Kearney Hub. Oct. 23, 2014.
Nebraska not getting full share of USDA help
Rural Nebraskans are ruggedly independent people. We're frequently too proud to accept handouts, but quick to extend a hand to others in need. Those are admirable traits, but in our proud independence, are we cheating ourselves out of valuable assistance from Uncle Sam?
In recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has evolved its mission beyond the federal farm program. The USDA now offers help for rural economies with programs to boost housing, provide safe drinking water, increase modern digital communications, support rural businesses and rejuvenate rural manufacturing.
The USDA last week issued state-by-state reports about the federal dollars and numbers of recipients of these programs. A comparison shows Nebraska lagging behind many neighboring states, particularly Missouri and Iowa. The numbers suggest that Nebraskans are either unaware such federal assistance is available, or may not be making an effort to acquire it.
Regardless of the reasons Nebraska isn't receiving the help, rural communities are fighting too hard for their survival not to look into the USDA programs and secure Uncle Sam's assistance. Nebraskans pay federal taxes just like other U.S. citizens; we ought to receive our rightful share back to aid our rural economy.
Here's a sampling from the report:
— USDA has helped 7,877 Nebraska families purchase or repair homes since 2009. Missouri, 35,406; Iowa, 16,406; Kansas, 13,153; Colorado, 9,987; South Dakota, 8,970; and Wyoming, 8,292.
— USDA provided $83.5 million to help rural water supplies in Nebraska. Missouri, $333.2 million; Kansas, $283.9 million; South Dakota, $205.9 million; Iowa, $175 million; and Wyoming, $14.3 million.
— Nebraska received $148.1 million in USDA help with digital connectivity. Kansas, $345 million; Iowa, $299.8 million; Missouri $197.9 million; South Dakota, $100 million; Colorado, $81.6 million; and Wyoming, $60.3 million.
Comparing USDA aid in other categories, including support for rural businesses and rural manufacturers, Nebraska isn't faring much better. USDA investments in rural businesses, manufacturing, energy, water and other infrastructure development can make a difference. Getting a new water tower could save a small town from extinction, while enhanced digital connectivity and access to low-cost business loans could spur population growth through new businesses and manufacturing jobs.
Unless Nebraskans more aggressively pursue federal assistance, we'll continue leaving money on the table and too many of our rural communities will remain at risk.
McCook Daily Gazette. Oct. 24, 2014.
Conservatives get most of their news from fewer sources
If you think America has become too polarized, you might not have to look as far as Washington to find the reason.
You might check the buttons on your remote control to see which ones are worn out.
We were a lot more homogenized when everyone tuned in to the 5:30 p.m. news to see what Walter Cronkite had to say about the Vietnam war or the Watergate scandal.
Cronkite, for his part, felt the responsibility to present a balanced report on the current happenings, his traditional journalistic training winning the vast majority of days over rating or management pressures.
With only three major networks — all of them taking cues from traditional news sources like the New York Times — viewers had the choice of few flavors on the media menu.
Not so today.
First cable television, then the Internet, created an extensive a la carte selection of takes on the day's occurrences.
But many of us don't take advantage of the myriad offerings.
That's especially true of the "consistent conservatives" polled by the Pew Research Journalism Project.
According to the new study, 47 percent of the people in this group cite Fox News as their main source of news about the government and politics.
They also expressed more distrust than trust of 24 of the 36 news sources measured in the survey, but 88 percent of them said they trusted Fox News.
Consistent conservatives are more likely than those in other ideological groups to hear political opinions that are in line with their own views, and are more likely to have friends who share their own political views. Two-thirds say most of their close friends share their views on government and politics.
Those with consistent liberal views, however, rely on a wider variety of news sources — 15 percent CNN, 12 percent MSNBC, 13 percent NPR and 10 percent New York Times. They say they trust 28 of the 36 news outlets in the survey — NPR, PBS and the BBC the most.
They are, however, more likely to block or "defriend" someone on a social network, as well as end a personal friendship, because of politics.
And, they are more likely to follow issue-based groups rather than political parties or candidates in their Facebook feeds.
We don't disagree that much of the traditional media tended to fall toward the left of the political spectrum. We once heard a representative of one of our state's major newspapers say he favored a more liberal stance because that would make the newspaper more attractive to a wider audience.
Bernard Goldberg's book "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News," was an eye-opener when it was published in 2001, if it is to be believed.
But do we have trouble with media outlets which deliberately bias the news to pander to a certain audience in order to increase market share.
Cultivating friends and hearing viewpoints from all parts of the political spectrum in pursuit of the truth is much more invigorating personally and much more helpful in the long run to our political system and society in general.
Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Oct. 23, 2014.
K-12 funding: Nebraska should increase support for schools to provide property tax relief
It's safe to say that some Americans would be fine with dismantling the nation's public school system. They don't like taxes, they don't like educators and if they had their way, they'd create a school system that taught only the subjects and values that met with their approval.
Trouble is, we live in an increasingly global economy. Not only does America have to compete with other nations for international business, its corporations, factories and research facilities have a greater need for workers who can master new technologies and adapt to the complexities of a changing world, with useful knowledge and the skills to interpret and utilize hard data.
So any decline in educational investment ought to be cause for concern. In schools, you don't get what you don't pay for.
The bad news: Thirty states are providing less funding per student in inflation-adjusted dollars for the 2014-15 school year than they did before the recession hit, including 14 that have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent.
The good news: Nebraska isn't one of them. But as we've noted before, Nebraska lags in state funding for education, leaving it to local property taxpayers to shoulder most of the financial burden for basic education. Nebraska ranked 49th nationally in the percentage of state support for schools in FY 2012. Nebraska K-12 schools rely more on local property taxes than virtually any other state. Low spending at the state level means that local school districts have to scale back the educational services they provide, raise more local tax revenue to cover the gap, or both.
A study by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ranked the states on spending trends since the recession. It found that Oklahoma had made the largest spending cuts, at 23.6 percent, while the greatest spending increase came in North Dakota, which has increased state investment in schools by 31.6 percent. Nebraska's 1 percent increase ranked it 16th among the states. It also increased per-pupil state support, by about $29.
Scrimping on education spending brings consequences. A state regents report found that Oklahoma isn't producing enough work-ready graduates with the training they need — as in post-secondary certificates and degrees — to be competitive in the job market, especially in the key science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. That makes it hard for employers to fill good-paying jobs. Sound familiar?
The effect goes beyond community success, the CBPP report said. "At a time when producing workers with high-level technical and analytical skills is increasingly important to a country's prosperity, large cuts in funding for basic education threaten to undermine the nation's economic future."
On average, some 46 percent of total education expenditures in the United States come from state funds, the report said. Yet a recent study by Nebraska's OpenSky Policy institute found that about 58 percent of education funding in Nebraska comes from property taxes and other local resources, compared to the U.S. average of about 45 percent.
In a state with an aging population and with 93 percent of the state used for agricultural production, over-dependence on property taxes makes it difficult for school districts to improve their educational offerings, let alone replace funding lost to state and federal spending cuts.
With new leadership entering state government soon, the issue of property taxes has to be front and center — not only to provide relief for property owners but to bring Nebraska's level of state funding for K-12 education closer to the norm and to craft a more fair way to share existing state funding between rich and poor districts and those that have high property values and those that don't.
Efforts to bring jobs to Nebraska won't be successful if our communities don't have a workforce capable of filling them. Good schools aren't just necessary for educating future generations of children, they're a keystone of a sound, sustainable economic future.
That's something to keep in mind the next time a politician asks for your support.
Lincoln Journal Star. Oct. 26, 2014.
Return of the prairie
When local officials started promoting the Haines Branch prairie corridor three years ago, it almost sounded like a pipe dream.
The Journal Star editorial board was politely encouraging.
"If the effort to establish the Haines Branch prairie greenway can be sustained over time — perhaps decades — the inspiring vision could become reality," we opined.
So it was a bit of a surprise to learn this month that nearly two-thirds of the nearly 7,400 acres needed for the corridor have already been acquired.
That's remarkable progress for a project this ambitious.
The concept of a six-mile prairie corridor to connect Pioneers Park Nature Center with the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center was written into the 2040 Comprehensive Plan as part of a larger concept called the Salt Valley Greenway, a ring of open spaces, parks, trails, lakes, streams and wetlands that includes Wilderness Park and segments of Salt Creek.
Now 23 government agencies, foundations, nonprofit organizations and recreational trail supporters have agreed to help finance the $12.9 million project.
Key to the progress on the prairie corridor are conservation easements like the one signed last year by Dr. David Samani and his wife, Susan, on 144 acres about one and one-half miles north of the 808-acre Spring Creek tallgrass prairie preserve.
Conservation easements are signed voluntarily. Owners continue to pay property taxes, but the easements permanently place limitations on development of the land. The Samanis agreed to prohibit development on 33 acres of native prairie and 47 acres of woodlands. The Samanis will farm 64 acres for the next 10 years, and then convert the land to prairie. The easement allows for a 50-foot public use corridor suitable for a trail.
Also crucial to the rapid progress on the prairie corridor is the Environmental Trust. In an arrangement approved by a statewide vote, the trust allocates proceeds from the state lottery to environmental projects. The trust has approved a $900,000 grant over three years for the first phase of the project to be used for conservation and trail easements.
The project will provide several kinds of public benefits, including protecting the floodplain of the Haines Branch, which is upstream from Lincoln, and reducing the likelihood of flooding in the Capital City.
But the recreational aspect of the project is the one that makes it accessible to the general public.
The quick progress on the corridor makes it easier to imagine groups of hikers ambling along acres of tallgrass prairie rippling in the wind, looking over a vista similar to that the sodbusters found when they came to Nebraska in the 1880s.