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Legislature
State senators differ sharply on whether tax incentives help or hurt Nebraska

LINCOLN — State senators expressed sharp differences Wednesday about whether Nebraska’s business tax incentives help or hurt the state, with some lawmakers vowing to oppose incentives until the Legislature delivers property tax relief to citizens.

“Nebraskans need property tax relief a whole lot more than we need this incentive package for business,” said State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, who proposed that the two issues become a “package deal.”

Briese and other rural senators are pushing for property tax relief during the waning days of the 2019 legislative session. Meanwhile, the state’s business community is seeking a replacement for the Nebraska Advantage Act, a 14-year-old law that grants tax credits and exemptions for businesses that expand and create jobs in the state.

The proposed replacement, the ImagiNE Act, got mixed reviews during a three-hour debate Wednesday.

Supporters praised it as a vast improvement over the Advantage Act because its tax incentives require higher-paying jobs, additional reporting on the incentives’ fiscal impact and a stronger focus on workforce development, which the State Chamber of Commerce has described as a “crisis” in Nebraska.

Nebraska needs to update and improve its incentives to remain competitive with other states, said backers of the ImagiNE Act.

“It’s critical that we send a strong message that Nebraska is a great place to do business,” said Seward Sen. Mark Kolterman, the main sponsor of the act, contained in Legislative Bill 720.

But critics of the proposal labeled it “Advantage Act 2.0” and said it failed to correct the problems of the current incentive programs, which they claimed gave generous tax breaks for jobs that would have been created anyway.

Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, who tried unsuccessfully to kill LB 720 on Wednesday, complained that the Advantage Act was too expensive, granting between $7,400 and $208,000 in tax breaks for every job created, and that such programs wouldn’t be necessary if Nebraska’s overall tax rates were lower.

“We continue to treat the symptoms, we never treat the disease ... our taxes are too high,” Erdman said.

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Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz said the ImagiNE Act wouldn’t solve the fiscal uncertainty of when companies claim their tax credits under the Advantage Act. The cost of the Advantage Act, she said, has varied between $150 million and $290 million in excused state and local taxes a year in recent years.

“We need some fiscal guide rails,” Bolz said.

She proposed an amendment that would limit ImagiNE Act tax breaks to $80 million a year and require a peer-review board to preapprove applications for tax benefits. Such controls are used by several states, including Iowa, and have been suggested in past studies of Nebraska’s incentive programs. The controls would be a substantial change for Nebraska, where incentive programs have had no preapproval process and provide tax breaks when companies reach certain benchmarks in investment and job creation.

Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford, who led a legislative study of business incentives last year, said that such “caps” would be difficult under Nebraska’s current “performance-based” incentive programs because it isn’t clear until later how much tax credits a company will qualify for.

Omaha Sen. John McCollister said the ImagiNE Act — unlike the Advantage Act — will require annual reports, and an annual review by state legislators, which could lead to adjustments in the program by the Legislature if costs grow out of control.

The leading senator on the property tax issue, Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, said she agrees that both an incentives bill and property tax relief should be passed this year, because they provide balance between primarily urban-based incentives and mostly rural-based property tax relief. Linehan was still working Wednesday to get 33 senators to agree to bring her property tax proposal, LB 289, back up for debate.

Kolterman said he supports property tax relief, too, but disagreed that the ImagiNE Act should be blocked because LB 289 has stalled, at least for now.

He said he’s already amended LB 720 several times to address concerns of other lawmakers and is willing to consider more. Postponing action on the bill until next year would create uncertainty that would harm business recruitment in the state, Kolterman said.

Debate on LB 720 was halted after three hours on Wednesday without a vote on first-round advancement. But Kolterman said he has the support of 33 of the Legislature’s 49 senators to bring the bill back up for debate next week.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Morton
As U.S. orders nonessential staff out of Iraq, Ben Sasse calls situation 'very tense and very bad'

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Sasse said Wednesday that the pace of Senate Intelligence Committee updates on the fluid Middle East situation has increased this week to near-hourly.

“The situation with Iran is very tense and very bad,” the Nebraska Republican told those at the state congressional delegation’s weekly breakfast for visiting constituents.

Sasse’s comments came shortly after the United States ordered all nonessential government staff to leave Iran’s neighbor, Iraq.

Germany and the Netherlands also both suspended their military assistance programs in Iraq in the latest sign of tensions sweeping the Persian Gulf region over still-unspecified threats that the Trump administration says are linked to Iran.

Some U.S. allies have expressed skepticism about the magnitude of the latest Iranian threats, and some Democrats have questioned the administration’s approach, citing lessons learned from the run-up to the Iraq War.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for example, said on the floor Wednesday that Americans are weary of war in the Middle East and its cost in both lives and treasure.

“The American people deserve to know what’s going on,” Schumer said. “If the president and Republicans in Congress are planning to take the United States into a conflict, even a war, in the Middle East, the American people deserve to know that and they deserve to know why.”

Recent days have seen allegations of sabotage targeting oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a drone attack by Yemen’s Iranian-allied Houthi rebels, and the dispatch of U.S. warships and bombers to the region.

President Donald Trump decided a year ago to pull the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, embarking on a maximalist sanctions campaign against Tehran. In response, Iran’s supreme leader issued a veiled threat Tuesday, saying it wouldn’t be difficult for the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.

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The movement of diplomatic personnel is often done in times of conflict, but what is driving the decisions from the White House remains unclear. A high-ranking British general said there was no new threat from Iran or its regional proxies, something immediately rebutted by the U.S. military’s Central Command, which said its troops were on high alert, without elaborating.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said it appears that Iran is the culprit behind various bad actions and that it can’t be allowed to attack U.S. interests or allies without retribution.

“I don’t think the administration will ever put troops in Iran, but we could punish them from the air and the sea and make them hurt if they attack us,” Bacon said.

In his comments to Nebraskans, Sasse said the administration has been moving to clip the wings of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The general is trying to sow discord across the Middle East and North Africa, Sasse said, in an effort to make Iran more powerful.

“He has militias he basically controls, and he’s trying to ramp a lot of these people up to attack U.S. allies, U.S. interests, U.S. supply chains and ultimately U.S. troops,” Sasse said.

In an interview, Sasse told The World-Herald that whether tensions escalate further is almost entirely dependent on whether Soleimani continues to push for attacks on Americans and their interests.

“The administration is taking appropriate steps to let Iran know that our intelligence forces know what they’ve been doing, and Iran should be de-escalating and they’re choosing not to de-escalate,” Sasse said. “What I’ve heard the president say on this is two things: He wants to avoid war and if the U.S. is attacked, we’ll respond very, very forcefully. And I think the president is right in how he’s framing both of those points.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Our best photos of April 2019

Metro
Taxpayers on the hook for $1.25 million for Omaha's 2020 Swim Trials

When a local corporate sponsor cut its ties with USA Swimming, Omaha civic leaders worried that the city might lose its chance to host the 2020 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.

Then somebody stepped up to secure the event — Omaha taxpayers. The city pledged $750,000 in general funds to help cover USA Swimming’s $3.1 million in fees for hosting and pool costs.

The Omaha City Council voted Tuesday to make the second of three annual $250,000 payments to the Omaha Sports Commission for USA Swimming. The item passed on the council’s consent agenda, with no discussion.

Also contributing to the 2020 Trials: Douglas County with $100,000 in tourism funds and the State of Nebraska with $400,000 in tourism funds.

Councilman Rich Pahls, who represents southwest Omaha, said Wednesday that city officials told the council the money was needed to ensure that the Trials would still be held in Omaha after Mutual of Omaha scaled back its support.

That understanding was echoed by the city’s Finance Department, which said USA Swimming previously covered the event hosting costs with donors and sponsors, and Mutual was one of the organization’s largest.

USA Swimming spokeswoman Belle McLemore declined to comment about the city funds. USA Swimming collected a hosting fee of $3 million in 2016. McLemore visited Omaha this week to promote the 2020 Swim Trials.

She referred questions to the Omaha Sports Commission, whose executive director, Josh Todd, said the city’s contribution and others offset a dip in sponsorships and donations that often accompany repeated events.

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Government and tourism contributions to draw sporting events and conventions are common, said Deborah Ward, vice president of marketing for Visit Omaha, the organization formerly known as the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Local sports boosters held their breath in 2017 after Mutual of Omaha ended its 15-year sponsorship of USA Swimming, the nonprofit that helps prepare American swimmers to compete in the Olympics.

Omaha had just hosted its third-straight U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, and regional tourism officials estimated the local economic impact of the 2016 Trials at $74 million.

Impact of that magnitude mirrors the local boost from a strong College World Series involving teams that travel well, based on estimates from College World Series Inc. Think one with LSU or Texas.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert stressed the local benefits of hosting the Swim Trials, a national event that drew 200,000 fans in 2016 and provides international media exposure.

“Omaha is proud and fortunate to host the Olympic Swim Trials for the fourth time in 2020,” Stothert said. “The city’s financial support demonstrates our pride and ongoing commitment to Olympic athletes and the fans that support their athletic achievements.”

City Council members Chris Jerram and Vinny Palermo, who represent south-central and South Omaha respectively, justified their votes of support by pointing to the Swim Trials’ ability to attract out-of-town guests.

Councilman Brinker Harding, who represents west Omaha, called the decision to invest $750,000 to secure $74 million in economic impact a “no-brainer.” Among the benefits: Seven nights of prime-time TV coverage.

The city expects to make its third and final payment to the Omaha Sports Commission next year, said Steve Curtiss, director of the city’s Finance Department.

Todd said the commission continues to attract private investment, sponsors and donors. Mutual of Omaha has no plans to sponsor the 2020 Swim Trials, company spokesman Jim Nolan told The World-Herald.

Todd called that water under the bridge: “We were never at risk of losing the Trials because of Mutual. It just made some people nervous.”

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)

Grace
'He's just an inspiration': Omaha man, blinded in shooting, gets culinary arts degree from Metro

The graduate could not see the packed house around him and the electronic messages flashing on the arena screens above, all saying “Congratulations.”

He could not see the white-haired college president handing him his diploma.

Nor could he see the photographer preserving this moment, a first for the 32-year-old graduate who heretofore had never graduated from anything.

But Mortel Crawford, blinded in a shooting almost eight years ago, did not have to see in order to experience the thrill of this Metropolitan Community College commencement program, held Friday at the Baxter Arena.

Mortel could hear it all: Shrieks of joy from his fellow 1,700 Metro graduates, many of them, like Mortel, notching this win of a second chance. Cheers from the stands, where families of all backgrounds, bearing flowers and balloons, thundered their approval. Words of wisdom and inspiration.

Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, the event’s honoree, said the graduates can now make a difference in their communities. Student speaker Kinley Holm, a Gross High graduate, expressed gratitude for this big, diverse “Metro family,” brothers and sisters with names like Holly Hansen, November Htoo and Jose Hinojosa.

Hinojosa got his welding technology degree, a step toward a certified welding inspection license that will increase his earning power. Right now, he works overnights at Valmont at $23 an hour, fabricating street light poles.

He is currently on parole from a 15-year prison sentence on felony drug, robbery and weapons convictions that began when he was 17. He got his high school diploma while in prison and then, when out, went to Metro, fully intent on changing his life.

“I knew that I didn’t want to be back in the same situation I was in,” Hinojosa, 34, said Friday after getting his diploma. Nine family members traveled from California to see him make good on that intention, and Hinojosa smiled ear to ear.

“Very proud,” he said. “I wanted to share that moment with my family. I had put them through hell.”

METRO COMMUNITY COLLEGE 

Mortel Crawford gets his degree. “He didn’t let what happened to him stop his life. He kept going,” said Gladys Harrison, owner of Big Mama’s Kitchen.

Mortel couldn’t see the way the other graduates beamed as they strode down the aisles confidently, diplomas in hand. But the air around him was electric with the defiance of beating odds, sparks of hope evident in the stories of second chances.

One of those stories was scrawled on the mortarboard of 27-year-old Shawna Wright, who had written: “You decide the future of yourself.” Wright was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago. Now in remission, she plans to build on her general studies degree to become an engineer.

Mortel saw none of that Friday night. But he could feel in the warm hand of assistant Pam Baltzer, who led Mortel up to the dais to get his own diploma, the love and support that helped carry him this far.

Mortel was carried — literally — by four friends as he bled from a head wound on that fateful July night in 2011. The five of them had been riding in a car when a man in a passing car pulled out a long gun and fired.

“Duck!” one of them had screamed. Mortel, who stands 6-foot-3, could not get down in time. But his friends raced to the hospital, hoisted Mortel out of the car, carried him into the emergency room and saved his life.

Mortel was carried — figuratively — by a host of people afterward: His mother, suffering from terminal cancer, urged Mortel to get trained by the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Lincoln. There, Mortel, who had been kicked out of Central High and dropped out of Northwest, learned to read Braille, use a cane and cross busy streets. He got his high school diploma.

His ex-fiancée, Safiya Haynie, urged him to keep at it — learning, growing and not giving up. His son, Mortel Crawford Jr., age 9, — called “Junior” — believes in his father so much that it propels Mortel onward. And Gladys Harrison, owner of Big Mama’s Kitchen and Catering, gave him a job.

“He’s just an inspiration. He’s amazing,” Harrison said. “He didn’t let what happened to him stop his life. He kept going. In spite of ...”

SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Mortel Crawford chops onions at Big Mama’s in Omaha.

Even with all the help, Mortel ultimately is responsible for that new associate degree in culinary arts and management. No one could complete that for him.

Mortel had do it himself, and it required hard work, perseverance, patience and time. It took faith that this degree would not be an ending point for him. But, as the word commencement means, a beginning.

“My next step is to get my bachelor’s in business management,” said Mortel, who has created a five-course dinner menu to be served at a special pop-up May 25 at Big Mama’s, 3223 N 45th St., Building A. Tickets are available on Big Mama’s Facebook page. Live jazz music will be included.

How will a blind man handle this big event?

“Mortel is going to do what any other chef that has their own restaurant does,” Harrison said. “He will have a plan for how each item will be prepared. He will direct everybody as to what they’re prepping and how it’s to be prepped. He’ll oversee the prepping and cooking and will taste it to make sure. He’ll be in charge of the kitchen so that orders get executed and plated correctly.”

He’s not doing this alone, of course. Restaurant chefs don’t. Harrison said that food vendor Michael Boisseree, division chef of Reinhart Food Service, which supplies Big Mama’s, helped Mortel plan the menu. Restaurant staff will prep and serve meals. All are eager to see Mortel nail the big night.

“He’s a great guy,” Boisseree said. “The dude’s always happy, always optimistic. Just one of those people that exudes positive energy.”

The graduate does not always feel this way. “Thirty-two going on 50,” he said the day of his graduation. Not being able to see makes it seem like he works twice as hard.

But he doesn’t have to see success.

He can hear it and feel it and, in his own cooking, taste it.

A roundup of inspirational stories from Midlanders with heart