January 25, 2015

Thinking of flying down to Havana? Better think again.

JetlinerNebraskans who’ve heard the news about travel restrictions to Cuba being relaxed will be disappointed if they try to book a flight.

Gail Weinholzer, with AAA-Nebraska, says travel agents are getting a lot of calls from people who think Cuba will be the next hot vacation destination.

For now, it will only be easier for certain people to make the trip, and then, only if they meet very specific qualifications.

“You have to be visiting family, on official business of government, some educational opportunities, journalistic activity, but you have to fit under one of the 12 criteria,” Weinholzer says. “You can’t just go as a tourist and think you’ll hang out on the beach and have a good time. That’s absolutely not the case.”

One big change is, Americans will no longer be required to get a special license from the U.S. government to visit Cuba. Now, a passport will be sufficient. Also, you won’t be allowed to explore the island nation by yourself.

“American visitors are required to be accompanied by an employee or a tour guide from the travel agency they purchased their trip from,” Weinholzer says. “You cannot venture off on your own regardless of whether you’re there under one of the 12 criteria.”

The process of actually getting to Cuba isn’t getting any easier, either. There are no direct flights from Omaha to Havana, nor will there be in the immediate future. You’d have to first fly to another country like Mexico and then fly to Cuba from there.

“There are a few travel agencies that actually do sell travel packages to Cuba, but it’s a bit of an expensive trip, however,” Weinholzer says. “Just to give you an idea, an average trip costs about $500 to $600 per day.”

She doubts the situation will improve further anytime soon, noting that any changes beyond what President Obama has already announced will take an act of Congress.

Rallies to focus on empowering parents for school choice

School ChoiceMore than 60 rallies and other events are planned in Nebraska later this month as part of National School Choice Week.

Andrew Campanella is president of the countrywide effort, which focuses on giving parents the ability to make important educational decisions for their children.

“School choice is simply the process of empowering parents to choose the best schools for their kids,” Campanella says. “Parents should be able to choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, online academies, private schools, and have the freedom to home-school their kids.”

The Husker State has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to school choice, according to Campanella. He hopes the planned rallies this month draw the attention of policymakers in Lincoln.

“While Nebraska allows parents to choose from different public schools in different districts, public charter schools are not allowed in Nebraska,” Campanella says. “It’s one of only eight states that does not allow these innovative, accountable schools. There are magnet schools, but there’s no online learning, full-time online school in the state and there are no private school choice programs.”

At least 65 events are planned across Nebraska during the last week of this month as part of School Choice Week, including a rally in Lincoln which aims to send a message to the Unicameral.

Campanella says, “Their events will include rallies at schools, open houses so parents can learn more about their education options for next school year, round table discussions, movie screenings, so many different types of events.”

More than 10,000 events are planned nationwide during the week, January 25-31. Learn more at the website: www.schoolchoiceweek.com.

Mexican meth ring busted in Omaha, 20 suspects arrested

Police CarLocal and federal authorities say they’ve broken upĀ an international drug-smuggling ring in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area.

Omaha police and agents with the DEA spent 18 months assembling the case and in recent days, arrested 20 people they say are associated with the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico.

The ring was apparently funneling large amounts of methamphetamine through California to customers in both Iowa and Nebraska.

Most of the suspects face charges of conspiracy to distribute meth, which, if convicted, could bring 20-year prison terms.

Besides the arrests, authorities seized more than 12 pounds of meth and $35,000 in cash.

Dropping gas prices are helping & hurting ethanol industry

gas-pump-111Gasoline prices are still falling across Nebraska and while it’s great news for motorists, those involved in ethanol production are seeing their profit margins shaved to remain competitive.

Nebraska Ethanol Board administrator Todd Sneller says it’s a good news-bad news scenario.

“We’ve seen a decline in the margins at ethanol plants but December was an unusual month given the lower gasoline prices,” Sneller says. “It was unusual in that there was a significant increase in demand worldwide for ethanol, with a lot of product going to Brazil and to Europe and some to China.”

Sneller says while gas prices are falling, demand for an ethanol by-product is on the rise.

“The decision by the Chinese government to again open the doors for distiller’s feed imports into China has created a huge demand for distiller’s feeds coming out of the ethanol plants,” Sneller says, “Of course, the only way to get distiller’s feeds is to make ethanol.”

Nebraska is the nation’s #2 producer of corn-based ethanol, behind only Iowa.

Sneller says many ethanol plants experienced good economic conditions in early 2014. Because of that, he says some plant operators have managed to deal with the recent low gasoline and oil prices.

Crude oil prices have fallen to $50 a barrel in many markets, half what it cost a year ago. AAA-Nebraska reports the statewide average price for gasoline is $2.01 per gallon.

By Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton


Husker State among nation’s best for volunteerism

CNCSA report ranks Nebraska 6th in the country for the percentage of residents who volunteer. Those efforts not only benefit those in need, but the head of the federal agency in charge of volunteering and service says it also benefits the volunteers themselves.

Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, says they’ve studied the impact of volunteering on those who donate their time and energy.

“Here’s what we’ve found, especially with our seniors and older volunteers, it’s good for your health,” Spencer said. “You live longer, you have a reduced sense of isolation, you’re happier and you’re connecting with friends. So, there’s a personal benefit.”

People who are looking for work often find rewards in volunteer work.

“We also have research that tells us if you volunteer and you’re unemployed and looking for work, that you increase the likelihood of getting a job by 27%,” Spencer said. “If you live in a rural community, that likelihood jumps up to 55%. So, there are some benefits to get a job as well.”

The report states slightly more than one in three Nebraskans, or 34.8%, volunteered in 2013. Spencer notes the people who volunteer the most are working mothers.

“Which is really interesting because they’re the busiest people I know,” Spencer said. “But, they’re very connected to their community and schools. College students are actually volunteering at a higher rate than the national average as well. That’s encouraging for our young people.”

Utah ranked as the top state for volunteerism, while Idaho, Minnesota, Kansas, Wisconsin round out the top five. Spencer says there are a number of reasons why states with a lot rural communities tend to have higher volunteer rates.

“For example, low commute times…so, it’s easier to get around. There are higher densities of nonprofits, higher education levels, and high levels of home ownership. That could indicate to us that people are settled in to their community and they really care. They want to make sure their community is strong and vibrant and they want to help,” Spencer says.

Nationally, one in four Americans volunteered last year. The report found those between the ages of 35 and 44 had the highest volunteer rate, while those over the age of 65 spent the most time volunteering.

Overall, Nebraska saw more than 468,000 people volunteer during 2013, giving more than 58-million hours of service and contributing $1.3 billion to the economy.