Editorial Roundup: Nebraska

Kearney Hub. June 12, 2021.

Editorial: Earth lodge a symbol of pride, healing

Kearney businessman Gary Roubicek, 72, who died June 3, was well-known as a Burger King operator and for reopening the Bico’s Restaurant on Kearney’s west side. What may be forgotten are the years he guided the Great Platte River Road Archway as its executive director.

For most of its early years The Archway was referred to as Kearney’s “embattled attraction.” Some Nebraskans thought it was an ugly embarrassment for the state. Others laughed because it was so hard to reach. Seventeen years passed before an exit finally was built near The Archway.

Some detractors in Kearney believed the attraction was doomed from the start. Built for $60 million, its disappointing attendance never covered operations or the debt.

Roubicek was undeterred by the circumstances. With characteristic enthusiasm, he hatched a plan to invite the original inhabitants of the Platte River Valley — the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma — to come to The Archway and stage an authentic powwow with drums, dancing and Native regalia.

It was a hit. Visitors’ cars lined Archway Parkway for a couple of miles as folks flocked to the grounds to experience Native culture.

It was thrilling to see The Archway campus crowded with visitors and to hear the appreciative Pawnees. In the 1870s their ancestors were exiled on the Trail of Tears from Nebraska to a reservation in Oklahoma, but at the Kearney powwow their appreciative hosts made them feel special.

The powwow was a dose of dignity. Other tribes invited to The Archway in later years experienced the same respectful reception. Later the Pawnees returned and were reunited with their long lost cousins, the Arikara Tribe from North Dakota. To celebrate their homecoming, the Pawnee and Arikara built an earth lodge like their ancestors inhabited.

During most of the week as the lodge was going up Roubicek raced around the Midwest in his old weathered Suburban to gather building materials, including the long, straight lodgepole pines that supported the roof. They fanned out in a circle like beams from a rising sun.

Roubicek was exhausted after driving almost an entire day to deliver the lodgepole pines, but the Native Americans could not complete the lodge without them. A couple of days later, when their work was finished, the builders circled the lodge’s fire pit inside and sang thanks for the healing miracle of the structure.

It must have broken Roubicek’s heart last year when part of the lumber rotted and the lodge collapsed. The remains were bulldozed and hauled away. Today there’s just bare ground where the lodge stood, but the thankful song of the builders still echoes from the site, a reminder of the pride restored by that beautiful, man-made creation of timber and earth.

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Omaha World-Herald. June 8, 2021.

Editorial: Nebraska must stop seizing foster children’s Social Security benefits

Protection of private property is one of the oldest principles in American government. Our nation’s founders placed multiple safeguards concerning it in the federal Constitution. Consider the Fifth Amendment. No American, it says, shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Nebraska Constitution has a similar provision.

Supreme Court rulings defending private property rights, with rare exceptions such as eminent domain, constitute one of the oldest series of U.S. court precedents. The court has been issuing such rulings since the 1790s.

The message to government officials is clear and firm: Respect people’s property. It belongs to them, not the government.

This principle should apply to people’s money as well. With taxation the obvious exception, government has no right to seize people’s financial holdings.

And yet, state governments, including Nebraska’s, are doing precisely that in regard to children in foster care. Nebraska state government diverts about $2.7 million a year in foster children’s Social Security benefits to help cover the state’s child welfare costs.

At least 36 states indulge in such self-serving behavior, according to a report from the nonprofit Marshall Project and NPR. And at least 10 states, including Nebraska, hire for-profit companies to comb through Social Security files to find foster children who qualify. Nationally, about 10% of those in foster care qualify for such benefits.

To justify their action, states offer a flimsy rationale: Current law allows it. But that just illustrates a relevant and important cliché for public policy making: Some government actions may be legal, but they’re not right.

How, after all, does federal law classify foster children’s Social Security benefits? They’re labeled the children’s “property.”

And so we’re back to a fundamental American principle: That property belongs to them, not the government.

These children and teens already face major hurdles, and Social Security benefits have long-term importance by offering them a chance to find solid footing as they reach adulthood. It’s astounding that state governments would rationalize seizing such monies.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha is right to blow the whistle on this practice, and next year the Legislature must vote to end it. In setting the state budget, lawmakers routinely approve appropriations to cover the operating expenses for a vast array of government operations. It’s inexcusable that the state siphons off foster children’s Social Security benefits to help defray costs the state itself should be covering.

It’s telling that the State Department of Health and Human Services was seizing foster care children’s financial assets at the very time this year that the Legislature had more than $200 million this session to devote to extra spending or tax cuts.

Current government policy can fairly be termed as financial abuse of some of Nebraska’s most vulnerable children.

Lawmakers apparently were unaware that such a diversion of children’s money was taking place. But now that they are, they have a responsibility to prohibit it. Surely there should be a broad consensus, across lines of party and philosophy, for such action.

It’s high time for Nebraska to end this ongoing violation of people’s financial liberty. In so doing, the state will uphold a key American principle. It also will increase the chances for future success for Nebraska young people.

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Lincoln Journal Star. June 13, 2021.

Editorial: Housing market issues hit all in the pocketbook

What do you get when you cross a seller’s market with a long period of low-interest rates and a lack of houses for sale, leading to multiple offers on a property and buyers offering well over the asking price?

“It’s sort of what I call a sick market,” Lancaster County Assessor Rob Ogdon told Journal Star city reporter Margaret Reist last week. “There aren’t enough properties for the people who want them, so it’s just not healthy. But it is what it is, until we get it sorted out.”

Sorting it out could take some time. In the meantime, Ogden mailed out more than 100,000 property valuation notices last week.

Overall, the average increase in the county was 10.75%, though a few properties saw a drop in value and others stayed the same.

And then there were examples that defied logic, like the story of a man with a 675-square-foot house, built in the early 1900s in the South Bottoms. For reasons unknown to John Mullen, his house saw a 42% valuation to more than $96,000, which was both alarming and insulting, he said.

“That’s just rude,” said Mullen, owner of the bungalow. “Ninety-eight thousand, four hundred dollars for this old house is outrageous.”

Mullen has no intention of selling, which means, like most Lincoln homeowners who are staying put, he is carrying a bigger portion of the county’s tax burden.

Property tax revenue for schools and local governments is based on property valuations, which will be finalized in August. Those governments will figure their budgets, and property owners will get a tax statement sometime in October. The biggest chunk of that — more than 60% — comes from Lincoln Public Schools. (This is partly the result of inconsistent and inadequate state aid.)

The Lancaster County Assessor’s Office website explains the assessed values of residential homes are primarily determined using sale prices of comparable homes in the area. Commercial properties are valued using comparable sales but also rely on more specific information, like rental rates, vacancy rates or market capitalization, which are necessary to perform an income approach to estimate market value.

The assessor’s office says it did little with commercial properties this year, Ogden said, because they’re waiting to see whether the effects of the pandemic turn out to be long-term. They made a substantial adjustment in apartments and multi-family homes, he said.

Those who disagree with their assessments can schedule a hearing. The protest has to be postmarked or filed with the County Clerk’s Office no later than June 30. However, be warned it’s seldom that a disputed assessment is overturned.

It’s a good time to be selling a house, not as good a time to be buying one. And for a property owner with no plans on entering the housing market as a buyer or a seller, the newest assessment is simply a nuisance that will likely end up costing them more this year.

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