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FRANCIS GARDLER, JOURNAL STAR 

Nebraska center Duby Okeke (0) is defended by Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ (22) and forward Khalil Iverson (21) in the first half on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, at Pinnacle Bank Arena.


Legislature
editor's pick topical
Initiative petition director says billion-dollar property tax relief doable

The $1.1 billion plan promoted by supporters of property tax relief can be implemented without gutting any state programs or services, initiative petition spokesman Trent Fellers of Lincoln said Tuesday.

In response to the alarm bells recently sounded by Gov. Pete Ricketts, the executive director of Reform for Nebraska's Future said one way the revenue required to fund the property tax plan could be raised would be elimination of a chunk of the $4 billion in state sales tax exemptions currently in place.

And careful fiscal management of state programs is always part of the approach to conservative government, Fellers said during an interview prior to the pending launch of a statewide property tax initiative petition drive.

To suggest that such a dramatic change in the state's tax system could result in wiping out state agencies or even eliminating funding for the University of Nebraska is "not true," Fellers said.

"It is disappointing to hear leaders at the highest level of state government use that kind of an argument," he said.

"We can do this," he said.

Adding $20 million in state property tax credits each budget year does not address the challenge of high local property taxes "when it's a billion-dollar problem in this state," he said.

"Our focus is to do this in a revenue-neutral fashion," he said, and that can be accomplished by creating a broader base of taxation.

"I think Nebraskans are smart enough not to fall for scare tactics employed by people at the highest level of state government," Fellers said.

"It's time to deal with this even though that might put me at odds with the governor," he said.

The proposed initiative would provide for property tax relief distributed through a state income tax refund or credit equal to 50 percent of local school property taxes paid by Nebraska taxpayers.

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard has introduced a bill (LB829) to accomplish the desired property tax relief and Fellers is spearheading the initiative petition drive that would place the issue on the November general election ballot if the Legislature does not act on the measure.

"The Legislature is the place to do that," Fellers said, "but this is a really good backup plan."

Fellers, a Republican who has managed statewide GOP campaigns and recently served on the Lincoln City Council, said he approached the governor's office last year to discuss the property tax issue.

"I took this to the staff and asked for feedback. I wanted to get their thoughts. There was no feedback. Instead, the governor is throwing mud at the idea.

"Maybe we could have solved this together," he said.

"I'd like to see a legislative solution," Fellers said. "But it has to be significant for this issue to go away. Otherwise, we might be right back here in a couple of years."

Responding to concerns he has heard, Fellers emphasized the proposal does not reduce funding for schools. What it does, he said, is "give half of the money back" that taxpayers paid in local property taxes to support the schools.

Fellers said he has been "overwhelmed by the support that people have voiced for this" during trips throughout the state.

"I am not able to move fast enough," he said.


Local
topical
Warm for now, then return to winter

Temperatures in the 50s -- nearly 20 degrees above average -- set the stage for a dramatic change in the weather this week.

Blowing snow and ice-covered roads could cause significant problems for drivers on Thursday, when a winter storm is expected to bear down on much of Nebraska.

"I'm not using the 'B' word just yet, but at least intermittent whiteout conditions seem possible in some locations, especially the wide-open rural areas where snowfall is highest," said Barbara Mayes-Boustead, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Valley, in an online briefing posted Tuesday morning.

The winter weather is expected to arrive late Wednesday, with rain switching to snow overnight and continuing into Thursday.

Plummeting temperatures will also freeze pooling rain and melted snow — starting between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. Thursday around Lincoln — a potential danger to motorists and to wet animals left outside.

Snowfall predictions for the Lincoln area still vary widely, with one model showing nearly 10 inches of snow and others essentially zero. The National Weather Service is predicting 3 to 4 inches inches in Lincoln, with areas of northeast Nebraska seeing 5 to 6 inches.

Wind gusts could exceed 35 to 40 mph, according to the Weather Service.

The Weather Service is likely to upgrade the winter storm watch posted for much of central and eastern Nebraska, aside from far-Southeast Nebraska.

"Adding insult to injury (or potential injury to insult), the combination of strong winds and cold air intrusion will lead to wind chills of (minus 10 to minus 20) during the day on Thursday along and north of I-80," Mayes-Boustead said.

The Nebraska State Patrol encouraged drivers to keep a winter weather survival kit in their vehicles, including a first aid kit, phone charger, ice scraper, shovel, small bag of sand, flashlight with extra batteries, blankets or sleeping bags, extra clothing and winter accessories, jumper cables, tow rope, tool kit, matches, candles, red flag or bandana, high energy or dehydrated foods, and bottled water.

“The storm (forecast) for this week could make for dangerous driving conditions across a large portion of the state,” warned Col. John Bolduc, patrol superintendent, in a news release. “Drivers should be prepared by staying up-to-date on the forecast, and plan ahead if you need to travel.”

Once the snow moves out, cold temperatures will hang around for the weekend. Saturday's high in Lincoln could hold in the single digits with overnight lows at or near zero.


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick alert topical
Fischer gains seat on Senate Agriculture Committee

Sen. Deb Fischer has gained a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee as it begins to shape a new farm bill.

"Nebraska needs to be at the table," Fischer said Tuesday in announcing her appointment.

"I am really, really pleased that I am going to be joining the committee. This is great news."

Fischer will occupy the seat vacated by former Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama, who had been appointed to fill the Senate vacancy created by the resignation of Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general.  Strange has been succeeded by newly elected Sen. Doug Jones.

Nebraska has not held a seat on the Agriculture Committee since Sen. Ben Sasse left last year to join the Judiciary Committee and the Armed Services Committee.

"It's important to have a Nebraskan on that committee to be a fighter for rural America," Fischer said during a telephone interview from Washington.

"And this year is so important as the farm bill is being written."

The committee also is a good fit from a personal standpoint, she noted.

Fischer, a Sandhills rancher and former state senator with roots in Lincoln, has been "working with agriculture for about 40 years," she said, with a particular emphasis on rural economic development programs and established relationships with ag producers and organizations.

As a Republican member of the Senate, she said, she has reached out to the Trump administration on agriculture and rural issues ranging from trade to water deregulation and has focused on including rural broadband expansion as part of a developing infrastructure program.

Fischer said she was one of six senators who recently engaged with President Donald Trump in a luncheon discussion about the importance of trade and the North American Free Trade Alliance to American agriculture.

The Trump administration is in the midst of renegotiating that trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. 

"It obviously is very important for Nebraska to keep those markets open for ag producers," Fischer said. 

"We are making sure the president hears the concerns of people all across our state," she said. 

Fischer, who is seeking re-election to a second term this year, does not need to give up a committee assignment to join the Agriculture Committee. She also serves on the Armed Services Committee, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Fischer's Democratic challenger Jane Raybould has campaigned in part on her goal to seek a seat on the committee. She said the appointment shows Republican leadership is afraid the senator is vulnerable and questioned why the senator didn't previously seek a seat in her five years in the Senate.

"Nebraskans know -- our farmers and ranchers know bull when they see it and the voters will treat this as such," Raybould said in a release.

Gov. Pete Ricketts congratulated Fischer on her appointment.

“This is a critical time in agriculture as the Farm Bill debate begins. Sen. Fischer will play an important role in helping ensure the interests of Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers are heard in Washington,” he said.