January 30, 2015

US Senate approves construction of Keystone XL oil pipeline

Sen. Deb Fischer

Sen. Deb Fischer

The United States Senate has approved construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but not with enough votes to overturn an expected presidential veto.

The Senate has followed the House in approving construction of the oil pipeline that would run through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

Sen. Deb Fischer says she understands the 62-to-36 vote falls short of the 67 needed to override the veto promised by President Barack Obama.

“You know, the president came out in the State of the Union and in the press threatening a lot of vetoes,” Fischer tells Nebraska reporters during a conference call. “I made this comment before, to say you’re going to veto a bill that you don’t even know what form it’s going to be in when it gets to your desk? We don’t do that in Nebraska.”

The bill differs slightly from the House version. If the two chambers reach agreement on a final version, it goes to the president.

TransCanada proposes building the 840-mile oil pipeline from western Canada to Steele City, Nebraska, which would allow it to hook up with the southern portion of the pipeline which is now carrying crude oil to refineries along the Gulf Coast in Texas.

Obama has said all the federal environmental reviews have not been completed.

TransCanada needs permission from the president to cross the Canadian-United States border.

Fischer says the threat by President Obama to veto the measure doesn’t set the tone of cooperation needed in Washington.

“It’s important to be able to have a working relationship,” Fischer says. “I certainly will be open to that if the president wants to reach out, if we can work together on some issues. That’s what the American people expect us to do.”

Treasurer Stenberg pleased Obama withdraws proposal to change 529 plans

Treasurer Don Stenberg

Treasurer Don Stenberg

State Treasurer Don Stenberg expresses relief President Barack Obama has withdrawn a proposal to end the tax break that fuels contributions to 529 college savings plans.

Stenberg says he’s pleased the president has backed away from the proposal.

“It was an ill-advised plan,” Stenberg tells Nebraska Radio Network. “The 529 college savings plan is one of the few programs available to help Middle Class families save for college.”

Stenberg says it is hard to say on what the president based the proposal.

“But our experience here in Nebraska is that this is a program that’s very much used by Middle Class Nebraskans,” according to Stenberg. “The average account size for the Nebraska accounts is $12,750.”

The Nebraska Educational Savings Trust (NEST) managed by the Treasurer’s office offers four plans: NEST Direct College Savings Plan, NEST Advisor College Savings Plan, TD Ameritrade 529 College Savings Plan, and The State Farm College Savings Plan.

They have become quite popular, and not just in Nebraska.

Approximately 65,000 Nebraska families have opened accounts which hold an average of $12,750.

But those aren’t the only families investing in the Nebraska plans. Families throughout the country have been attracted to the plans and a total of 225,000 accounts have been taken out in Nebraska. Once all the accounts have been factored in, the average account balance is closer to $17,000.

The savings plans are called 529 plans after the section of the federal tax code that authorities them to accrue earnings tax free as long as withdrawals are used to offset college expenses.

Their popularity became apparent shortly after President Obama proposed eliminating the tax break to pay for his proposal to offer community college for free. The proposal caused a massive public uproar.

Stenberg says the public backlash against the proposal places the 529 plans in a very secure position.

“I think this experience has sent a pretty strong message that this is a good program, that Middle Class Americans use the program, like the program,” Stenberg says. “So, I don’t think we’ll see any attempts in the near future to do away with it.”


Gov. Ricketts renews call for McPherson to resign from school board (AUDIO)

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts renews his call for Pat McPherson to step down as a member of the Nebraska Board of Education.

McPherson has refused to resign, telling the board in a prepared statement that he has apologized for offensive statements made about the president on his blog. [See earlier story]

Ricketts, though, says the 6-to-2 vote by the board in favor of a resolution calling for his resignation demonstrates he cannot be an effective member of the board.

Ricketts sticks with his opinion that McPherson should resign.

“And we’ve got important work in education to be able to make sure that we strengthen education. That’s probably the single greatest gift we can give a child is that great education and I think this issue is going to be a barrier for that board being effective,” Ricketts tells Kevin Thomas, host of Drive Time Lincoln on Nebraska Radio Network affiliate KLIN.

Ricketts says he hasn’t talked with McPherson since he called for his resignation.

AUDIO:  Gov. Pete Ricketts says Pat McPherson should resign from Nebraska Board of Education. [:25]


Former Nebraska Sen. Hagel says good-bye to Pentagon

Chuck Hagel speaks during farewell ceremony at Pentagon/Photo courtesy of Defense Department

Chuck Hagel speaks during farewell ceremony at Pentagon/Photo courtesy of Defense Department

Former Nebraska United States Sen. Chuck Hagel has bid farewell to the Pentagon, sent out as Secretary of Defense with fanfare and best wishes from President Barack Obama.

Obama declared Hagel a “great friend” and declared him a patriot during a special ceremony at the Pentagon.

“In an era of politics that too often descends into spectacle, you’ve always served with decency and dignity. And in a town of outsized egos, you’ve never lost your Midwestern humility,” Obama told Hagel during the ceremony.

Hagel, a Republican, served two terms in the United States Senate.

Obama chose him as Secretary of Defense in 2013.

Department of Defense photo

Department of Defense photo

Reports circulated in Washington that Hagel clashed with members of the president’s National Security Council and chafed under what he perceived as the micromanaged of the White House of Defense.

“You’ve always been frank and honest and said what you thought. I have so profoundly benefited from that candor,” Obama stated.

Obama mentioned the first time he met Hagel, 10 years ago when Obama joined Hagel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I’m grateful to Chuck on a very personal level,” Obama said. “I was new and green, you were a veteran legislator. I was the student, and you shared some lessons of your service.”

Judiciary Committee chairman says prison population can come down (AUDIO)


Sen. Les Seiler

The chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee says the Unicameral needs to try to reduce the prison population before even considering adding prison beds.

Judiciary Committee Chairman, State Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, is confident state lawmakers will consider a number of bills aimed at easing prison overcrowding.

“Well, I think they’ll take a real strong look at it,” Seiler tells Nebraska Radio Network. “We may have some tweaking (to do) and I welcome that, but I think it’s a lot less money spent and more bank for the bucks.”

Seiler expects his committee to send between six to eight bills for the Unicameral to consider. Many will request a return to mental health and substance abuse programs in the prisons, an effort to prepare inmates to return to society upon release and give them the tools needed to not return. Seiler estimates that as many as 30% of the inmates in state prisons suffer from mental or substance abuse.

Job training has also been touted as a method to help inmates prepare for release.

It is estimated the programs will cost between $33 and 45 million over the next five years.

The price tag for building a new prison, or at least adding prison beds, is well known at the Capitol. One bill spells out the cost, asking the legislature to appropriate $261 million for prison construction.

Seiler questions the wisdom of making such an expenditure which is projected to make such a small reduction in the prison population.

“Well, it’s alright to look and see what money you would expend, but look at the result. Two percent? It doesn’t take long to get back over that 40% and we haven’t accomplished anything,” Seiler says.

A prison population that tops 140% of the designed capacity of Nebraska prison invites a lawsuit against the state, either from the American Civil Liberties Union or from the United States Department of Justice.

At present, Nebraska prisons hold more than 5,000 inmates, which is nearly 160% of designed capacity.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]