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LGBT advocates hope growing business support will push Nebraska to pass job discrimination ban

LINCOLN — Supporters of banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity are hopeful that growing support from business leaders will finally push the measure to passage in Nebraska.

“This issue often gets tied up in partisan politics, but it really is a nonpartisan issue when you make the business case,” said Abbi Swatsworth of OutNebraska, a gay rights advocacy group based in Lincoln. “It’s about the perception of the state as a welcoming place.”

Omaha and Lincoln business leaders have long been in favor of banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and a key statewide business group joined them last month. It was the latest sign of concern among state business leaders that Nebraska’s lack of an anti-discrimination law is harming efforts to retain and attract workers in a tight national labor market.

But such a law has been repeatedly voted down in the Legislature. It’s firmly opposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and some religious groups. And it’s such a touchy political issue that a blue-ribbon panel of Nebraska leaders last summer danced around the topic when they recommended changes for moving the state’s economy forward.

Ricketts and other opponents maintain that Nebraska can be open to all workers without passing a law they say could trample on the religious convictions of business owners.

“Policies like (this) discriminate against people of faith and divide our communities,” the Nebraska Catholic Conference said.

Nationwide, 25 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted laws barring workforce discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, enacted either by their state legislatures or the state agencies that arbitrate such discrimination cases. Iowa has had its law since 2007. In all, more than half the nation’s population now resides within states that have put such workplace protections in place.

Additionally, federal courts with jurisdiction over ten other states — covering an additional one-fifth of the nation’s population — have ruled that the federal Civil Rights Act’s bar on discrimination based on sex also covers sexual orientation and gender identity.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on that federal issue last fall. Nebraska, through Attorney General Doug Peterson, urged the high court to take up the case of a Michigan funeral home that fired a transgender employee. Peterson argued that the lower court was wrong to extend the federal sex discrimination law to include lesbian, gay or transgender employees, saying such a change should come from Congress, not the courts.

Four times in the past five years, the Legislature has voted down passing a discrimination measure on the state level. It’s not yet clear whether lawmakers will seek to revive the latest bill — Legislative Bill 627 — in the current session.

The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a leading voice for business in the state, in previous years had taken no position on such a law. That changed last month when the chamber’s board unanimously supported it as part of a package of policies intended to advance the state economically.

State chamber President Bryan Slone said the move was consistent with a report this summer from a blue-ribbon panel of Nebraska business leaders that laid out a 20-year strategy for growth in the state. Ricketts disputed that, noting that the Blueprint Nebraska report did not reference such a law.

“Blueprint was designed to unify Nebraskans around initiatives that can move our state forward, not to pit people against each other on hot button issues,” said Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts.

But Slone said the board decided that the law was supportive of Blueprint’s call for Nebraska to promote diversity and inclusion as a way to retain and attract workers, as well as Blueprint’s goal of making Nebraska “the most welcoming state in the Midwest.”

Gage, in a statement, specifically noted that the law was not included in Blueprint’s “final report.” That raises questions about the process by which Blueprint reached its final recommendations and whether Ricketts had a hand in them. He was a co-founder of Blueprint and served on its advisory board.

Blueprint leaders say the report’s section on diversity and inclusion started with the work of a subgroup that focused on the issue.

Carmen Tapio, the CEO of a North Omaha telemarketing firm who headed that working group, would not specifically say whether its recommendations included endorsing such a law.

“Our committee looked specifically at addressing the issue of equity in our state, on multiple fronts,” she said.

Regardless, the job of putting the work of all 16 Blueprint subgroups into a final consensus report fell to Blueprint’s staff and its 21-member steering committee, made up of business and industry representatives from across the state.

“I can tell you there was a vigorous debate on whether to include the diversity section,” said Tanya Storer, a Whitman, Nebraska, rancher who served on the steering committee.

In the end, she said, the committee worked for a compromise that reflected differences of opinion.

Tim Burke, CEO of the Omaha Public Power District and a steering committee member who backs the job discrimination law, said the group decided to keep its recommendations to a more general endorsement of diversity and inclusion, leaving the “how” for Blueprint’s implementation phase.

The report’s final wording seemed to reflect that dance. Even a general list of types of diversity that included both gender and sexuality was struck late in the process. What was left was the report’s broad, nonspecific embrace of diversity and inclusion.

“We are trying to find a common path forward,” said Jim Smith, executive director of Blueprint.

In the end, Smith said all steering committee and advisory committee members had a chance to offer input on the report’s final draft, including Ricketts. Gage said the governor did offer input on language in the report’s diversity section “to align it with the views and priorities of the steering committee.”

Burke, who is the Omaha chamber’s chairman this year, said he remains hopeful that Blueprint can serve as a catalyst for change on the discrimination issue, something Swatsworth of OutNebraska said would be welcomed.

She said the issue affects lives well beyond the workplace. She knows of gay people in rural Nebraska who quietly live in fear of being outed, knowing it could cost them their jobs. And she said many millennials who grew up with gay friends want to see them legally protected.

“For (millennials), it seems like it should be a nonissue,” she said. “There’s a sense everyone should be treated on the merits of their work, and someone’s private life shouldn’t influence their ability to do their job.”

For tech-weary farmers, tractors of '70s, '80s are hot commodity

Kris Folland grows corn, wheat and soybeans and raises cattle on 2,000 acres near Halma in the northwest corner of Minnesota, so his operation is far from small. But when he last bought a new tractor, he opted for an old one — a 1979 John Deere 4440.

He retrofitted it with automatic steering guided by satellite, and he and his kids can use the tractor to feed cows, plant fields and run a grain auger. The best thing? The tractor cost $18,000, compared to upward of $150,000 for a new tractor. And Folland doesn't need a computer to repair it.

"This is still a really good tractor," said Folland, who owns two other tractors built before 1982.

"They cost a fraction of the price, and then the operating costs are much less because they're so much easier to fix," he said.

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it's not because they're antiques.

Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well built and totally functional. They also aren't as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

"It's a trend that's been building. It's been interesting in the last couple years, which have been difficult for ag, to see the trend accelerate," said Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company in Rochester with a website and TV show.

"There's an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that," Peterson said. "These things, they're basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it."

BigIron Auctions, a Nebraska-based dealer that auctioned 3,300 pieces of farm equipment online in two days last month, had sold 27 John Deere 4440 tractors through 2019.

The model, which Deere built between 1977 and 1982 at a factory in Waterloo, Iowa, was the most popular of the company's "Iron Horse" series of tractors, which used stronger and heavier internal components to support engines with greater horsepower. The tractors featured big, safe cabins, advancing a design first seen in the 1960s that is now standard.

A sale of one of those tractors in good condition with low hours of use — the tractors typically last for 12,000 to 15,000 hours — will start a bidding war today. A 1980 John Deere 4440 with 2,147 hours on it sold for $43,500 at a farm estate auction in Lake City in April. A 1979 John Deere 4640 with only 826 hours on it sold for $61,000 at an auction in Bingham Lake in August.

"Those older tractors that had good care and good maintenance, that's good property," said Mark Stock, co-founder of BigIron.

The tractors have enough horsepower to do anything most farmers need, and even at a record price like the $61,000 the tractor in Bingham Lake fetched, they're a bargain compared to what a farmer would pay for a newer tractor with similar horsepower. The other big draw of the older tractors is their lack of complex technology. Farmers prefer to fix what they can on the spot, or take it to their mechanic and not have to spend tens of thousands of dollars.

"The newer machines, any time something breaks, you've got to have a computer to fix it," Stock said.

There are some good things about the software in newer machines, Peterson said. The dealer will get a warning if something is about to break and can contact the farmer ahead of time to nip the problem in the bud. But if something does break, the farmer is powerless, stuck in the field waiting for a service truck from the dealership to come out to the farm and charge up to $150 per hour for labor.

"That goes against the pride of ownership, plus your lifetime of skills you've built up being able to fix things," Peterson said.

The cheaper repairs for an older tractor mean their life cycle can be extended. A new motor or transmission may cost $10,000 to $15,000, and then a tractor could be good for another 10 or 15 years.

Folland has two Versatile 875s manufactured in the early 1980s in Winnipeg and bought a John Deere 4440 last year with 9,000 hours on it, expecting to get another 5,000 hours out of it before he has to make a major repair.

"An expensive repair would be $15,000 to $20,000, but you're still well below the cost of buying a new tractor that's $150,000 to $250,000. It's still a fraction of the cost," Folland said. "That's why these models are so popular. They've stood the test of time, well built, easy to fix, and it's easy to get parts."

He also said the modifications to newer diesel engines on tractors can cause mechanical problems, and the carbon footprint of an older tractor can be mitigated by using biodiesel, which is produced from soybeans grown in Minnesota and extends the life of an engine because it includes better lubricants than conventional diesel fuel.

Combine all that with nostalgia for the tractors of a farmer's youth, and 30 or 40-year-old tractors are in high demand. That's a shift from 30 years ago, Peterson said.

In 1989, 30-year-old tractors really were antiques. A 1959 tractor at that point would have sold for $2,000 or $3,000 and looked like a different species from the tractors in operation in the 1980s.

But tractors from the 1970s and 1980s aren't so dramatically different from tractors produced in the 2000s, other than the irksome software, and at a time when farmers are struggling financially, older tractors can make a lot of business sense.

Folland said his corn crop was better than the Minnesota average in 2019, despite the fact that he farms on the Canadian border and uses 40-year-old equipment.

"The main reason we do this is to make money," Folland said. "Older equipment is a way to reduce your cost per bushel to become more profitable."

A commanding, kind presence for just a few more months at NorthHigh
Principal Haynes, a role model for OPS students for 53 years, nears retirement

Principal Gene Haynes can be heard before he's seen.

His voice echoes through the hallways of Omaha's North High School as he encourages his students to hurry from one class to the next.

"Come on, little sister, don't be late," Haynes recently told a student taking baby steps. "Or your Saturday will be with me."

Haynes shook a student's hand. Patted another on the back.

"Hit the bricks," Haynes told his students.

Haynes pointed to a student — he taught the student's mother, too.

"Come on, come on," Haynes boomed. "Get to class." Haynes is not an office person. He's out with his students, calling everyone he sees "brother" or "sister." Thousands of students have heard that greeting during Haynes' nearly 53 years with the Omaha Public Schools.

He's been a teacher, coach, athletic director and principal. The 75-year-old has been principal of North since 2001.

But this school year will be the last for Haynes. He's retiring at the end of the year.

His two grandchildren, ages 7 and 12, keep asking Haynes when he's going to come visit them in California. And he wants to spend more time with his wife, Annie, who retired more than a decade ago.

His announcement has prompted an outpouring of support for a man many say can't be replaced.

"Mr. Haynes was the biggest, strongest, toughest guy in the building," said Cliff Brunt. "And he was the biggest teddy bear in the building. All at the same time. That's exactly what the people in our neighborhood needed."

Brunt, a sportswriter for the Associated Press in Oklahoma, graduated from North in 1992. Haynes was the school's athletic director then.

"Our young black men needed to see a man who could be strong physically but was comfortable enough in his own skin to have a softer side," Brunt said.

Haynes challenges himself to learn the names of all of his students, which earns him the respect of the students, said Desyree McGhee, a senior at North.

"He knows them by name. He knows their story. He takes the time to actually get to know them," she said.

Former OPS Superintendent Mark Evans once said that he considered himself to be a pretty good principal until he met Haynes.

"I knew every young person by name, and I had 1,600 students," Evans said. "But (Haynes), he didn't just know their names, he knew their aunt, uncle, grandma, everybody. He knows the families, he knows the community."

North High is at 36th and Ames Streets and is a magnet school for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. More than 2,000 students were enrolled at the school this year.

Born in Mississippi, Haynes was the son of a sharecropper who had a sixth grade education. He attended segregated schools in the Jim Crow South. Haynes remembers getting a National Guard escort to school after James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss.

Haynes followed his family to Omaha.

He began teaching social studies at Tech High in 1967 and coached the school's basketball team for 13 years. He was the first African American head basketball coach in Nebraska.

A stretch of 36th Street between Ames Avenue and Sahler Street bears Haynes' name.

Tom Warren was one of his basketball players at Tech High.

Warren is president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Nebraska. He had a 24 year career with the Omaha Police Department, including four years as police chief. He was Omaha's first black police chief.

Warren said Haynes was known as a strict disciplinarian, but he was more about character development and having his players reach their full potential.

"Gene had the unique ability to get to know the students," Warren said. "You knew you were interacting with someone who really cared about your well-being."

Haynes drove Warren and another student in his personal vehicle to college recruiting trips to make sure they had access to those opportunities.

"He knew education is the equalizer in our society," Warren said.

Sarah High first met Haynes while touring North High. After attending Holy Cross, her son was looking for a high school.

The tour ended in Haynes' office. "Within 30 seconds Haynes was talking to my husband about Indiana basketball and totally won us over," High said.

High's son, Henry, is a junior at the school. She said Haynes has a vision for North and as a result people want to be part of the school.

Haynes has been known to meet with parents in the evenings or on Saturday mornings because he doesn't want to burden parents by making them miss work.

Haynes has a few more months to walk the halls of North High School. After that, he plans to continue to support the school and advise his unnamed successor as needed.

So after 53 years in education, how does Brother Haynes hope to be remembered?

"As someone that cared. And someone that really wished to provide the best opportunities for students to have success."

emily.nitcher@owh.com, 402-444-1192 twitter.com/emily_nitcher

'Parasite' makes history with best picture win at Oscars

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Subtitle this: "Parasite" is the first non-English language film to win best picture in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards.

Bong Joon Ho's masterfully devious class satire took Hollywood's top prize at the Oscars on Sunday night, along with awards for best director, best international film and best screenplay. In a year dominated by period epics — "1917," "Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood," "The Irishman" — the film academy instead went overseas, to South Korea, to reward a contemporary and unsettling portrait of social inequality in "Parasite."

True to its name, "Parasite" simply got under the skin of Oscar voters, attaching itself to the American awards season and, ultimately, to history. The win was a watershed moment for the Academy Awards, which has long been content to relegate international films to their own category.

Multiple standing ovations greeted Bong's several wins. "I am ready to drink tonight," Bong said, prompting roars from the crowd. Unexpectedly called up again for best director, Bong saluted his fellow nominees, particularly Martin Scorsese, and concluded: "Now I'm ready to drink until tomorrow."

The win for "Parasite" — which had echoes of the surprise victory of "Moonlight" over "La La Land" three years ago — came in year in which many criticized the lack of diversity in the nominees and the absence of female filmmakers. But the triumph for "Parasite" enabled Hollywood to flip the script, and signal a different kind of progress.

In doing so, the film academy turned away another history-making event, again denying Netflix its first best-picture win despite two contenders in "The Irishman" and "Marriage Story," and a big-spending awards campaign blitz.

All of the acting winners — Brad Pitt, Renee Zellweger, Joaquin Phoenix and Laura Dern — went as expected.

Few categories were more certain coming into Sunday's Oscars than best supporting actor, which Pitt has had locked down all awards season. While Pitt (who in 2014 shared in the best picture win for "12 Years a Slave," as was a producer) has regaled audiences with one-liners in the run-up to the Oscars, he began his comments on a political note.

"They told me I have 45 seconds to speak, which is 45 seconds more than the Senate gave John Bolton this week," Pitt said, alluding to the impeachment hearings. "I'm thinking maybe Quentin does a movie about it."

Pitt said the honor had given him reason to reflect on his fairy-tale journey in the film industry, going back to when he moved to Los Angeles from Missouri. "Once upon a time in Hollywood," said Pitt. "Ain't that the truth."

Most of the early awards went according to forecasts, including Dern winning for her performance as a divorce attorney in Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story." Accepting her first Oscar, Dern thanked her in-attendance parents, "my legends, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern."

For the 87th time, no women were nominated for best director this year, a subject that was woven into the entire ceremony — and even into some attendees' clothing. Natalie Portman wore a cape lined with the names of female filmmakers who weren't nominated for best director, including Lulu Wang ("The Farewell"), Greta Gerwig ("Little Women") and Mati Diop ("Atlantics").

Coming on a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, the ceremony was soggy and song-heavy. Some performances, like Eminem's performance of "Lose Yourself," were unexpected (and drew a wane response from Martin Scorsese). All of the song nominees performed, including Elton John who won with his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin for their "Rocketman" tune.

The hostless ceremony opened on a note of inclusion, with Janelle Monae performing "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" and her own song, "Come Alive," with an assist from Billy Porter. "I'm so proud to be standing here as a black queer artist telling stories," Monae said. "Happy Black History Month."

Two former Oscar hosts, Chris Rock and Steve Martin, provided the opening monologue. "An incredible demotion," Martin called it. Martin also reminded that something was missing from this year's directing nominees. "Vaginas!" Rock replied.

There were milestones, nevertheless. In winning best adapted screenplay for his Nazi satire "Jojo Rabbit," the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi became the first indigenous director ever to win an Oscar. He dedicated the award to "all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art, dance and write stories."

"We are the original storytellers," Waititi said.

"Joker" composer Hildur Gudnadottir became only the third woman to ever win best original score. "To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters who hear the music opening within, please speak up," said Gudnadottir. "We need to hear your voices."

Awards were spread around to all of the best-picture nominees, with the lone exception being Martin Scorsese's 10-time nominee "The Irishman."

"1917," acclaimed for its technical virtuosity, took awards for Roger Deakins' cinematography, visual effects and sound mixing. The car racing throwback "Ford v Ferrari" was also honored for its craft, winning both editing and sound editing. Gerwig's Louisa May Alcott adaptation "Little Women" won for Jacqueline Durran's costume design. "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood" for Barbara Ling's production design.

Netflix came in with a leading 24 nominations. Along with the win for "Marriage Story," the streamer's "American Factory" won best documentary. The film is the first release from Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground Productions. No studio has spent more heavily this awards season than Netflix, which is seeking its first best picture win after coming up just shy last year with "Roma."

Pixar extended its domination of the best animated film category, winning for "Toy Story 4." It's the 10th Pixar film to win the award and second "Toy Story" film to do so, following the previous 2010 installment.

It was an early award for the Walt Disney Co. which despite last year amassing a record $13 billion in worldwide box office and owning the network the Oscars are broadcast on, played a minor role in the ceremony. The bulk of its awards came from 20th Century Fox ("Ford v Ferrari") and Fox Searchlight ("Jojo Rabbit"), both of which the company took control of after its $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox last year.

Disney's ABC, which is broadcasting the show live, hoped a widely watched field of nominees — including the $1 billion-grossing "Joker," up for a leading 11 awards — will help viewership. Last year's show garnered 29.6 million viewers, a 12% uptick.

In a year of streaming upheaval throughout the industry, this year's Oscar favorites were largely movies released widely in theaters. They also predominantly featured male characters and came from male directors.

After a year in which women made significant gains behind the camera, no female directors were nominated for best director. The acting categories are also the least diverse since the fallout of #OscarsSoWhite pushed the academy to remake its membership. Cynthia Erivo ("Harriet") is the only actor of color nominated. Those results, which have been a topic in speeches through awards season, stand in contrast to research that suggests the most popular movies star more people of color than ever before.

Scenes from the 92nd annual Academy Awards