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Medicaid expansion petition drive on its way to Nebraska

Supporters of Medicaid expansion will launch a petition drive to place an initiative that would extend coverage to approximately 90,000 working Nebraskans on the November general election ballot.

Plans for the effort will be announced at a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda on Friday at 11 a.m.

Thirty-two states already have expanded their Medicaid coverage in the wake of enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, either through legislative action or voter decisions.

Voters in Maine approved a Medicaid expansion measure last fall, and Idaho is engaged in a ballot initiative.

Expanded coverage would provide health care benefits for people generally described as the working poor, those who do not qualify for traditional Medicaid coverage and are unable to obtain health care coverage under provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

"For too long, more than 90,000 hard-working Nebraskans have been left with no way to get affordable health coverage because the Legislature has not expanded Medicaid," said Amanda Gershon of Lincoln, a sponsor of the Insure the Good Life initiative campaign.

"Every Nebraskan must have quality coverage for themselves and their families that they can afford.

"Our communities can no longer wait for our leaders to do nothing to solve the public health crisis," she said.

State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln has sponsored a proposal (LR281CA) to place a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid coverage on the November ballot, but it appears to have no chance of receiving legislative approval.

Earlier attempts to expand coverage have been rejected by past sessions of the Legislature. 

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Jay Burgett, a hardwood floor installer with Phillips' Floors, helps lay down some of the 57,000 square feet of maple floor Monday that will form eight basketball courts and 12 volleyball courts at the newest addition to Speedway Village. 

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Legislature blocks Schumacher's proposal for "New City"

Sen. Paul Schumacher's imaginative proposal to encourage and enable formation of a "New City" in western Nebraska empowered by a legislative grant of sovereignty ran aground Wednesday in the Legislature.

Schumacher's motion to advance his proposal (LR269CA), and see if that act alone might attract some attention and instructive or encouraging feedback, came up six votes short and failed on a 19-19 vote.

The idea to seek a vote by Nebraskans on a proposed constitutional amendment to grant sovereignty to developers within a 36-square-mile area for a period not exceeding 99 years was in the end a bridge too far for a majority of senators to cross.

Schumacher had in mind an ideal site situated near Lake McConaughy and Ogallala.

It's an opportunity to "attract something that otherwise would never be," Schumacher said, a chance for "economic development on steroids" in a state where most of the growth is now centered in Omaha and Lincoln.

"I envision an area with tremendous potential," the Columbus senator said, a site located near highway and rail transportation facilities and electric power transmission lines already in place.

The grant of sovereignty could attract a huge global or national enterprise that could develop and grow without an overlap of government restrictions, Schumacher said.

However, if voters approved the proposed constitutional amendment, a future Legislature could establish parameters for the sovereign grant, including the required investment measured in billions of dollars.

Although most of the ensuing debate revolved around the need for Nebraska to "think big" and be willing to "think outside the box," questions were raised about school requirements, law enforcement and other concerns if the state granted sovereignty to developers.

"The Legislature can impose rules as part of the grant," Schumacher said. 

When he first looked at the proposal, Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said, "I thought it was the craziest thing I'd ever seen," but then he began to become more comfortable with the idea of seeing "what free enterprise can do when it's unshackled."

"It's an idea that inspires the imagination," Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete said. "The idea of starting with a blank slate is exciting."

After considering the proposal, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said, he decided "why not?"

Schumacher, who is completing his eighth and final year in the Legislature, said the idea was "compelled by the uninspiring prospects of a sparsely populated, culturally restricted, inland state largely dependent on a very rudimentary economy" in his statement of intent accompanying the bill.

"It's the freedom that has the great value," he said. "Imagination has great value."

"Let this grow a bit more," he urged before the vote.

In the end, senators scattered into unusually diverse and independent camps not defined by the usual rural or urban, conservative or moderate divisions.

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Nebraska committee advances bill to keep guns from juvenile offenders until age 25

It's time for the Legislature to have a conversation about gun violence, and to look at the state's most violent juvenile offenders and their access to guns, Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne said Wednesday.

To that end, the Judiciary Committee accommodated Wayne, voting 7-0, with one member absent, to move his priority bill (LB990) out of committee and to the full Legislature. 

The bill, accompanied by an amendment, would prohibit youth who have been adjudicated for felonies or misdemeanor domestic violence in juvenile court from possessing firearms until age 25. They could have guns earlier, but only after the court would consider any rehabilitation or military service. 

With the amendment, the penalty for violation would change to a Class IV felony for the first offense and a Class IIIA felony for subsequent offenses. 

A Class IV felony is punishable by a maximum two years in prison and 12 months post-release supervision or a $10,000 fine, or both. The minimum would be nine months post-release supervision if a prison sentence is imposed. Class IIIA is a maximum three years in prison and 18 months post-release supervision or a $10,000 fine, or both. The minimum would be nine months post-release supervision if a prison sentence is imposed. 

The amendment would also require notice by the court of what consequences that an offender's particular crime would mean for the right to possess a gun. 

Wayne said gun violations by young offenders are not only a problem in his Omaha district but across the state. He said a 17-year-old violent offender, for example, can possess an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle when he turns 19, regardless of whether the teenager is rehabilitated or not. 

The gunman who killed 17 people at a Parkland, Florida, high school on Feb. 14 used an AR-15 rifle. He was 19. 

In Douglas County, the case of a 17-year-old who shot a sheriff's deputy was transferred to juvenile court. 

"At age 19, he can possess an AR-15, regardless of whether he completes probation successfully or not," Wayne said. 

Those types of young people need to push a pause button to make sure their brains are fully developed and that they have been rehabilitated, he said. And then at age 25 they can possess a gun. 

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Royal Grove gets approval for events, but must better separate minors

The Royal Grove can continue hosting weekend events, with the help of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. 

The commission Wednesday waived its regular rules, approving seven additional special designated licenses, or SDLs, for the northwest Lincoln night club through April 10.

That allows the Royal Grove to go ahead with scheduled weekend events while waiting for its regular liquor license to clear a city zoning hurdle.

But the liquor commission tacked on some conditions to help prevent minors from drinking booze during Royal Grove events.

Commissioner Bruce Bailey of Lincoln was particularly concerned about a dance floor with black light “where you couldn’t see your hand before your face.”

It is impossible to see whether minors are drinking in that area of the Grove, he said.

Some national bands want the chance to pull in a broader audience, including people ages 18 to 21, said Eli Mardock, one of the new owners of the night club.

People who are 21 and older get wristbands to distinguish them from minors, said Mardock. The staff also writes big M’s in red on the hands of minors.

But those can be washed off, commissioners pointed out.

The Grove will separate minors from those 21 and over and will add light to the area of the dance floor, under conditions set by the commission for the special designated licenses.

The commissioners want to help the Royal Grove continue to operate, said Bailey, who has received calls of support for the Grove from older people who listened to bands there when they were younger.

“There has always been the Royal Grove,” he said.

The original Royal Grove opened at 315 Second St. in 1933. The Cornhusker Highway location first opened in 1967 and operated as the Royal Grove until 2005, when it became Uncle Ron’s, a country bar. The Royal Grove returned in 2009, but has been closed for the past two years.

The Royal Grove's new owners previously operated Vega in the West Haymarket and had no problems with that liquor license. 

A zoning issue is holding up the current license. 

Royal Grove owners discovered part of the club's parking lot was zoned residential, preventing the club from getting a liquor license under city rules.

The night club lost its grandfather status, covering the zoning issue, when the previous license went unused for more than two years.

The Royal Grove is seeking to change the residential classification of its north parking lot to business zoning.

The City Council this week recommended approval of a permanent license when that zoning change is approved by the council, likely April 9.

Some of the discussion at the liquor commission's Wednesday meeting concerned differences of legal opinions over several liquor license issues.

Director Hobert Rupe said he thought the city should issue the liquor license immediately, then ask the state to rescind the license if the zoning issue is not rectified. That would avoid the need for the commission to issue SDLs.

But the city clerk has said she will not issue the license until the zoning change is approved by the council.

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Aubrey Trail wants to represent himself in fraud case; judge 'strongly' discourages him

Aubrey Trail is back in a Nebraska jail and returned to court Wednesday, where he told a federal judge he wants to represent himself at trial on 14 federal charges for allegedly swindling a Kansas couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The 51-year-old is a person of interest in the November disappearance and death of Sydney Loofe. He has a penchant for calling the news media with details and confessions. His letter to a judge led to the hearing.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Zwart said she interpreted Trail's letter, which hasn't been made public, as frustrations over being housed in Leavenworth, Kansas, and how that has made it more difficult for him to communicate with his court-appointed attorney in Lincoln.

"Am I correct in interpreting it that way?" she asked Trail, who sat at the defense table in orange Saline County jail clothes, his arms and legs in chains.

"Yes, your honor, but," Trail started before Zwart cut him off.

"Do not say anything at this time that is going to incriminate you. But go ahead," she said.

Trail said: "I try to never incriminate myself."

But, he said, given that just 19 days remain until his scheduled trial in the fraud case and disagreements with his attorney, Korey Reiman, remain on the direction the case should take, he wanted to try to learn the rules of evidence in the jail's law library and represent himself.

Zwart spent much of the next 10 minutes advising him to reconsider, given that he might never get out of prison if convicted of even half the charges against him, which each carry the possibility of 10-year terms.

"You are facing a lot of time. You're not familiar with the law. You're not familiar with court procedure and you're not familiar with rules of evidence. I'm strongly urging you not to represent yourself in this matter," she said.

Trail said if he is kept at the jail in Wilber he has access to all the books he would need. He said he knows his behavior there was an issue before, but if he's allowed to stay he will be on his "best behavior."

"They will not have a single problem out of me," he said.

Zwart said she couldn't guarantee he would stay there. Where Trail is housed is up to the U.S. Marshals Office.

On Jan. 3, Trail was transferred to the Leavenworth Detention Center, a maximum-security facility in Kansas, after he stopped eating.

At the end of Wednesday's hearing, the judge decided not to make a decision yet so Trail has time to discuss the case with Reiman.

In a sealed affidavit, sent to the Journal Star from Trail last month, an FBI special agent laid out how Lincoln police investigators looking into Loofe's disappearance learned Nov. 26 of a Kansas antique dealer bringing a gun and $5,000 cash to a Beatrice parking lot to be delivered to Trail in Wilber.

They later learned the Hiawatha, Kansas, dealer had given Trail and Bailey Boswell, Trail's co-defendant, more than $400,000 in cash and antiques, believing they were costs associated with the sale of an 1879 gold coin the pair claimed was worth more than $1 million, prosecutors say.

Trail and Boswell are set for trial March 26 on charges of causing or inducing interstate travel in the commission of a fraud. Trail faces 14 counts and Boswell 10.

No one yet has been charged in the death of Loofe, who was with Boswell and Trail the night of her disappearance Nov. 15, after meeting Boswell on a dating app. The 24-year-old's remains were found in Clay County on Dec. 4.