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Legislature
We pick the winners and losers of Nebraska's 2019 legislative session

LINCOLN — If you were measuring the success of the 2019 session of the Nebraska Legislature, more than one senator suggested this grade: “incomplete.”

Senators adjourned sine die on Friday — six days early from the 90-day session — without passing a comprehensive bill to provide property tax relief and without updating the state’s main business tax incentive program, two of the biggest issues facing the one-house Legislature this year.

There was even a last-second symbolic move — albeit one that got only seven votes — to continue the session so that senators could keep working on the tax issues.

Compromises were struck on some touchy issues, like expansion of the state’s Right to Farm Act and an effort to derail private wind farms, but a middle ground could not be found on the tax issues, or on bills dealing with medical marijuana and the boundaries of school discipline.

There are always some winners and losers at the State Capitol. Here’s our list for 2019:

WINNERS

State Sen. John Stinner and the Appropriations Committee

The state’s two-year, $9.3 billion budget passed without any budget vetoes and kept spending increases at a low, 2.9% annual average.

It also contained some of the biggest accomplishments of the session. It included two steps to address prison overcrowding: a new, 384-bed prison expansion to handle the state’s most troublesome inmates and a boost in funding for so-called “problem-solving courts.” There was also an increase in payment rates for providers of health care, child welfare and behavioral health services.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne

Wayne said he wore out his Dodge pickup crisscrossing the state over the past two years to help his colleagues understand the problems of his north Omaha district.

It paid off in 2019 as he was the main sponsor of bills that gave special incentives for business development in “extremely blighted” areas that have high unemployment and that seek to provide better access to jobs via the formation of a regional mass transit authority in the Omaha metropolitan area.

He also won passage of a bill that allows farmers to grow hemp — defined in the bill as strains of the cannabis plant with less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that produces the marijuana high — for products like clothing and cosmetics. Wayne said he hoped north Omaha could land some of the processing businesses that will follow.

Freshmen senators

There were 12 brand-new senators in 2019, and let’s just say, as a group, they weren’t wallflowers.

Peru Sen. Julie Slama won passage of a bill boosting the teaching of civics in K-12 schools and was a consistent, conservative voice during debate.

Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams overcame a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts to pass a bill allowing Gage County to impose a countywide sales tax to pay off a $28 million Beatrice Six court judgment facing the county due to the wrongful prosecution and conviction of six people in the 1985 slaying of a Beatrice woman.

Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh shepherded through a bill requiring courts to hold hearings before dismissing applications for domestic abuse or sexual assault protection orders, a measure prompted in part by an Omaha woman who was severely burned by her husband after a protection order application.

She and fellow Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt were consistent progressive contributors to floor debate.

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LOSERS

Property tax relief plans

Seems like we’ve written this line before, but proposals to provide significant property tax relief failed to advance this year.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Sens. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn and Mike Groene of North Platte first floated a comprehensive plan that aimed to tax a whole slew of new items, such as junk food and home repairs, and raise the state’s sales tax rate from 5.5 cents to 6 cents, as well as revamping the distribution of $500 million in state aid to K-12 schools.

It was a big, complicated gulp to swallow at the end of the session, and the state’s largest school districts, Omaha, Lincoln and Millard included, gagged. Ricketts also campaigned against the plan, calling almost weekly press conferences with groups that hated the plan.

A “plan B” that included mostly only the revenue portion of Linehan/Groene also failed to advance, leaving rural senators fuming.

The consensus seemed to be that the Linehan/Groene plan had merit, but was way too complex to digest at the end of a fairly exhaustive session. Big ideas take time to sell, and require more buy-in from more groups. Even the Revenue Committee wasn’t fully invested in the plan.

Linehan said she plans to meet with the Revenue Committee, which she chairs, before July 1, in hopes of forming a united front before the 2020 session.

Chamber of Commerce

It seems like we’ve never written this before, but the chambers of commerce that represent the state, Omaha and Lincoln were unsuccessful in passing their top priority.

The chamber hired a posse of lobbyists to get the ImagiNE Act — its revamp of the Advantage Act — passed, but fell short. It was a rare loss for the state’s business community, which sees tax incentives as absolutely essential for economic growth.

The ImagiNE Act stalled not because it was a bad bill, but because a coalition of mostly rural senators held firm to their conviction that if the Legislature didn’t deliver significant property tax relief (a top priority of farmers and ranchers) then they wouldn’t support tax incentives for businesses (a priority seen as mostly for urban and business interests).

As long as the coalition holds, property tax relief and the ImagiNE Act are an inseparable package, with both issues either headed for passage or defeat next year.

One change in 2020 — the Advantage Act will sunset at the end of the year, so there will be more pressure on business interests to cut a deal with the aggies.

‘The middle’

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who was known for his ability to mediate difficult issues during his stint in the Legislature from 2007 to 2015, said there seem to be more senators now at each extreme of the political spectrum, both conservative and liberal. That, he said, makes it harder to reach a compromise on major issues.

“It is disappointing that we have a significant number of people who are just against everything except their own stuff,” Lathrop said. “I didn’t get what I wanted, so you don’t get what you wanted.”

Lawmakers were able to reach compromise on issues like the right to farm and eminent domain for wind farms, but could not come together to reach a consensus on top-shelf issues like property tax relief.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Plus
ATHLETICS
UNO will soon begin construction on new baseball, softball stadiums near Baxter Arena

The UNO baseball team hosted home games at five different sites in the Metro area this season due to weather concerns. That shouldn’t happen again once the Mavericks have their own stadium on campus.

UNO is ready to move forward with the construction of baseball and softball facilities. Phase 2 of its athletics master plan that began with the building of Baxter Arena is set to get under way soon.

Athletic Director Trev Alberts said the groundwork for the $22.5 million project will begin as soon as possible, though there is no specific date for when work will begin. The new fields are slated to be built just beyond the parking lots on the west side of Baxter.

“If you’re going to be a Division I athletic department, you have to have a home,” Alberts said. “I’ve personally witnessed the impact of having a home for hockey and the difference that that has made.”

Alberts shared the details of the new complex this week as the UNO baseball team prepared for its first appearance in the Division I NCAA tournament. The players were told before they left for Los Angeles.

“We were moving forward whether the baseball team won the Summit League (championship) or not,” Alberts said. “Then they qualified for an NCAA regional. It just couldn’t have been more perfect timing.”

UNO’s new fields will sit side by side, facing east so patrons can overlook Aksarben Village and Baxter. The baseball stadium is slated to have 1,500 permanent seats, and the softball venue will feature 650. For comparison, Nebraska's Haymarket Park has 4,500 permanent seats, and the Omaha Storm Chasers' Werner Park has about 6,400.

UNO ATHLETICS 

The stadiums would sit to the southwest of Baxter Arena.

Both will have entirely artificial surfaces, which will make the weather issues like those from this season much less of a concern. Each stadium will have its own press box, but they will share a concession area, restrooms and a center area between them from which patrons can overlook both fields simultaneously.

The cost of the new facilities will be covered entirely by private funding. Alberts said fundraising for the project is ongoing. He praised those who have made it possible for UNO to continue its growth.

“We have benefited tremendously if you look at the investment private philanthropy and the business community have made into this athletic department in the last 10 years,” he said. “It’s just unthinkable.”

The Maverick baseball team has been playing its home conference games on natural grass at Seymour Smith Park while hosting a few midweek games against high-major opponents at Werner Park. It was forced to play games at Millard North, Omaha Skutt and Omaha Creighton Prep due to weather this spring. The softball team, meanwhile, has called Westside Field at Westbrook its home since 2012.

UNO rents those facilities, has no corporate sponsorship there and doesn’t charge admission or get concession revenue. All of those things will change once the Mavs have true home fields of their own.

Additionally, the new facilities will be available for other UNO uses outside of athletics. The venues are expected to become a site for youth and other tournaments and events. The baseball stadium should become a practice field for teams coming to Omaha to compete in the College World Series each June.

Dr. Jeffery Gold, the chancellor for UNO and UNMC, said the new baseball and softball facilities will both fulfill the athletic department’s desire to give its teams a home while also serving community needs.

“This Phase 2 project just brings to life the next stage of the development of a world-class venue for our student-athletes,” he said. “But even more so, it’s a place where the community, our students, faculty and alumni can come together and enjoy what it really means to be a world-class metropolitan campus.

“We have tried very hard in my time at the Med Center and my time now at UNO — and long preceding me — to not only plan carefully, but to execute on those plans. It’s not very useful to have a multi-stage strategy and quit after the first phase. We were constantly moving ahead — which means new facilities, new programs — and listening very carefully to the community’s needs, then trying to be responsive.”

UNO ATHLETICS 

UNO baseball won the Summit League regular-season and tournament championship this season.

UNO baseball coach Evan Porter has two different perspectives on the new venues — one as a former All-America player for the Mavericks and another as a third-year head coach trying to build a program.

“As a (former) player and alumni, I am overfilled with joy and so happy for the program, all my former teammates, everyone that’s played here and the coaches that have coached here,” he said. “To be able to have a home for UNO baseball, it’s surreal. Words can’t describe how happy I am for UNO baseball.

“As a coach, it’s that same excitement, but more directed toward opportunity and the ability to recruit competitively with other schools in the local baseball community and, hopefully, be able to keep some of the top talent in the city and the state around UNO. There’s enough good baseball players in Omaha, in Nebraska and in the region to compete for championships year in and year out.”

The Mavs won the Summit League regular-season championship this spring and earned the right to host the conference tournament next year. UNO hopes to have the new baseball venue ready for the event but can’t guarantee that it will.

UNO softball coach Amanda Eberhart called this an exciting time for softball and baseball in the Omaha area. She said she was thrilled the plans for the new stadiums were being shared publicly while the Maverick baseball team was playing in an NCAA regional and while the Women’s College World Series was also happening.

Eberhart noted that the WCWS was originally held in Omaha from 1969-79.

“It’s fitting to announce it now, especially with the College World Series going on,” she said. “In 1969, basically the first College World Series was in Omaha. I’m proud to be here and understand that history. We talk with our kids about it — about how our sport really started in Omaha, when you think about it.”

Eberhart just finished her first season with the Mavs. She envisions a “game-day feel” with UNO fans tailgating in the parking lot before watching the softball and baseball teams play simultaneously.

Although she’s been in Omaha for less than a year, Eberhart said she’s already realized how Maverick fans have bonded together to support all of UNO’s athletic teams. That’s something Alberts has always wanted as the athletic department has progressed through its Division I transition to a better future.

“I love setting goals. That’s just how I was raised, I guess. And we’ve had a lot of goals,” Alberts said. “We just want to support the student-athletes in every way and create a home. You’re never done, but we’re getting kind of close to seeing the whole vision materialize. That’s an extraordinarily rewarding thing.”

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Photos: UNO defeats Oral Roberts to win Summit League tournament title

Articles
Rare color images bring D-Day memories alive, 75 years on

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seventy-five years ago, Hollywood director George Stevens stood on the deck of the HMS Belfast to film the start of the D-Day invasion.

The resulting black-and-white films — following Allied troops through Normandy, the liberation of Paris, Battle of the Bulge, the horror of the Dachau concentration camp — form the basis of Americans' historical memory of World War II, and were even used as evidence in Nazi war crimes trials.

But the director was also shooting 16-millimeter color film for himself of the same events, creating a kind of personal video journal of his experiences.

As veterans and world leaders prepare to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day this week, Stevens' surprising color images bring an immediacy to wartime memories, a powerful reminder of the war's impact and its heroes as those who witnessed the war are dying out.

"You've seen it in black and white. And when you see it in color, all of a sudden it feels like today," his son George Stevens Jr. said in an interview. "It doesn't seem like yesterday. And it has a much more modern and authentic feeling to it."

This week's D-Day commemorations are about honoring the thousands killed and wounded on June 6, 1944 — and people like Stevens Jr.'s father.

Then 37, Stevens was already a famous American director who had made Hollywood classics like "Gunga Din" and "Swing Time."

"My father was beyond draft age. And he had a dependent child. So there was no chance of him being called up," Stevens Jr., a filmmaker in his own right, told the Associated Press. But his father felt compelled to enlist in the U.S. military after seeing the power of Nazi propaganda films including Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will."

"The next day he started calling up to find out how he could get into the service. He couldn't sit on the sidelines in Hollywood, and wanted to make his contribution," his son said.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower assigned Stevens to head the motion-picture coverage. From D-Day on, Stevens and his team stormed through France and across Europe following U.S. forces.

George Stevens Jr., now 87, was a child when his dad left to cover the war. Only after his father's death, decades later, did he discover reels of the color film in storage.

They could have been anything — his father used the same camera during the war that he had used to film his son's birthday parties.

But what his son found that day in 1980 was no normal home video.

"I was sitting alone, and on the screen came images of a gray day and rough seas and a large ship and barrage balloons up in the sky. And I realized it was D-Day.

"And I realized that my eyes were probably the first other than those who were there to see this in color," he recalled. "I'm watching this footage and seeing the men on the ship ... and around the corner walks into the frame a man with a helmet and a flak jacket. It's my 37-year-old father on the morning of D-Day."

Stevens Jr., founder of the American Film Institute, later made a documentary with the footage, "George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin."

"My father referred to his experience in World War II as having a seat on the 50-yard line. And seeing men at their best and at their worst," his son said.

Long before social networks and smartphones, the outside world had little visual evidence of the Nazis' attempted genocide of the Jews.

His father's unit "went into Dachau, the concentration camp, and nobody had anticipated what they were going to find there," Stevens Jr. said. "It was this harrowing sight of these emaciated prisoners and typhus and disease and dead bodies stacked like cordwood. ... Rather than just being a recorder of events, he became a gatherer of evidence, and he himself took a camera and went into these boxcars, with snow on the ground, with frozen bodies."

Stevens documented the scenes both in black and white and in color, and images he shot at Dachau were among those shown at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, according to his son.

He also filmed Allied war generals working together during the war to defeat fascism. Now, 75 years on, the trans-Atlantic alliance is fraying and Europe's extreme right is resurging, making remembrance of the war especially important.

"I think that common interests and purpose will keep us together," Stevens Jr. said.

He praised the U.S.-led postwar effort "to embrace the defeated and help them, help Germany become a great nation," calling it a "very American idea ... that will serve us far into the future."