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Nebraska's Oliver Martin catches a punt in the second half against Illinois on Nov. 21 at Memorial Stadium.

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Officials welcome Offutt planes to temporary home — 'Lincoln Air Force Base'
  • Updated

For the first time in more than five decades, Lincoln is officially home to an Air Force base — temporary as it may be. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts symbolically "reopened" the Lincoln Air Force Base during a ceremony Friday in which the Offutt Air Force Base's 55th Wing was formally welcomed at the airport's Nebraska Air National Guard base.

Planes and crew members from the 55th Wing made the move in February from Offutt, where a nearly $150 million runway construction project is underway. 

The governor joined the mayors of Lincoln and Bellevue and other Air National Guard and Air Force officials and airmen at the guard's main hangar for the ceremony that was pushed inside because of rain.

Lt. Gen Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard, called it a "great day" for those involved in the move and for national security.

"This is a terrific partnership," he said.

The 55th Wing joins the Air National Guard's 155th Refueling Wing already stationed in Lincoln.

The Air Force wing has used Lincoln as a haven before. In 2006, the Offutt planes flew out of Lincoln for six months because of runway maintenance. Lincoln provided a home for the fleet during the flooding of 2019, too.

"They're like family to us," Col. Gavin Marks, commander of the 55th Wing, said of the Lincoln base and its personnel. "This feels like a second home."

Lincoln's airport has deep aviation roots. It was home to burgeoning flight schools and plane factories in the 1920s, said Col. John Williams, commander of the refueling wing. 

The city was home to an army airfield during World War II, and after a brief closure, the airfield was home to the Strategic Air Command's nuclear deterrence program. Then, the Lincoln Air Force Base was established in 1952 to host nuclear bomber and intercontinental ballistic units. The base was deactivated in 1966, transitioning to the municipal airport it is now.

"This is really part of the tradition of the community," Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said.

The 55th Wing, comprised of OC-135s, RC-135s and WC-135s, performs intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic-attack missions.

Nearly 900 airmen will commute to Lincoln daily over the next two years, joining the hundreds of aviation personnel from the Air National Guard and Army National Guard at the base. 

"We're going to have an air force in Lincoln that is larger than many countries' air force," Ricketts said.

Plans to replace Offutt's 80-year-old runway have been in the works since 2014. The planes are expected to be stationed in Lincoln until September 2022.

The move is a boost for Lincoln's airport. The Air Force spent nearly $40 million in upgrades to airport facilities, and "those will pay dividends far into the future," Gaylor Baird said.

And to those who hear more rumbling in the skies, the mayor said to keep in mind what the collaboration means for the country.

"It is temporary, but it's a way that we can support the men and women who serve our country every day," she said.

The "reopening" of Air Force bases have become rare since the end of the Cold War. Even if it's just a temporary move, Williams said the relocation was "historic." 

"Welcome back." 

Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years

Biden unlikely to get many more 'red flag' laws
  • Updated

IOWA CITY, Iowa — President Joe Biden faces an uphill battle as he tries to revive a push for more state laws that would allow authorities to temporarily disarm people who are considered a danger to themselves or others.

The political circumstances surrounding this year's effort are drastically different than they were three years ago, when state lawmakers, governors of both parties and former President Donald Trump embraced the extreme-risk protection orders after the 2018 mass shooting that killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Officials in Florida and several other states quickly adopted so-called red flag laws, hailing the court-ordered removal of guns from people judged to be dangerous as a way to prevent suicides, domestic violence and mass shootings. Trump's commission on school shootings in December 2018 recommended that other states follow suit.

But momentum for the legislation has stalled after intense pushback from gun rights activists, increasing opposition from rank-and-file Republicans and key defeats for Democratic supporters of gun control in the November elections. Critics argue the laws can strip people of their right to bear arms based on unproven accusations, even as evidence mounts that they save lives.

After a significant drop in mass shootings in the United States during a pandemic-hit 2020, this year has already seen several deadly cases.

Police in Indianapolis say eight people were shot and killed in a shooting late Thursday at a FedEx facility. The shooter also killed himself.

It follows a lull in mass killings during the pandemic in 2020, which had the smallest number of such attacks in more than a decade, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. That database tracks mass killings defined as four or more dead, not including the shooter.

Biden announced last week that his administration would publish model legislation in the next 60 days to encourage more states to pass red flag laws. His administration also is urging Congress to approve legislation giving states incentives to pass them, which could include millions of dollars in grant funding for implementation.

Still, advocates say they do not expect many, if any, of the 31 states without those laws to adopt them this year.

"We are now pushing against somewhat of a wall. The easier targets have been done," said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, which has played a key role in modeling the laws after domestic violence restraining orders. "But we're in it for the long haul. I'm confident that in 20 years, this will be almost everywhere."

Horwitz said the laws in many states are still new, and he is working to educate local officials on how to use them. He said a federal grant program to incentivize implementation would be a great step, and he is urging lawmakers not to wait for tragedies to act.

The measures typically allow police and family members to petition courts for civil orders to temporarily strip the gun rights of those who are exhibiting warning signs of violence. Emergency orders that last days can be issued immediately. Judges later determine whether to extend them up to a year, based on evidence presented at a hearing. Respondents can surrender their firearms or have them removed by police, and are barred from purchasing weapons as long as the order remains in effect.

Nineteen states have versions of the laws in place, and research suggests they can reduce suicides and prevent other forms of gun violence. Supporters say they allow people to work through mental health, substance abuse or other crises while unarmed. Thousands of orders have been granted to disarm suicidal, threatening or other unstable people, from California to Connecticut to Florida, although their use has been uneven based on the discretion of local officials.

Bills have been introduced in at least 14 states this year to adopt red flag laws, but have had no success advancing.

The Nebraska Legislature has considered the issue in the past but has taken no action.

"I oppose the so-called red flag laws endorsed by the president because they would violate the due process rights of gun owners," Gov. Pete Ricketts said recently.

On March 31, a Tennessee House subcommittee voted down a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, who said the orders were "all about keeping people safe." Republican Rep. John Gillespie said he worried the law "could be abused very, very quickly" because it would allow ex-spouses to file petitions. Another Republican said it would be worse than doing nothing because police could be put in harm's way if forced to seize weapons.

Virginia was the last state to adopt the orders a year ago, after Democrats took over the General Assembly.

Biden said states with them have seen drops in suicides and that they can have a "significant effect in protecting women" from violence and disarming would-be mass shooters: "It's time to put these laws on the books and protect even more people," Biden said.

Horwitz said he was hopeful that more federal money might win over some state lawmakers. Congress is expected to consider creating a grant program that would help states pay for training court officials and police, collecting data, developing procedures and forms, and raising public awareness about the orders.

National Rifle Association spokeswoman Amy Hunter said the state-by-state push has stalled due to "significant public opposition." She said the laws can deny due process, allow false and malicious claims and do not provide mental health services for those who need them.

Nebraska’s Madi Kubik celebrates a kill against Minnesota in the fourth set on Friday at the Devaney Sports Center. Minnesota won 3-1.

Sports betting money tempts cash-strapped states
  • Updated

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — States around the country are realizing what gamblers figured out long ago: The future of sports betting — and tax money to be made from it — is online.

But they're also realizing that extra tax money isn't nearly enough to turn seas of red ink into black. That was the case even before the coronavirus pandemic blew huge holes in state budgets.

Currently, 15 states plus Washington, D.C., offer mobile sports betting, and several others are considering adopting it. New York is poised to become one of the largest markets in the U.S., passing a budget last week that includes mobile sports wagering after years of opposition by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is expected to sign it.

More than 80% of sports betting in the U.S. is done via smartphone or computer, and New York lawmakers grew tired of watching residents drive, take trains or even ride bicycles across the Hudson River into New Jersey to make sports bets — money that went to New Jersey's casino and tax coffers instead of their own.

“New Jersey in January did $83 million in revenue; New York, which had its highest month ever in history, did $3 million,” said New York Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr., who added that 25% of New Jersey's sports betting business comes from New Yorkers. “The disparity between the states that have mobile sports betting and those that don’t is as wide as the Grand Canyon. How much longer can you sit back and watch money just flow out of your state into another state?”

Important details remain to be worked out on exactly how mobile sports betting would work in New York, and it could be 2022 — Super Bowl Sunday is an oft-mentioned target — before its residents can actually make bets online.

Chris Krafcik, managing director of Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, which tracks gambling legislation, said as many as seven additional states could legalize mobile sports betting this year: Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine and Ohio. By year's end, 20 to 23 states could offer it, he said.

In November, Nebraska voters approved casino gambling at horse racetracks, but that does not include online sports betting.

In 2019, a panel of experts predicted that 90% of sports betting in the United States will be done over mobile phones or the internet in the next five to 10 years.

But two years later, we're almost there already: Nationwide, 81% of sports bets are made online, according to the American Gaming Association. For the first two months of 2021, that figure rose to 85%. In New Jersey, the largest sports betting market in the nation, 92% of bets last year were made online.

Mattias Stetz, the chief operating officer of Rush Street Interactive, which operates and in Pennsylvania, said 87% of his company's sports betting is done via mobile devices in markets where both online and in-person are available.

“It is clear from the numbers that mobile and online sports betting is very important to the overall sports betting industry,” he said. “Sports fans are enjoying the option of betting from the comfort of their homes.”

It's also long been clear that tax money from sports betting, while a welcome addition under the “something is better than nothing” doctrine, is not a panacea for cash-strapped states.

Michigan launched online sports betting in late January and handled nearly $302 million in wagers in February, the quickest that any state had reached that level of betting action. That led Richard Kalm, executive director of the state's Gaming Control Board, to say “We've been drinking from a fire hose” in terms of dealing with a surge of gambling money.

But the sportsbooks kept just $9.5 million of that and paid $142,240 in taxes on it. Sports betting in Michigan is taxed at 8.4%, lower than in numerous other states, at least two of which keep 50% or more of total sports betting revenue.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, in a report last month, acknowledged the gap between the seemingly vast amount of money being wagered and the much smaller amount of it flowing to states as tax revenue. The average sportsbook keeps about 7.2% of the bets it handles; taxes are assessed on that amount, not on the much larger total amount of money wagered.

"Still, the potential revenue has been a big selling point for legalizing sports betting in many states," the conference wrote in its report. “From that perspective, mobile options appear  likely to increase."

But, it added, “States looking to close budget gaps with sports betting revenue may be disappointed, especially as more and more states legalize and take their slice of the market.”

New Jersey saw more than $6 billion wagered last year alone. Yet its cut of that was $50 million, just a fraction of 1% of the state's $40 billion budget.

In Pennsylvania, about three-quarters of the $38.7 million in state tax revenue that came from sports betting was due to mobile bets in fiscal year 2020. Its state budget was more than $36 billion.

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Remote-learning students at lowest level since start of LPS school year
  • Updated

As the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department prepares to take vaccines into the city's high schools, the number of Lincoln Public Schools students learning remotely has dropped to its lowest level since schools reopened in August.

As of Friday, 5,537 students — 13.9% of the district's enrollment — were learning remotely, down from the December peak when nearly 1 in 4 students was enrolled in remote learning.

In Friday's email message to families, district officials said May 7 will be the last day they can request a switch between remote and in-person learning for the last two weeks of school.

The only exceptions will be for in-person students required to quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19.

May 20 is the last day of classes in LPS. Graduation ceremonies are a week later, extending over Memorial Day weekend.

The district sent an email to parents Thursday informing them that students age 16 and older can get vaccinated through a local Health Department clinic, and Health Department officials said they expect to begin holding clinics in high schools as early as next week.

The Health Department said high schools would be sending information to families with site-specific registration links for the clinics. Families have until Tuesday to register, then they will be notified to schedule an appointment.

Getting students vaccinated is a key step in schools being able to open under more normal conditions next fall, Superintendent Steve Joel told Lincoln Board of Education members on Tuesday.

LPS, however, will have a remote-learning option for students next year, a program that will be structured differently than this year.

Students who choose remote learning next year will be placed in their own "school," a program created using federal relief funds as a dedicated space with its own principal, teachers and classes.

Currently, remote learners work simultaneously with in-person learners in a hybrid model with teachers overseeing both groups.

Since the start of the school year, LPS says that 1,751 students — about 4.4% of LPS enrollment — have tested positive for COVID-19. Nearly a third of students, however, have been required to quarantine after a positive test or exposure to someone with the coronavirus.

Give your kids a daily report card? Experts say parents should monitor virtual learning