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GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star 

A pitaya bowl from Fresh Healthy Cafe, at front, includes pitaya blended with almond milk, pineapple, banana and mango and topped with blueberries, granola, bananas and coconut.


Legislature
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Lincoln senator slams Ricketts for promoting rural-urban divide over taxes

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks on Thursday rebuked Gov. Pete Ricketts for telling people at a rural Nebraska town hall that senators from urban areas of the state did not care about property tax relief.

At a Wednesday meeting in Beatrice, Ricketts blamed the legislative filibuster for raising a high barrier for property tax relief packages to clear, singling out Pansing Brooks for comments she made in 2015, as well as others for blocking his reforms.

The Republican governor also said he would not sign any bills raising sales or income taxes to offset the cost of providing property tax relief, adding urban senators likely wouldn't support those measures either.

"Why would the people of Lincoln and Omaha raise taxes on themselves to give you guys tax relief?" Ricketts responded to a question from a Wymore area farmer.

Pansing Brooks, a Democrat who represents District 28 in the nonpartisan Legislature, said Ricketts' comments were "just plain wrong," creating a divide between Nebraskans.

"I am very disappointed that the governor is speaking about taxes in a way that pits rural and urban areas of our state against one another," she said in a statement.

Pansing Brooks drew criticism in 2015 for her response to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that showed, on average, Nebraska farms made $112,966 in income annually between 2009 and 2013, after taxes and other expenses.

"People are making a lot of money, and they're the ones that are most vocal about those property taxes," she said during a working group of senators convened at the time to study property taxes and school finance.

Campaigning for her first term in the Legislature, Pansing Brooks said voters showed little concern about their property tax bills, but said things have changed over the last five years.

The issue was at the forefront of voters' minds during her re-election bid last year, and Pansing Brooks said she has learned how property taxes have affected agriculture from rural lawmakers during her first term.

"Clearly, Nebraska needs both business and agricultural sectors to thrive economically," she said. "I represent Lincoln, but I also represent the entire state, and as such, I understand that our rural and urban economic strength is intertwined."

Pansing Brooks on Thursday added her name to a bill (LB314) by Sen. Tom Briese of Albion that would raise the state sales tax rate from 5.5 percent to 6 percent, hiking the state cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack, and increasing an excise sales tax on alcoholic drinks, while also eliminating the sales tax exemption on candy, soft drinks, bottled water and other items.

Briese's bill also creates a 7.84 percent tax surcharge on income over $250,000 for individuals, revenue that would be directed into the state's property tax relief fund, part of a broad effort to generate $782.6 million to offset the property taxes, largely paid to schools across the state.

Briese's bill also increases the earned income tax credit, which Pansing Brooks said will help Nebraska's working poor move out of poverty.

Like its predecessor, LB1084, which Pansing Brooks also supported, LB314 has "broad bipartisan support across urban and rural interests," including co-sponsors from Omaha and Nebraska's Panhandle, Briese said.

"I've always maintained all Nebraskans need property tax relief whether you're a rancher in Cherry County or a homeowner in Lincoln or Omaha," said Briese, a registered Republican. "You can use property tax relief."

Nebraskans living in the state's two largest cities experience property tax rates ranking in the top 10 in the country, he added.

Pansing Brooks said she believes Briese's plan "offers the best way forward" in delivering meaningful property tax relief this year, adding she hopes to work with Briese and others to address concerns, specifically relating to small businesses like craft brewers.

"We must have a compromise that works for our entire state, rural and urban," she said. "LB314 will need work as it moves forward, but it offers a realistic starting point and represents a reasonable, comprehensive approach."

Briese said he's flexible to working with other senators to address their concerns, particularly to avoid harm to Nebraska businesses, but added he believes most of the bill's provisions would garner the support of a majority of Nebraskans.

Former Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, who Ricketts also referred to Wednesday as a senator who advocated for tax hikes, said Briese's plan to address the property tax issue created a way to actually fund it, rather than relying on drawing down the state's cash reserve.

"There has not been a realistic effort to deal with property taxes," said Schumacher, who was term-limited. "Unless you come up with a source for property tax relief, urban or rural, you can't give it. If there are no new taxes, where are you going to get the relief from?"

Should the bill advance from the Legislature's Revenue Committee, of which Briese is a member, and through three rounds of floor debate intact, it will run into a governor who has pledged not to sign any tax hikes into law.

At his Beatrice town hall, Ricketts indicated he would not sign Briese's bill when asked by one farmer who advocated for it.

Through a spokesman, Ricketts reiterated that point Thursday, homing in on Pansing Brooks' district in central Lincoln.

"The governor opposes plans, such as LB314, which would raise taxes on the people of Lincoln," Taylor Gage said in an email.

Briese said he supports — like the governor — erecting spending controls for local governments to stem revenue growth through property taxes, but said that's just one piece of the puzzle.

"The only responsible means of achieving meaningful and substantial property tax relief is through raising other revenues to offset the property tax burden," he said. "We're not going to be able to slash and burn our way to where we need to be."


Courtesy photo 

Briese


Local
top story
A preacher in an apron, Lincoln restaurant owner partners with customers to provide meals for needy

She uses clothespins to hang the tickets.

One ticket, one free lunch.

Karen Lamb owns Lulu’s on N, where a sign on the front window lets hungry people know they are welcome to a meal, even if they don’t have the money.

She is at the small eatery on Tuesday, snow starting to fall on the icy sidewalks.

She’s using an ice cream scoop to make balls of cookie dough, oatmeal scotchies on their way to the oven.

A pot of vegetable beef simmers on a two-burner stove.

The street is empty.

Lamb wears a baseball cap and blue jeans and a chef’s apron.

The 57-year-old does some catering, too. She works part-time at an insurance office and on Sundays she preaches at United Methodist churches in Burr and Douglas.

She became a minister in mid-life.

“I was working at a big corporation and I lost my job,” she says. “I couldn’t find another one because I was supposed to be doing something else.”

This.

Lamb is married with three daughters and two grandbabies, and she believes in the words she speaks from behind the pulpit: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Open your arms to those in need.

She started the Community Meal Program when Lulu’s moved downtown a few years ago to the former Korn Popper building across from the library.

“I said we have to do something about the homeless population, people who were hungry.”

By "we," Lamb mostly means herself. She’s had partners in the small restaurant, but now it’s just the preacher and one part-time helper.

The free meal concept is simple and relies on the help of paying customers. A five-dollar bill will pay for one meal. A single dollar bill is paired with more dollars.

Each ticket gets a customer in need a hot lunch.

“The thing that is important to me is that people can order whatever they want.”

The menu is simple.

Grilled cheese sandwiches you can fancy up with veggies or meat. A cup of soup, a cookie or a muffin. Homemade pasta.

Lamb is tall and self-assured. She grew up on the edge of the Sandhills.

Her dad was raised Mennonite. The owner of Cairo Plumbing & Well Drilling became a part-time farmer, too, who grew three rows of sweet corn next to the road and anyone who wanted corn on the cob for supper could come pick their fill.

He hunted, too, but Lamb’s mom refused to cook venison.

“So he gave it all away.”

And so the daughter grew up living with the concept of sharing.

And cooking. Lamb has been baking since she was in grade school; she waitressed, managed restaurants, started catering.

“I’ve always been interested in feeding people.”

Last week, she reached out for help with Community Meals after her funds ran dry. Her plea brought in $100, enough for 20 meals.

Those 20 tickets are gone. More money came in Tuesday, after her face appeared on the local TV news. She posted her gratitude on Facebook and put out a call to federal employees in Lincoln to come by for a free lunch.

When the money is gone, she'll keep giving.

She can't turn people away, Lamb says.

“I have a hard time saying no. Friday, I fed more homeless people than paying customers.”

And the woman behind Lulu’s on N has a plan.

She’d like to turn the restaurant into a pay-as-you-can place and she’s figuring out how to make her business a nonprofit.

She envisions grants and a small job training program for people who need a boost, a way to get into the working world.

“I want to talk to other restaurant owners, find out what their needs are,” she says.

Then get future workers in her small kitchen to learn the tricks of the cooking trade, help them get food handler permits, the right clothes.

“Most importantly, buy them shoes with nonslip soles.”

She’s serious about that, says the apron-wearing preacher.

A good woman with a motto: Feeding hungry bodies and nourishing souls.


Courtesy photo 

Patty Pansing Brooks


Business
AP
Senate rejects rival plans for ending shutdown

WASHINGTON — A splintered Senate swatted down competing Democratic and Republican plans for ending the 34-day partial government shutdown on Thursday, but the twin setbacks prompted a burst of bipartisan talks aimed at temporarily halting the longest-ever closure of federal agencies and the damage it's inflicting around the country.

In the first serious exchange in weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., quickly called Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to his office to explore potential next steps for solving the vitriolic stalemate. Senators from both sides floated a plan to reopen agencies for three weeks and pay hundreds of thousands of beleaguered federal workers while bargainers hunt for a deal.

At the White House, President Donald Trump told reporters he'd support "a reasonable agreement." He suggested he'd also want a "prorated down payment" for his long-sought border wall with Mexico but didn't describe the term. He said he has "other alternatives" for getting wall funding, an apparent reference to his disputed claim that he could declare a national emergency and fund the wall's construction using other programs in the federal budget.

"At least we're talking about it. That's better than it was before," McConnell told reporters in one of the most encouraging statements heard since the shutdown began Dec. 22.

Even so, it was unclear whether the flurry would produce results.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whose relationship with Trump seems to sour daily, told reporters a "big" down payment would not be "a reasonable agreement." Asked if she knew how much money Trump meant, Pelosi said, "I don't know if he knows what he's talking about."

Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said Democrats have made clear "that they will not support funding for the wall, prorated or otherwise."

Contributing to the pressure on lawmakers to find a solution was the harsh reality confronting 800,000 federal workers, who on Friday face a second two-week payday with no paychecks.

Underscoring the strains, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., angrily said on the Senate floor that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had forced a 2013 shutdown during which "people were killed" in Colorado from flooding and shuttered federal agencies couldn't help local emergency workers. Moments earlier, Cruz accused Democrats of blocking a separate, doomed bill to pay Coast Guard personnel during this shutdown to score political points, adding later, "Just because you hate somebody doesn't mean you should shut the government down."

Thursday's votes came after Vice President Mike Pence lunched privately with GOP senators, who told him they were itching for the standoff to end, participants said. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said their message to Pence was, "Find a way forward."

The Democratic proposal got two more votes Thursday than the GOP plan, even though Republicans control the chamber 53-47. Six Republicans backed the Democratic plan, including freshman Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who's clashed periodically with the president.

The Senate first rejected a Republican plan reopening the government through September and giving Trump the $5.7 billion he's demanded for building segments of that wall, a project that he'd long promised Mexico would finance. The 50-47 vote for the measure fell 10 shy of the 60 votes needed to succeed.

Minutes later, senators voted 52-44 for a Democratic alternative that sought to open padlocked agencies through Feb. 8 with no wall money. That was eight votes short. It was aimed at giving bargainers time to seek an accord while getting paychecks to government workers who are either working without pay or being forced to stay home.

Flustered lawmakers said Thursday's roll calls could be a reality check that would prod the start of talks. Throughout, the two sides have issued mutually exclusive demands that have blocked negotiations from even starting: Trump has refused to reopen government until Congress gives him the wall money, and congressional Democrats have rejected bargaining until he reopens government.

Initially, partisan potshots flowed freely.

Pelosi accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross of a "'Let them eat cake' kind of attitude" after he said on television that he didn't understand why unpaid civil servants were resorting to homeless shelters for food. Even as Pelosi offered to meet the president "anytime," Trump stood firm, tweeting, "Without a Wall it all doesn't work.... We will not Cave!"

As the Senate debated the two dueling proposals, McConnell said the Democratic plan would let that party's lawmakers "make political points and nothing else" because Trump wouldn't sign it. He called Pelosi's opposition "unreasonable" and said, "Senate Democrats are not obligated to go down with her ship."

In consultation with their Senate counterparts, House Democrats were preparing a new border security package that might be rolled out Friday. The Democratic package was expected to include $5.7 billion, the same amount Trump wants for his wall, but it would be used instead for fencing, technology, personnel and other measures.