Editorial Roundup: Nebraska

Omaha World-Herald. Oct. 31, 2021.

Editorial: Here’s our interim grade of Ricketts during the pandemic — which isn’t over

Gov. Pete Ricketts has declared victory over COVID-19, writing in his latest column that “Nebraska has come through the pandemic stronger than any other state.” He also, for a second time, reduced the data the state makes publicly available.

“That really just reflects the needs right now that we have here in the state,” he said, basing his action on COVID hospitalizations, thankfully, dropping below 10% of staffed beds. “We are looking to get back to normal, folks, right?”

We agree wholeheartedly that not much would be better than truly having the pandemic behind us.

But it’s not. Dr. James Lawler with the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, told The World-Herald this week “we are far from the end of the pandemic emergency.”

“There is never a right time to blindfold yourself in an emergency,” he said of Ricketts’ decision to make less information available. Ricketts sharply limited COVID data in June, only to backtrack just five weeks ago after the delta variant spiked hospitalizations.

Lawler helped devise Ricketts’ original plan to fight the virus. Their latest public divergence, then, is a good moment to grade Ricketts’ pandemic leadership — so far.

The governor has done many things well during the pandemic, particularly during the early weeks. As time wore on, he often discounted medical advice and indulged in the nation’s regrettable politicization of a public health crisis, eroding confidence in medical guidance when it is needed most.

Nebraska’s outcomes — so far — have been quite good compared with other states, which Ricketts fairly touted in his column. Our mortality rate is among the nation’s lowest. The only clear drag on the state’s economy is a lack of workers — a serious challenge that predates the pandemic.

The state’s chief executive certainly gets to claim a measure of credit — though we believe some of the success occurred in spite of Ricketts, such as cities’ imposition of mask mandates he opposed and initially threatened to block, delaying their impact on reducing spread of the coronavirus.

It must be noted that no one had a detailed playbook for handling the sudden surge of a novel virus. Ricketts did exactly the right thing in leaning on eminent experts at UNMC in developing a plan. While he was criticized in the spring of 2020 for not issuing a stay-at-home order, World-Herald reporting showed that the effect of his directed health measures was roughly the same as exemption-laden stay-home orders in other states.

For example, Nebraska was among the first states to adopt federal guidance limiting the size of gatherings, and, because of lucky timing of spring break, Nebraska’s two largest school districts stopped in-person classes sooner than most in the nation.

In those early weeks, Ricketts held almost-daily news conferences, providing clarity in the midst of uncertainty. He modeled mask-wearing, social distancing and hand sanitation.

We believe he was cavalier about the dangers facing meatpacking workers, who suffered disproportionate death and illness. And he disregarded the dearly held principle of local control in insisting that county offices not impose mask mandates, threatening to withhold federal pandemic relief money doled out by the state. He threatened to sue if Douglas County imposed a mask mandate.

He did not carry out that threat after State Sen. Justin Wayne found provisions in law that appeared to give cities authority to issue mandates — which most towns of size then quickly did. Again this summer, though, Ricketts argued against school mask requirements, contradicting medical guidance, saying children aren’t at risk and abetting anger that boiled over in some school board meetings.

While the governor has been a consistent supporter of vaccines, and publicly got his right away, his growing propensity to contradict doctors undercuts our recovery.

The latest example is his move last week to limit public data, even though the cost of managing that information is minimal.

In his column about his administration’s pandemic success, Ricketts wrote that the state “quickly built a system to track key health data after the coronavirus came to Nebraska.”

It is utterly illogical, then, to reduce the information — blindfold ourselves, as Lawler put it — when the lack of blindfolds was part of our winning strategy.

Detailed information is always valuable, and doctors tell us that it’s still valuable in this case. In light of that, it’s incumbent on Ricketts to make the case for the data being unnecessary and harmful.

Faced with an unprecedented leadership nightmare, the governor started well. As a political creature, he indulged in needless rhetoric that added static to a noisy, confusing, life-threatening situation.

Still, Ricketts outperformed governors in neighboring Iowa, where criteria for restrictions were criticized as arbitrary, and in South Dakota, which appeared to believe it was immune even after the 2020 Sturgis superspreader rally. CDC data says death rates are higher in all of Nebraska’s border states except Colorado.

So, grading on a curve because no governor could have escaped criticism, we give Ricketts a B for outcomes well above average, with rigidity and unneeded politicking getting in the way. Heading into cold weather and holiday gatherings, we remind him and all Nebraskans that we still must complete our finals.

___

North Platte Telegraph. Oct. 31, 2021.

Editorial: Hide-and-seek tax relief? State can do better

Oh, one more thing about using state income taxes to deliver property tax relief ...

You’ll remember us warning here Oct. 17 that Nebraska’s property owners might not realize they can get back a notable part of their 2021 school property taxes through the one-year-old Legislative Bill 1107 income tax credit.

That’s because the new credit won’t show up on December’s 2021 property tax bills, unlike the older Property Tax Credit Fund discount printed on your tax statement.

You have to file for the LB 1107 credit — equivalent to one-fourth of your school taxes in 2021, compared with 6% in 2020 — when you do your state income taxes this winter.

And that’s something many who own property in Nebraska didn’t even do last winter.

About 40% of the $125 million the Legislature allocated for first-year LB 1107 school-tax relief went unclaimed, the Omaha World-Herald reported last week.

Many didn’t know about the credit, especially if they did their own taxes or live out of state. If they learned about it later, the story said, they may not have bothered to amend their return to claim it.

Some 2020 electronic tax software didn’t include forms for the new credit right away (though some added it in updates).

And some property owners who hire someone to do their taxes decided it wasn’t worth paying their preparer more to file another form.

We suspect that might be different this winter if word gets around sufficiently that they’ll be splitting $548 million in LB 1107 credits this year, rather than one-fourth as much.

But, good gracious, if senators want Nebraskans to know they’re serious about property tax relief, why not deliver it where they can see it?

North Platte’s actual 2021 property tax bills this December will be only 1.4% lower than the ones last December. That’s because only one of the two state tax breaks — the smaller one — is on it.

We can think of better ways to noticeably deliver property tax relief while it’s there (recalling our prediction that these credits will fade away the next time state budgets get tight):

— Lawmakers could just have added this year’s fourfold increase in LB 1107 tax credit funding to the older Property Tax Credit Fund.

Then North Platte’s net December tax bill — with both tax credits on it, not just one — would be 15.4% lower than it was last year with just the one credit.

You don’t think folks wouldn’t notice that?

— Or, seeing as the state’s again into using income taxes to deliver property tax relief, how about keeping a 30-year-old promise?

We refer to the ever-infuriating state school-aid formula, which originally cleared the Legislature and survived a petition challenge by saying 20% of school patrons’ income tax bills would come back to their districts to lower school taxes.

Senators never came close to delivering that 20%. And whenever Nebraska’s agricultural economy slumped — and state tax receipts along with it — school aid was a regular cost-cutting target.

Today, school districts get only about 2% of their patrons’ income tax payments back in state aid. One-tenth of the promise.

And that’s all the state aid many small Nebraska rural schools get. Two of our region’s districts — Hayes Center and McPherson County — have gotten less than $10,000 a year apiece lately.

Remember: Property tax requests are what’s left over when our local governments can’t cover all the costs for their services from other sources.

Suppose you put LB 1107’s $548 million for 2021 into the school-aid formula. Heck, put in the combined $861 million for both tax-relief credits (more than the entire 1984-85 state budget).

Again: You don’t think folks wouldn’t notice that?

There is good news. It’s not too late, if you didn’t file for that (much smaller) LB 1107 school tax credit for 2020, to amend your state income tax return from last winter to get it.

And according to the World-Herald story, whatever money property owners don’t claim in 2020’s LB 1107 credits will just sit in its state bank account and be available for 2021 refunds.

That said, one would think the last thing state lawmakers would agree to would be stealth property tax relief that Nebraskans wouldn’t recognize or didn’t realize they could get.

And yet they did.

We’re scratching our heads, too.

___

Lincoln Journal Star. Oct. 31, 2021.

Editorial: Fortenberry faces serious allegations as a trial looms

The indictment of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was disturbing and shocking, calling into question the congressman’s veracity while again revealing the seedy underbelly of campaign financing.

The first major Nebraska public official to face criminal charges in modern times, Fortenberry is charged with two counts of making false statements to federal investigators and one of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts in conjunction with conversations related to an illegal contribution made to his 2016 campaign

The $30,200 that went to Fortenberry’s campaign was part of $180,000 that Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury, who as a foreign national is prohibited from making political contributions in the United States, funneled through a group of Californians to congressional campaigns.

It must be noted that Fortenberry is not charged in conjunction with his campaign taking the money. Nor was former Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha, whose campaign received $5,200 from Chagoury.

Rather, the charges are related to a June 2018 phone call made by that individual to Fortenberry in which the individual reportedly repeatedly told him that the $30,000 had been provided to him by Chagoury and distributed to others at the fundraiser to be donated under their names.

According to the indictment, Fortenberry did not file an amended 2016 campaign financing report disclosing the true contributors from the fundraisers. Nor did he attempt to return or give up the illegal contributions until July, 2019, after his second interview with FBI agents.

In those interviews with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, the indictment says, Fortenberry made several false and misleading statements, leading to the indictment.

The charges brought against Fortenberry by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles are serious. The indictment is an indication that the grand jury found evidence that a crime had been committed and that there is some evidence that Fortenberry committed the crime.

Contrary to the claims of Fortenberry defenders, the investigation and charges are not a political assault on the Republican congressman by a “Democratic” Department of Justice under President Biden.

The L.A. based investigation began in September 2016, four months before the Obama administration left office, when the host of a February 2016 fundraiser where Fortenberry received the contributions began cooperating with FBI and IRS

The investigation continued throughout the four years of the Trump administration under William Barr’s Department of Justice.

Fortenberry is scheduled to go to trial on Dec. 14, but legal maneuvering is likely to push that date months into the future.

Until then, Fortenberry will continue to represent the First Congressional District in the House, albeit in limited fashion. He was forced, by House rules, to resign from his post on the powerful Appropriations Committee while under indictment.

The charges have also shaken Nebraska politics. The nine-term congressman was expected to easily be reelected in 2022. But his legal problems have generated speculation and behind-the-scenes preparation by potential candidates in both parties, who will have to decide by March 1 to file for the primary election.

It is possible that Fortenberry could not run for reelection following the charges or that his legal proceedings could throw Nebraska politics into limbo throughout most of next year.

For those reasons, it is hoped that case against Fortenberry, who has the presumption of innocence, is resolved fairly and as quickly as possible for the congressman and the good of the state.

END