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Jeremy Daniel 

"The Sound of Music"


International Quilt Study Center and Museum volunteer Margaret Bunde admires the quilt "Reflection 1," by Erica Waaser, while taking in the Voltage exhibit during a break on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star

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Senator proposes $1B property tax relief plan: 'Here we go'

The countdown begins. 

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard dropped his proposal for a billion dollars in property tax relief into the legislative hopper Thursday, as supporters of a backup plan prepared to launch a petition drive to place the issue on the November general election ballot. 

Next week, Gov. Pete Ricketts will come before the Legislature to outline an alternative tax plan that would combine property tax relief with personal and corporate income tax reductions.

"Here we go," Erdman said as he left his desk to present his bill for introduction on the second day of the 2018 legislative session. 

And so the stage is set for an election-year tax reduction debate. 

Erdman's bill (LB829) provides for property tax relief distributed through a state income tax credit or refund equal to 50 percent of local school property taxes paid by Nebraska taxpayers.

Erdman has estimated that will provide about $1.1 billion in property tax relief, beginning in 2019.

As the western Nebraska senator formally introduced his proposal, Trent Fellers of Lincoln completed preparations with the secretary of state for circulation of initiative petitions that would place the property tax issue on the November ballot for voter consideration if the Legislature does not act.

Fellers, who is executive director of Reform for Nebraska's Future, said he expects to begin circulating petitions within the next few weeks and gathering signatures.

Ricketts is planning to unveil some details about a renegotiated tax proposal that would add more property tax relief to a stalled bill (LB461) that is weighted more to personal and corporate income tax reduction.

That measure, as it now is framed, centers its property tax reduction feature on a new method of ag land valuation.

While raising strong concerns last week about the cost of the Erdman proposal, Ricketts has been engaged in negotiations to add more property tax relief to the pending legislation that he supported last year.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, chairman of the Legislature's Revenue Committee, suggested this week that, although he is encouraged, the revised proposal appears to have "a very, very narrow path" to legislative approval. 

Erdman said Thursday he has been encouraged by expressions of increasing support from urban homeowners for his own proposal. 

Sessions terminates US policy that let legal pot flourish

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration threw the burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana into uncertainty Thursday, as it lifted an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will now leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state rules collide with federal drug law.

Sessions' action, just three days after a legalization law went into effect in California, threatened the future of the young industry, created confusion in states where the drug is legal and outraged both marijuana advocates and some members of Congress, including Sessions' fellow Republicans. Many conservatives are wary of what they see as federal intrusion in areas they believe must be left to the states.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, said the change contradicts a pledge Sessions made to him before being confirmed as attorney general. Gardner promised to push legislation to protect marijuana sales, saying he was prepared "to take all steps necessary" to fight the change, including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees. Another Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, called the announcement "disruptive" and "regrettable."

Colorado's U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, said his office won't change its approach to prosecution, despite Sessions' guidance. Prosecutors there always have focused on marijuana crimes that "create the greatest safety threats" and will continue to be guided by that, Troyer said.

The largely hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement set forth by Barack Obama's Justice Department allowed the pot business to flourish into a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund some state government programs. What happens now is in doubt.

"In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department's finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions," considering the seriousness of a crime and its impact on the community, Sessions told prosecutors in a one-page memo.

While Sessions, a longtime marijuana foe, has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows Trump's top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, this change reflects his own concerns. He railed against marijuana as an Alabama senator and has assailed it as comparable to heroin.

Trump, as a candidate, said pot should be left up to the states, but his personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.

It is not clear how the change might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. A congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice officials said they would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical marijuana-related prosecutions.

Officials wouldn't say whether federal prosecutors would target marijuana shops and legal growers, nor would they speculate on whether pot prosecutions would increase.

They denied the timing was connected to the opening of California sales, which are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years. And, the officials said, Thursday's action might not be the only step toward greater marijuana enforcement. The department has the authority to sue states on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional, pre-empted by federal law.

Asked about the change, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said only that Trump's top priority is enforcing federal law "and that is regardless of what the topic is, whether it's marijuana or whether it's immigration."

The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children. That memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.

But the Sessions Justice Department believed the Cole memo created a "safe harbor" for marijuana by allowing states to flout federal law, Justice Department officials said. Sessions, in his memo, called the Obama guidance "unnecessary."

He and some law enforcement officials in states such as Colorado blame legalization for a number of problems, including drug traffickers who have taken advantage to illegally grow and ship the drug across state lines, where it can sell for much more.

Marijuana advocates argue those concerns are overblown and contend legalizing the drug reduces crime by eliminating the need for a black market. They quickly condemned Sessions' move as a return to outdated drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities.

Terry Chea, Associated Press 

Budtender Austin Pitts (right) assists a customer Thursday inside the Harborside cannabis dispensary in Oakland, Calif. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded an Obama-era policy that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country, creating new confusion about enforcement and use just three days after a new legalization law went into effect in California.

Courtesy photo 

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard

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FBI accuses white supremacist of terror attack on Amtrak train in rural Nebraska

Taylor Wilson

The FBI says an armed 26-year-old Missouri man who breached a secured area to stop an Amtrak train in southwest Nebraska in October has links to a white supremacist group and expressed an interest in "killing black people," according to court documents unsealed Wednesday.

Taylor Michael Wilson, of St. Charles, Missouri, is charged in U.S. District Court in Lincoln with terrorism attacks and other violence against railroad carriers and mass transportation systems.

In an affidavit attached to the criminal complaint, FBI Special Agent Monte Czaplewski said there was probable cause to believe that electronic devices possessed by Wilson and firearms owned by him "have been used for or obtained in anticipation of engaging in or planning to engage in criminal offenses against the United States."

Just before 2 a.m. on Oct. 22, an assistant conductor felt the train braking, searched for what was causing it and found Wilson in the engineer's seat of the follow engine "playing with the controls," Czaplewski wrote.

The conductor, and others, subdued Wilson, then held him and waited for deputies from Furnas and Harlan counties to arrive in Oxford, 23 miles southwest of Holdrege, where the eastbound California Zephyr with about 175 people aboard stopped.

No injuries were reported.

Czaplewski said Wilson, who has a permit in Missouri to carry a concealed handgun, had a loaded .38-caliber handgun in his waistband, a speed loader in his pocket and a National Socialist Movement business card on him when he was arrested.

He also had a backpack with three more speed loaders, a box of ammunition, a knife, tin snips, scissors and a ventilation mask inside.

Wilson, who was traveling from Sacramento, California, to St. Louis, later was charged in Furnas County with felony criminal mischief and use of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony.

In late October, a judge ordered Wilson to undergo a competency evaluation at his attorney's request. He later was found competent to proceed, according to court records.

His $100,000 bond was posted on Dec. 11 and he was released.

Two days later, according to the federal case, FBI agents searched Wilson's home in Missouri and found a hidden compartment with a handmade shield, as well as: "a tactical vest, 11 AR-15 (rifle) ammunition magazines with approximately 190 rounds of .223 ammunition, one drum-style ammunition magazine for a rifle, firearms tactical accessories (lights), 100 rounds of 9 mm ammunition, approximately 840 rounds of 5.45x39 rifle ammunition, white supremacy documents and paperwork, several additional handgun and rifle magazines, gunpowder, ammunition-reloading supplies, and a pressure plate."

Czaplewski said they also found 15 firearms, including a fully-automatic rifle, ammunition and firearms magazines, and a tactical body armor carrier with ceramic ballistic plates.

In the newly unsealed federal case, Czaplewski wrote that investigators had found videos and PDF files on Wilson's phone of a white supremacist banner over a highway, other alt-right postings and documents related to how to kill people.

He said an acquaintance contacted by the FBI said that Wilson had been acting strange since June and had joined an "alt-right" neo-Nazi group that he found while researching white supremacy forums online.

Czaplewski said agents believe Wilson had traveled with members of the group to the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, where a woman was killed and 19 injured when a man used his vehicle to ram a crowd of counter-protesters.

An informant told the FBI that Wilson has expressed an interest in "killing black people" and others besides whites, and they suspect Wilson was responsible for a road rage incident in April 2016 in St. Charles where a man pointed a gun at a black woman for no apparent reason while driving on Interstate 70, Czaplewski said.

Wilson now is in federal custody. He was arrested Dec. 23, a day after the complaint was filed under seal in federal court in Nebraska.

Courtesy photo 

Taylor Wilson

The Associated Press