Kearney Hub. March 8, 2014.
Act today to ensure our water tomorrow
Water is life's most basic element, and in Nebraska, it's the building block of our economy. That's because Nebraska's chief industry, agriculture, depends upon the availability of water to irrigate crops and produce livestock. Did you know a cow consumes about 12 gallons of water per day?
Amazing scientific advancements are happening on the farm. Researchers are providing crop producers with new technology that allows them to grow crops with less water and other inputs, but we Nebraskans should not allow the miracles emerging from modern laboratories to erode our sense of urgency to ensure the sustainability of our most precious resource.
We are implementing new water conservation technologies to boost yields and feed the hungry world, but we also ought to boldly consider other measures to ensure the water we have today is here tomorrow when we will need it even more. Our efforts to manage water ought to be as aggressive as the production and conservation developments that help us do more with less.
It is amazing how new seed varieties and herbicides can cheat drought, but unless we get serious about managing Nebraska's most precious resource, we will face depressing prospects 10 or 20 years into the future.
Understanding the grave ramifications of ignoring the need to manage our resources, the Legislature's Water Funding Task Force assembled a variety of proposals to generate $50 million annually for water projects.
The dams, impoundments and other projects necessary to ensure a stable and sustainable water supply are expensive. According to one tally, Nebraska is tackling $488 million in existing projects without state aid, and another $907 million in projects have been proposed.
The $50 million the Water Funding Task Force is asking for is sorely needed, but some state lawmakers are balking. Some believe the state has to do something, but not $50 million per year.
To the lawmakers intent on investing less in water management, we ask why they so willingly ignore recent history. In many states, agriculture is crippled because water wasn't conserved or managed. We're fortunate in Nebraska, but recent drought has caused groundwater drawdowns in many areas.
We cannot control the frequency or severity of drought, but we can engineer projects that help Nebraska stretch its precious water supply. Nobody wants to experience the consequences of doing nothing — or not doing enough. Doing what's right today seems expensive, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of inaction.
Scottsbluff Star-Herald. March 9, 2014.
Doing right: Legislature responds to exploitation of the most vulnerable Nebraskans
Sometimes the Nebraska Legislature can be despairingly slow in responding to genuine problems, especially when they involve the poor and powerless. Unless you're a mountain lion in the gun sights or a donor demanding a tax break, you're not likely to get a lot of instant sympathy.
But a local case involving exploitation of some of society's most vulnerable citizens has sparked a commendable response this session.
In Nebraska, about 12,000 people who are ill, elderly or severely disabled must rely on guardians or conservators to manage their affairs. Guardians, often unrelated to the clients, are appointed by judges and sometimes take on hundreds of cases. State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, sponsor of Legislative Bill 920, said the case of Judith Widener, who had been assigned as guardian for 688 people in 60 Nebraska counties, illustrates that the court system needs the safer option provided by professional public guardians.
Widener, whose office was in Scottsbluff, was charged with embezzling about $600,000 from her clients after irregularities were discovered by State Auditor Mike Foley last fall. In a similar case, Dinah Turrentine-Sims of Omaha was convicted of stealing more than $400,000 from eight of her wards in 2010.
Judges now have few options for looking out for the best interests of such clients. Coash's bill would set up a new state Office of Public Guardian, which would provide professional state-paid guardians for incapacitated people if no relative or other volunteer could be found to take care of their affairs. Guardians would make decisions on matters such as appropriate health care and living arrangements after judges determine that clients are no longer capable of making such decisions on their own. If clients have the financial means, they would be required to contribute to the cost. For those with no resources, the state would pay for the service.
The office would be administered through the state court system and is projected to cost $880,000 in the first year and employ nine people. It is projected to double in size during the second year. Potential expansion and future expenditures would be reviewed to make certain both are justified.
Coash and other supporters said the bill was crafted to require judges to first seek out family members and utilize a public guardian only as "a last resort." Some senators, predictably, griped about the expense. But it's not a new idea. In fact, Nebraska would be the last of the 50 states to provide public guardians.
One of the responsibilities of representative government is to look out for people who are incapable of taking care of themselves. Foes of public welfare programs often like to say that they don't oppose the government helping "people who really need it." This proposal helps those people who have been ripped off by criminals and, until now, neglected by elected officials.
Lawmakers have advanced LB 920. It creates a necessary solution, and it's time to get it done.
Lincoln Journal Star. March 9, 2014.
Students need physical activity
The progress that Lincoln Public Schools has made in reducing obesity rates among students is worth cheering, but it shouldn't have to be so difficult.
One of the big reasons that the obesity rate is dropping is because of a new emphasis on keeping students active. But at some schools, administrators struggle to find space for students to exercise.
At Kooser Elementary School, exercise space is so limited that administrators can schedule only one 50-minute gym class every six days. The cafeteria might be suitable as a location for some physical activities, but the cafeteria is used for breakfast, lunch and after school. It takes too long to move the tables and stack the chairs.
With planning underway for construction of new schools and renovation of others after voter approval of the $153 million bond issue, school officials should make sure that the new and rehabbed buildings have enough space for kids to be physically active during the school day.
Another option is increasing the length of the school day, as suggested by Dr. Bob Rauner, director of Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln.
Rauner said his research shows that not only is fitness important for better health, it also is linked to better academic performance. Students who pass the district's aerobic fitness test do better on the statewide reading, math and science tests.
At LPS the obesity rate in grades K-8 has dropped from 17.2 percent in 2010 to 15.8 percent in 2013. The percentage of students who passed the fitness test rose from 68.4 percent to 70.7 percent during the same period.
The local statistics are part of a national trend in which childhood obesity rates are finally declining after more than doubling over the past three decades. Last year the Centers for Disease Control said childhood obesity rates dropped in 18 states. In Nebraska the rate held steady.
This year the CDC announced an even more encouraging change at the national level. Obesity rates among children from ages 2 to 5 dropped to 8 percent, down from 14 percent a decade ago.
In Lincoln administrators are trying to cope with the lack of exercise space with walking tracks and "brain breaks" when kids move around between lessons.
But none of the Lincoln schools achieves the 108 minutes of activity recommended by the Nebraska Department of Education, and all are far below the 150 minutes recommended by the American Medical Association.
Whether the solution to increasing fitness is providing more exercise space or a longer school day, the goal deserves more attention than it has in recent decades. The payoff is healthier kids who learn better.
The Grand Island Independent. March 7, 2014.
Park repair funding plan a good start
Infrastructure at many of Nebraska's state parks has fallen into disrepair. Septic systems need replaced. Water supplies are threatened by old water towers and leaky underground pipes. Many cabins need new toilets and showers. Many facilities aren't handicapped-accessible.
It amounts to about $43 million in deferred maintenance that needs to be done to the state's eight parks, 64 recreation areas and 11 historical sites, according to Nebraska parks officials.
Fortunately, the Legislature is on its way to giving Game and Parks officials the resources to get a jump start on making the repairs.
The Legislature gave overwhelming first round approval (32-1) to a bill that would take sales tax revenue from the sale of motor boats, personal watercraft and all-terrain and utility vehicles and put it into a Game and Parks maintenance account. It's estimated that about $4 million a year would go into the fund.
In a compromise, the senators agreed that the measure would expire in five years. The sales tax revenue would then go back in the general fund.
This is a good bill (LB814) crafted and compromised by Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, the bill's sponsor.
The revenue will come from the sale of boats and ATVs, many of which will be used at state lakes, recreation areas and parks. And it's not an additional fee. The sales tax on these items would be paid regardless, it just funnels the revenue to a needed area.
It will give Game and Parks approximately $20 million to put toward maintenance projects. It won't cover all of the estimated $43 million needed for projects, but it will allow Game and Parks to address its top priorities, while looking for other ways for funding and delaying some work.
State parks, recreation areas, lakes and historical sites are an important part of the quality of life in Nebraska. Through tight funding over the years, the parks haven't been kept up like most Nebraskans would like to see. This is serious, as once maintenance starts falling behind, it just escalates.
Game and Parks has been trying to squeeze its funding the best it can. In an unpopular move last fall it closed some areas early so staff could do maintenance work.
It's gratifying to see the Legislature finally address parks funding. Tightening budgets over the years may keep taxes down but can hurt the quality of life if parks facilities fall into disrepair.
The Legislature is seeing the problem and taking a common sense step to address it and the bill should be supported by the governor.