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Nebraska lawmakers working toward compromise on property tax, tax incentive bills

LINCOLN — State lawmakers debated the two biggest issues of the 2020 session on Wednesday, but neither the property tax relief bill nor the proposal to update the state’s tax incentives for business growth has advanced — yet.

The two proposals had been billed as being intertwined — both needing to pass this year — but at least one senator suggested that the property tax proposal was headed for an impasse and the tax incentive bill, coveted by the state’s business community, might have to go it alone.

“If that horse can’t finish the race, we need to saddle up a horse that can finish the race,” said State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, a banker who says tax breaks have put his hometown on a “trajectory of success.”

But two key senators, Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the main author of the property tax bill, and Mark Kolterman of Seward, the main sponsor of the business incentive proposal, both said that work on a so-called “grand compromise” would begin tomorrow after a new forecast of state tax revenue — which has been stung by COVID-19 — is released by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board.

“We need to figure out a compromise where everybody gets something,” said Linehan, who, as chair of the Revenue Committee, has guided a two-year effort to get property taxes reduced. “We’ll sit down tomorrow and figure out what we can do with the money we have.”

Kolterman said he’s confident that a deal can be struck to pass both bills.

“There’s some alternatives being worked on,” he said, adding that property tax relief was just as important as incentives for job growth and business expansion, known as the ImagiNE Act.

To bring back either bill for debate and put them on a path of passage, the sponsors would have to show they have support of at least 33 of the 49 state senators, under a rule put in place by the speaker of the Legislature. It didn’t appear that either had the magic 33 on Wednesday, but the ImagiNE Act, LB 720, looked closer to that mark.

The ImagiNE Act, which is being pushed by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and other state business groups, would replace the Advantage Act, which expires at the end of the year. The Act would provide between $100 million and $150 million in tax breaks a year in its first six years and has been billed as improving the Advantage Act by providing incentives for creation of better-paying jobs ($16.10 an hour and up) that also offer health insurance and other benefits.

Another aspect of the bill would set aside $300 million in state funds as matching money for the massive NEXT Project at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, a proposed $2.6 billion national center for response to pandemics and natural disasters.

“That’s a pretty good return on investment,” Kolterman said of the $300 million, which he said the state would be foolish to turn down. If the project, expected to create 8,700 high-paying medical jobs, doesn’t happen, no state money would be expended, he added.

LB 1106, the property tax measure, would boost state aid to K-12 schools by $500 million over three years, replacing revenue from local property taxes, which would decrease by lowering valuations of property that could be subject to taxes. The goal is to reduce property taxes paid for local education by 15%.

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Backers said it was a reasonable solution to the state’s historically high property taxes, which, according to the Tax Foundation, rank seventh highest in the nation.

“If everyday Nebraskans could vote on (property tax relief), it would pass overwhelmingly,” said Albion Sen. Tom Briese.

The two issues set up a classic bout between legislative heavyweights. The state’s education community unanimously opposes the property tax plan, but the state’s business and farm groups support it. Meanwhile, the ImagiNE Act is a top priority for chambers of commerce, with farm groups maintaining that property tax reductions are a much bigger issue.

A year ago, a group of mostly rural senators, upset over the lack of progress on property tax relief, led a filibuster that stalled the ImagiNE Act. It was a rare setback for business interests in the 49-member Legislature.

A group of rural senators, led by Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, again voiced opposition to LB 720 on Wednesday, saying Nebraska’s tax incentives are overly generous and tend to reward businesses that would have added jobs anyway. Why, they asked, can tax breaks be so easily given for out-of-state companies to relocate here, when the Legislature cannot grant property tax relief — after years of trying — to those businesses and residents who already live and do business in Nebraska?

Omaha Sen. Brett Lindstrom urged his rural colleagues to not “hold hostage” the ImagiNE Act if the property tax bill cannot win approval. Perhaps a compromise can be found, he said.

“Unfortunately, sometimes things don’t line up,” Lindstrom said.

It was urban senators who mostly led the opposition to the property tax plan, which school officials in Omaha, Millard and Lincoln have said will reduce their funding.

“I believe we need to do something,” said State Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington. “I don’t want to do it on the backs of our children and their education.”

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene, one of the leading supporters of the property tax plan, said LB 1106 would be a major economic development boost, putting more dollars to spend in the pockets of farmers, homeowners and businesses who pay high property taxes.

He and other backers of the bill pushed back against opposition from school groups, saying the measure would not place unreasonable limits on local education spending but would provide new, per-pupil aid of more than $2,000 per student after three years and allow school budgets to continue to grow.

“If you’re going to wait around for the educational community to support this, it will never happen,” Groene said.

But Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford said that when the Legislature passed a major bill to decrease property taxes in the 1990s, LB 775, it was a much more inclusive process, with all stakeholders involved in crafting the law.

“This is different than a collaborative process from the beginning,” Crawford said, saying that education groups weren’t engaged.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Trump deploys more federal agents in 'lawand-order' push

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he will send federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help combat rising crime, expanding the administration's intervention into local enforcement as he runs for reelection under a "law-and-order" mantle.

Trump painted Democrat-led cities as out of control and lashed out at the "radical left," which he blamed for rising violence in some cities, even though criminal justice experts say it defies easy explanation.

"In recent weeks there has been a radical movement to defund, dismantle and dissolve our police departments," Trump said at a White House event, blaming the movement for "a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence."

"This bloodshed must end," he said. "This bloodshed will end."

The decision to dispatch federal agents to American cities is playing out at a hyperpoliticized moment when Trump is grasping for a new reelection strategy after the coronavirus upended the economy, dismantling what his campaign had seen as his ticket to a second term. With less than four months until Election Day, Trump has been warning that violence will worsen if his Democratic rival Joe Biden is elected in November and Democrats have a chance to make the police reforms they have endorsed after the killing of George Floyd and nationwide protests demanding racial justice.

Crime began surging in some cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia when stay-at-home orders were lifted. Criminal justice experts seeking answers have pointed to the unprecedented moment: a pandemic that has killed over 140,000 Americans, historic unemployment, a mass reckoning over race and police brutality, intense stress and even the weather. Compared with other years, crime in 2020 is down overall.

The plan Trump announced Wednesday expands an existing program that sent hundreds of federal agents to Kansas City, Missouri, after a 4-year-old boy's shooting death to help quell a record rise in violence.

The effort will include at least 100 Department of Homeland Security Investigations officers who generally conduct drug trafficking and child exploitation investigations, in addition to personnel under the Justice Department umbrella.

DHS officers have already been dispatched to Portland, Oregon, and other localities to protect federal property and monuments as Trump has lambasted efforts by protesters to knock down Confederate statutes.

Local authorities there have complained that agents have exacerbated tensions on the streets, and residents have accused the government of violating their constitutional rights. Indeed, civil unrest escalated after federal agents were accused of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause.

Since the racial justice protests began, Trump's campaign has leaned heavily into a pledge to maintain "law and order." The president has tried to tie Biden to a small group of radicals and anarchists that Trump's campaign claims is trying to destabilize America's cities and rewrite history.

The campaign thinks the push can help Trump by drumming up support from suburban and older voters who may be rattled by the broadcast of violent images.

The spike in crime has hit some cities hard at a time when their resources were already stretched thin from the pandemic. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially rejected the move to send in federal forces, but later said she and other local officials had spoken with federal authorities and come to an understanding. Chicago has had 414 homicides this year, compared with 275 during the same period in 2019.

"I've been very clear that we welcome actual partnership," the Democratic mayor said Tuesday. "But we do not welcome dictatorship. We do not welcome authoritarianism, and we do not welcome unconstitutional arrest and detainment of our residents."

In New Mexico, Democratic elected officials were cautioning Trump against sending in federal agents, with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich calling on Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales, who attended the White House event Wednesday, to resign.

Experts: Nebraska must cut COVID-19 transmission rates for schools to open safely

Safely opening schools in Nebraska cities with elevated COVID-19 levels will depend heavily on lowering viral transmission rates, local health experts say.

Nebraska as a whole, and the Omaha and Lincoln areas specifically, have seen recent upticks in COVID-19 cases.

In fact, daily case counts are high enough in Omaha, Lincoln and some other spots that a team from the University of Nebraska Medical Center said that bringing middle and high school students back into packed school buildings could lead to increased disease transmission.

John Lowe

“If we reopen in a way that is not allowing adequate social distancing of those students, then there’s a strong likelihood we’ll see cases and transmission among children that will ultimately impact a greater proportion of adults in the communities,” said John Lowe, UNMC’s assistant vice chancellor for health security training and education.

Lowe’s team is offering site visits to help schools to determine what protocols and procedures will maximize safety. Earlier in the pandemic, the team did the same for meatpacking plants and nursing homes.

Many schools already plan to require masks and keep kids apart as much as possible. Officials with the Omaha Public Schools, for instance, plan to open with a 3-2 schedule that will have students attending three days a week one week and two days the next. The schedule will essentially cut in half the number of students in buildings at a given time and provide added space for social distancing.

Ali Khan

But Dr. Ali Khan, dean of UNMC’s College of Public Health and another team member, said nothing will protect kids from in-school transmission of the virus more than lowering the transmission rate in communities where it remains uncontrolled.

“The No. 1 thing we can do to protect our children is to decrease transmission in our communities,” Khan said.

The concern is the disease, once seeded, can spread undetected, given the virus’s long incubation period and the time it takes for people to develop symptoms and get tested. Some people don’t ever develop symptoms.

If there’s a lot of viral spread, Lowe said, it will challenge public health departments’ ability to quickly get people who test positive into isolation and trace and quarantine their high-risk contacts.

When the Nebraska Department of Education released draft guidance on reopening schools last week, it included a color-coded scale of risk levels based on local infection rates, hospital capacity and other factors intended to guide shutdown decisions and health protocols.

What it didn’t include were numeric thresholds that indicate whether and how schools should reopen in a given community or signal how many cases should trigger a shutdown of all or a portion of a school district.

Lowe noted that local public health departments across the state have adopted various risk dials. But the graphic representations were developed to inform reopening communities, particularly businesses, not necessarily to guide schools.

Instead, school districts are advised to work with their local health departments. Those departments now are working to determine whether their risk dials will work for schools or a new risk assessment is needed.

That local input is important, Lowe said, because some communities have recorded few if any cases and have schools with plenty of room to distance students. As of Tuesday, 24 of Nebraska’s 93 counties had not had a case of COVID-19 in the preceding 14 days.

Meanwhile, Khan said, the public health college has developed recommended thresholds, based on an examination of the transmission rates and experiences of 15 countries that have reopened schools.

The thresholds recommend that schools in communities with between 25 and 50 new cases per million people per day (on a seven-day rolling average) consider reopening on a hybrid basis, with masks, physical distancing and hand hygiene.

As of Tuesday, both Douglas and Lancaster Counties stood above the 50-case threshold, according to tallies by the Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln.

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Douglas County was reporting nearly 151 new cases a day per million people, based on a seven-day rolling average. Lancaster County tallied almost 142 cases per million people over the same period. The state as a whole on Tuesday stood at almost 109 new cases per million per day, based on a seven-day rolling average.

Khan noted that the 25 to 50 threshold is still four to seven times the reopening threshold of many European countries, which opened schools at rates of about 7 to 8 cases per million per day.

Communities with more than 50 cases per million per day should consider not sending kids back to school, Khan said. But those with fewer than 5 cases per million per day or fewer can reopen with greater latitude, he said, although he recommended that they continue with masking and hand hygiene until the disease is eliminated.

Khan said the public health college recommends prioritizing getting kids in kindergarten though fifth or sixth grade back in school because younger children are least likely to spread the virus and most likely to benefit educationally. It’s also easier to keep them in small groups since they spend most of their school day in one classroom with one teacher. A number of countries have opened in phases, starting with K-5 students.

Older students — those between ages 10 and 19 — can spread the virus at least as well as adults do, a recent study from South Korea indicated. However, even that study left unanswered some questions about how kids transmit COVID-19.

Bob Rauner

Dr. Bob Rauner, president of the Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln, said other groups use somewhat higher case counts. But he said he’s “100 percent behind” what the UNMC experts are saying.

Rauner, a Lincoln physician who serves on the Lincoln school board, also noted that the reopening plan the Lincoln district released Tuesday is a draft that will be updated every week.

In general, Nebraska school districts continue to review their options as more information becomes available, even as they get down to the wire for opening day. The Millard Public Schools, for instance, announced Monday that the district would offer a fully remote learning option for any student, with no medical reason required.

Khan said the public health college also recommends triggers for when schools should consider shutting down: if a school has two cases a week or more than .5% of the school population is infected. Khan said he expected the recommendations to be posted on UNMC’s website as soon as Thursday.

Decisions on closings, however, also would be made in consultation with local public health departments, which are developing plans for how cases would be handled.

Lowe said team members recognize that it’s crucial to get kids back to school, so they are trying to sort through factors that would help get kids back safely, even given higher rates of transmission in some communities.

Some districts already have upgraded filters in air-handling systems and increased the ratio of fresh air coming into buildings.

Schools will be relying on not just one measure but all of the layered interventions together. The goal is to operate with some level of consistency.

“Coming up with strategies that are really clear,” Lowe said, “will help us be in a situation where it’s not a day-by-day decision — ‘Are we going to have school’ or ‘Are we going to shut it down.’ ”

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores

Alisha Shelton's not likely to face Sasse this year, but that won't stop her in 2024

WASHINGTON — Alisha Shelton was 12 years old when her family left Staten Island for Nebraska, and the girl from the big city wasn’t sure what to expect from her new home — she didn’t even know what a cornfield looked like.

Before long, however, she was working on a detasseling crew and marveling at the warmth and community spirit of her neighbors. Those early years in Nebraska helped shape the person she would become.

“It was the basic foundation that has really built my personality and my work ethic,” Shelton said.

Now a 38-year-old Omaha mental health practitioner, Shelton finds herself in one of the weirder Nebraska political campaigns in recent memory. Shelton was among the seven candidates seeking the Democratic Senate nomination, but Omaha baker Chris Janicek won.

Since that May primary, however, the Nebraska Democratic Party has pulled its support of Janicek and pushed him to withdraw over explicit comments he made about a staffer in a group text.

The party’s state central committee voted earlier this week to replace Janicek with Shelton — but that will only happen if he agrees to step aside before a Sept. 1 deadline.

And Janicek has insisted he’s not going anywhere.

“Everyone should hear this and hear this now. I will be on the ballot come November 3rd,” Janicek said in a press release this week. “If you won’t or can’t forgive me, then don’t vote for me.”

He brought up suggestions that he doesn’t stand a chance against incumbent Republican Sen. Ben Sasse and noted that Democrats haven’t won a House or Senate race in a while.

“I am here working for a chance to serve the people of Nebraska and I will not give up,” Janicek said. “If you would rather vote the way (party chair) Jane Kleeb tells you to, then that is your choice. I for one, say it’s time for change. I want to help with that change. THAT’S why I will continue to run for United States Senate.”

If Janicek does not step aside by Sept. 1, party officials expect to instead push a write-in candidate but have not indicated who that would be.

Shelton is barred from running as a write-in candidate because she lost in the primary. That means her campaign is now in an odd position of pushing forward in the hopes that Janicek steps aside but also knowing it all could evaporate in a few weeks if he does not.

In an interview, Shelton said Janicek’s refusal to withdraw is a distraction from important issues such as the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak — a pandemic she says requires a united, bipartisan response.

“We need elected officials and legislators that are working to help represent us and make our lives easier and make it more attainable to achieve the American dream,” Shelton said.

Shelton said she wants to run against Sasse in part because of their differences on health care policy — his 2014 campaign was rooted in his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

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Shelton is past president of the Omaha alumnae chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Kaylene Page served as the group’s secretary with her and recalled how Shelton researched the way other chapters conducted their business to improve the local organization. That included restructuring the executive board, Page said.

She also recalled how Shelton brought into the conversation people who had something to contribute but were tentative to speak up.

“Alisha is really good at being able to notice those people,” Page said. “It’s probably the therapist in her.”

Shelton knows her 2020 Senate campaign could come to an abrupt end Sept. 1, but she’s also looking down the road.

“If Chris Janicek does not step down, I will be running for 2024 against Deb Fischer,” Shelton said.

Photos: Nebraska's and Iowa's members of Congress