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Kevin and Sunny Forrest have made several pilgrimages from Grand Island to Buffalo, New York, so Kevin could see his beloved Bills in person. After Buffalo clinched a long-awaited playoff berth thanks in part to Cincinnati beating Baltimore, Forrest made the first donation to the charity of Bengals QB Andy Dalton.

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No homicides in 2017 as shootings decrease in Lincoln

An unusually low number of shootings in 2017 contributed to a year in which Lincoln recorded no homicides, a first in 26 years that followed a record year for murders in 2016.

“We are a community of almost 300,000 people that had no homicides on record for 2017, and only five shootings with injury,” Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said in an interview Wednesday.

“I believe that that is a testament to the expectations of those that live here, and the fact that so many take a vested ownership in the quality of life in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Lincoln police investigated 259 deaths in 2017, according to spokeswoman Officer Angela Sands. Of those, investigators looked into 47 cases in which the cause and manner of death were not immediately apparent.

Though many of those have since been cleared based on the results of additional investigation, several high-profile deaths that could be classified as homicides remain active:

* The department has not determined how exactly the Aug. 14 house explosion that would claim the life of Jeanne Jasa originated, and investigators haven't been able to speak with the only other person who was inside the home, her husband, Jim Jasa.

Jim Jasa was also injured in the blast. The family has hired an attorney to represent him, according to police.

* The suspicious July 11 death of 4-year-old Brooklyn Maxwell remains under investigation, Bliemeister said.

* A multi-agency investigation into the suspicious death of 24-year-old Sydney Loofe appears not to be a Lincoln homicide, since she was last seen at a Wilber home. But that investigation continues, the chief said Wednesday.

* Investigators still haven't determined how exactly Amanda Nielsen sustained the blunt force head trauma and lacerated liver that caused her death Jan. 2 of last year.

The investigation into some of these cases, such as Jasa's death, requires outside expert analysis.

In the case of an infant's death from December 2016, investigators are still awaiting further analysis, Bliemeister said.

"Those types of investigations can easily transcend a calendar year, because we’re relying on outside experts,” the chief said.

The last year the city recorded no murders was 1991, according to department statistics. Just two years ago, the city had one.

Then came 2016, a year Bliemeister and Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady refer to as an anomaly.

The city experienced a record murder toll with 11 homicides, eclipsing a mark that stood 30 years.

In 2016, four women were murdered in what police determined were murder-suicide cases. Three people died in drug-related shootings, two died in random shootings, one was killed by his roommate and a convenience store clerk was killed during a robbery.

All but one died from gunshot wounds.

Overall, there were 31 criminal shootings reported in 2016, the chief said.

Both Bliemeister and Casady attribute the lack of homicides in 2017, in part, to the reduction in shootings.

Incidents where someone intentionally shot another person could be counted on one hand in Lincoln last year.

They included an argument over the Bible between neighbors that ended with one man shooting the other in the shoulder and hip in November. A September shooting over a woman left a man with a gunshot wound to his abdomen.

"(2017 is) low even by Lincoln standards,” Casady said.

In 2013, 17 people were shot, Casady said. A dozen people were shot in 2010, and six people were shot in 2007.

"The amount of gunplay here, for a city of this size, is relatively small,” Casady said.

In Omaha, police experienced a dip in shootings (118) in 2017, though the number of homicides (30) remained about the same as the prior year, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Kansas City police investigated 149 killings in 2017, the city's highest total since a record 153 in 1993, according to the Kansas City Star.

The number of shootings in America's large cities aren't tracked by the FBI, and the number of murders in cities of similar size to Lincoln won't be available until later this year.

But in all of 2016, only one city similar in size to Lincoln reported zero homicides — the Bay Area suburb of Fremont, California.

Homicide rates can also be attributed to the quality of emergency care in a community, said Casady, who believes Lincoln's consistently low rate signals good medical care here.

Violent crime statistics for Lincoln won't be available until later this month, but Bliemeister said he expects a slight uptick as the city completes its first full year with a new rape classification adopted nationwide that broadens sexual assaults that are counted.

"Violent crime is outside the expectations, and people here take steps to make sure that this isn’t part of their daily life,” the chief said.

Both he and Casady believe the homicide rate is not the best metric for a global view of the city's safety level.

Eleven killings in 2016 was an anomaly, Casady said. 

"So is zero.”

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A more congenial first day of the Nebraska Legislature

Nebraska's legislative session started Wednesday with considerably less tension than some might have expected based on 2017.

A year ago, observers labeled the start of the session as "unprecedented," in its nearly sweeping election of conservative Republicans, and three first-year senators, to committee chairmanships.

The start of the 2018 session was more business as usual. Only one panel — the select Committee on Committees — got a new chairman, and Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann is considered a more independent-minded lawmaker. 

The day began with hugs, wishes of Happy New Year, and even a politician kissing a baby — albeit his own. 

Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, who led the opening prayer, told senators that Wednesday was the ninth day of Christmas leading to the Epiphany on Saturday. 

"And my prayer for each of you today is that we think about the epiphanies that we can have, the expectations, the preparation, the hope, and ask ourselves each as we pray today, 'Are we ready?'" Williams said. 

A few families gathered with members, most notable that of new Omaha Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, who at Gov. Pete Ricketts' request replaced Joni Craighead, who resigned abruptly in September. And the baby who was kissed? Natalia, daughter of Sen. John Murante and wife Melissa. 

Thibodeau said she was excited — and a little nervous — on her first day as a senator. She has busy months ahead, spending weekdays with the Legislature, and weekends in Omaha campaigning for her seat, which is up for election this year. 

When senators settled down to business Wednesday, they elected Hilkemann to the 13-member group that assigns senators to committees and oversees their functioning.  

Hilkemann achieved the chairmanship on a 25-24 vote over Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, a more-conservative Republican. 

By adjournment at about noon, senators had introduced 119 bills and seven resolutions, one of those to congratulate the Husker volleyball team for its 2017 national championship. 

The Legislature easily adopted temporary rules. And Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk did not have to caution, as he did a year ago, that he "cannot nor will not be intimidated by anyone or any group." 

Instead, he talked about how the coming weeks will proceed, with Ricketts' State of the State address Jan. 10 and bill hearings beginning Jan. 16. Full-day debate will begin Feb. 28.

It really is more of a 50-day session than a 60-day session, he reminded senators. 

"I welcome everyone back," he said. "It is nice to start on a positive note. I'm looking forward to great things. I may be more optimist than most. I think we'll have a great session."


New Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, her husband, Joseph, and children Anna, Eleanor and Joey pose for a family photo on the first day of the Legislature on Wednesday. 

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Smith: Reframed tax bill faces narrow path ahead


A stalled legislative package of income and property tax reductions is being restructured to provide more property tax relief, Sen. Jim Smith acknowledged Wednesday, and although encouraged, he sees "a very, very narrow path" ahead for its eventual enactment.

Nevertheless, the Legislature's Revenue Committee chairman said he feels more confident at this early stage of the tax bill's consideration than he did at the same time in the process last year.

Details of the proposal will be revealed in the State of the State address delivered to the Legislature by Gov. Pete Ricketts on Jan. 10, the Papillion senator said.  

Indications are that the revised plan is being test-marketed among some senators in advance of next week.

"And we have to talk to stakeholders before we go prime-time," Smith said. 

"There's never a guarantee of its success," he said. "There are too many moving parts.

"But we've listened and we're engaged on areas that senators want to see addressed."

The pending tax package (LB461) is weighted more toward personal and corporate income tax reduction than property tax relief. It was trapped at the first stage of floor consideration by a filibuster last May.

Supporters fell six votes short of the number of senators required to invoke cloture and end debate on the proposal. That motion failed on a 27-9 vote.

Largely rural supporters of major property tax reduction are planning to introduce their own bill during the current legislative session while mounting a petition drive that would place an initiative on the ballot in November if the Legislature does not act.

That plan would provide an estimated $1.1 billion in annual property tax relief by effectively reducing the local school property tax load by up to 50 percent. Taxpayers could access that tax relief through state income tax refunds or credits. 

Ricketts has sounded alarm bells about the cost of that proposal, suggesting it could lead to "massive tax increases" applied to sales and/or income.

While centering on income tax cuts, the pending tax package would provide for reductions in the valuation of ag land for local property tax purposes.

"We need to have more balance in terms of property tax relief," Smith said. "We've heard that loud and clear, we understand it needs to be major (and) that's a challenge."

The bill's components "need to be adjusted to strike the right balance," he said.

Smith noted that "funding sources are limited" at a time when state government is reducing its spending growth, revenue projections and collections are lagging, and the state budget cash reserve is declining.

"We need to be realistic," he said. "The state is really limited."

The best way to achieve funding is through economic growth, he said.

"My reluctance to talk about details now is being respectful of my colleagues" as they grapple with the issue in advance of its unveiling, Smith said.

More coverage

Prison reform

Senators introduce number of criminal justice-themed and prison-related bills. Page A2.

Free speech

Bill would require University of Nebraska to report “disruptions” to free speech on campus. Page A3.


Check out photos from Wednesday's first day of the Nebraska Legislature

Rivals reopen cross-border communication; White House questions Kim's 'mental fitness'

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reopened a key cross-border communication channel with South Korea for the first time in nearly two years Wednesday as the rivals explored the possibility of sitting down and talking after months of acrimony and fears of war.

The sudden signs of easing hostilities, however, came as President Donald Trump threatened Kim with nuclear war in response to his threat earlier this week.

In his New Year's address Monday, Kim said he was willing to send a delegation to next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea. But he also said he has a "nuclear button" on his desk and that all U.S. territory is within striking distance of his nuclear weapons — comments Trump latched onto Tuesday when he boasted of a bigger and more powerful "nuclear button" than Kim's.

The two leaders exchanged crude insults last year, as the North received new U.N. sanctions over its sixth and most powerful nuclear test explosion and a series of intercontinental ballistic missile launches.

The White House on Wednesday defended Trump's Twitter message to Kim.

"I don't think that it's taunting to stand up for the people of this country," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, adding that people should be concerned about Kim's "mental fitness."

Pressed on Trump's claim about nuclear capabilities, Sanders said, "I think it's just a fact."

The recent softening of contact between the rival Koreas may show a shared interest in improved ties, but there's no guarantee tensions will ease. There have been repeated attempts in recent years by the rivals to talk, but even when they do meet, the efforts often end in recriminations and stalemate.

Outside critics say Kim may be trying to use better ties with South Korea as a way to weaken the alliance between Washington and Seoul as the North grapples with toughened international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs.

Kim's latest announcement, which was read by a senior Pyongyang official on state TV, followed a South Korean offer Tuesday of high-level talks with North Korea to find ways to cooperate on next month's Winter Olympics in the South and discuss other inter-Korean issues.

Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the state-run Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, cited Kim as welcoming South Korea's overture and ordering officials to reopen a communication channel at the border village of Panmunjom. Ri also quoted Kim as ordering officials to promptly take substantial measures with South Korea out of a "sincere stand and honest attitude," according to the North's state TV and news agency.

South Korea quickly welcomed Kim's decision and later confirmed that the two Koreas began preliminary contacts on the channel. During their 20-minute communication, liaison officials of the two Koreas exchanged their names and examined their communication lines to make sure they were working, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.

Since taking office last May, South Korea's liberal President Moon Jae-in has pushed hard to improve ties and resume stalled cooperation projects with North Korea. Pyongyang had not responded to his outreach until Kim's New Year's address.

Relations between the Koreas soured under Moon's conservative predecessors, who responded to the North's expanding nuclear program with hard-line measures. All major rapprochement projects were put on hold one by one, and the Panmunjom communication channel had been suspended since February 2016.

Moon has joined U.S.-led international efforts to apply more pressure and sanctions on North Korea, but he still favors dialogue as a way to resolve the nuclear standoff. The Trump administration says all options are on the table, including military measures against the North. Moon has repeatedly said he opposes any war on the Korean Peninsula.

Some observers believe these differences in views may have led Kim to think he could drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington as a way to weaken their alliance and international sanctions.

Talks could provide a temporary thaw in strained inter-Korean ties, but conservative critics worry that they may only earn the North time to perfect its nuclear weapons.

After the Olympics, inter-Korean ties could become frosty again because the North has made it clear it has no intention of accepting international calls for nuclear disarmament and instead wants to bolster its weapons arsenal in the face of what it considers increasing U.S. threats, analysts say.

Nicolas Asfouri 



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The 105th Legislature