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Nebraska is on track for new vote-counting machines in 2020

LINCOLN — If all goes well during the next six months, Nebraska counties will be tallying up the 2020 election results with new equipment.

State election officials are in the process of acquiring new ballot-counting machines for all 93 Nebraska counties. They also are getting new devices for every polling place that voters with disabilities can use to mark ballots.

Secretary of State Bob Evnen called the purchases a step toward ensuring that Nebraska elections remain "secure, reliable and accurate."

"Nebraska's eligible voters can be confident that their ballots will continue to be cast securely and counted accurately," he said.

Both types of machines will replace equipment that has come to the end of its life cycle. The machines in use now were purchased in 2005 with federal Help America Vote Act funds and were expected to last about 15 years.

"The current machines give reliable results, but it takes a lot of effort to keep them running and keep them maintained," Evnen said.

John Cartier of Civic Nebraska, a Lincoln-based group advocating for voting rights, applauded the purchases. He said the new equipment represents "a significant victory for voters in Nebraska" and will be a critical part of keeping elections "secure, accessible and fair."

The new ballot-counting machines should save both time and money, Evnen said.

Voting still will be done using paper ballots. One key benefit of the new machines is that they will accept ballots that have been folded. The change means election officials will be able to save on postage when sending out early ballots.

The new machines will add a new layer of security and will have upgraded technology. As with the current equipment, the new machines will not be connected to the Internet.

Evnen said the new ballot-marking devices will be about one-quarter the size and weight of current machines, which are "very large, very heavy, very bulky and also very finicky." He said the new machines should be easier for voters to use and poll workers to transport.

Ballot-marking devices allow people with visual handicaps or physical disabilities to cast ballots independently.

State lawmakers earmarked $11.3 million in the current state budget to buy the new equipment, with $6.3 million going for the ballot-counting machines.

State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, the chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, said finding that kind of money is always difficult. But he said state lawmakers made it a priority because of the importance of having secure and accurate elections.

A special legislative committee and the Secretary of State's office studied the need for new voting equipment in 2016, but no money was put into the budget until the need to replace current machines became more pressing.

Officials now are in the process of negotiating a contract with the Omaha-based Election Systems and Software, the nation's top voting machine maker. The Nebraska contract will be based on a competitive bidding process already completed by Minnesota.

Evnen said the goal is to have the machines in place and county election officials trained in time for the May 12 primary.

Meanwhile, his office and state lawmakers are looking ahead to the time when the new equipment has to be replaced. Brewer's committee held an interim study hearing last month to start looking for ways to build up a replacement fund over time, rather than scrambling for a large amount at once.

Evnen said he doesn't know what the life-span of the new equipment may be.

"I expect this equipment to last a good, long time," he said.

martha.stoddard@owh.com, 402-473-9583, twitter.com/stoddardOWH

Immigration opens ideological fault lines for 2020 Democrats

Bernie Sanders

Elizabeth Warren

Pete Buttigieg

Joe Biden

Beto O'Rourke

Julian Castro

WASHINGTON (AP) — Bernie Sanders is adding his support to a call by some of his fellow presidential hopefuls for decriminalizing illegal border crossings, a proposal that's further exposing deep ideological divides in the Democratic primary and may prove politically treacherous for the party in the general election.

The Vermont senator released a detailed immigration policy proposal last week, writing, "Unauthorized presence in the United States is a civil, not a criminal, offense."

He vowed to repeal laws that put "border crossings on par with other forms of immigration violations, such as overstaying a visa."

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called in July for repealing the criminal prohibition against crossing the border illegally, promising in her own immigration plan to "immediately issue guidance to end criminal prosecutions for simple administrative immigration violations."

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has suggested that he'd support making illegal border crossings civil offenses, but not in cases in which "fraud is involved," a potentially key caveat.

Former Vice President Joe Biden also hasn't fully backed decriminalization of illegal border crossings, saying during a July presidential debate, "If you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It's a crime."

The issue illustrates another important fault line between relative moderates like Biden and Buttigieg and those White House candidates willing to openly embrace progressive positions like Sanders and Warren.

Still, decriminalizing border crossings could be a tough sell for Democrats after the primaries. That's when their nominee will face voters who may disagree with President Donald Trump's hard-line U.S.-Mexico border policies — he leads cheers of "Finish the wall!" at his rallies — but worry about moving too far in the other direction.

"The problem with decriminalizing undocumented crossings is it fulfills the Republican narrative that Democrats want open borders, and that will be an absolute killer for us in November," said Colin Strother, a Texas Democratic strategist who lived for years along the Rio Grande.

Sanders also promises to use executive orders to halt construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, pause all deportations until current federal policy can be audited and allow people seeking U.S. asylum to remain in the country while their claims are processed rather than being sent to Mexico or elsewhere. And he vowed to break up the Department of Homeland Security.

Sanders said he was reclaiming a topic that should be about humanitarianism and not be viewed through the national security prism it often has been since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He also said immigration should not be used to stoke racist fears for political gain, as he said Trump has done. His advisers shrugged off concerns that the stance may make their campaign, or those of other Democrats, seem soft on immigration.

"As sure as the sun coming up tomorrow, Trump will still be racist," Sanders national policy director Josh Orton said. "But Bernie will never waver from his commitment to a humane and rational immigration system, which is supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans."

Even as Trump, who has denied being racist, makes immigration a centerpiece of his reelection strategy, however, it has largely been overshadowed in the Democratic primary by other issues like universal health coverage under "Medicare for All." Immigration reform was most championed by two White House hopefuls from Texas, one of whom has already dropped out of the race (former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke) and another who may do so soon (Julián Castro).

In April, Castro, the housing secretary under President Barack Obama, became the first Democratic presidential hopeful to release a comprehensive immigration plan and to support making crossing the border illegally a civil rather than criminal offense. But Castro is winding down his presence in the key early state of New Hampshire and isn't likely to qualify for the debate later this month in Georgia, raising questions about how much longer he can continue.

One of Castro's best-received moments came during the Julydebate, when he scolded O'Rourke — who hails from the U.S.-Mexico border city of El Paso and spoke frequently about immigration — for not being willing to decriminalize illegal border crossings.

Strother noted that the Obama administration set records for the number of immigrants it deported from the U.S. and that Biden and other top 2020 Democrats have tried to distance themselves from that, calling it too harsh.

"I think that over the years as a party, in a rush to try and satisfy the middle, we've bought into the Republican narrative and even adopted the Republican narrative a little too much," he said. "But we can't go too far in the other direction."

Sarpy will use OPPD payments to kick-start transformative sewer project
$30 million from money the utility pays in lieu of taxes will begin to open county's southern half to development

For decades, more than half of Nebraska's fastest-growing county has sat untouched and undeveloped, unable to support houses and shops and businesses because it lacks a basic component of modern infrastructure: the sewer line.

In 30 to 50 years, if all goes to plan, the southern half of Sarpy County could undergo a transformation, welcoming housing subdivisions and mixed-use retail buildings, industrial parks and perhaps even more data centers. That future development, local leaders say, will flow from the installation of sewer lines. The area has been cut off from access to a sewer system by a natural ridgeline spanning the area.

Over the past year, the project's governing agency — made up of the mayors of the five cities in Sarpy County and the chairman of the Sarpy County Board — has been figuring out how to fund the massive $220 million undertaking without placing that burden on taxpayers. Recently, the group approved a funding source to begin laying the first pipes.

"This in and of itself is a remarkable event because without it, Sarpy County has reached its peak, "Don Kelly, the County Board chairman, told The World-Herald last week. "And now with this (project), we're going to continue to grow, develop and prosper."

The first phase of the project is expected to cost $43 million. It will include construction of a sewage treatment plant south of Springfield; the addition of a couple of smaller pumps that keep sewage flowing; and underground installation of trunk lines — the pipes themselves — near 72nd Street and Capehart Road, and near Springfield.

To pay for a majority of the first phase, the wastewater group has agreed to use Omaha Public Power District PILOT money.

Because OPPD is a quasi-governmental agency, it doesn't pay property taxes; instead, the utility directs 5% of its gross revenues from the previous year's retail electricity sales to county and city governments and school districts. That money — payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT — typically goes into a body's general fund to be used where needed.

Under an agreement approved last week by the wastewater group, Bellevue, Papillion, Gretna, Springfield and the county all will direct portions of their PILOT funds — up to $30 million total — to kick-start the first phase of the project. The PILOT funds from each municipality will come from new revenues generated south of the ridgeline, which means each entity won't give up PILOT money they already take in.

Each municipality expects to eventually recoup the PILOT funds they contribute, interest-free, up to a certain amount. La Vista, which doesn't have land south of the ridgeline, won't contribute PILOT funds.

Then, after developers have built the first houses and businesses, user and connection fees associated with sewer use are expected to cover the remaining $13 million, according to Dan Hoins, Sarpy County's administrator.

As development snowballs, so will the fees, funding the entirety of the project.

The sewer project will be operated as a public-private partnership, which means the wastewater group is pursuing a private company to build, manage and operate the sewer system.

Over the next month, Ernst & Young, an accounting firm working with the group, plans to solicit input from interested companies about the proposed structure of the partnership.

"We're seeking feedback to make sure what we're putting forward is deliverable; that the market feels like it's something it could bid on," Klaire White said during the group's last meeting. White is the senior vice president of infrastructure advisory with Ernst & Young.

What happens if the private partner builds portions of the project and then the Sarpy group defaults, disbands or is otherwise unable to pay for the infrastructure?

That's where Sarpy County taxpayers would come in. The county would cover the cost so the private partner isn't out money — an outcome that could result in higher property taxes.

That feature of the agreement will make the public-private partnership more attractive to potential bidders, White said.

If the county were forced to eat the cost of the project, the Sarpy wastewater group would still retain control over any infrastructure that had been built.

Hoins and Kelly said they don't believe that will happen. Developers already are waiting for more land in the county to open up for development, Hoins said.

Project leaders believe the first phase won't be completed until 2024, Hoins said. However, developers are eager to start building, and some want to break ground as early as 2022. To bridge that gap, the City of Omaha may take on additional sewage from Sarpy County until the county is prepared to start treating sewage, Hoins said.

Phase one of the sewer project is expected to open about 160 acres for industrial development and 1,760 acres for residential and commercial development.

When the entire $220 million project is complete — perhaps as far out as the 2060s — it will have opened a total of 44,000 acres.

That's a lot of sewage.

reece.ristau@owh.com, 402-444-1127, @reecereports

Is lead a risk as riverfront parks are re-sculpted?
Officials offer reassurance that contaminants under Lewis &Clark and Heartland parks will remain safely encased

Private donors and city taxpayers are investing nearly $300 million in three downtown Omaha parks.

But reshaping two of the parks, Lewis & Clark Landing and Heartland of America Park, requires extra care because of the riverfront's industrial past and related environmental problems.

Lewis & Clark Landing once held the nation's largest lead smelter and refinery, a plant that was operated by Asarco until 1997. Part of Heartland of America Park was home to a Gould lead battery disposal facility until 1982.

People like their parks the way they like their gasoline — unleaded. Lead carries serious health risks, experts say. Exposure can cause irritability, memory loss, anemia and even brain damage. The sites also faced other contaminants, including arsenic and cadmium.

That's why the managers and engineers steering nearly $300 million in renovations say they are designing their work at Lewis & Clark and Heartland of America to keep the contaminants buried. There are not similar concerns at the Gene Leahy Mall, which is also part of the project.

Much of the most contaminated soil at the site that became Lewis & Clark Landing was wrapped in a liner, a burrito of sorts that shouldn't let it surface. The lead burrito was covered in 3 to 6 feet of clean dirt, and the park was surfaced with concrete.

Less-contaminated pockets of tainted soil at the Heartland of America Park site were covered in concrete and buried, according to officials and documents.

"We know where the material is," said Chris Koenig, senior project manager for HDR Inc. "We have done additional investigation to verify where it's at. We are completing our design to avoid it entirely."

The parks are safe in their current form and will remain so for people and pets, say officials with the city, the Metropolitan Convention and Entertainment Authority and the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

Among the steps being taken:

The city will provide state regulators with scientific and engineering evidence showing that renovation planswill not resurface contaminated soil, said Jim Theiler, assistant director of the Public Works Department.

The city is paying the state to monitor the sites for any construction thatmoves or disturbs contaminated soil and to make sure that any digging mistakes are properly repaired, said Daniel Ross, a state groundwater geologist for the environmental department.

HDR and the city have plans in place in case they encounter contaminated soil, including help from a scientist on site, protective gear for workers and 55-gallon drums for safe storage of contaminated soil, Koenig said.

The dirt being brought in to help form the parks and fill in part of the lake at Heartland of America Park is being tested for potential contamination, officials said.

"It all comes down to good engineering," Koenig said. The goal is to make sure the integrity of previous lead mitigation efforts is maintained, said Mike Felix, the state's supervisor of waste remediation for the environmental department.

And if those steps are followed, people should feel confident that they can enjoy the parks without fear, said Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"I don't have significant concerns," she said.

One example of a change that was made to avoid disturbing contaminated soil involves the slope of Douglas Street. The city is extending the street east to connect with Lewis & Clark Landing.

The street will stay level longer than road designers ideally prefer and slope more steeply as it approaches the railroad tracks near the riverfront to avoid digging too close to the lead-contaminated soil, Koenig said. At Lewis & Clark Landing, workers will plant trees with roots that go no deeper than 3 feet. The former agreement on what could be built or planted at the site prohibited trees to protect the lead cap.

Mark Welsch was a member of the executive committee of the regional Sierra Club when the Asarco plant negotiated its handover of the land to the city. He said it sounds like the city and state are taking the necessary steps.

People visiting the parks should be fine, he said, as long as they don't take a dip in the Missouri River, which he said is probably still contaminated from the smelter and refinery, even all these years later.

But, he said, he's wary of planting trees above the Asarco cap.

"I would not trust a tree or a bush because they cannot monitor it if it just decides to find a weak spot in the cap and go through it," Welsch said, mentioning the potential risk to groundwater and soil.

City and project leaders said they would only use trees that their analysis shows can be planted safely. Lewis & Clark Landing has 5 to 6 feet of fill dirt above the contaminated soil, they say, providing a cushion for the roots.

Construction work at Heartland of America Park has begun and is expected to run through early 2023. Work on Lewis & Clark Landing is set to start in early 2021 and run through mid-2023.

Final amenities will be installed in both parks through 2024.

World-Herald researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to his report.

aaron.sanderford@owh.com, 402-444-1135, twitter.com/asanderford