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SOCIAL SECURITY
Social Security COLA largest in decades as inflation jumps

WASHINGTON — Millions of retirees on Social Security will get a 5.9% boost in benefits for 2022. The biggest cost-of-living adjustment in 39 years follows a burst in inflation as the economy struggles to shake off the drag of the coronavirus pandemic.

The COLA, as it’s commonly called, amounts to $92 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates released Wednesday by the Social Security Administration. That marks an abrupt break from a long lull in inflation that saw cost-of-living adjustments averaging just 1.65% a year over the past 10 years.

With the increase, the estimated average Social Security payment for a retired worker will be $1,657 a month next year. A typical couple’s benefits would rise by $154 to $2,753 per month.

But that’s just to help make up for rising costs that recipients are already paying for food, gasoline and other goods and services.

“It goes pretty quickly,” retiree Cliff Rumsey said of the cost-of-living increases he’s seen.

After a career in sales for a leading steel manufacturer, Rumsey lives near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He cares at home for his wife of nearly 60 years, Judy, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Rumsey said he has noted price increases for wages paid to caregivers who occasionally spell him and for personal care products for Judy.

U.S. consumer prices rose 0.4% in September from August as the cost of new cars, food, gas and restaurant meals jumped due largely to supply chain bottlenecks brought on by the pandemic. The Labor Department said Wednesday that consumer prices rose 5.4% from last September to this September, matching the largest annual gain since 2008.

The COLA affects household budgets for about 1 in 5 Americans. That includes Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees — nearly 70 million people in all. For baby boomers who embarked on retirement within the past 15 years, it will be the biggest increase they’ve seen.

Among them is Kitty Ruderman of Queens in New York City, who retired from a career as an executive assistant and has been collecting Social Security for about 10 years. “We wait to hear every year what the increase is going to be, and every year it’s been so insignificant,” she said. “This year, thank goodness, it will make a difference.”

Ruderman says she times her grocery shopping to take advantage of midweek senior citizen discounts, but even so price hikes have been “extreme.” She says she doesn’t think she can afford a medication that her doctor has recommended.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins called the government payout increase “crucial for Social Security beneficiaries and their families as they try to keep up with rising costs.”

Policymakers say the COLA was designed as a safeguard to protect Social Security benefits against the loss of purchasing power, and not a pay bump for retirees. About half of seniors live in households where Social Security benefits provide at least 50% of their income, and one-quarter rely on their monthly payment for all or nearly all their income.

“Regardless of the size of the COLA, you never want to minimize the importance of the COLA,” said retirement policy expert Charles Blahous, a former public trustee helping to oversee Social Security and Medicare finances. “What people are able to purchase is very profoundly affected by the number that comes out. We are talking the necessities of living in many cases.”

This year’s Social Security trustees report amplified warnings about the long-range financial stability of the program, but there’s little talk about fixes in Congress with lawmakers’ attention consumed by President Joe Biden’s massive domestic legislation and partisan machinations over the national debt.

Social Security’s turn will come, said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee and author of legislation to tackle shortfalls that would leave the program unable to pay full benefits in less than 15 years.

His bill would raise payroll taxes while also changing the COLA formula to give more weight to health care expenses and other costs that weigh more heavily on the elderly. He said he intends to press ahead next year.

Although Biden’s domestic package includes a major expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision care, Larson said he hears from constituents that seniors are feeling neglected by the Democrats.

“In town halls and tele-town halls they’re saying, ‘We are really happy with what you did on the child tax credit, but what about us?’ ” Larson added. “In a midterm election, this is a very important constituency.”

The COLA is only one part of the annual financial equation for seniors. An announcement about Medicare’s Part B premium for outpatient care is expected soon. It’s usually an increase, so at least some of any Social Security raise goes for health care. The Part B premium is now $148.50 a month, and the Medicare trustees report estimated a $10 increase for 2022.

Economist Marilyn Moon, who also served as public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, said she believes the current spurt of inflation is an adjustment to highly unusual economic circumstances and the pattern of restraint on prices will reassert itself with time.

“I would think there is going to be an increase this year that you won’t see reproduced in the future,” Moon said.

Social Security is financed by payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers. Each pays 6.2% on wages up to a cap, which is adjusted each year for inflation. Next year the maximum amount of earnings subject to Social Security payroll taxes will increase to $147,000.

This report includes material from Bloomberg News.


Govt-and-politics
topical
Ricketts: No special session to bar vaccine mandates in Nebraska — for now
  • Updated

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts expressed sympathy Wednesday for the idea of calling a special legislative session to pass a law blocking vaccine mandates.

But the governor said he would not be willing to call such a session unless there were 33 senators willing to vote for such a law. That’s the number needed to overcome a likely filibuster by opponents.

“I don’t believe we have the votes to be able to pass something, so I’m not willing to call a special session,” Ricketts said, when asked about the issue at an afternoon press conference.

As he has before, Ricketts promoted vaccination Wednesday as the best way to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. He got vaccinated himself as soon as the shots were offered to people in his age group. But he remains adamantly opposed to vaccine mandates

“It absolutely should be a voluntary decision,” he said Wednesday.

At least one Nebraska lawmaker wants a special session to address vaccine mandates. State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said he called the governor last month to urge him to bring lawmakers back for another special session on the issue. The Legislature recently completed a special session on redistricting.

“No one in Nebraska should ever have to lose his or her job or be compelled to get a vaccination they do not want in order to feed their family and pay their bills,” Erdman said in an editorial column. “Biden’s vaccine mandate constitutes a declaration of war against personal liberty, and so the State Legislature is now compelled to act.”

Sen. Mike Hilgers, speaker of the Legislature, said Wednesday that he agreed with Ricketts’ assessment.

“I do not think there are 33 votes to pass a ban,” Hilgers said in a text message.

Ricketts commented as conservative Republicans in several states moved to block or undercut President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates for private employers. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott led the way with an executive order Monday that bars private companies or any other entity from requiring vaccines.

His order was perhaps the most direct challenge yet to Biden’s announcement a month ago that workers at private companies with more than 100 employees would have to get vaccinated or tested weekly for the coronavirus. Regulations to carry out the mandate have yet to be drafted.

White House officials brushed off Abbott’s order, saying the question of whether state law could supersede federal was settled 160 years ago during the Civil War. They said the Biden administration will push through the opposition and put the private workplace mandate into effect along with others it ordered for federal contractors and employees at health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements. All told, those mandates could affect up to 100 million Americans.

Shortly after the announcement, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson and colleagues from 23 other states sent a letter to the administration warning of litigation if the mandate proceeds. They raised concerns about the expansion of federal regulatory power and about the constitutional separation of powers.

Meanwhile, Montana has passed a law banning private employers from requiring vaccines. Violations can bring a $500 fine or prison for business owners. The law is facing two court challenges, from the Montana Medical Association and from a law firm that says the rule interferes with businesses’ decisions about how to provide a safe working environment.

Calls for special legislative sessions to counter vaccine mandates have been heard in states such as Wyoming, Kansas and South Dakota, where Republican Gov. Kristi Noem is so far resisting calls to immediately consider a bill that would guarantee people could opt out.

Bills are being introduced or drafted elsewhere, too, including Ohio and New Hampshire, where the Republican sponsor was elected House speaker after his predecessor died of COVID-19.

But the calls face pushback, as well. In Tennessee, the House speaker warned that a push to loosen COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine requirements, could undermine a $500 million incentive deal to lure a Ford Motor Co. project.

In Arkansas, lawmakers have approved a measure creating vaccine-mandate exemptions. Though the GOP governor hasn’t said whether he will sign it, it has prompted fears that businesses will be forced to choose whether to break federal or state law.

“We are tying the hands of Arkansas businesses that want to make their own decision in how best to keep their people safe,” said Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce. Some of the state’s largest companies, including Walmart and Tyson Foods, have required some or all employees to get vaccinated.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.



High-school
topical
High school football
Benson and Bryan football teams forfeit games after on-field fight
  • Updated

Omaha Benson and Omaha Bryan must forfeit their football games this week following an on-field fight after their game ended last Friday.

Benson’s home game with Millard North and Bryan’s game at Omaha Westside have been canceled for this Friday night. As a result, Westside lost its senior night game.

Bryan beat Benson 24-21 on a game-ending field goal at Bryan Stadium. The game was televised live by Cox Communications.

A review of the telecast showed that while the teams were going through their postgame handshakes, announcers mentioned that a fight broke out offscreen. The telecast then showed the fight at a distance, with both teams involved and punches being thrown. Spectators were seen running onto the field.

Bellevue police said another fight broke out in the parking lot between two juveniles, who were cited on suspicion of assault. Another juvenile was cited on suspicion of obstruction and released to his father, police said. 

“Our district holds high expectations for good sportsmanship at all levels of competition,” Omaha Public Schools officials said in a statement sent Tuesday to Benson and Bryan families. The statement, shared with The World-Herald on Wednesday, continued, “It is critical that all students who participate in extracurricular activities are always mindful of their behavior and how it reflects on themselves, their schools and our district.

“Those expectations were not met during the Benson High vs. Bryan High varsity football game on Friday, Oct. 8,” the statement reads. “The post-game handshake resulted in unsportsmanlike behavior that led to a significant disruption on the field. Because multiple student-athletes from each team were involved, we have collectively determined that both teams’ participation in games scheduled for this week will be forfeited.”

The OPS statement said a “thorough investigation of the events” was made. “The unacceptable behaviors violate our Student Code of Conduct and will not be tolerated. Our coaches will work constructively with students to review our high expectations.”

The statement was signed by John Krogstrand, the new OPS director of athletics, and principals Tom Wagner of Benson and Rony Ortega of Bryan.

An OPS spokesman said the statement was sent out at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday to 8,000 contacts in the Benson and Bryan communities and that the opposing schools and the Nebraska School Activities Association were notified. The statement was not sent out to the news media at the time. OPS also indicated Wednesday that no one would be available for an interview.

Benson’s record will drop to 3-5. Bryan’s record will be 1-7. Its win snapped a 23-game losing streak.



Crime-and-courts
Judge rebukes Omaha violin teacher in child sex offense, imposes up to 5-year term
  • Updated

Michael Godfrey was in the middle of telling a judge what he had done for, as he put it, his “accuser”— the now-17-year-old girl who told police he sexually assaulted her during violin lessons when she was 10.

JAMES R. BURNETT/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Michael B. Godfrey in 2014

How he and her family had such a bond that they had nothing but great things to say about him; how the girl even gave him a heartfelt farewell note calling him her favorite teacher when she and her family moved to Alaska.

The gestures and good words were all before the girl, during therapy at age 14, disclosed that Godfrey had molested her during lessons.

In turn, Douglas County District Judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf had a message for Godfrey: You can call the girl your accuser all you want, but these aren’t accusations anymore; they’re a crime for which you’ve been convicted.

And the judge had a message for about 10 people who showed up in support of the 79-year-old Godfrey, a well-known violin teacher in the Dundee area. That group included a woman who walked past the victim Wednesday and called her “a horrible person.”

The judge’s message: Godfrey can tell you whatever he wants about his version of events, but the fact is he pleaded no contest and was found guilty of sexual assault.

The judge then laid down the sentence: three and a half to five years in prison. Under state law, that means Godfrey must serve one year and nine months before he’s eligible for parole; absent parole he’ll serve two and a half years in prison. The maximum sentence for sexual touching of a child is five years in prison.

Godfrey’s attorney, Clarence Mock, had asked for probation, noting Godfrey’s lack of a record and the fact that a probation officer and a defense psychologist concluded that he would not be a danger to reoffend. Mock urged the judge to not penalize Godfrey — who has a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a professor and master violinist — because he continued to assert that he was innocent.

Afterward, Mock said, he was disappointed in the sentence but would not appeal.

“When you plead no contest, you’re not saying you did it, you’re not saying you didn’t do it, you’re just saying you’re not contesting it,” Mock said. “It’s always easier for the folks in the coffee shop or the corner bar to say, ‘Don’t plead to it if you didn’t do it.’ I bet there aren’t many of them who would roll the dice when faced with a possible life sentence if they took it to trial.”

As part of a plea bargain, prosecutors dropped a first-degree sexual assault charge that could have sent Godfrey to prison for life.

Prosecutor Brenda Beadle, the chief deputy Douglas County attorney, said the true victim in this case was the 10-year-old girl. At age 14, she was undergoing therapy after she began cutting herself. She told her therapist, and her mother, of how Godfrey would have her sit on his lap during violin lessons. He molested her under her underwear, she said.

The girl’s mother took her to police in Alaska. They set up a recorded phone call in which the girl called Godfrey and told him that she was going through counseling and asked Godfrey what he remembered from that time. Godfrey denied touching her but admitted that she would sometimes sit in his lap. The girl continued to ask him why she was in his lap.

“I don’t care to talk about that,” Godfrey responded. “It’s extremely risky if you talk about it with your counselor.”

Beadle alleged Godfrey made another incriminating comment: He once asked the girl’s mother if the girl had started to grow hair “down there.” The mother shot back “no” — and only later considered how inappropriate that question was. Godfrey had asked another student’s mother the same question.

On the recorded phone call with the girl, Godfrey tried to explain why: “It wasn’t because I wanted to see it or touch it. It was just because I was interested in how you were developing.”

The girl and her family flew from Alaska to Omaha for Wednesday’s sentencing hearing. The girl sobbed throughout her statement to Judge Retelsdorf. Her mother called the girl a survivor. The mom’s voice broke as she described holding her daughter every time she cried or after she cut herself.

“No one should have to go through what I’ve gone through,” the daughter said. “It’s been so hard. I just want to get on with my life, and I can’t.”

What Godfrey did was the ultimate betrayal because of the inherent bond and admiration a student has for a teacher, Retelsdorf said.

Said Beadle: “We have child victims who wonder if the criminal act was something that was just a normal part of an adult showing affection. The lines are blurred. It’s just really difficult and confusing when it’s someone you look up to and trust.”


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