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Senators considering plethora of specialty license plate bills

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers used to filibuster bills that would create specialty license plates.

He didn't like the idea of a mishmash of specialty plates, believing if the Legislature opened the door to one or two, the mishmash would follow. 

That was until he introduced a plate for mountain lion conservation in 2015, and the bill passed and it became the most popular of Nebraska's specialty plates. 

And the mishmash did follow, with the Legislature creating Choose Life and Native history plates, adding to an already approved military gold star family plate. And other requests have been trickling in.

Tuesday, the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard proposals for wildlife conservation plates, military honor and support our troops plates, prostate cancer awareness, and spay and neuter awareness plates, and a license plate for ornate box turtle conservation. 

Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh proposed the turtle plate (LB691). 

Last year, Cavanaugh said, the ornate box turtle was chosen as the state reptile, and the bill would direct funds raised to be used for a turtle habitat under the direction of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The ornate box turtle is one of two turtle species native to Nebraska, and it is near threatened, she said.

"And preserving its habitat is sure to benefit many other aquatic species," Cavanaugh said. 

Michael O'Hara, lobbyist for the Nebraska Sierra Club, said that in the areas Game and Parks manages, kids are likely to run into an ornate box turtle, which can live for more than three decades. 

Kids will go home and talk about the turtles, then every time they see that plate, they will get another positive experience, he said.

"So it's going to have a genuine tourism impact," O'Hara said. 

Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango introduced a bill (LB128) that would create three additional license plates known as wildlife conservation plates, featuring sandhill cranes, big horn sheep and cutthroat trout. 

The money collected for those specialty plates would follow the same guidelines as the mountain lion conservation plates, from which Game and Parks receives $30 for each message plate and $5 for each alpha-numeric plate, he said. That money goes into the commission's education fund relating to wildlife conservation practices. 

The mountain lion plates have generated more than $225,000 for the commission, Hughes said. 

Game and Parks Deputy Director Tim McCoy said the funds are used for education, including in schools and in parks. 

The commission also has done work recently in park areas, such as Wildcat Hills, Schramm State Park, Ponca State Park and at Lake McConaughy, where it continues to expand programming, he said. 

"And it's amazing the response we see from the general public in our park system, of their curiosity about Nebraska and Nebraska's wildlife and conservation of our natural resources," McCoy said. 

Trump claims 'ridiculous partisan' probes may upset progress

WASHINGTON — In his first State of the Union address to a divided Congress, President Donald Trump warned Democrats on Tuesday that "ridiculous partisan investigations" could derail the nation's economic progress.

Trump peppered his speech with calls for bipartisanship, urging Washington to govern "not as two parties, but as one nation." But his message clashed with the rancorous atmosphere he has helped cultivate in the nation's capital, as well as the desire of most Democrats to block his path during his next two years in office.

The president's remarks previewed how he planned to defend himself as Democrats launch a flurry of investigations into his administration and personal finances.

"If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation," he declared.

Trump's speech to lawmakers and the nation comes at a critical moment in his presidency. He pushed his party into a lengthy government shutdown over border security, only to cave to Democrats. With another shutdown deadline looming, the president has few options for getting Congress to fund a border wall, and he risks further alienating his party if he tries to circumvent lawmakers by declaring a national emergency instead.

Trump made no mention of an emergency declaration in his remarks. He offered a lengthy defense of his call for a border wall, declaring "I will get it built." But he delivered no ultimatums about what it would take for him to sign legislation to keep the government open.

"I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country," he said.

In his speech, Trump also planned to announce details of a second meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, outlining a summit Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam, according to his prepared remarks. Trump has been teasing the meeting in recent weeks. The two met last summer in Singapore, though that meeting only led to a vaguely worded commitment by the North to denuclearize.

As he stood before lawmakers, the president was surrounded by symbols of his emboldened political opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was praised by Democrats for her hard-line negotiating during the shutdown, sat behind Trump as he spoke. Many House Democratic women wore white, the color favored by early 20th-century suffragettes. And several senators running for president were also in the audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, delivered the party's response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become America's first black female governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for U.S. Senate from Georgia.

Abrams' called the shutdown a political stunt that "defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values."

Trump's address amounted to an opening argument for his re-election campaign. Polls show he has work to do, with his approval rating falling to just 34 percent after the shutdown, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

One bright spot for the president has been the economy, which has added jobs for 100 straight months. He said the U.S. has "the hottest economy anywhere in the world."

He said, "The only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations" an apparent swipe at the special counsel investigation into ties between Russia and Trump's 2016 campaign.

Turning to foreign policy, another area where Republicans have increasingly been willing to distance themselves from the president, Trump defended his decisions to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

"Great nations do not fight endless wars," he said, adding that the U.S. is working with allies to "destroy the remnants" of the Islamic State group and that he has "accelerated" efforts to reach a settlement in Afghanistan. 

IS militants have lost territory since Trump's surprise announcement in December that he was pulling U.S. forces out, but military officials warn the fighters could regroup within six months to a year after the Americans leave. Several leading GOP lawmakers have sharply criticized his plans to withdraw from Syria, as well as from Afghanistan.

Trump's guests for the speech included Anna Marie Johnson, a woman whose life sentence for drug offenses was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who has been bullied over his last name. 

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At civil trial, attorney for LFR captain says he paid a 'high price for doing the right thing'

OMAHA — In the span of 45 minutes, jurors heard starkly contrasting descriptions of the man at the counsel table, a Lincoln Fire and Rescue captain who sued the city alleging the department’s top brass retaliated against him for reporting harassment in 2011.

One side painted Troy Hurd as a man punished for having the courage to speak up; the other, as a man with a score to settle.

“This is a case about whether Troy Hurd should have been penalized for doing the right thing,” Gretna attorney Kelly Brandon said in opening statements in a U.S. District Courtroom on Tuesday.

She said Hurd, who has been with LFR for 18 years, lives by the words: “What’s right is right. What’s wrong is wrong."

In 2011, while assigned to the training academy, he told his supervisor he’d witnessed a fellow trainer cursing at Sara Khalil, a Kurdish firefighter recruit from Iraq, and learned that another of the trainers asked her if she needed "a f-ing interpreter.” He believed the two were harassing Khalil based on her gender and national origin.

“That decision forever changes the course of Captain Hurd’s career,” Brandon said. “Troy Hurd pays a high price for doing the right thing, for following the rules."

She said his report fell on deaf ears, and Hurd was "rewarded with retribution, retaliation and ruin.”

Khalil ultimately was terminated and now works as a Lincoln police officer.

During what is expected to be a two-week trial, Brandon will lay out her case that within LFR existed an atmosphere of retaliation against people, like Hurd, who spoke out, but the city will try to prove that something else was at play.

“This case is not about the city of Lincoln retaliating against Troy Hurd, but about Hurd having a vendetta against anyone he thought wronged him,” Assistant City Attorney Jocelyn Golden told the jury.

She said they would hear plenty of evidence about how Hurd said multiple times that he wanted to make the city of Lincoln and LFR pay.

“Because, the reality of the situation is that Hurd thought he was entitled to be treated differently, to not be disciplined for his errors and to be promoted when he was not the most-qualified candidate,” Golden said.

She said in 2011, Hurd and Eddie Mueller, then a firefighter and now a department captain, had a falling out before both were assigned to the training academy. There, they butted heads over how to run it.

When Mueller used foul language when telling a recruit to sit down and listen, Golden said, he was given a written discipline the same day.

“But this did not quiet the conflict between the two,” she said.

Golden said the decision was made to remove Hurd from the training academy because Mueller had prior experience teaching recruits.

“This was not done to punish Hurd or praise Mueller,” she said. “This was a decision that simply needed to be made to ensure there was no more drama and that the recruits finished their training without the personality conflict distracting them.”

She said it wasn’t about Hurd’s complaints, but about the greater good of the operation of LFR. But Hurd didn’t take it that way.

Golden painted Hurd as someone who couldn’t handle constructive criticism and blamed others.

“The evidence will show, despite Hurd’s attempts to blame all the chiefs he worked with over the past seven years to make them pay, no one other than Hurd himself created the circumstances he finds himself in,” she said.

Golden said the city wasn’t on a mission to make Hurd feel bad or hinder his career. He simply received some minor disciplinary write-ups because of his own errors and wasn’t promoted because he wasn’t the most-qualified candidate.

Golden said the Equal Opportunity Commission reviewed Hurd’s allegations and found no reasonable cause.

But, on the other side, Hurd’s attorney pointed to a 64-page report by Kimberley Taylor-Riley, the city’s director of equity and diversity, who in 2014 concluded after a two-year investigation that LFR command staff did retaliate against Hurd and treated him differently than others.

“You might think at this point that the city undertook some serious soul-searching,” Brandon said. "You’d be wrong.”

She said in response to the report, the city conducted two training sessions and removed the disciplinary actions from Hurd’s personnel file, ignoring many other recommendations.

Meanwhile, Brandon said, Hurd isn’t the same person he was before and often questions whether it was all worth it.

“At the end of this trial you will have the opportunity to fix the city’s mistakes,” she said.

In the end, it will be for the jury to decide who is to blame.

Courtesy photo 

This mock-up of the state's mountain lion conservation license plate shows the first name of the state senator responsible for the plates: Ernie Chambers.