POTUS speaks at UNO

January 14th, 2016

By Ryan Robertson

President Obama outlined four questions he is asking heading into final year of his second term. (Photo Courtesy Bill Grennan.)

President Obama outlined four questions he is asking heading into final year of his second term. (Photo Courtesy Bill Grennan.)

Omaha, NE – President Barack Obama wasn’t scheduled to speak at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s newly built Baxter Arena until 4pm. But the line to get-in started to form at nine in the morning.

One of the thousands standing in line, is Audrey Williams, who says she traveled to Washington D.C. twice to see President Obama’s inaugurations. But both times she couldn’t get tickets. So I had to ask Audrey.

Do you have your tickets already? ‘Yes.’ So it’s guaranteed? ‘I hope so! You tell me? I hope so with all these thousands of people. I hope I get in. yes. Yes.’

People chat as they await President Obama's arrival. (Photo Courtesy Bill Grennan)

People chat as they await President Obama’s arrival. (Photo Courtesy Bill Grennan)

Even though she’s been standing around for several hours, in snow covered grass, Williams is excited.

“We here for the third time, we want to make it work, and see him and be in his presence and be as close as possible and just let him know we’re here to support him,” Williams said. “Yup. First black president. Yup. Two terms. We here to support him.”

Wednesday’s trip to Omaha marked the first time since being elected Obama has visited the city. Inside Baxter Arena a capacity crowd of around 7,500 people made sure to welcome him back.

According to the president, one of the reasons he chose Omaha as the first stop after his final State of the Union Address, was because of the civility in Nebraska politics.

“Because as I said last night, America is at its best when we see each other as one people,” President Obama said. “Not democrat first, not republican first, but Americans first, that’s out priority.”

Much of what the President said was more or less a repackaging of his State of the Union Address. Randall Adkins, the Dean of UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences, said that’s fairly common.

“Presidents travel a lot,” Adkins said. “They make a lot of speeches and it’s what we call ‘going public’ and the purpose of that is to try to move the needle on the public opinion polls. So the president’s out today trying to move the needle on some of these issues. And to try to really sort of reset were campaign politics is going into this election year.”

Like he did in his state of the union address, president Obama said there are four questions facing America today. How to give everyone a fair shot in the new economy? How can technology help impact climate change? How can we keep America safe without becoming the world’s police officer? And finally: How can we make our politics reflect the best of American values?

The crowd at Baxter Arena listens intently as President Obama speaks. (Courtesy Bill Grennan)

The crowd at Baxter Arena listens intently as President Obama speaks. (Courtesy Bill Grennan)

“We’ve got to make some choices. Do we respond to these changes with fear and do we turn on each other or do we face the future with confidence in who we are and what we stand for and all the incredible things we can get done together.”

Jody Neathery-Castro is the associate professor for political science at UNO. She says President Obama also used his speech to help better position his party for the November election.

“Talking in front of a student audience was a good choice too.” Neathery-Castro said. “You saw some really large cheers for his notion of not being discriminatory and working together as one. I think that kind of message resonates really well with a diverse student body like we have here at University of Nebraska Omaha.”

Spreading a message that resonates well, is the goal of events like Wednesday’s speech at Baxter Arena. President Obama has less than a year left in office, and faces several looming battles with a Republican controlled Congress. But if you take a man at his word, as is the Nebraska way, then things will probably work out in the end.

“Because of folks like all of you, I am absolutely confident that we’re going to get to where we need to go and America will remain greatest country on earth.”

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2016 Nebraska Legislative session gets underway Wednesday

January 5th, 2016

By Fred Knapp

Nebraska lawmakers are wrestling with property taxes and school funding. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The 2016 Legislative session gets underway Wednesday. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)


Lincoln, NE – The Nebraska Legislature begins its 2016 session Wednesday. Lawmakers have no shortage of issues to deal with, from property taxes to prisons and medical marijuana to Medicaid. But two things that are limited are time, and money.

The Nebraska Constitution limits the Legislature to meeting 90 days in odd-numbered years, and 60 in even-numbered. So 2016 will be a so-called “short session,” although it may not seem like that. Including weekends, days off, and holidays, senators are scheduled to meet from Wednesday until April 20th. And there’s a long list of issues to confront. Omaha Sen. Heath Mello lists school finance, property tax reform, infrastructure finance and planning, prison overcrowding, and behavioral health, among others.

But to Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said something else takes precedence, “Obviously trying to address the state’s roughly $132 million projected budget shortfall will be the number one priority for both the Appropriations Committee and the governor moving forward in 2016,” he said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has said the budget, along with property taxes and prisons, will be his priorities. The budget shortfall Mello mentioned reflects a cut in tax collections projected by the state’s Economic Forecasting Advisory Board in October. It’s only about 1.5 percent of the roughly $9 billion in taxes the state was projected to collect when lawmakers approved their two-year budget last spring. And the state has a cash reserve of more than $700 million.

But there are ideas for spending some of that. Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who last year led the successful effort to increase the gas tax, wants to use some of the cash reserve for roads. “Take an advance out of the cash reserve and call it an infrastructure bank. It’s a bank of dollars that can be used for designated needs – completing the expressway system, for matching funds to complete the repairs on the roads and bridges that we have. And then the gas tax dollars that were designated to the state – most likely that will be used to replenish that infrastructure bank,” Smith said.

About one-quarter of the 600-mile expressway system approved by the state in the 1980s remains to be completed, and a 2014 legislative report shows almost one in five county bridges in the state has significant structural deficiencies.

Then, there’s the cost of reducing overcrowding in Nebraska’s prisons, which currently hold almost 60 percent more inmates than they were designed for. Corrections Director Scott Frakes has a plan to spend $26 million to add 160 beds to the Lincoln Community Correctional Center. And Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis says that may be just a beginning. “That is in some respects the black hole I think. We do know that there is a request for funding for an additional construction project of $26 million,” Davis said. “You don’t undo an overcrowding situation in a year. It’s going to take five or ten years to get that under control.”

Both Davis and Frakes say they hope the state does not have to build a new prison.

At the same time as there is pressure for more spending, there is also discussion of tax cuts. Ricketts has said he wants to curb income taxes and continue work on property tax relief.

Most property taxes in Nebraska go for schools. Education Committee Chairwoman Kate Sullivan says that calls for tightening controls in a number of areas., including trying to limit the increase in valuations on land and property, and limiting levy authority, budget authority, or spending growth for schools. But “The devil is in the details,” Sullivan added.

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha is skeptical. “There’s no clear consensus that I’ve heard from people on property tax relief. And with the state budget as it is, I’m not sure we’ll make much headway in that effort,” he said.

McCollister is more positive about another controversy that’s expected to come up for the fourth year in a row: Medicaid expansion. “It’s going to be a different model, probably based on the Arkansas model, where you help the working poor in Nebraska — and there’s probably 77,000 of that are generally working poor — help them afford insurance,” he said. The Arkansas model uses federal Medicaid dollars to subsidize private health insurance.

That doesn’t satisfy critics like Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion. “The bottom line is, people in our state just don’t want it. They don’t care if it’s the Arkansas model or the New Jersey model. They just don’t want it,” Kintner said.

There will be hundreds of other proposals, including one left over from last year to legalize medical marijuana. Senators say they’ll introduce new proposals, including paid family medical leave, attorneys for juveniles in the justice system, and a committee to respond to climate change. A proposal to legalize casinos, to compete with an initiative already underway on that subject, is also expected.

While people may think they have a sense of whether those proposals will pass or fail, Sen. Smith advised being prepared for surprises. “You never know what a day brings in Nebraska. It’s kind of like the weather,” Smith said.

Over the next four and a half months, we’ll get a clearer picture of what is, for now, somewhere over the horizon.

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