Lincoln Journal Star. Jan. 19, 2013.
Preserving nonpartisan tradition
Republican state senators should be complimented for preserving the nonpartisan traditions of the Legislature.
When it came to electing senators to leadership positions, partisan concerns were secondary. Democrats were elected as chairmen and chairwomen of eight of the 14 standing committees.
The outcome came despite a call from the state GOP chairman that Republican senators vote only for conservatives for leadership positions in the Legislature.
Some might be tempted to say Mark Fahleson's attempt to sway votes backfired.
That probably would be going too far.
It's more likely that Fahleson's exhortation was merely ignored, and that the votes to select committee chairmen and women would have turned out the same way if Fahleson would have kept his preferences to himself.
In any event, the results of voting for leadership positions seemed to show a desire to keep partisanship at bay, and that lawmakers place a high value on retaining their own political independence.
Nebraska is the only state in the union that elects its lawmakers without party labels on the ballot.
It's true that everyone knows the party affiliation of senators, and that the parties often are helpful in campaigns.
But in sharp contrast to the bitter polarization on display in Congress, members of Nebraska's unicameral Legislature place a high value on developing relationships and earning the trust of their elected colleagues regardless of party labels.
After Sen. Heath Mello, a Democrat, was elected chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he referred to the previous chairman, former Sen. Lavon Heidemann, a Republican, as a mentor. "And I think he's going to continue to be a good mentor to me over the next two years as I serve in this role," Mello said.
Consider the comment offered by Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, a Democrat, on the election of Sen. Greg Adams of York, a Republican, as speaker of the Legislature.
"He's not driven by any deep commitment to an ideology," Avery said of Adams. "He evaluates issues on their merits and he can tell you why he opposes or supports a bill. He's deliberative, he's thoughtful and he can make good arguments for it."
For his part, Adams said he had "an agenda for fairness above all else. Of making good policy. And an agenda for protecting and promulgating the integrity and culture and the history of this institution."
In the hurly burly of actual legislating niceties sometimes are forgotten, to be sure. And there's little doubt that partisan considerations and traditional political values will play a role in legislative affairs as the session rolls on.
But in an age in which political polarization sometimes seems on the verge of turning America into a banana republic, it's gratifying to see Nebraska's lawmakers hewing to a higher standard.
Scottsbluff Star Herald. Jan. 22, 2013.
For the most part, the sales tax doesn't care who you are. If you've got money to spend, you pay the tax, at the same rate as anybody else.
No accountant or lawyer can get you a refund or eliminate your obligation. If you save your money, you keep it until you decide to spend it. If you do extra work or get a better job, you aren't penalized for your ambition. The only way to beat it is to persuade the Legislature that you shouldn't have to pay it. That makes trolling for exemptions by special interests a high-stakes game, one that invites social engineering. Sales tax law exempts more transactions than it includes. In that sense, it's a tax on people who lack power.
That's why Gov. Dave Heineman's plan to eliminate the state's income tax ran into an immediate wall of opposition. It would require privileged industries to give up their sales tax exemptions.
It's a tax shift, not a tax cut. Heineman intends to replace the lost income tax revenue with sales tax revenue. Some of the folks who'll benefit are retirees, who would no longer pay income taxes on Social Security, military retirement or retirement savings income.
It might or might not be good for working Nebraskans. We'll have to see who gets a net tax break and who foots the bill. The latter will contend that the present system is fair. If it were, there'd be no reason to change it. But some folks get a better deal than others when it comes to paying sales taxes.
Heineman pitched his plan as a way to boost Nebraska's economic growth and keep more young people in the state. He said bold action is needed to reduce taxation, which he argues is too high, and to lure businesses and high-paying jobs. The nine states that do not levy an income tax either lead their region in population growth or grew faster than the national average.
"I don't have any doubt that for the average Nebraskan, it's a huge benefit," Heineman said.
He's offered two options, the first more sweeping:
1. Rescind nearly 30 sales tax exemptions, worth an estimated $2.4 billion, to replace the loss of income taxes. Retain sales tax exemptions on items such as food, newspapers, state lottery tickets, school lunches and nonprofit health clinics. Require sales taxes to be paid on farm machinery, seed, chemicals and energy purchased by farmers; equipment, energy and component parts bought by businesses and industries; and hospital beds, dorm rooms and prescription drugs paid for by individuals and families.
2. Eliminate the $262 million a year in corporate income taxes paid by some companies and family farm corporations. Exempt the first $12,000 of retirement income for a married couple ($6,000 for individuals). Replace those taxes by rescinding about $395 million worth of sales tax exemptions. Eliminate businesses' sales tax exemptions on containers and molds and dies, and energy bills; farmers would lose exemptions on seed, agriculture chemicals and energy; hospitals would lose exemptions on medical equipment purchases. Retain several of the exemptions that would go away in the more ambitious tax reform plan, such as breaks on purchases of agriculture and manufacturing equipment, one provided for ingredients and component parts used in manufacturing, and college dorm and hospital rooms.
Both alternatives would retain sales tax exemptions for food.
The first wails came from agriculture, manufacturing and health care interests. The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it hasn't decided yet whether to back the plan. They all like the income tax break. Giving up sales tax breaks — not so much. College officials also complain, even though Heineman has promised more revenue to state colleges and universities.
If Nebraskans want to be income tax free, like residents of other states that make it work, some sales tax exemptions will have to go away. In South Dakota, for instance, farmers pay no income taxes but pay a 4-cent sales tax on machinery, seeds, fertilizer, groceries and services such as accounting, mechanical work and even haircuts, all of which are exempt from sales taxation here.
So let the debate begin. The exemptions that survive will tell us a lot about Nebraska politics.
Omaha World-Herald. Jan. 22, 2013.
Progress made in food safety
New, more stringent food safety rules ordered by Congress in 2010 are a step closer to reality. But it still will be at least three years before they can begin to affect the number of outbreaks, illnesses and deaths from salmonella and other food-borne pathogens.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3,000 Americans or more die from these diseases each year, while about 1-in-6 Americans (48 million) gets sick and 128,000 are hospitalized. The Food and Drug Administration indicated the new rules could prevent almost 2 million illnesses annually.
Congress gave the FDA authority to require U.S. food producers and manufacturers to draw up detailed plans to ensure the safety of their products, giving large producers three years to comply and smaller facilities and growers even longer. Lawmakers ordered the FDA to inspect production facilities more frequently. Many plants today are not checked for years at a time.
The FDA also will more closely oversee imported foods, which account for about 15 percent of the nation's food supply by value. Imports totaled $76 billion through the first 10 months of 2012.
Perhaps the biggest new club given to the FDA in the legislation is the ability to order recalls of food itself rather than asking for industry cooperation. Over the years, the FDA's weakness on this point has delayed recall action a number of times.
A major problem: Congress did not fund the legislation, and it would require an appropriation of some $1.4 billion over the next five years.
The new regulations were tailored to fit the fruits and vegetables most open to contamination, such as berries, melons, leafy greens and other foods usually eaten raw. The rules are being welcomed by many food growers and companies. Indeed, many producers are already following the protective steps laid out by the FDA. ConAgra Foods of Omaha, for instance, has said it supports strict food safety standards and that its current practices go beyond the proposed requirements.
The changes would be good for business, says Ami Gadhia of Consumers Union, because they'll "provide a measure of security and certainty that there's a system in place and bad actors will be weeded out. It's going to save business costly recalls."
The regulations, supposed to be ready in late 2011, were held back by the Obama administration until after the 2012 election. Now that the FDA has proposed them, they will go through a public comment period and then further review before being issued, which could take a year. That means it will likely be three years or more before Americans see much effect on the number of food-related outbreaks of illness.
That's not ideal, considering the number of hospitalizations and deaths, but it is definitely progress.
The Grand Island Independent. Jan. 22, 2013.
Republicans try a new tack in Congress
The latest "cliff" facing the nation is the approaching deadline on increasing the limit on the national debt. Again attempting to restrain government spending, some Republicans in the House of Representatives have been threatening to withhold their consent.
Past attempts to negotiate spending reforms with President Obama have been anything but satisfying for Republicans. Now it appears that more of them are finally accepting a lesson: the public doesn't like "cliffs" that risk harm to the country, with the economic chips falling where they may. Republicans who fail to fully appreciate this sentiment have been easy pickings for a president who is very good at marshaling public opinion.
Last week, the beginnings of a new approach emerged. House Republican leaders proposed extending the debt limit by three months, without requiring any spending cuts, if the House and Senate pass budgets by mid-April. By doing this, Republicans are attempting to lessen the influence of the president and shift the debate to Congress.
Why Congress? Because that is where government spending issues are supposed to be debated. Both the House and Senate are supposed to vote on a budget. Afterward, their differences are reconciled by a special committee. Then both the House and Senate vote on the consensus budget, with the resulting legislation going to the president to sign or veto. The entire process means that both Republicans and Democrats must often go on record by voting "yes" or "no" on a variety of spending issues and amendments.
The Republican-controlled House has adopted a budget in each of the past three years. The Democrat-controlled Senate, however, has refused to debate or vote on a budget during this time. Therefore, the process has stopped because the Senate hasn't produced anything to reconcile. This has permitted Democrats to criticize Republican budgets, but avoid voting on anything that might anger their base or invite criticism back home. They simply punt their responsibilities to the president.
Republicans are finally waking up to the disadvantage this is causing them, and a remedy. If Senate Democrats were also made to vote on hard spending choices, perhaps some real progress might be made toward the spending restraint that they claim to favor. And, the president's criticisms might be less partisan if Democrats were in the line of fire, too.
Whether Republicans will be able to shift the public's focus from President Obama to the Senate is yet to be known. Democrats in the Senate have received a free ride thus far, however, and it is time they went on record about the tough choices facing the nation.