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Ricketts says Nebraska doesn't need new task force on prison staffing

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that the state doesn’t need a new task force to explore the staffing shortages at state prisons but that the Department of Corrections is always open to new strategies to fill vacant posts and reduce high worker turnover.

“If someone has some ideas, I certainly suggest they get them to us or talk to (State Corrections Director) Scott Frakes,” said Ricketts, in his first public comments about a critical state watchdog’s annual report.

That report, issued a week ago, described a continued “downward spiral” in hiring and retention of state prison staff, particularly the officers, corporals and sergeants who guard inmates.

Nebraska spent a record $15 million on overtime to fill vacant posts last year, according to the report, and turnover of security staff, while down slightly, was still roughly 30%, which is about twice the rate considered desirable.

The report, written by Doug Koebernick, the Legislature’s Inspector General for Corrections, recommended that the governor quickly convene a task force of prison officials, corrections workers and human resources professionals to come up with new strategies to hire and retain staff so that the Legislature can consider it soon.

The report cast doubt on whether some current strategies, such as hiring bonuses, are working. It also questioned whether the agency will be able to hire staff for prison expansions that are underway that will add 484 new beds. The state offered hiring bonuses in 2017, but only 33% of those who received those bonuses are still on the job. In April, hiring bonuses were offered to the first 100 new hires, but the state, five months later, still hasn’t found a full 100 takers.

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“Nebraska can hope that the staffing situation will resolve itself in the next year or two, but definite action needs to be taken,” the report says.

Ricketts, questioned after a press conference on national hunting and fishing day, said Corrections has its own “internal” task force that includes experts in the field.

He added that the state has employed a variety of strategies, including some borrowed from the private sector, to deal with a shortage of labor that is a challenge for all employers. The state’s unemployment stands at 3.1%, and state business leaders have labeled the workforce shortage a “crisis” and the No. 1 economic issue for Nebraska.

The governor mentioned not only the hiring and referral bonuses offered by Corrections, but also the busing upward of 70 prison workers a day from Omaha to facilities that have labor shortages. The state’s new labor contract, he added, provided immediate raises of up to 12.5% for some veteran corrections officers. Corrections also has stepped up its advertising of job openings, held hiring fairs and is trying to better target potential applicants who want to make prison work a career.

“We’ve seen some improvement ... but we know we still have more work to do,” Ricketts said.

An Omaha man is now in his fourth week of conducting a weekday vigil outside the Governor’s Mansion in Lincoln. Paul Feilmann has said he’ll keep it up until the governor forms a new committee to look at problems, including prison overcrowding, plaguing Corrections and the state’s youth rehabilitation centers. Ricketts said Monday that he hadn’t talked to Feilmann and didn’t plan to.

Notable crime news of 2019

Other states nix GOp contests, but Iowa, N.H. won't let go

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire are vowing to hold presidential nominating contests next year, even as party leaders in a handful of other states have canceled their primaries or caucuses to help smooth President Donald Trump's path to reelection.

"Under no circumstances will the New Hampshire primary ever be canceled, whether there's token opposition or a serious contest," Steve Duprey, New Hampshire's national Republican committeeman, said in an interview.

"It was never even up for discussion," echoed Iowa GOP National Committeeman Steve Scheffler in a separate interview. "We're not going to shut the door on anyone and say, 'You're not welcome.' "

The Iowa caucuses are set for Feb. 3; the New Hampshire primary will be Feb. 11.

Three Republicans have stepped up to challenge Trump's claim to his party's 2020 presidential nomination: former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld; Mark Sanford, a former South Carolina governor and U.S. House member; and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh. None of them is expected to generate enough support to defeat — or even embarrass — the incumbent president in the months leading up to the November 2020 general election.

Still, Trump allies on the ground in South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Kansas have moved to cancel their 2020 GOP contests altogether to eliminate the possibility of trouble. Some said the cancellations were simply a cost-cutting measure, yet they follow aggressive steps by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee in recent months to strengthen Trump's reelection chances.

Canceling primaries is not unprecedented, but it is not common. Republicans and Democrats canceled presidential nominating contests to protect incumbents in 10 or fewer states in 1992, 1996, 2004 and 2012.

Longtime Iowa GOP operative David Kochel, a frequent Trump critic, said he doesn't ascribe "a sinister motive" to the recently announced cancellations. It's often a political party's job to help incumbents win reelection, he said. While polls suggest that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters support Trump, some veteran GOP officials were troubled by the decisions to cancel elections altogether, dismissing the cost-cutting motive as spin.

"This was a shady backroom deal where a small group of party insiders made a big decision that stops hundreds of thousands of voters from participating in the process," said South Carolina Republican operative Rob Godfrey, who previously worked for the state GOP and former Gov. Nikki Haley. One New Hampshire Republican official went further. Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman, said, "This is the kind of thing that happens in autocratic nations led by dictators.''

"One way to ensure that the president of Russia gets 98% of the vote is you don't allow anyone else on the ballot," Cullen said.

The incumbent president is not expected to accept invitations for traditional primary activities, such as debates.

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh would say only that "President Trump's election is in November 2020."

Trump himself, however, has already given his trio of challengers a derogatory nickname. "The Three Stooges, all badly failed candidates, will give it a go!" the president tweeted after Walsh and Sanford formally joined Weld in the Republican field.

Both Walsh and Sanford have begun reaching out to potential supporters in New Hampshire, the state that has emerged as the unofficial staging ground of the GOP's "Never Trump" movement. Jennifer Horn, another former state party chair, has become a fierce Trump critic, as have several former Republican officeholders in the state.

Cullen said the primary cancellations elsewhere mean that "New Hampshire is the only game in town" for a real Trump challenge.

"If anything, this means that the place to send a message is New Hampshire," Cullen said. "It already was, but now there's literally no other options."

Even in the Granite State, however, Trump is expected to easily beat back primary challengers. And the bar may be high even for those Republicans hoping to embarrass Trump by denying him a significant portion of the vote.

President Barack Obama, for example, won New Hampshire's 2012 presidential primary with around 81% of the vote.

Still, New Hampshire Republicans will at least get a chance to be heard. The first-in-the-nation primary can be canceled only by changing state law.

New Hampshire GOP Chairman Stephen Stepanek, who ran the Trump campaign's New Hampshire efforts in 2016, said he could "never conceive of the New Hampshire primary ever being canceled for any reason."

The level of enthusiasm for Trump among New Hampshire Republicans "is just overwhelming," he said. He also predicted that Trump will get "well into the 90s" in the state's 2020 GOP primary.

"I think they're going to be very excited to vote for him just to show their support for him," Stepanek said.

Suffering huge losses in Nebraska, beekeepers blame chemicals, weather and more

The Good Life is far from sweet for the honeybee these days.

The official Nebraska state insect is feeling the sting of agricultural chemicals, unfavorable weather, flooding and mites, according to beekeepers big and small.

Keeping bees here has been so challenging lately that U.S. commercial beekeeping giant Adee Honey Farms recently gave up on Nebraska as a place to put hives during the summer months.

The company, which has almost 82,000 hives and trucks hives across the country to pollinate fruit and vegetables, had kept 12,000 hives in Nebraska — almost 500 million bees.

At one time, Nebraska had been the company’s top honey-producing state.

The state, with its open ranges and river bottoms, offered prime locations for bees to rest, recuperate and make honey.

This year, the company put no hives here. Its bee losses in the state were 82% last year, so severe that the company moved what bees it could salvage to South Dakota, a company official said.

“You start suffering losses over 50% with honeybees, you can’t breed them as fast as they’re dying,” said Bret Adee, partner in the family beekeeping operation, which is the country’s largest.

Losing a major commercial beekeeper is “huge,” said professor Judy Wu-Smart, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“He had a lot of apiaries, and so there was a lot of pollination services being accounted for by these bees that are no longer being provided,” she said.

An apiary is a collection of beehives. The Adee beehives were in central Nebraska, generally between Columbus and Arnold.

Soybeans and corn, the state’s bread-and-butter crops, are wind-pollinated, but studies show that soybeans benefit from bee visits, Wu-Smart said.

The crops most affected will be what’s sold at the farmers market: pumpkins, squash, melons, orchard fruit, apples, pears, plums and herbs, she said.

Beekeepers say a combination of culprits is hurting bees, but they put pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and the Varroa mite at the top of the list.

The parasitic mite originated in Asia and sprang up in the U.S. in the 1980s. It attacks bees and spreads disease.

Commercial operations aren’t alone in bee losses.

Lynn Danzer, president of the Omaha Bee Club, said eight of its 10 hives in a field behind the Bohemian Cemetery died over the past winter.

“Never happened before,” he said. “We’ve had losses, but not that devastating.”

A big factor, he said, was wet weather contributing to mold in the hives.

Danzer has also seen a decline in wild bees. Three years ago, he got called out 60 times to remove swarming bees from someone’s property.

This year, he’s gotten 12 calls.

Ron Babcock, president of the Nebraska Beekeepers Association, farms 160 acres southeast of Hastings and has 35 hives.

Keepers expect to lose 10% or 20% a year, but this year, the smaller operations like his lost on average about 40%, he said.

In addition, flooding in March took some of the state’s hives, Babcock said.

“There’s a lot of them washed away and never found again,” he said.

Carla Wostrel, owner of Union Orchard in Union, Nebraska, said she lost five of the 10 hives that pollinate her trees.

Wostrel said she tries to minimize spraying and use natural products at the orchard, but there’s no controlling what’s applied to other people’s farm fields where bees may forage.

Last winter was tough on bees across the country.

An annual nationwide survey of beekeepers by the Bee Informed Partnership estimated that almost 38% of honeybee colonies died over the winter of 2018-19.

That was the highest level of winter losses reported since the survey began in 2006-07, the partnership said.

The loss was 7 percentage points greater than the previous year’s and 8.9 percentage points higher than the 13-year average winter colony loss rate.

Wu-Smart said that two decades ago, when alfalfa seed production was big, Nebraska was one of the top honey-producing states.

Much honey production has shifted to North and South Dakota, where there’s a greater concentration of sunflower, canola and alfalfa being grown, she said.

Part of the problem in Nebraska is a lack of forage and lack of quality forage for bees, she said.

“You need proper nutrition in order to mount immune responses to combat some of the pest and pathogen issues,” she said. “So if you don’t have a proper diet, or don’t have a diverse diet, then you’re not obtaining these essential amino acids that the bees need to fight disease, infections and pests.”

Other factors that affect bees are the ups and downs of heat, she said. This season saw a lot of rain and heat, she said.

Wet weather can change the vegetation in the landscape, favoring grasses or wind-pollinated plants, she said. Odd weather can disrupt the timing of when plants bloom and bees emerge.

Adee said his company will try to get its hives full again to help meet the demand from growers of bee-dependent crops like avocados, almonds, apples and cherries.

If the company gets enough bees, it could return to Nebraska, Adee said. But he said it would first have to test locations to determine that they’re safe.

In the meantime, company officials relocated the Nebraska bees to what officials believe are the safest locations in South Dakota.

Adee is concerned for the future but optimistic that safer chemicals and agricultural practices can be found, he said.

“The real question is can we biologically keep what we’re doing going? That’s the question that’s always in my mind. Can we breed them faster than they’re being killed? And the answer to that, for our family farm, last year was no. We couldn’t breed back all that we lost.”

Babcock said that as a farmer and beekeeper, he understands the potential conflicts between the two industries.

“As a farmer, you gotta make money,” he said. “I couldn’t do what I do with the bees if we didn’t have the farm, too. So somehow we’ve got to come to a balance between the two. ... I want to see both sides thrive.”

Honeybees, he said, are “like the canary in the coal mine.”

How America fails to feed aging citizens
Since '01, number of 'food insecure' seniors has doubled as funding for a federal meal program for elderly fell 8%

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Army veteran Eugene Milligan is 75 years old and blind. He uses a wheelchair since losing half his right leg to diabetes and gets dialysis for kidney failure.

And he has struggled to get enough to eat.

Earlier this year, he ended up in the hospital after burning himself while boiling water for oatmeal. The long stay caused the Memphis vet to fall off a charity's rolls for home-delivered Meals on Wheels. Then he had to rely on others, such as his son, a generous off-duty nurse and a local church to bring him food.

"Many times, I've felt like I was starving," he said. "There's neighbors that need food too. There's people at dialysis that need food. There's hunger everywhere."

Indeed, millions of seniors across the country quietly go hungry as the safety net designed to catch them frays.

Nearly 8% of Americans 60 and older were "food insecure" in 2017, according to a recent report released by the anti-hunger group Feeding America. That's 5.5 million seniors who don't have consistent access to enough food for a healthy life, a number that has more than doubled since 2001 and is only expected to grow as America grays.

While the plight of hungry children elicits support and can be tackled in schools, the plight of hungry older Americans is shrouded by isolation and a generation's pride.

The problem is most acute in parts of the South and Southwest. Louisiana has the highest rate among states, with 12% of seniors facing food insecurity. Memphis fares worst among major metropolitan areas, with 17% of seniors, like Milligan, unsure of their next meal.

And government relief falls short. One of the main federal programs helping seniors is starved for money. The Older Americans Act — passed more than half a century ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms — was amended in 1972 to provide for home-delivered and group meals, along with other services, for anyone 60 and older. But its funding has lagged far behind senior population growth, as well as economic inflation.

The biggest chunk of the act's budget, nutrition services, dropped by 8% over the past 18 years when adjusted for inflation, an AARP report found in February. Home-delivered and group meals have decreased by nearly 21 million since 2005. Only a fraction of those facing food insecurity get any meal services under the act; a U.S. Government Accountability Office report examining 2013 data found that 83% got none.

With the act set to expire Sept. 30, Congress is now considering its reauthorization and how much to spend going forward.

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 45% of eligible adults 60 and older have signed up for another source of federal aid: SNAP, the food stamp program for America's poorest. Those who don't are typically either unaware they could qualify, believe their benefits would be tiny or can no longer get to a grocery store to use them.

Even fewer seniors may have SNAP in the future. More than 13% of SNAP households with elderly members would lose benefits under a recent Trump administration proposal.

For now, millions of seniors — especially low-income ones — go without. Across the nation, waits are common to receive home-delivered meals from a crucial provider, Meals on Wheels, a network of 5,000 community-based programs. In Memphis, for example, the wait to get on the Meals on Wheels schedule is more than a year long.

"It's really sad because a meal is not an expensive thing," said Sally Jones Heinz, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, which provides home-delivered meals in Memphis. "This shouldn't be the way things are in 2019."

Since malnutrition exacerbates diseases and prevents healing, seniors without steady, nutritious food can wind up in hospitals, which drives up Medicare and Medicaid costs, hitting taxpayers with an even bigger bill. Sometimes seniors relapse quickly after discharge — or worse.

Widower Robert Mukes, 71, starved to death on a cold December day in 2016, alone in his Cincinnati apartment.

The county coroner listed the primary cause of death as "starvation of unknown etiology" and noted "possible hypothermia," pointing out that his apartment had no electricity or runningwater. Death records show that the 5-foot-7 man weighed just 100.5 pounds.