January 27, 2015

Congressman Ashford finds Congress much different than Unicameral

Congressman Brad Ashford

Congressman Brad Ashford

Nebraska’s newest Congressman is adjusting to life in Washington.

Democrat Brad Ashford of Omaha, who served in the non-partisan Unicameral, says he has found that Congress places a premium on partisanship and seniority in the making of law.

“There isn’t the natural human interaction that happens, for example most particularly in our Unicameral, where laws are made really based on building relationships one person at a time,” Ashford tells Nebraska Radio Network.

Ashford moved from the Unicameral to Congress when he defeated incumbent Republican Congressman Lee Terry in November to win the Second Congressional District of greater Omaha.

Ashford held a local swearing-in ceremony in Omaha this morning.

Ashford has joined the United Solutions Caucus, made up of House Democrats and Republicans working together on policy.

“To actually try to develop policies that the group can agree on that would be obviously nonpartisan and would address some of the more difficult issues like immigration, energy, and taxes,” Ashford explains.

He says the group is sowing the beginning seeds of a larger effort to remove so much of the partisanship of the process.

Ashford is the only Democrat in the Nebraska Congressional delegation. He doesn’t see that as a problem, though. He considers Sen. Deb Fischer a good friend from their days together in the Unicameral, where he also got to know Congressman Adrian Smith. Ashford says he knows Congressional Jeff Fortenberry well.

Ashford says he only recently met Sen. Ben Sasse.

Ashford doesn’t believe it makes any difference in his working relationship with the rest of the delegation that he is the only Democrat.

“I don’t see any problem or impediment to those relationships at all.”

Senators propose changes to reduce prison population

Sen. Bob Krist speaks to reporters during a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda

Sen. Bob Krist speaks to reporters during a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda

State senators who held hearings throughout the interim on various problems with the state prison system have proposed legislation for this session.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha says it is important for legislators to continue the discussion about prison reform now that the session has started.

“But it’s also very important that we move in a direction, because we will face litigation. The ACLU is watching. The Department of Justice is watching,” Krist tells reporters during a news conference at the Capitol. “We have an obligation to clean up what is a culture in the Department of Corrections.”

Bills filed will seek changes in state law to send fewer non-violent criminals to state prisons and will offer substance abuse treatment and job training to keep inmates from returning to prison.

The prison population in Nebraska has passed 5,000 inmates, 159% of designed capacity.

The group of state senators hope changes within prison and with the state criminal code will reduce the prison population and avoid spending $261 million to add prison beds.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, Appropriations Committee chairman, cautions though that the legislature will be spending money, even as it tries to keep from building a new prison.

“But the reality is by the end of this legislative session we have to be able to provide Nebraskans a road map of how we’re going to move forward with our overcrowded prisons and how we are going to address what has been determined through a lot of investigation, a lot of hard work, and over 50 hours of public hearings of what’s going to be done to fix what we know is a lack of oversight over the Department of Corrections,” according to Mello.

A consultant with the Council of State Governments Justice Center guided the study of a 19-member Justice Reinvestment Working Group with members from all three branches of state government. Various recommendations have made to reduce the prison population to 138% of capacity without adding prison space.

Another committee reviewed the missteps that led to the release of Nikko Jenkins, convicted of killing four in Omaha after being released from prison as well as the disclosure in an Omaha World Herald special report that the Department of Correctional Services had been miscalculating prisons sentences, leading to the premature release of hundreds of inmates.

Even as senators seek to avoid spending $261 million on new prison beds, it is estimated the state will have to spend at least $33 million over a five-year period to incorporate the changes proposed in the legislation filed this session. Appropriations Committee chairman Mello estimates the cost might actually total closer to $45 million.

Judiciary Committee Chairman, Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, says Nebraska must get back to training prison inmates for jobs once released from prison as well as treating inmates to overcome the addictions or mental problems that keep them returning to prison.

“The reason many of these people are back in prison time and time again is because one; (when) they come out of prison they have either mental health problems or they don’t have any training whatsoever,” according to Seiler. “And it doesn’t take them long to get back in the old habits of what they had that got them there in the first place.”

 

Gov. Ricketts focuses on economy in State of the State address (AUDIO)

Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers his first State of the State address in the Norris Legislative Chamber

Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers his first State of the State address in the Norris Legislative Chamber

Gov. Pete Ricketts proposed strengthening the state economy, cutting taxes, cutting regulations, and expanding educational opportunities in his first State of the State address.

Ricketts told lawmakers gathered in the legislative chamber he will bring his years of business experience at family-owned TD Ameritrade to work for the state.

“To that end, I’ve crafted a budget, a blueprint that slows the growth of spending, provides for property tax relief, has room to make improvements in critical areas such as HHS and Corrections, and also funds the essential services of state government,” Ricketts stated.

Ricketts outlined his priorities for this legislative session.

“I’m eager to work with you on four major priorities to grow Nebraska,” Ricketts stated. “The first is strengthening our economy and creating jobs; second, reducing taxes; third, easing regulatory burdens; and additionally, expanding educational opportunities.”

Ricketts said he was proud to add new State Economic Development Director Brenda Hicks-Sorensen to recruit business and help Nebraska realize untapped potential.

“But creating jobs is more than just a marketing focus or incentives,” according to Ricketts, “We need to evaluate what we’re doing to encourage small business to expand and grow. We need to have a plan to attract business investment as well as business relocations and we need to be strategic and aggressive about trade opportunities.”

Ricketts said there is no better place to start expanding exports than in agriculture.

Job creation in part, according to Ricketts, depends on a tax climate that encourages growth.

“We have a lot of work to do to stay competitive with our neighboring states,” Ricketts stated. “And staying competitive is something that is often overlooked when we talk about jobs. We need to attract new individuals and families to Nebraska. We have a great way of life and great jobs to offer. Now, we need to highlight these and invite people to come and make Nebraska their home.”

Gov. Ricketts greets lawmakers prior to delivering his speech.

Gov. Ricketts greets lawmakers prior to delivering his speech.

Ricketts has proposed adding $60 million annually to the state property tax relief fund. He also supports lowering the percentage at which agricultural land is assessed from 75% of market value to 65% over a three year period.

Ricketts also said two state departments in particular need a culture change.

Ricketts said problems with the Department of Health and Human Services prevent the state from fully addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.

“We need a culture in our state agencies that is people-centric. The people who we help don’t fit neatly into the silos we’ve created. They use services across all of our divisions. And we need a system that will help the entire person and help them reach their full potential and if possible, live a life free of public assistance,” Ricketts stated.

Ricketts added he is counting on new state Corrections Director Scott Frakes to suggest needed changes when he begins his work in early February.

Ricketts made a reference to the prison sentence miscalculation scandal that released hundreds of prison inmates prematurely.

“Inmates released early by mistake threaten not only the public safety, but also the public’s trust in their government,” Ricketts said. “Nobody in Corrections wanted these mistakes to occur, but they did, and we have got to do better.

Ricketts said Frakes will create a culture of accountability, common sense, and excellence.

AUDIO:  Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers his first State of the State address. [30 min.]

President’s proposal could harm 529 college savings plans (AUDIO)

State Treasurer Don Stenberg

State Treasurer Don Stenberg

College savings plans offered through the state Treasurer’s office could become much less attractive under a proposal by President Barack Obama.

The president proposes ending the tax break on college saving plans to help pay for other initiatives, such as making community college free.

Nebraska offers four so-called 529 college savings plans, named for a section of the tax code, that provide both a federal and state tax break. Under the federal tax code, money can be withdrawn from the savings plans tax free if used to pay college expenses.

The Nebraska plans have proven so popular they have drawn interest nationally. At present, more than 225,000 accounts have been opened nationwide; approximately 65,000 are held by Nebraskans. The average account totals less than $17,000. The average account held by a Nebraska resident totals $12,750.

“Those aren’t college savings plans of the multi-rich,” State Treasurer Don Stenberg tells Nebraska Radio Network. “Those are the college savings plans of middle income Nebraskans who are able to put a little bit of money away for college for their kids.”

Stenberg says grants and other aid are available for the poor and the wealthy don’t need help in financing college.

Stenberg says parents and even grandparents like the 529 plans precisely because they get the tax break when they withdraw the money for college.

“I think it’s really moving in the wrong direction to discourage people from saving for college through a 529 plan, which the president’s tax would do,” Stenberg says.

Under the plan proposed by the president, new contributions to 529 plans would be tax as ordinary income. Taxes could be deferred as the earnings grow in a college savings plan, but that break would end once families begin to withdraw the funds, according to the White House. Earnings would be treated as student income, which is taxed at a lower rate.

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.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]

TransCanada moves to use eminent domain, faces new legal action on Keystone XL (AUDIO)

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TransCanada has moved to use eminent domain in Nebraska to obtain the property necessary to build Keystone XL even as a new lawsuit against the company has been filed.

Attorney Dave Domina represents a landowner from Holt County, another from York County, fighting TransCanada’s eminent domain proceedings.

The new lawsuit carries the same contention as the old lawsuit thrown out by the Nebraska Supreme Court, hoping the technicality that doomed the previous lawsuit isn’t present in the new one. The court ruled the landowners challenging the constitutionality of the state law that guided creation of the Keystone XL route through Nebraska failed to have standing to bring the lawsuit.

Domina tells Nebraska Radio Network affiliate WNAX standing won’t be an issue in this latest legal action. Both landowners bringing suit face eminent domain proceedings by TransCanada.

Domina says the suit claims the contract with TransCanada doesn’t adequately spell out the liability for oil spills on the pipeline easement.

“The other thing is that it provides a one-time payment so that a foreign, for-profit company can make a daily profit,” according to Domina.

TransCanada Keystone project manager Andrew Craig dismisses such rhetoric and says the company expects more legal action from what he calls paid opponents to the project.

Still, he expects at least 21 landowners to resist any attempts to negotiate easements for Keystone XL, because they object to any development of fossil fuels. He is not sure about the motivations of other landowners who have yet to reach agreement with TransCanada.

“So, that number may grow up to 30 or so,” Craig tells Nebraska Radio Network. “As we sit here today, there are 21 landowners in the state of Nebraska that I believe it is unlikely that we’re able to reach a voluntary agreement with.”

Easements have been obtained in Montana and South Dakota for Keystone XL proposed to be built from western Canada to Steele City, Nebraska, where it will connect with the lower portion of the pipeline that is already pushing crude oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to oil refineries along the Gulf Coast in Texas. Keystone XL is estimated to cost $8 billion to build. It eventually could carry 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

Craig says TransCanada has been working with more than one thousand landowners along the route, more than 500 in Nebraska alone.

Jerry Oster, WNAX, contributed to this report.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports. [1 minute]