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The Nebraska football team is planning to open its April 17 practice to 4,000 fans.

Biden sells infrastructure plan
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PITTSBURGH — President Joe Biden on Wednesday outlined a $2.3 trillion plan to reengineer the nation's infrastructure over the next eight years in what he billed as "a once in a generation investment in America" that would undo his predecessor's signature legislative achievement of giant tax cuts for corporations in the process.

Speaking at a carpenters union training center in Pittsburgh, Biden drew comparisons between his hard-hatted proposed transformation of the U.S. economy and the space race — and promised results as grand in scale as the New Deal or Great Society programs that shaped the 20th century.

"It's not a plan that tinkers around the edges," Biden said. "It's a once-in-a-generation investment in America unlike anything we've seen or done since we built the interstate highway system and the space race decades ago. In fact, it's the largest American jobs investment since World War II. It will create millions of jobs, good-paying jobs."

White House officials say the spending would generate those jobs as the country shifts away from fossil fuels and combats the perils of climate change. It is also an effort to compete with the technology and public investments made by China, which has the world's second-largest economy and is fast gaining on the United States' dominant position.

"I'm convinced that if we act now, in 50 years people are going to look back and say this is the moment when America won the future," Biden said.

Funding for the infrastructure projects would come from a hike on corporate taxes that would aim to raise the necessary piles of money over 15 years and then reduce the deficit going forward. In doing so, Biden would undo the action by Trump and congressional Republicans to lift the corporate tax rate to 28% from the 21% rate set in a 2017 overhaul.

"Ninety-one Fortune 500 Companies, including Amazon, pay not a single solitary penny in income tax," Biden said.

Wednesday's announcement will be followed in coming weeks by Biden pushing a companion bill of roughly equal size for investments in child care, family tax credits and other domestic programs. That nearly $2 trillion package would be paid for by tax hikes on wealthy individuals and families.

"Wall Street didn't build this country," Biden said. "You, the great middle class, built this country. And unions built the middle class."

Biden's choice of Pittsburgh for unveiling the plan carried important economic and political resonance. He not only won Pittsburgh and its surrounding county to help secure the presidency, but also launched his campaign there in 2019. The city famed for steel mills that powered America's industrial rise has steadily pivoted toward technology and health care, drawing in college graduates in a sign of how economies can change.

The Democratic president's infrastructure projects would be financed by higher corporate taxes — a trade-off that could lead to fierce resistance from the business community and thwart attempts to work with Republicans lawmakers. Biden hopes to pass an infrastructure plan by summer, which could mean relying solely on the slim Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate.

The White House says the largest chunk of the proposal includes $621 billion for roads, bridges, public transit, electric vehicle charging stations and other transportation infrastructure. The spending would push the country away from internal combustion engines that the auto industry views as an increasingly antiquated technology.

An additional $111 billion would go to replace lead water pipes and upgrade sewers. Broadband internet would blanket the country for $100 billion. Separately, $100 billion would upgrade the power grid to deliver clean electricity. Homes would get retrofitted, schools modernized, workers trained and hospitals renovated under the plan, which also seeks to strengthen U.S. manufacturing.

The new construction could keep the economy running hot, coming on the heels of Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Economists already estimate it could push growth above 6% this year.

To keep companies from shifting profits overseas to avoid taxation, a 21% global minimum tax would be imposed. The tax code would also be updated so that companies could not merge with a foreign business and avoid taxes by moving their headquarters to a tax haven. And among other provisions, it would increase IRS audits of corporations.

Biden appealed for Republicans and the business community to join him in negotiations on the bill, but the legislative prospects for Biden's twin proposals already appear to hinge on Democrats coming up with the votes on their own through the budget reconciliation process, which requires just a simple majority in the 50-50 Senate.

Democratic leaders embraced Biden's plan on Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said it would create millions of jobs.

"I look forward to working with President Biden to pass a big, bold plan that will drive America forward for decades to come," Schumer said at an event in Buffalo.

But key GOP and business leaders were already panning the package.

"It seems like President Biden has an insatiable appetite to spend more money and raise people's taxes," Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the GOP whip, said in an interview.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell dismissed Biden's package as nothing more than a "Trojan horse" for tax hikes.

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Senators confirm LIBA president to state Health Board, question nominating process
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The Legislature confirmed the appointments of seven people to the state Board of Health on Wednesday, including the president and CEO of the Lincoln Independent Business Association.

Lawmakers ultimately approved appointing Bud Synhorst to the state Health Board on a 37-7 vote, but only after several senators — all Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature — criticized Gov. Pete Ricketts' pick as well as the process to confirm him.

What typically is a routine duty in the Legislature turned into a lengthy debate, as Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh called on senators to reject Synhorst, a former executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.

Cavanaugh said Synhorst’s lobbying on behalf of LIBA against public health measures put in place to control the spread of the coronavirus should prevent him from serving on the Board of Health.

Sen. John Arch of Papillion, who chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, and others said they didn’t believe Synhorst's work as a lobbyist should disqualify him, however.

Cavanaugh also suggested Synhorst bore responsibility for some of the venom directed toward Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez after the department instituted a mask mandate last summer that several businesses opposed.

“He has been very outspoken against the public health director of Lancaster County,” Cavanaugh said, “and now we’re going to put him on the Board of Health?”

Her comments drew rebuke from Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist and other Republican state lawmakers who vouched for Synhorst’s character and said they called him a friend, or an adviser who helped them run for office.

Geist said Synhorst personally follows public health guidelines, including wearing a mask when it’s required, and said he has experience that qualifies him to serve on the board, dismissing the opposition to his appointment as a political attack “to drag his name through the mud.”

But that, in turn, led opponents to Synhorst’s appointment to say that supporters were backing him only because they owed him a political favor.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt said one-party rule in Nebraska, where Republicans control every statewide office and make up a majority of the Legislature, allowed leaders to appoint political supporters to boards and commissions as a political reward rather than tap subject matter experts.

“We all know that’s how it really works,” Hunt said.

Hunt also questioned whether the state constitution would allow Synhorst to serve on both the Board of Health, which is under the purview of the executive branch, as well as a judiciary branch committee responsible for nominating district court judges.

And Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen said in addition to opposing Synhorst because of positions the lobbyist had taken “contrary to public health,” said he was concerned that so many senators felt comfortable openly supporting someone who had helped their political careers.

“That’s not the candor we want on the floor of the Legislature,” Hansen said.

Reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, Synhorst said statements about his work as LIBA’s lobbyist and as a Republican party leader and political consultant made by opponents to his nomination were “untrue.”

While it was his job to direct campaign funds to Republicans as NEGOP’s executive director, Synhorst said he seldom made personal donations to candidates. He also added LIBA did not take a position on Lincoln’s mask mandate, but advocated policies that would allow businesses to reopen.

He also said he has submitted his name for other positions throughout the years that have interested him before he was tapped by Ricketts last December.

“I’ve always encouraged other people, when the governor is looking to make appointments, to consider getting engaged and involved in their government,” Synhorst said. “If you preach it, you should do it.”

Synhorst said his experience at Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, where he worked as a member of the executive team and on the hospital’s foundation for three years, piqued his interest in the state Health Board and gave him insight into its work.

The opposition to Synhorst’s nomination was the entry point for a larger discussion on the process — or lack thereof — when it comes to the Legislature confirming gubernatorial appointments.

Cavanaugh said the Legislature is only told who the governor nominates to fill vacancies on a board and has no idea who else may have applied for those positions, which could mean qualified candidates were passed over.

She said Ricketts nominees — all men — continued a lack of representation on the Board of Health, where just 1 of the 17 members are women, and highlighted the resumes of several women she said were more qualified than Synhorst.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne pointed out that none of the current board members serve communities in the eastern half of Omaha, where roughly 20% of Nebraska’s population lives, including dense pockets of Black and Latino populations, and where the University of Nebraska Medical Center or the Creighton University Med Center are located.

Wayne said race and geography shouldn’t be the final deciding factors for who can serve on what board. But, he added, there is a way for lawmakers to be intentional about diversity and inclusion in doing “what is best for Nebraska.”

“It’s easier to keep doing what we’ve always done,” he said. “At some point, we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We need to be intentional about what we’re doing.”


Meet the state senators making laws in 2021

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Nebraska opening up vaccines to anyone, will adjust supply to meet demand across state
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Gov. Pete Ricketts on Wednesday announced two notable changes in Nebraska's COVID-19 vaccine plans.

Starting Monday, the state will open up the vaccines to anyone who is eligible under federal guidelines. That's people 16 or older for the Pfizer vaccine and anyone 18 or older for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

That doesn't mean anyone who wants a shot will be able to get one, however. Several health districts, including the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, are still slowly working through groups based on age.

Health Director Pat Lopez said Tuesday that mass clinics are planned next week for people 55 and older.

Lopez also on Tuesday expressed frustration that the county is not getting enough vaccine to meet its demand.

"That's almost a conversation I have daily, to ask for more vaccine," she said.

Those efforts appear to finally be bearing fruit.

Ricketts on Wednesday said the state has started to "dynamically manage" the vaccine supply to send more doses to health districts that are seeing higher demand.

That could potentially mean more vaccine being shuttled to the Lincoln and Omaha areas, where the focus remains on vaccinating older people, and less going to more rural districts that have had trouble filling appointments and have opened them up to younger people.

"We're going to be moving those allocations to areas of more demand," Ricketts said.

He specifically mentioned that Lincoln and Omaha are seeing more demand for vaccines from their senior populations and said the state would work to allocate more shots to balance out demand.

While Lincoln continues to work through the 50-and-older population that is the focus of the current vaccine Phase 2A, Douglas County announced Wednesday that it is opening up appointments to people as young as 45.

Another factor that could lead to more vaccine availability is additional doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine being distributed.

Ricketts said federal officials have announced plans to allocate 5.1 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to states, and another 5.1 million doses to the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. He did not say how many additional doses that will mean for Nebraska.

The announcements came as the governor expressed concern about a recent uptick in hospitalizations. There were 116 COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of Tuesday, an increase of nearly 14% from Monday and the highest number in more than a week. Hospitalizations in Lincoln have increased from 18 on Monday to 27 as of Wednesday, a 50% increase.

The state also has seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases over the past couple of weeks.

Dr. Gary Anthone, the state's chief medical officer, said there were about 50 more cases in the past week than there were the previous week, although he noted that there also were about 1,500 more tests performed.

"That's something that we're always keeping our eye on," he said.

Anthone said the best way to blunt any potential surge is for people to continue to sign up and get vaccinated and to continue to follow mitigation measures, such as wearing a mask when appropriate.

As of Tuesday, 21.6% of the the 16-and-older population in the state was fully vaccinated, and more than one-third of adults have been partially vaccinated.

The two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90% effective at preventing infection after people are fully vaccinated with two shots, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is around 75% effective.

Anthone did say the state has now identified about 15 cases of people getting COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated, although it has not confirmed all of those cases.

"It's to be expected," he said. "I mean, the vaccines are not 100% effective."

However, Anthone noted those cases make up less than 0.1% of all people in the state who have been fully vaccinated.

Ricketts also said Wednesday that he is scheduled to get his first vaccine dose in Douglas County on Saturday. He did not say where it will take place, but he will be doing it publicly and will invite media to attend.


Photos: COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Lincoln for those 80 and over

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Health department, Black clergy team up to vaccinate members of Lincoln's minority community
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A vaccine clinic on Wednesday focused specifically on getting vaccines into the arms of Lincoln’s residents of color.

During the three-hour clinic at Mount Zion Baptist Church, 275 people were to receive their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

The clinic offered an opportunity for Black residents of Lincoln, and members of other minority communities, to get the vaccine, communities which have been especially affected by the pandemic, the Rev. Tremaine Combs said.

“This is an opportunity for us to deal with some of the effects of the fact that COVID-19 has hit minority populations across the United States at disproportionate numbers,” Mount Zion's pastor said. “We're trying our best to provide an opportunity — access for minority populations in the city of Lincoln to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Combs said the clinic was the result of collaboration between Lincoln’s Black clergy and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department and stemmed from a virtual town hall held in February aimed at addressing questions from the Black community about the vaccine.

“This is not the work of one person, this is not the work of one group of people, this is the work of the community,” he said.

Health Department Director Pat Lopez said she was thankful for the help of Black church leaders in making the clinic possible.

“This is very important to us," she said, "part of what we as public health officials feel is critical."

To date, white residents of Lancaster County have received 90.5% of the vaccine doses administered, while comprising 80.7% of the county's population, Health Department records show.

Nonwhite residents, however, have disproportionally come down with COVID-19, accounting for 29% of the county's confirmed cases.

Combs emphasized that Wednesday's clinic at the northeast Lincoln church was not organized to try to force the vaccine onto people, but instead to make it more easily available to those who want to receive it.

“Our job is not to force anybody's hand, but to engage in advocacy and access,” he said. “When you give access, people have the right to say no to it, the right to reject it, and we have to be OK with that decision.”

However, Combs said most people he talked to responded enthusiastically to getting the vaccine, which he said signaled a change in the Black community’s trust of the medical system.

“I think that this shows that there is some degree of turnaround that's taking place, that our community is starting to trust not just the science but also our public health officials,” he said.

The success of the clinic provides hope for further building trust between the local Black community and the Health Department, Combs said.

“We hope that that conversation that we have begun and that we are having with public health officials in our city and county will continue to move forward, and will continue to blossom and grow for the benefit of all people in our community,” he said.


Top Journal Star photos for March