Articles by: Joe Duggan

The looming obesity crisis

The looming obesity crisis

A couple of senators committed pop comedy Friday during the Revenue Committee’s hearing on a proposal to end the sales tax exemption on soft drinks.

As Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery introduced LB 447, Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte noted his colleague’s voice sounded a little raspy and suggested Avery might need something to wet his whistle. Hansen reached under the table and produced a half-empty, two-liter bottle of root beer.

Later, Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont excused himself from the hearing, came back in a few minutes and loudly cracked open a can of pop while someone was testifying against the bill. Both gags got some laughter.

But beneath the effervescence lurked some heavy statistics about obesity in Nebraska.

Dr. Adi Pour, health director for Douglas County, testified that 28 percent of Nebraska adults are obese. The percentage is closer to one-third for youth in Douglas County. Unless our waistlines stop expanding, nearly six in 10 of us will be clinically obese by 2030.

Given links between excessive weight and heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and cancer, the issue isn’t so easy to laugh off.

A recent analysis by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicts Nebraska will spend $3.35 billion annually on weight-related health problems if the obesity rate continues to climb as projected.  But if Nebraskans could reduce their body mass index (BMI) by just 5-percent, the state could save close to $3.7 billion in the next 20 years.

March 18, 2013 Comments Read More
Of older drivers and cognitive tests

Of older drivers and cognitive tests

Judging by the letters sent to The World-Herald’s Public Pulse, a bill that proposed cognitive testing for drivers 80 and older raised more than a few blood pressure readings in Nebraska. Read our coverage of the public hearing on LB 351 here.

Those opposed to the bill will be glad to know it’s not going anywhere this session. During the hearing, Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms said he would support an interim study on the measure. While a study resolution has not yet been introduced, Sen. Annette Dubas, chairwoman of the Transporation and Telecommunications Committee, said recently that’s probably where the bill is headed.

When to stop driving is one of those thorny issues with which lawmakers often struggle. On one hand, the traffic safety issue clearly enters the realm of public policy. On the other hand, the ability to drive is closely tied to a person’s independence and most of us like to think we’ll know when it’s time to hang up the keys.

Those opposed to the bill were louder than supporters. But with each story we published, I was contacted by readers who hoped the bill would gain traction. They told of older loved ones unwilling to stop driving when they were no longer capable. In one case, a reader (unwilling to be identified) said his 80-year-old-plus mother even refused to stop after being warned by a police officer. Not long after, she caused an injury accident.

Some suggeted all drivers, regardless of age, should undergo cognitive tests. Others say the decision should be made by a driver’s doc. Maybe so.

But whether a solution can be found by requiring tests at the office of the DMV or the family MD will have wait for another session.



March 8, 2013 Comments Read More
Who says hearing testimony doesn’t matter?

Who says hearing testimony doesn’t matter?

While public testimony against a bill doesn’t immediately sway a sponsoring senator every day, Tuesday was one of those days in the Judiciary Committee.

The hearing involved LB 520, a bill that would allow registered land surveyors to step onto private property — without the landowner’s permission — to carry out their professional duties. It was introduced by Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial.

While several surveyors testified in support, the bill touched a nerve with private property advocates. Opponents kept coming up to the mic, telling committee members how the measure represented an affront to the rights of citizens to control who enters — or doesn’t enter — their land. At the conclusion of a litany of opposition, Christensen, a Judiciary Committee member, made a brief closing statment on his proposal.

“I will motion to kill the bill myself in exec,” he said, referring to executive session, the closed-door discussions committee members have to decide the fates of bills assigned to them.

His announcement triggered applause from opponents.

“Normally, we don’t allow applause or emotional outbursts,” said Sen. Brad Ashford, the committee chairman.

“But today, we’ll make an exception,” he added with a smile, realizing his warning came a little late.

March 5, 2013 Comments Read More
Democracy sale in Nebraska: 33-percent off!

Democracy sale in Nebraska: 33-percent off!

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus frequently does practical math in public hearings and floor debates to back up his policy positions.

He did it again Monday as the Legislature debated a bill intended to bring more uniformity to the fees governmental agencies charge to provide open records to the public. Our story about the debate is here. As proposed, Legislative Bill 363 would have required records custodians to charge no fees for the first six hours of staff time spent responding to a request.

Several rural senators objected to the six-hour free pass, arguing it could put a financial burden on budget-strapped (and staff-strapped) county offices.

Schumacher, who supports the bill, put a pencil to paper and came up with the following calculation:

February 26, 2013 Comments Read More
A quick score card on 2014 governor’s race

A quick score card on 2014 governor’s race

So much for a sleepy news cycle on President’s Day.

Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns woke everyone up with his surprise announcement that he won’t seek re-election in 2014. Of course, that set tongues to wagging and Twitterers to tweeting with lots speculation about the impact on Nebraska’s political landscape.

This much we know for sure:

  • Gov. Dave Heineman said  he will think about running for Johanns’ seat. Here’s what he told The World-Herald’s political reporter, Robynn Tysver. If he does get in, it at least raises the question about whether he might leave the mansion early to focus on a campaign.
  • State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont officially announced Monday he’s running as a GOP candidate for governor.
  • University of Nebraska Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln said Monday he’s not going to run for governor.  The Republican was considered a strong contender, in part, because of his friendship with Heineman.

And for some maybes:

  • Nebraska State Treasurer Don Stenberg, a Republican, recently cracked open the door to a gubernatorial bid. As a past candidate for Senate, you can’t rule out the possibility that he’ll give that race a look, too.
  • Other GOP names bandied about: Nebraska State Auditor Mike Foley, Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy, former Bayard Sen. Phil Erdmann.
  • What about Lavon Heidemann, appointed as Lieutenant Governor just last week? The governor said he would only appoint someone for the job who wasn’t interested in running for governor, so as to not unfairly handicap the race so close to the election. What if the governor leaves early to run for Senate? Are all bets — and political agreements — off?
  • Republican Attorney General Jon Bruning said in January he’s happy with his current job. But a lot has changed since then. Most think he’s thinking about it.
  • Some Democratic names bandied about: Former NU Regent Chuck Hassebrook and Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop are said to be giving the race serious consideration. Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler (a former state senator) and Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton also are mentioned.



February 18, 2013 Comments Read More
End all sales tax exemptions. A better idea?

End all sales tax exemptions. A better idea?

Gov. Dave Heineman’s proposal to end income tax and pay for it by repealing 27 state sales tax exemptions certainly poked the hornets nest during Wednesday’s 10-hour marathon chat-fest hosted the Revenue Committee.

Farmers, manufacturers, college students, hospitals and the state’s largest chambers testified against LB 405.

Of course, the governor stated his case. In so doing, he mentioned for the third time in five days (by my count) that ordinary Nebraskans have urged him not to end 27 sales tax exemptions, but all 84 of them. A proponent who followed the governor echoed the idea, saying it would represent a fairer tax policy.

Added together, the sales tax exemptions total in the neighborhood of $5 billion. That represents more than enough revenue to end corporate and individual income tax AND allow the state to lower its sales tax rate going forward.

Where would the new sales tax rate settle? The governor said 3.5-percent. That would be a 2-percent drop from the current rate.

One farmer mentioned it costs about $450,000 nowadays to buy a new combine. Under the current rate, the sales tax on such a purchase would total almost $25,000. Under a 3.5 percent sales tax, it’s still almost $16,000.

So, would doing away with all exemptions in exchange for a lower rate calm the hornets?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a smaller stick.

February 7, 2013 Comments Read More
Legislative quote of the day

Legislative quote of the day

“Big business with their highly paid lobbyists are trying to protect their special interest exemptions. I understand that. But what about the small businesses in this state? What about working Nebraskans, what about military retirees, seniors on Social Security? That’s the job for the Legislature and me. We’re going to stand up and fight for those people.” Gov. Dave Heineman, reacting to news that business leaders were failing to rally behind his tax reform proposals.

February 6, 2013 Comments Read More
Legislative quote of the day

Legislative quote of the day

“If somebody tried to mess around with hotdog making, I’d probably try to defend that, too.” Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, a former meat locker owner, responding to criticism his bill to change how election commissioners are appointed. Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, a former election commissioner, was the critic.

January 31, 2013 Comments Read More
Legislative quote of the day

Legislative quote of the day

“If you ever run for higher office, I suggest you get a Twitter account.” Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill zinging Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop while discussing a bill that would prevent employers from requiring workers to disclose social media passwords.

January 29, 2013 Comments Read More
Flowing cash to Nebraska’s water resources

Flowing cash to Nebraska’s water resources

The early days of the 2013 Nebraska Legislature have been dominated by Gov. Dave Heineman’s plan to abolish income taxes while instituting sales tax on some currently exempted categories.

Count Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson among those who have an idea on how spend a chunk of the sales tax revenue after the dust settles. He introduced Legislative Bill 516 last week to devote $50 million to $60 million a year on comprehensive management of the state’s water resources.  The Nebraska Water Legacy Act includes a provision to direct a 1/4-cent of the state sales tax to pay for water management.

Few would bet the farm on the success of a sales tax earmark for water, especially because lawmakers have yet to gauge the full impact of their 2011 decision to lock up 25-percent of the tax for roads funding.

But the water legacy bill also would create a new governor-appointed council to allocate the funds for rehab of water delivery systems, research to improve water sustainability, new water projects and complying with interstate water compacts.

Some of the state’s top water policy experts arrived at the ideas through a series of meetings ….

January 29, 2013 Comments Read More