy will provide the opportunities and resources needed to help some struggling students find their way to graduation.
Given the fact that LPS graduation rates have increased from 82.4 percent in 2011 to 87.2 percent last year, there is no need to be alarmed over the 2 percent decline.
At the same time, continued vigilance in pursuit of graduation is critical for LPS, Lincoln and, most importantly, the students — every one of whom deserves the attention and assistance that will lead them to a diploma.