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Decision on Keystone XL pipeline to be announced Monday

The Nebraska Public Service Commission will announce its decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline next week.

The commission’s five elected members plan to vote on a proposed order during a public meeting at 10 a.m. Monday at the commission headquarters, 1200 N St., Suite 300, according to a news release. The release didn’t say whether a majority of commissioners plan to support approving or denying the application by pipeline builder TransCanada.

Doors to the hearing room open at 9:30 a.m. A live video feed of the hearing will be provided by the commission and shared at

Nebraska's approval is one of the final necessary steps before TransCanada could begin turning dirt on the 1,179-mile project, which would move Canadian oil sands from Hardisty, Alberta, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The proposal has been a subject of controversy for nearly a decade.

The Public Service Commission is tasked with determining whether it is in the public interest for the pipeline to cross through Nebraska.

TransCanada’s application identifies three potential routes through this state, each running from Keya Paha County in north-central Nebraska to a pumping station in Steele City, along the Kansas state line.

The company’s “preferred” route would cut through Boyd, Holt, Antelope, Boone, Nance, Merrick, Polk, York, Fillmore, Saline and Jefferson counties, in that order. A second option, known as the “mainline alternative,” would cut a different path out of Antelope County, bisecting Madison County and entering Stanton County, from where it would follow the route of the existing Keystone pipeline. A third option, the “Sandhills alternative,” would cross 13 counties in central Nebraska.

A court-style hearing in August focused mostly on the 275-mile mainline option.

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Security entrance at Hall of Justice, nearby buildings seen as inadequate; improvements sought

Twenty-four years ago a woman brought a gun and bolt cutters in a bag into a Lancaster County District courtroom, which she passed on to her boyfriend, who had been brought from jail.

The man escaped but was captured by sheriff's deputies behind the building after he shot himself in the foot.

That incident provided the impetus for the court's current security system, where people entering the Hall of Justice pass through a system much like airport security.

But local security experts say the security checkpoint in operation since 1999 needs upgrading.

The current system is unsafe, inefficient, too small, with no ability to grow as the number of visitors to the building increases, said Capt. Jerry Witte, with the sheriff's office.

Every day, security staff handle drunk and rowdy people and arrest someone, usually on outstanding warrants, in this very small area, Witte told county and city elected leaders at a recent meeting.

Around 30,000 people pass through the checkpoint each month and staff collect 275 to 300 articles of contraband a month, generally knives, he said. 

The security entrance should be set up in a straight line, like you see at airport security, not the curving line used at the Hall of Justice, which poses its own security problems, said Witte.

And the current system has no specific space available to separate potential problem people from others in the security line, he said.

Witte outlined several options to county and city elected leaders, ranging from simply expanding the current security area inside the building to adding space in a new separate building.

The best option would be a new entrance to the Hall of Justice, the middle of three limestone government buildings on 10th Street, Witte said.

The security entrance serves only visitors to the building that houses the courts and police and sheriff's offices. The other two buildings, which house government offices and the offices for elected officials, have no secured entrance.

A new security checkpoint could serve the Hall of Justice only, or it could act as a security entrance for all three government buildings, Witte said.

The new building would likely extend out to the base of the Abraham Lincoln statue, Witte said.

It would be limestone and glass to match the current buildings, and the architects are cognizant of its location and will design it tastefully, he said. 

The walk areas from the checkpoint to the other buildings could be glass enclosed, or the entire campus could be surrounded by a fence, Witte said.

Initial cost estimates range from $500,000 to simply enlarge the current security area inside the building to $2.5 million to add a security entrance outside the Hall of Justice and use it for security for all three buildings.

A decision about the security entrance will be made by the Public Building Commission, made up of representatives from both the City Council and County Board, but Witte expects county commissioners, council members and the mayor to weigh in on the question before the commission makes a decision.

Many employees at the three buildings want better security, favoring entrance security that will keep weapons out of all their work areas, according to Witte.

Witte said he receives regular requests for additional security for special meetings or events.

The County-City Building, where elected officials have offices, has additional security during office hours, provided by the sheriff's department.

The City Council always has a police officer monitoring its weekly meetings.

Witte believes it is more efficient to have a security entrance so people cannot bring weapons into any of the buildings, rather than have deputies guarding specific areas or specific meetings.

A checkpoint is an engineering solution that allows better security without adding employees, he said.

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More property, income tax debates expected in 2018 session

Despite a state budget crunch and a push to lower property taxes, Nebraska lawmakers will likely face another debate over income taxes in next year's session.

Key lawmakers say they're hopeful they can reach a compromise on a package and overcome the sharp divide that kept them from passing any major tax measures earlier this year.

A proposal to reduce income tax rates and slow the growth of property taxes stalled this year after rural senators argued that it didn't provide enough benefit to agricultural landowners. Some urban lawmakers noted most of the savings would go to the wealthy and warned it could harm future budgets. Supporters noted that the income tax cuts would only apply following years in which the state collected excess revenue.

"There's no room for 'My way or the highway,'" said Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, the Revenue Committee chairman who has advocated for income tax cuts. "Unless we can find compromise, the votes are simply not going to be there."

Smith said he's concerned that the state relies too heavily on agriculture to drive its economy and needs to diversify with other industries. State officials say low commodity prices are partially to blame for state revenue that has fallen short of expectations, leaving the state with a projected $195 million shortfall.

The plan lawmakers debated this year would have lowered Nebraska's top personal and corporate income tax brackets, adjusted the way agricultural land is valued for tax purposes, capped statewide property tax growth and expanded the earned income tax credit for low-income residents.

Some groups question whether lawmakers will pass anything this year. One leading business organization, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, will advocate for income tax cuts, but a spokesman said they're more likely to score victories on job training legislation.

Many residents have a stronger negative reaction to property taxes because they pay them directly, whereas most income taxes are deducted from paychecks and aren't as readily noticed, said Jamie Karl, the group's vice president for public affairs and policy.

"Part of what we're facing here is an education process," he said. "I can tell you to the penny how much I paid in property taxes on my house for the last three years. I can't tell you what my income tax was."

Karl said his group has hosted more than two dozen fall forums throughout the state for businesses, and the state's tax rates ranked as a top concern, second only to a workforce shortage. Workforce problems are a longer-term issue, he said.

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, a farmer and Revenue Committee member, said he's optimistic lawmakers will find an agreement, but argued that any income tax package would also have to reduce property taxes. Property taxes on agricultural land increased nearly 164 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the Nebraska Department of Revenue.

Friesen said any changes will likely have to be phased in over years.

"If I can get a property tax deal, I'll take it any way I can get it," he said.

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said he will continue to enforce his requirement that senators disclose how they plan to pay for any measures that cost money or reduce state revenue.

Scheer, of Norfolk, said lawmakers may be willing to approve a tax cut that goes into effect once revenues improve, but next year's expected shortfall will make it difficult to pass anything more ambitious.

"My best guess would be that if they bring legislation with an immediate impact, it would not have an opportunity to pass," he said. "I don't know how you'd fund it."

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

Demolition continues on three buildings at Ninth and O streets on Monday. Work this month will pave the way for a $65 million high-rise hotel and housing project known as Block 54.

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Woman dies after falling from SUV in Lincoln; homicide charge added for driver

Prosecutors on Monday added a motor-vehicle homicide charge against the woman accused of speeding and swerving to throw her aunt off an SUV last week in central Lincoln.

Kacie Alatoree, 21, is accused of leaving the scene of a crash involving serious injury or death and motor vehicle homicide by willful reckless driving, a felony, in the death of Autumn Rodriguez Hernandez.

The 36-year-old Lincoln woman died at a local hospital Sunday. She hit her head on a curb after falling from the SUV at 29th and M streets Nov. 7, Lincoln police have said.

Doctors declared Rodriguez Hernandez brain dead Wednesday, and she died after donating her organs, Lincoln Police Officer Angela Sands said.

Police say Rodriguez Hernandez loaned Alatoree her boyfriend's 1999 Isuzu Rodeo over the summer, and Alatoree kept it for three months. Around 4:45 p.m. Nov. 7, Rodriguez Hernandez saw Alatoree driving and demanded she roll down the window and hand over the keys.

Alatoree refused and began driving off, police said, so Rodriguez Hernandez climbed onto the vehicle.

Alatoree accelerated to 45 mph and swerved left and right until her aunt fell off, suffering a skull fracture, police said.

On Monday, Alatoree appeared in court where prosecutors added the felony charge.

A judge set her bond at $125,000 and has ordered her not to drive if she's released from prison. She would need to post $12,500 bail to get out of jail.

Alatoree's attorney has declined to comment on the allegations but called the incident a "sad situation."

Attempts to reach Rodriguez Hernandez's family have not been successful.

Courtesy photo 

Kacie Alatoree