Herald. July 15, 2016
Fred Conley should resign from Metro Community College board.
Metropolitan Community College plays a vital role in the Omaha area in terms of economic development and career advancement.
Metro, with an annual budget exceeding $232 million, has facilities in four Nebraska counties, serving more than 26,000 students in for-credit courses. A 2013 economic study found that 74 percent of Metro students remain in Nebraska.
Metro has made forward-thinking investments in programs such as the culinary arts and is in the middle of a major initiative to boost programs linking manufacturing education and information technology. Metro also carries the main burden in providing GED instruction for people working to get high school equivalency credit.
So when a situation arises that could mean the cutoff of millions of dollars in federal funding to Metro, it's a concern not only for Metro and its students, but also for our entire area.
The federal Department of Education says it will be obligated to end its funding to Metro if Fred Conley remains on the college's board. Conley, the current chairman, has been barred by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from participating in federal contracts for three years.
HUD says its action is to penalize Conley for what it concluded were conflict-of-interest problems involving Conley when he served on the Omaha Housing Authority board from 2009 to 2013.
When HUD first raised the conflict-of-interest issue, the then-attorney at OHA counseled Conley to provide HUD with information about his relationships with two entities (a business and a nonprofit) that have OHA connections, but Conley disagreed.
Now, Metro is facing a cutoff of Title IV student aid funds from the federal Department of Education. During 2014-15, Metro received $32.7 million in such funds.
The Department of Education has given Metro until Aug. 8 to respond in this matter.
Conley didn't return calls Tuesday or Wednesday from World-Herald reporters seeking comment. The one action Conley has taken is to file a lawsuit against HUD in U.S. District Court in Nebraska, contending he had no conflict of interest in using a cubicle and an email address at the domain of the Davis Companies, which did business with the housing authority. His attorney, David Domina, will argue that Conley "had no conflict of interests, committed no violation and should suffer no sanction."
That lawsuit does nothing to stay the HUD action, however, as noted by Jim Thibodeau, Metro's general counsel, and it likely will be months until the suit reaches resolution.
In the meantime, the all-too-real threat to Metro's funding remains, and the Aug. 8 deadline is fast approaching.
Conley has a long record of public service on multiple boards over the years, including on the Omaha City Council, and such service to our community is commendable.
Still, the situation facing Metro is serious. This isn't a time for dawdling, obfuscation or uncertainty. It's time for clear action to protect Metro and its students.
As the circumstances have now made clear, there is only one option to prevent the cutoff of federal funds, and that is for Conley to resign from the Metro board. That is what he should now do, for the sake of the public interest.
Conley, as chairman of Metro's board, has a fundamental duty to support and safeguard the college and its students. As State Sen. Ernie Chambers put it Wednesday, "no one individual is more important" than the college.
The moment has arrived for Conley to fulfill that obligation by resigning and removing this serious threat to our area's community college.
Kearney Hub. July 13, 2016
Fracking in legal battle.
Fracking, a decades old practice in the oil and gas industry that was once featured on an episode of "The Simpsons," is back in the news in Nebraska. A controversial decision by the Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission last year to allow a Colorado company to dispose of salty groundwater and chemical-laden wastewater in a well north of Mitchell has been overturned by a judge in Sidney.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of injecting fluid — mostly water and sand, but with additional chemicals — into the ground at a high pressure to fracture shale rocks and to release crude oil and natural gas inside. It's a process that has been in use in Nebraska for more than 65 years. Environmentalists have challenged the practice as a matter of public health.
Cheyenne County Judge Derek Weimer ruled recently that the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission exceeded its authority in April 2015 when it approved the request by Terex Energy Corp. to dispose of the water. That approval, made after a lengthy and sometimes acrimonious public hearing, led to legislative attempts to abolish the commission or at least more closely regulate its activities.
During that hearing, farmer James Osborne challenged commission members to drink glasses of water tainted by fracking. He said it was a visual explanation of what fracking waste can do to the water table. The group BoldNebraska has circulated video copies of Osborne's challenge.
Apparently unmoved by the demonstration, the commission signed off on Terex Energy Corp.'s proposal to convert an inactive oil well into a commercial fracking wastewater disposal site. The approval rejected objections from local officials, landowners and environmentalists and allowed the company to inject 5,000 barrels of oil field production water a day in the Sioux County well.
In March, 2016, the governor signed a bill creating a monitoring system for fracking wastewater transportation and requiring annual sampling of fracking fluids. The measure also adjusted the Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission's mission to focus on "promoting health, safety and protection of natural resources." LB1082 also requires public forums for injection well permit applications.
In the case before Judge Weimer, landowners, Jane Grove and Hughson Flying A Ranch Inc., asked for a review of the commission's authority. They contended there is no Nebraska statute that gives the commission authority to authorize disposal of the wastewater from other states. The judge agreed.
In the Simpsons episode, "Opposites A-Frack," Marge's twin sisters Patty and Selma start a fire when the tap water in a downstairs bathroom ignites as they are trying to smoke cigarettes. Lisa Simpson informs her mother, Marge, that this is possibly a result of fracking, which she discovers is happening at a local factory. Marge successfully calls on Assemblywoman Maxine Lombard to stop the fracking.
Back in the real world, opponents of fracking argue that negative environmental and human health impacts could be significant. Although wells have been fracked for over 65 years in the United States, concerns have been raised about whether federal, state, and local regulatory agencies can keep up with the recent rapid increase in fracking activity and adequately protect the environment and human health.
Nebraska's new law is a step in that direction. Its unclear at this writing whether the Colorado company will challenge the judge's ruling or what, if any, action the Oil and Gas Commission might take.
One thing is certain, the industry that generates the waste and the folks who are responsible for monitoring that activity should be aware that Nebraskans are watching.
Lincoln Journal Star. July 13, 2016
'Good Life' took root in Nebraska
State officials insist that there's no contest between the state brand and the slogan for tourism.
But if there were, Good just ran Nice across the wrassling ring and smashed its head against the turnbuckle. Nice is out cold. Good is strutting around the ring, arms raised in victory.
Good, you may have guessed, refers to "Nebraska the Good life," the 70's phrase that has taken root in the state psyche.
Now it lives on in Nebraska's new "unified" state brand: "Nebraska. Good Life. Great Opportunity."
Nice is Nebraska's scandal-tainted, multi-million-dollar albatross of a tourism slogan: "Visit Nebraska. Visit Nice."
In comparison, the new state brand was developed by Lincoln-based Firespring for $62,500.
From the beginning, Firespring President Dave Snitily said, people voiced an attachment to "The Good Life" slogan.
Gov. Pete Ricketts and Courtney Dentlinger, state economic development director went with it.
"It captures the essence of Nebraska," Dentlinger said. Ricketts said the new state brand reflects how Nebraskans feel about themselves.
There's no doubt that the new state brand will fare better in the court of public opinion than the controversial tourism slogan referring to Nebraska nice.
In the first place, Minnesota already owned the phase, more or less. There's even a Coen brothers movie with the title "Minnesota Nice."
And in the second place the "Nebraska nice" slogan is now stained by the scandal of a $4.4 million cost overrun by the advertising firm that helped develop it.
It looks like it's on its way out. "''It's turned into more of a joke," Nebraska Travel Association President Todd Kirshenbaum said earlier this year. In Iowa they sell a T-shirt that says, "Nebraska: Nice try."
And some are championing use of the "good life" phrase for tourism. "I have been a strong proponent for returning Nebraska to 'the good life' for years," said Kevin Howard, director of the Alliance Visitors Bureau. "It resonates with the citizens of the state of Nebraska."
The phrase still adorns some highway welcome signs at the state's borders. A Facebook page "Nebraskans for keeping "The Good Life" slogan has more than 12,000 members. Needless to say, the page was humming this week.
Ricketts said the "good life" phrase is flexible enough to be tweaked for specific purposes. The Roads Department, for example, plans to use "Good Life. Great Journey."
When he unveiled the new brand, Ricketts paraphrased a quote from the John Steinbeck novel, "East of Eden" that goes "No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us." It's hard to argue that the quote does not apply to the new state brand.
The Grand Island Independent. July 12, 2016
Nebraska's growth is stalling.
Though Nebraska ranks high in quality of life, low in unemployment, and positively in many other attributes that make the state an appealing place to live and work, a number of recent tax studies confirm that Nebraska's growth trajectory is slowing.
Nebraska ranks near the top in terms of how the state fared through the recession, but, in the wake of the recession, other states in the region grew faster.
Economic growth across the U.S. is being fueled by small business growth, entrepreneurial enterprise and capital investment.
Nebraska's ability to compete for growth in the job sector is largely dependent on how business-friendly its tax policies are.
A new policy study series issued by the Platte Institute reveals that job and population growth in Nebraska lagged behind the national average from 2004-2014.
The Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council's "Small Business Tax Index 2016" ranks states according to the burden their tax systems place on entrepreneurship and small business, based on 25 different tax measures. South Dakota and Wyoming rank among the 15 best, while Nebraska at 41 falls into the lowest tier. Wyoming, South Dakota and Iowa also have lower combined retail sales tax rates, and that causes some leakage of retail sales across the state's borders.
Nebraska's top personal income tax rate of 6.84 percent is the 15th highest income tax rate in the nation.
Certainly, the owners of real estate property, farmland and vehicles feel the sting of high taxes. Aside from the challenges posed in attracting businesses and investment to the state, every dollar diverted to taxes is that much less spent by consumers on goods and services.
The age-old conundrum faced by the state Legislature is how to lower taxes while meeting obligations to fund education and state services.
Nonetheless, prospects for finding solutions will become more limited if job growth continues to be centered in the service sector. According to a report issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, job growth at service-providing firms outpaced goods-producing firms by more than 50 percent through May. Those steep gains have come in businesses primarily connected to leisure and hospitality, and education and health services.
Small businesses with less than 500 employees make up 99.7 percent of U.S. employer firms, 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs, 49.2 percent of private-sector employment, 42.9 percent of private-sector payroll, 46 percent of private-sector output, 43 percent of high-tech employment and 98 percent of firms exporting goods.
The way forward must point to more aggressive policies to foster small business development, startups and capital investment.