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Budget chairman says university funding cuts may be transformational

Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, says the state budget reality that lies ahead could have "a transformational impact" on the University of Nebraska.

After already absorbing a couple of rounds of budget cuts during the 2017 legislative session, the university now is facing additional proposed appropriations reductions of 2 percent this year and 4 percent next year, Stinner noted.

That's a $34.6 million gash in the university budget.

And there is no appetite in the Legislature to increase taxes in an effort to develop additional revenue to fund the university or any other state-supported agencies, institutions or activities, Stinner said during an interview in his office at the state Capitol.

"I'm open to all options," Stinner said. "I do not have a closed mind to anything.  

"But I always prefer to look at other solutions like efficiency and technology. As far as tax increases, I'll look but you'll have to drag me over hot coals to get me there."

However, Stinner said in a follow-up phone call, he is open to a number of revenue-producing options other than an increase in tax rates, including the collection of state sales taxes already owed on internet sales.

Stinner said he's also open to looking at the possibility of applying the state sales tax to some services that now are exempted and to taking a fresh look at the state's list of incentive programs, all "in the interest of good tax policy."

"Those could be places where we could enhance revenue," Stinner said.

"There's a lot of other things we can do on the revenue side," he said. 

The political reality is that Gov. Pete Ricketts has said that he would not support any increase in taxes, Stinner said during the earlier interview, "and I guess I respect that."

The budget reality, Stinner said, is that the university probably will need to "look at what they're doing, making adjustments and changes in certain areas," perhaps impacting curriculum, academic structure, priorities and professional staff.  

Additional budget reductions "also may mean substantial increases in tuition," he said, with a resulting impact on enrollment because "less people may be able to afford to come."

That, in turn, would impact the university's momentum, he said.

During an interview scheduled to discuss the personal pressures of managing legislative budget decisions during a period of stagnant or declining revenue, Stinner quickly veered to the university budget, the hottest item atop the Appropriations Committee's agenda.

The nine-member committee will hold a hearing on the university's budget Wednesday with newspaper op-eds and full-page ads already urging Nebraskans to speak up and support adequate funding. 

"I believe in the university," Stinner said. "I have a degree and a graduate degree from that university, and I respect what they mean for the state in terms of its economic base and workforce.

"And I realize that any time you raise tuition, it has an impact on the number of kids who can go to the university or to state colleges or community colleges."

Stinner did not mention that he also has athletic credentials at the university, where he was a member of Bob Devaney's two national championship football teams. He was a running back for two years and linebacker for two years.

If state revenue begins to recover, Stinner said, that conceivably could somewhat ease the budget pressure now in play. The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board will weigh in with its next assessment on Feb. 28.

"Everything I hear and see is fairly positive," Stinner said.

"I feel the weight of the problem," he acknowledged, "but what weighs most on my mind is outcomes, and it's hard to get away from that."

"We can probably deal with the 2 percent budget cut for higher education, but next year at 4 percent is more difficult," he said. 

Although the pressure of heading the committee, especially during challenging economic times, is intense — Stinner headed to the Capitol at 4 a.m. each morning during his first year as appropriations chairman last year — he says he's adjusted to the task and has a better understanding of state programs now.

"I'm glad I've had the experience," he said. "It's so broadening and I want to be a lifelong learner.

"I've learned that you have to build cooperation, coalition, collaboration, and that's new for me," he said, after a banking career centered in Gering in which he "asked questions, tried to lead them, sought buy-in, but made the decisions."

"I'm not a politician," Stinner said. "I'm a pragmatic businessman who is fiscally conservative."

The Appropriations Committee contains five Republicans, including him, and four Democrats, all with different areas of interest, he said, and all respectful of other members' opinions. 

Stinner is a candidate for re-election this year, so far without an opponent.

Serving in the Legislature has been a great experience, he said.

"It's kind of a family with some crazy aunts and some crazy uncles," he said, "and, by and large, I've enjoyed everybody."


Nebraska guard Glynn Watson Jr. (with headband) leads the team out onto the floor against Rutgers on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The shirts they are wearing were part of the response planned by the Huskers to white nationalist videos that emerged earlier this week featuring UNL student Daniel Kleve discussing his desire to be violent.

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A Tesla is in space, but some Nebraska car buffs say a Corvette would be cooler

Kevin Houtwed spends most of his spare time finding cars that are experiencing the fullest effects of gravity.

He travels hundreds of miles around his hometown of Grand Island, searching for Detroit dinosaurs sinking into farmyards, pastures and shelter belts.

A ’31 Chevy coupe with a tree growing through it. A Galaxie engulfed by grass. A topless T-Bird rusting in the Sandhills.

He shares his photos — and his condolences — with the 20,000 followers of his Facebook page, Kevin’s Rust in Peace.

Houtwed was too busy Tuesday to watch Tesla founder Elon Musk launch his own Roadster into space. But he took some time Friday to wonder whether the $100,000 Tesla truly embodies the best of U.S. auto design: Is this the one car we want to show off to the rest of the universe?

Probably not. It’s a nice car, he said — he took a trip through Norway in a Tesla two years ago — but it’s not an American classic, at least not yet.

“When I think of the car that would represent the U.S., I think of a Mustang or Camaro,” he said. “Something a little more apple pie, if you know what I’m saying.”

Musk needed a test payload for the launch of his Falcon Heavy rocket, so he chose the “silliest thing we can imagine,” his own car. With a mannequin named Starman at the wheel and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” coming through the speakers, the 2008 red Roadster is expected to orbit the sun for hundreds of millions of years.

Car enthusiasts have strong opinions, typically divided among three car company lines. But they agreed a Tesla would not have been their first choice for the perpetual road trip.

Steve Schappaugh of Lincoln’s Musclecar Memories Restorations didn’t hesitate: A second-generation Chevy Corvette, built between 1963 and 1967, is one of the country’s most memorable cars and would make a strong galactic ambassador.

“I’ve been around for a lot of years and to me it’s kind of the iconic car when I was younger,” he said. “Anyone from my dad to my grandson recognizes that generation of Corvette as a Corvette.”

Auctioneer Yvette VanDerBrink of South Dakota made national news in Nebraska in 2011, when she sold the 500-car Lambrecht Chevrolet collection in Pierce.

She understands Musk’s motives. He’s a self-promoter, and hurling a Tesla toward Mars is the ultimate marketing event. “It’s a good representation of the tech world. It’s an electric car, and they’re trying to be in the future.”

But she had three better models in mind: The new Corvette; the Dodge Hellcat Challenger; and the Ford Mustang Bullitt. All three reflect the best of the past, and future, of American muscle.

“If they were expecting an alien to look at a car that would be representative of the U.S., you’d have to have three of them to represent the big three,” she said.

Dan Zichek of the Capitol City Ford and Mustang Club did not suggest a Mustang, even though he owns two.

Zichek followed the launch, and he knows something about Tesla. He said his son Andrew works for the company in California, drives a Model S and can’t wait for his Ford-loving father to experience its instant torque.

Zichek suggested a Ford Model T would have been a better payload, as a nod to Henry Ford and his mass production that made automobiles affordable and accessible and changed the country.

“I’d say Henry Ford really was the start of the automotive revolution,” he said.

Back in Grand Island, Houtwed will continue to chronicle the rusty remnants he finds in rural Nebraska. He knows they’ll return to the earth and disappear altogether, while the Roadster above will remain.

“The cars I’ve taken pictures of, they’ll have a pretty short lifespan compared to the Tesla.”

OxyContin maker will stop promoting opioids to doctors

NEW YORK — The maker of the powerful painkiller OxyContin said it will stop marketing opioid drugs to doctors, bowing to a key demand of lawsuits that blame the company for helping trigger the current drug abuse epidemic.

OxyContin has long been the world's top-selling opioid painkiller, bringing in billions in sales for privately-held Purdue, which also sells a newer and longer-lasting opioid drug called Hysingla.

The company announced its surprise reversal Saturday. Purdue's statement said it eliminated more than half its sales staff this week and will no longer send sales representatives to doctors' offices to discuss opioid drugs. Its remaining sales staff of about 200 will focus on other medications.

The OxyContin pill, a time-release version of oxycodone, was hailed as a breakthrough treatment for chronic pain when it was approved in late 1995. It worked over 12 hours to maintain a steady level of oxycodone in patients suffering from a wide range of pain ailments. But some users quickly discovered they could get a heroin-like high by crushing the pills and snorting or injecting the entire dose at once. In 2010,Purdue reformulated OxyContin to make it harder to crush and stopped selling the original form of the drug.

Purdue eventually acknowledged that its promotions exaggerated the drug's safety and minimized the risks of addiction. After federal investigations, the company and three executives pleaded guilty in 2007 and agreed to pay more than $600 million for misleading the public about the risks of OxyContin. But the drug continued to rack up blockbuster sales.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University and an advocate for stronger regulation of opioid drug companies, said Purdue's decision is helpful, but that to make a real difference, other opioid drug companies have to do the same.

"It is difficult to promote more cautious prescribing to the medical community because opioid manufacturers promote opioid use," he said. Two other companies that sell the medications, Johnson & Johnson and Allergan, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Kolodny said that opioids are useful for cancer patients who are suffering from severe pain, and for people who only need a pain medication for a few days. But he said the companies have promoted them as a treatment for chronic pain, where they are more harmful and less helpful, because it's more profitable.

"They are still doing this abroad," Kolodny added. "They are following the same playbook that they used in the United States."

Purdue Pharma only does business in the U.S. It is associated with two other companies, Mundipharma and Napp, that operate in other countries. It said those companies have separate leadership and operate according to local regulations.

Purdue and other opioid drugmakers and pharmaceutical distributors continue defending themselves against hundreds of local and state lawsuits seeking to hold the industry accountable for the drug overdose epidemic. The lawsuits say drugmakers misled doctors and patients about the risks of opioids by enlisting "front groups" and "key opinion leaders" who oversold the drugs' benefits and encouraged overprescribing. State and local governments are seeking money and changes to how the industry operates, including an end to the use of outside groups to push their drugs.

Kolodny is serving as an expert advising the court in those lawsuits.

U.S. deaths linked to opioids have quadrupled since 2000 to roughly 42,000 in 2016, or about 115 per day. Although initially driven by prescription drugs, most opioid deaths now involve illicit drugs, including heroin and fentanyl.