ON EVE OF 2020 SESSION
LINCOLN — A committee of state lawmakers is planning an 11th-hour, full-court press to craft a new property tax relief bill prior to the start of the 2020 legislative session.
The Legislature's Revenue Committee, which oversees state tax policy, plans to meet Monday and Tuesday in hopes of finalizing the details of a proposal in time for the Wednesday start of the 2020 session of the Nebraska Legislature.
In between the two closed-door meetings, the eight senators on the committee plan to have lunch with Gov. Pete Ricketts in pursuit of his support.
"We need the governor," said State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who chairs the Revenue Committee. "Maybe he won't love it, but hopefully he'll agree it's what we can do."
Ricketts has said it's imperative that lawmakers do something to lower property taxes in the 2020 session, given that the State Economic Forecasting Board has projected a healthy surplus in state tax revenue.
The rosy forecast has state lawmakers eyeing a bill to deliver at least $100 million a year in property tax reductions. Linehan said the overall goal would be to reduce taxpayers' property tax bills for K-12 education by 15% to 20% over three years.
The Revenue Committee has been working on a new bill after its proposals during the 2019 session went down in flames.
Since the end of the 2019 session, the committee has considered several options. It shelved more ambitious proposals that would have added new sales taxes to things like junk food and haircuts in deference to a more modest package that doesn't shift taxes.
In November, Revenue Committee members reached a general consensus on the "framework" of a property tax relief bill that would use the excess revenue to increase state aid to K-12 schools, particularly those schools in "bedroom" communities with high tax levies, and gradually reduce, over three years, property taxes by lowering the valuation of agricultural, residential and commercial properties for purposes of funding schools.
In the end, Linehan said, farmland would be taxed at 55% of its actual value, down from the current 75%, and residential and commercial properties would be taxed at 85% of its value, down from the current 100%.
But major sticking points remain.
Linehan, as well as the governor, support stricter limits on school districts' ability to increase spending in exchange for more state aid. But the state's largest school districts, such as Omaha and Millard, oppose new caps on their authority to spend.
Sen. John McCollister of Omaha is one member of the Revenue Committee who is "reserving judgment" on the committee's bill until he sees the details of any new cap and whether school districts in his district would support it.
"This drama is not over," McCollister said.
Another Omaha-area senator not on the committee, Wendy DeBoer, who represents the Bennington area and north-central Douglas County, has drafted an alternative plan that doesn't have additional spending caps on school districts. Currently, school districts cannot exceed a property tax levy of $1.05 per $100 of taxable value without voter approval and are restricted from increasing general fund spending in excess of 2.5% to 4.5% per year, except in certain circumstances.
"We're a local control state that has locally elected school board members who do a very good job of setting levy limits that are low when they can be," DeBoer said.
But Linehan said any bill that increases state funding must have new caps to prevent local school districts from just spending the money, rather than passing it along as property tax relief.
"They have cost controls now, but there are ways around it," she said.
The details of any new spending cap will be among the information revealed, and debated, in the two committee meetings on Monday and Tuesday.
One rural senator, Curt Friesen of Henderson, said it's hard to tell how he'll react until he sees those details. He was among a coalition of senators who blocked passage of a state business tax incentive bill last spring, arguing that a significant property tax relief bill to help farmers was a bigger priority.
Meanwhile, a grassroots group seeking to place a property tax proposal on the 2020 ballot is still collecting signatures. But organizers of the group declined Thursday to say how many signatures they've gathered. They must turn in more than 120,000 signatures by July.
The TRUE Nebraskans group reported raising $11,265 between Nov. 26 and Dec. 25, to raise its total donations to just over $100,000 for 2019, according to its latest filing with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. That is far short of the $1 million-plus some observers have said is necessary to pay circulators and collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
One TRUE Nebraskans official, Paul von Behren, said the group has talked to major donors and is waiting to see if they'll donate.
The group's proposal, the so-called 35% Solution, would give all taxpayers a state income tax credit equal to 35% of their annual property tax bill. Supporters say that it would force the Legislature to create a fairer tax system and that lawmakers' current proposal is far too meager; opponents, including Ricketts, say it would cause budget chaos and could actually increase property taxes.
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When Steve Ghan set out to walk 1,500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, he brought along a bright blue hat emblazoned with four words: "Make Earth Cool Again." It often drew compliments from other hikers, which he used as an opening.
"I'd tell them, 'Yeah, I'm a climate scientist and I want to stop climate change,' " said Ghan, who completed the California segment of the trail in 2018. Then he'd give his five-minute pitch for why the U.S. should impose a fee on carbon emissions and distribute the revenue to ordinary citizens.
It's not the kind of thing you expect to hear from someone like Ghan. He spent 28 years at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, building the complex climate models that — together with many other lines of evidence — helped confirm humanity's role in warming the planet. Advocacy was not part of his portfolio.
"We naively thought, 'Well, OK, we've done our job, now the politicians are going to make decisions,' " he said. "But that's not the way it worked."
So Ghan bucked tradition and began speaking publicly about the risks of climate change. And these days, more and more scientists are making the same choice.
They are rejecting the idea that researchers should stick to the data and let others figure out what to do with it. Driven by the lack of climate action, they are marching in the streets, signing on to manifestos and even getting arrested — all in the name of avoiding the worst effects of global warming.
"I feel the moral imperative to speak out," said Andrea Dutton, a paleoclimatologist based at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who studies past changes in sea level to understand what's in store as ice sheets melt.
Scientists' aversion to activism dates back to the philosopher David Hume, who in 1739 argued that one could not derive an "ought" from an "is." In other words, facts alone can never tell us what we should do.
That belief became a fundamental tenet of science, informing bedrock principles like the importance of objectivity. Advocacy, many researchers believed, undermined their ability to do impartial and unbiased work.
However, after uncovering troubling truths, some researchers found it impossible to stay silent.
In the 1970s, the late University of California, Irvine chemist F. Sherwood Rowland helped figure out that compounds in aerosol sprays were destroying the ozone layer — work that led to a Nobel Prize. Not content just to publish in scientific journals, he called for phasing out the harmful chemicals, known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.
His actions drew criticism from his colleagues, but he stood his ground.
"What's the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if in the end all we're willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?" Rowland famously told the New Yorker in a 1986 interview. (The following year, countries signed an international agreement banning CFCs that allowed the ozone hole to recover.)
Many climate scientists now feel the same sense of urgency as they watch their own predictions come to life in the form of extreme fires, storms and heat waves.
Researchers have understood for more than 40 years that human activities such as burning fossil fuels were heating the planet. But only a handful spoke out about the consequences.
"There was really a hurdle I had to overcome," Ghan said. The feeling among researchers was that "if you start advocating policy that you would compromise your science."
Ultimately, his worries about climate change outweighed his fears of professional fallout. He was also tired of accusations — mainly from political conservatives — that climate scientists were perpetrating a hoax to make money, or that they were all liberals toeing the Democratic Party line.
"Part of it is the offense of having our integrity challenged," said Ghan, who says he voted for both Bushes for president. In fact, one reason he's embraced the carbon fee and dividend plan is that he thinks it holds appeal across the political spectrum. (He used his trek to raise money for the Citizens' Climate Lobby, which promotes the policy.)
Dutton hedged for a while, too. "I felt like there was this line that I shouldn't cross," she said.
But her hesitation ended after she was asked to speak at her local March for Science in 2017. "I'm a human, too, who is going to be impacted by climate change," she said.
And despite her concerns, she said shehasn't gottenany pushback from her peers. "Usually, the opposite."
Said Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, "If we aren't the ones to speak up about it, then who will?"
Red Emmons couldn’t believe who he was seeing on the TV.
It was the late 1990s and a commercial for a Bellevue racing memorabilia store came on screen. There, endorsing the shop, was the spitting image of Dale Earnhardt Sr.
“I thought, ‘Why would (they) have Dale Earnhardt in town and not let anybody know?’ ” Emmons, 82, said recently from his La Vista home.
Within a few years, Emmons would meet the man he saw on TV — though it wasn’t one of the most famous NASCAR drivers in the history of the sport, but rather Dean Fredericks of York, Nebraska.
When Fredericks dons a black-and-white racing suit, dark sunglasses and a ball cap, his resemblance to the elder Earnhardt is uncanny, from his eyes to his hair-comb mustache. Fredericks, 69, often gets double-takes from people who think they’re seeing the ghost of Earnhardt, who died in a final-lap collision at the Daytona 500 in February 2001.
While Fredericks’ claim to fame is his ability to impersonate Earnhardt, Emmons has painstakingly fixed up two vehicles to look like ones Earnhardt used in races.
Now nearly two decades since they first met, Emmons and Fredericks are good friends who bonded over a love of Earnhardt, speedy vehicles and the thrills of NASCAR. The men have participated in multiple charity events in which Fredericks has posed with Emmons’ vehicles for photos.
“They’ve just done a hell of a job,” Liz Emmons, Red’s wife of 60 years, said of their charity work.
To understand the full scope of Emmons’ love of Earnhardt, one only has to visit his La Vista home. His mailbox is a tiny replica of Earnhardt’s black No. 3 Monte Carlo. The black backboard of his driveway basketball hoop features Earnhardt’s name and a giant number 3.
The pièce de résistance sits in the driveway: A white 2005 Monte Carlo that Emmons has crafted to look like the one Earnhardt floored on speedways across America.
That car, which he drives to this day, is the second Earnhardt replica Emmons has made. His first, which he completed several months after Earnhardt’s death, was a black Monte Carlo that he owned for about a decade before selling.
The basement of Emmons’ home is filled with hundreds of pieces of NASCAR memorabilia, much of which is dedicated to Earnhardt. There are teddy bears and model cars, ball caps and mugs, an oversized pocketknife and Earnhardt-themed window curtains.
Emmons still tears up when he thinks about the day Earnhardt died. He doesn’t talk about it much.
“He’d been in so many wrecks where the car was all bent up, and he’d climb out of it …” Emmons said, trailing off.
Fredericks said he has been mistaken for Earnhardt more times than he can count.
In 1998, he was at a restaurant near the Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth when people started lining up to get his autograph. He had to set his driver’s license on the table to prove to people that they weren’t meeting The Intimidator, one of Earnhardt’s nicknames.
More recently, in 2015, Fredericks spent a few weeks in Tennessee working for FEMA. After frequenting a restaurant for a few weeks, he said he happened to meet an old friend of the real Earnhardt, who told Fredericks he was freaked out by the resemblance.
“By now, if I had five bucks for every time somebody said that, I could sponsor a (NASCAR) car for a year,” Fredericks said, laughing.
Emmons said there was a time in his youth when he drove more like NASCAR drivers do. He would speed and tailgate other drivers.
Then, after retiring as an electrician in the early 2000s, Emmons began to work as a school bus and charter bus driver, which taught him the importance of safe driving.
Now, when he cruises around La Vista in his white Monte Carlo, Emmons takes it easy. But that doesn’t stop him from having fun.
“I drive it every day,” Emmons said.
A sex crimes investigator had laid out the allegations against former Omaha elementary school teacher Greg Sedlacek.
Explaining Sedlacek’s crimes to former Fontenelle Elementary Principal Eric Nelson, the detective noted that Sedlacek was molesting girls on the playground, running his hands up their skirts, touching their legs and their private parts.
The Omaha police detective, Jeff Shelbourn, said he couldn’t figure out one thing: Why didn’t Nelson, as principal, remove Sedlacek from the classroom right after he heard reports of that kind of behavior? Or, at a minimum, place someone in Sedlacek’s classroom so he couldn’t be alone with the first graders?
The detective then exited the room, letting the question linger.
Left alone in the small conference room, Nelson’s reaction was caught on camera: He pounded his fists on the table and cursed himself.
“Goddamn it,” he said. “Why didn’t I do that?”
Nelson’s defense team asked a judge to not allow prosecutors to refer to that outburst in Nelson’s felony child abuse trial, arguing that the comments were uttered while Nelson was alone and that it could cause jurors to have a bias against him.
But in a late-December ruling, Judge Thomas Otepka refused, saying prosecutors have the right to present that evidence, should Nelson go to trial.
Nelson, 49, is awaiting trial in a rare case in which prosecutors charged not just the sex offender but the authority figure who, they say, failed to report the sex offender.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine’s office has charged Nelson with felony child abuse/neglect on allegations that he failed to follow state law requiring people to contact Child Protective Services or police when they suspect child abuse. The trial has been tentatively set for February.
Sedlacek, a 31-year-old with a history of inappropriate behavior around children, is serving 40 to 65 years in prison after he admitted to police that he sexually assaulted six girls, ages 6 and 7, at the school in the fall of 2018. The girls told police that Sedlacek routinely had them sit on his lap while he digitally penetrated them, sometimes in his classroom, sometimes on the playground.
According to police reports and court records:
Other teachers became concerned about Sedlacek’s behavior around the girls and reported what they saw to Nelson. One student teacher said she looked out a school window overlooking the playground and saw Sedlacek rubbing a girl’s legs and his hands disappearing under her skirt. That happened about 10:35 a.m. Nov. 19.
The student teacher notified the classroom teacher, who took photos of Sedlacek on the playground.
The first grade teacher then called Nelson to her classroom and showed him the photos she had taken and told him of the behavior she had witnessed.
Nelson has said he notified the school district’s human resources department on Nov. 19, 2018, the same day that those teachers alerted him.
Nelson’s attorney, Matt Burns, also said he has Omaha Public Schools documents that indicate that Nelson notified human resources Nov. 19, after Nelson viewed security video of the alleged abuse.
But in an affidavit, Omaha police said they could find no phone records indicating that Nelson called the human resources department on Nov. 19, and human resources officials said they were not informed about the situation until the next day by Fontenelle’s assistant principal, Cheryl Prine.
Police allege that Nelson’s delay in reporting allowed Sedlacek “continued access to his victims and all children” attending the school. The morning after witnessing the abuse on the playground, teachers found Sedlacek in the classroom tutoring students.
Nelson had an appointment and didn’t arrive at the school that day until 10 a.m. When he arrived, he learned that Prine had collected the other teacher’s statement and sent it to human resources. Human resources then informed Sedlacek that he was being placed on administrative leave.
According to Prine, Nelson ordered her into his office when he arrived. She said Nelson was upset and angry and told her that it wasn’t her school and that “a man’s career was on the line.”
Nelson was placed on leave after the incident and resigned his principal’s position in June.
During the police interview in the immediate aftermath of Sedlacek’s crimes, Shelbourn asked Nelson why he didn’t remove Sedlacek from the classroom.
Once Shelbourn left the room, Nelson pounded his fists on the table and, exasperated, asked himself the same question.
Judge Otepka rejected arguments that the statement would jeopardize Nelson’s right to a fair trial. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that “when the evidence is sufficient to justify an inference that the defendant acted with consciousness of guilt, the fact finder can consider such evidence even if the conduct could be explained in another way.”
“It is possible that when Nelson said ‘why didn’t I do that,’ he was simply displaying remorse for the fact that he had lost his job over the incident and was now facing felony child-abuse charges,” Otepka wrote. “Of course, anyone in that situation would wish they had done something differently. But the statement could also be interpreted as an acknowledgment of guilt by Nelson.”
Nelson’s attorney, Steve Lefler, said Nelson’s “why didn’t I” comment could have been a lament that he should have asked for an attorney to be present during the police interview.
Lefler said that Nelson didn’t observe any behavior and that he followed OPS policy in place at the time for reporting of such incidents. Nelson made sure that Sedlacek’s behavior was reported within 24 hours. He said he found it strange that prosecutors are “crucifying” Nelson when other OPS administrators hired Sedlacek, despite the fact that he previously was fired from a South Dakota school district for inappropriate behavior.
“Besides Sedlacek, I don’t want anyone charged in this case,” Lefler said. “I don’t understand why they’re zeroing in on my client.”