Kearney Hub. May 8, 2015.
Are there better ways to approach roads issues?
Are Nebraska lawmakers thinking strategically about how to care for and improve the state's 100,000 miles of roads, or have they put the cart ahead of the horse in pressing for a higher gas tax? That's a fair question as a showdown between Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state's 49 legislators appears to be forming.
On Thursday, Ricketts vetoed LB610, the measure that would have boosted Nebraska's gasoline tax by 6 cents per gallon in increments of 1.5 cents during the next four years. The result would have been an extra $76 million per year in revenues to help with the estimated $10.2 billion road and bridge projects needed over the next 20 years, according to a Nebraska Department of Roads report.
In addition to the 100,000 miles of roads, there also are 20,000 bridges in Nebraska, and some of them are reportedly beginning to crumble.
The Legislature approved boosting the gas tax from its current 25.6 cents per gallon to 31.6 cents by a tally of 26-15 on Thursday, and Ricketts promptly vetoed the measure. To override Ricketts' veto of LB610, lawmakers would need to muster 30 votes.
Chief sponsor of the gas tax proposal, Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, said he thinks he can get 30 senators to set aside Ricketts' veto, but would such a move be the best approach?
Lawmakers must be convinced of the need for additional revenues, based on the Department of Roads' assessment, but Ricketts has asked for patience, saying the person he's hired as the state's new director of roads, Kyle Schneweis, will bring a fresh perspective to the debate. Ricketts believes there may be a public/private approach to funding roads and bridges. Such a strategy has been used on many overpasses, with railroad corporations contributing cash for the structures in exchange for the closure of dangerous at-grade crossings. The result is mostly positive because the new overpasses, coupled with closed crossings, really have reduced car-train fatalities and boosted convenience.
Although the methods by which Nebraska identifies road projects haven't changed much, the landscape of the state certainly has. Some communities have grown substantially, but the roads that underpin their commerce haven't kept pace. That's evident in Kearney's 17-year push for a second I-80 exit, and it's the impetus behind Norfolk business leaders' quest for a four-lane road to Fremont.
We hope that as the gas tax drama plays out, both the governor and our state's lawmakers awaken to the opportunity for change. Crisis often is the crucible from which great solutions arise. If that is so, the stage is set in Nebraska for great things.
Lincoln Journal Star. May 9, 2015.
Cash reserve will need new name
Surely most folks know what a rainy day fund is, right?
It's money put aside for an unexpected emergency.
Apparently state senators have their own strange definition.
They have a plan to make regular withdrawals from the state's rainy day fund, known as the cash reserve, for the next six years.
What's unexpected about those expenditures? What's the emergency?
The plan to tap the cash reserve was put together fairly late in the budget process after officials decided they needed another $28 million to add to the $77.7 million already budgeted for a 10-year project for renovation and replacement of the Capitol's heating and air conditioning system.
There's little doubt that the Capitol needs a new heating and air conditioning system. The current system is about 50 years old. It frequently breaks down. Pipes burst, causing damage to ceilings, walls and furniture.
There have been many improvements in heating and air conditioning in the past half-century. Architectural changes are necessary to accommodate some the changes needed to make the Capitol more livable and energy efficient. Staff will be relocated to temporary quarters during the work. It's an expensive proposition.
The initial plan approved by the Legislature last year called for the state to continue contracting with the University of Nebraska for chilled water for cooling.
Then the Capitol Commission decided it would be a better long-term investment to switch to a geothermal heat pump system, which circulates water underground to transfer heat to the earth.
The systems cost more initially, but pay for themselves in the long run. Geothermal systems have been in use for decades. They are a proven technology.
In fact a geothermal system is such a good idea that it ought to be treated like any other renovation cost — not passed off as an unexpected expense necessitated by unforeseen circumstances.
If the Legislature starts tapping the rainy day fund for ordinary, predictable expenditures like this the cash reserve will be gone in no time. Approval of this plan is like installing a spigot in the cash reserve senators can crank open any time the whim strikes.
The value of a healthy cash reserve was demonstrated when the Great Recession hit. As the OpenSky Institute pointed out, the state spent about $792 million in state reserve funds and federal stimulus money to get through the recession.
The cash reserve is now projected to be a bit over $700 million at the end of the current fiscal year.
But if the Legislature starts scheduling regular withdrawals for any predictable expense that strikes its fancy, they ought to give the cash reserve a new name. Call it the slush fund.
McCook Daily Gazette. May 6, 2015.
No public subsidy for wind power in Nebraska for now
The nation's only completely public power state has decided the public should not subsidize wind power.
Proponents likened the bill, which would have provided $75 million in production tax credits for renewable energy, to subsidies received by the ethanol industry, subsidies that have helped boost the Southwest Nebraska economy.
But opposing senators successfully filibustered against the bill, calling it "unnecessary, feel-good legislation" on one hand that didn't go far enough, and suggested the state should consider more forward-looking options such as experimental forms of nuclear energy.
It is a shame that Nebraska's public power status has hindered wind development in a state that is one of the windiest in the nation, lagging behind all of our neighboring states.
But it is also unfortunate that Nebraska rate payers would be forced to pay higher utility bills to take advantage of that wind.
And, we do wonder whether more of us will consider wind turbines to be an eyesore once the novelty wears off. Plus, adequate transmission facilities still need to be in place to carry wind-generated power to customers.
If and when wind power becomes an important part in Nebraska's energy formula, it will have to stand on its own economic merits.
The Grand Island Independent. May 7, 2015.
Cooperative effort needed to bolster state's EMS crews
Seconds seem like hours when a medical emergency happens and people are waiting for an ambulance. The medical crews can never get there fast enough, it seems.
Unfortunately, that wait is getting longer in many areas of rural Nebraska. Ashton recently lost its local rescue squad and the Sherman County community now relies on one from Loup City, which is an extra 10 minutes added on to the response time.
Ashton isn't alone. Dean Cole, EMS and trauma program administrator for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, recently told the Independent's Lauren Sedam that communities across the state and country are facing reduced access to emergency medical services.
The reason is the same as many of the other problems facing rural areas: fewer people. With a smaller population, there aren't as many volunteers as there used to be for the EMS crews. The scramble for manpower becomes too much for many communities.
EMS work is certainly not easy. Responding to emergencies, many involving friends and neighbors, can be extremely wearing emotionally. It takes a special person to be able to respond to emergency calls and not be traumatized themselves.
In addition, EMS crew members must undergo extensive training and licensing. For beginners, it requires 120 hours of classes, and continuing training is also required. With busy lifestyles, with jobs, families and other obligations, finding volunteers who are able to put in that much time is difficult.
There are, however, no easy solutions to the problem. Rural areas have seen a population decline due to farms getting bigger and most jobs being located in larger communities. That trend just continues.
Losing EMS crews certainly hurts rural areas even more. Medical care and help during emergencies are important quality of life matters. Many people, especially those with health concerns, will be wary of living in an area without nearby ambulance and paramedic service.
Reversing the trend of dwindling EMS crews will take a cooperative effort. The state, counties, towns, businesses and medical facilities all need to work together to address the problem. Perhaps incentives and funding can be provided to volunteers seeking the training. Businesses would have to allow their employees serving as EMS volunteers flexible work time so they can respond to emergencies.
It really is a statewide issue that impacts communities throughout the state. In an emergency, it's always nice to know that a caring, nearby EMS crew is coming to your assistance.