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State_and_regional
Midlands senators back resolution calling on House to hold formal impeachment vote

WASHINGTON — All four U.S. senators from Nebraska and Iowa have joined fellow Republicans lining up behind a resolution that takes issue with the ongoing House impeachment inquiry.

That resolution calls on the House to hold a formal impeachment vote and provide President Donald Trump with due process, including the ability to confront his accusers and call witnesses on his behalf.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has at times been sharply critical of Trump, but he said in a press release Thursday that he’s backing the resolution. Sasse reiterated his criticisms of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

“I’ll say it again: Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Schiff are running a partisan clown show in the House,” he said. “This resolution says Congress should act like adults. Knock it off with the hyperventilating for TV cameras, start with an open vote in the House, and actually care about a process that the American people could have confidence in.”

The resolution comes after a group of House Republicans that included Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, poured into a secure briefing facility to disrupt a deposition there and protest the closed-door nature of interviews thus far.

That kind of action has earned tweeted praise from Trump, who called on Capitol Hill Republicans this week to fight harder to protect him.

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The resolution casts the ongoing inquiry as an unfair process with limited opportunities for Republican participation.

Democrats have responded to those criticisms by noting that Republicans on the relevant committees can participate in the interviews.

And some have compared the current phase of the inquiry to a grand jury proceeding, suggesting that it only makes sense to gather information discreetly before pressing forward with the more formal process.

They say Republicans are attacking the process as a way to distract from mounting evidence that Trump inappropriately pressured Ukraine to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., accused Republicans of glaring hypocrisy for not training their ire on the administration’s moves to block witnesses from testifying and otherwise impede the investigation.

“They don’t want to open the process up — they want to shut it down,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday. “If the White House and its congressional allies truly wanted an open and transparent process, the White House would provide the documents Congress requested. It wouldn’t defy subpoenas. It wouldn’t forbid executive branch employees from testifying. You can’t just flip a switch: one day suppress evidence and the next argue for a transparent and open process.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told reporters that she’s just trying to protect standards and norms.

“Democrats have been so heck-bent on making sure that they impeach this president that they are just randomly acting through this inquiry process,” she said.

Ernst declined to pass judgment on the evidence that has come out about Trump’s activities.

“I can’t go down that path right now,” she said. “Because again, I haven’t seen all of the information.”

At one point, Ernst invoked the “Shifty Schiff” nickname that Trump has used to taunt the congressman.

“I will be sitting in the Senate as a member of the jury, and I will at that time have the facts presented to me — not something that ‘Shifty Schiff’ is out there saying to everybody and making up his own words and his own transcript,” she said. “It will be the actual facts that they will have to present to the Senate, not this horrible show that they have going on in the House.”


State_and_regional
Lockdown, longer shifts, hiring bonuses: State Penitentiary adjusts operations amid staff shortage

LINCOLN — As an emergency lockdown and “staffing emergency” were being implemented at the state’s largest prison on Thursday, an official with the corrections officers’ union expressed hope that the Department of Corrections will take a look at increasing salaries to address its high turnover and staffing shortages.

The union has long complained that the state is losing prison officers and corporals to county jails in Omaha, Lincoln and Papillion because those agencies pay higher starting wages, require less overtime, and provide regular wage increases for years of service.

“We keep saying that we have to address this structural matter — how they’re paying people. Maybe the time is right to address that now,” said Gary Young, the attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, which represents state corrections officers, corporals and other security staff.

Thursday morning, staff at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln were informed via memo that a “staffing emergency” was being declared at the prison because of a shortage of staff and unsafe conditions for prison workers.

The emergency allows the prison to launch a temporary new work schedule involving 12-hour workdays for security staff as Corrections and the labor union work on “long-term solutions” to high turnover of new recruits and record-high overtime expenses for the remaining staff to fill vacant posts.

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New, much higher hiring bonuses of $10,000 were also announced for new workers at the State Penitentiary and three other facilities struggling with staffing problems, the Tecumseh State Prison, the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.

In addition, current staff at the penitentiary will get $500 bonuses at the end of the year if they remain.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, in his memo, told staff that this “drastic step” was needed to “ensure your safety and the safe operation of NSP.” He said the 12-hour shifts would reduce mandatory overtime shifts and were ordered because current hiring incentives hadn’t worked.

“There are no other viable options,” he said.

In a statement, Gov. Pete Ricketts, who hired Frakes four years ago, applauded the steps as “proactive” in protecting and increasing staffing in a tight labor market.

The staffing emergency order is similar to one enacted in the wake of a deadly riot at Tecumseh in 2015. The riot resulted in two inmate deaths and millions of dollars in damage.

Frakes emphasized that the order at the penitentiary was not sparked by any particular incident.

But that prison, in recent weeks, has been so short of staff that visitation, recreation and rehabilitation programs have been canceled on some days. Inmate disturbances and discovery of contraband like synthetic marijuana, handmade weapons and cellphones in cells has also been on the rise.

The penitentiary, which has a design capacity of 718, has been holding almost twice that many inmates in recent months.

Disturbances and organized cell searches have forced the prison into lockdowns — in which inmates must remain in their cells all day — more than once recently.

Under the staffing emergency, corrections officers and other security staff will work four 12-hour shifts in a row, then get three days off.

During the 12-hour night shifts, the prison will be locked down. Keeping inmates in their cells requires fewer staff members, but it could also increase tensions among prisoners.

Doug Koebernick, the Legislature’s inspector general for corrections, said that a “big question” will be how the inmates will react.

Koebernick began warning lawmakers a year ago that conditions were “alarming” at the State Penitentiary.

In his annual report last month, he renewed concerns about staffing shortages and the abundance of contraband. The penitentiary, he said, has about 130 vacant posts.

“I saw a need to do something,” he said of the changes announced Thursday.

Bonuses offered to newly hired corporals will be increased from $3,000 to $10,000, which Frakes said “kicks it up to an entirely new level.”

“I am highly encouraged that monetary offers of this size will have a significant impact,” he said.

This spring, the agency offered $3,000 bonuses to the first 100 new corporals hired, but as of September, not all of the bonuses had been claimed.

This summer, in a new contract with the corrections unions, the state agreed to allow “merit raises” for new and existing correctional officers, corporals and sergeants, giving them a chance to increase their pay by 12.5% over 10 years.

But state corrections union officials said that while it was a good first step, starting wages in state prisons still lag behind. Starting pay is higher at the Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster County Jails.

The staffing problems in state prisons have come with a cost — the state spent more than $15 million on overtime for security staff in 2018, which is about three times as much as a decade earlier and 23% more than the previous year.

Staffing shortages have also been cited by the ACLU of Nebraska, which has sued the state over prison overcrowding that has ranked as second-worst in the nation.

On Thursday, Danielle Conrad of the ACLU said the state’s prisons remain “in crisis,” noting that the Nebraska National Guard had to be called in last weekend to help with a search for contraband at the Lincoln Correctional Center.

Nebraska’s leaders, she said, “(need) to stop playing politics and to come to the table with all deliberate speed to enact smart justice reforms that have worked in other states.”


Local
'Our lives have been destroyed': Frustration rises with Missouri River primed for spring flooding

NEBRASKA CITY — The lives of people living along the Missouri River have been devastated, they say, washed away in the catastrophic flooding of 2019.

In some areas, farmland was scoured out by the force of the water; in others, it was buried beneath feet of sand. And for miles and miles, the land remains flooded, seven months after a late winter megastorm sent an unimaginable surge of flooding downstream. The wall of water was so high that it overwhelmed levees from Omaha south into Missouri.

So as winter nears with conditions again prime for spring flooding, about 150 to 200 residents of Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa told the Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday night that they wanted action — not more talk, not more meetings, and certainly not more studies.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A railroad bridge next to Eppley Airfield can be seen over a flooded Missouri River, as viewed from Lewis and Clark Park in Iowa on Thursday.

“Our lives have been destroyed,” said 69-year-old Alice Hodde. “Do you know the human toll this takes on farmers? Suicide is a big thing. ... What’s the price of a human life? Do you have an answer?”

It was a question without an easy answer. Billions of dollars are involved in controlling the river, and there are competing needs and conflicting laws.

“People need to know what this does to (us), what it costs a person,” Hodde told corps officials gathered in a stone lodge in this historic town. “We’ve talked to our congressmen, our senators. Our little group in Fremont County (Iowa) wrote at least 800 letters. It’s destroying us; something needs to change.”

Multiple riverside property owners stepped to the microphone to ask that an emergency be declared so that policies governing the management of the Missouri River can be changed. With each request came applause.

“Managing” a river may sound like a foreign concept, but the Missouri is more of an engineered drainage ditch than a free-flowing stream. Its water level is controlled, in part, by six massive dams upstream. The speed that the water travels and the channel it takes are governed by structures that have been built into the river, mostly rock berms. Those who attended the meeting want to see more water evacuated from behind the dams so that there’s more room to hold runoff, and they want to see a return to forcing the river to flow fast and deep downstream.

“Who would have the authority to declare a flood emergency and give us more storage (in the flood control reservoirs)?” asked John Roddy of Nebraska City. “Is it the president? Is it Congress? Somebody has to have the authority to declare this an emergency to deal with this problem.”

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

The swollen Missouri River with downtown Omaha in the background. The Army Corps of Engineers plans to release water from Gavins Point Dam at a rate about 30% higher than usual this winter.

John Remus, the corps official who oversees management of the six dams, said it’s not clear who would have that kind of authority. He said he would get back to Roddy and the others.

Remus told the group that the corps will move aggressively this fall and winter to release as much water as possible from behind the dams. The agency is releasing 80,000 cubic feet per second from Gavins Point, the dam farthest downstream, and he said that rate is likely to continue into late November. The corps can’t go higher than the current 80,000 cubic feet per second because doing so would require increases in releases from upstream dams that could flood upstream communities, Remus told The World-Herald before the meeting.

By early December, the corps will shift to lower wintertime release rates. The agency anticipates that it will be releasing water at a rate of 22,000 cubic feet per second this winter, about 30% higher than the average winter release rate. The corps may not be able to release more because of the danger of ice jam flooding in the Dakotas. But if winter is mild, the corps will release higher amounts, Remus said.

Col. John Hudson, commander of the Omaha district of the corps, said the agency is focused on repairing levees back to their previous state. Over the long term, it plans to evaluate what needs to be done differently to manage the river. He drew a contrast between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Flood control on the Mississippi is one integrated system built to federal standards. The Missouri River is lined by a patchwork of levees owned by everyone from local farmers to the federal government, and they’re built and maintained to different standards.

“The Missouri is not a system that works together,” he said. “It’s not a simple solution.”

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Photos: Flooding in central Nebraska in July 2019

Military
Nominee for top StratCom job says U.S. nuclear forces are vital, sidesteps Open Skies questions

WASHINGTON — The Navy officer nominated to lead U.S. Strategic Command declined the opportunity Thursday to either endorse or reject a proposed U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty.

Vice Adm. Charles Richard testified Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is reviewing his nomination.

With committee members praising Richard for his dedicated service and overall qualifications, his nomination appears on track for an easy confirmation.

But several lawmakers sought to pull him into an ongoing debate over the 34-nation treaty that allows member nations to fly over one another’s countries and take photos.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is among those who argue that Russia has violated the pact and gets far more benefit from it than the U.S., which has a more advanced network of spy satellites.

“I would submit that perhaps rather than calling this the Open Skies Treaty, maybe it should be called the open skies over America and the closed skies over Russia treaty,” Cotton said during Thursday’s hearing. “Admiral, do you see value in remaining in a treaty where only one side is following the rules?”

Richard chose his words carefully, saying he would support any treaty that enhances U.S. national security, a line he used several times at the hearing.

“Your analysis is quite correct on the Open Skies Treaty,” he said. “We do derive some benefit from it, particularly with our allies. We would need to make the appropriate resource and operational commitments to utilize the full provisions of the treaty if we were to remain, and I would just offer my best military advice, if confirmed, if a decision were to be reached.”

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Offutt Air Force Base, near Bellevue, is home both to StratCom headquarters and a pair of aging jets tasked with flying the Open Skies surveillance missions.

Members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation have fought hard to secure funding to replace those planes, funding that critics such as Cotton see as a waste of American resources.

The Trump administration is reportedly weighing a withdrawal from the treaty, while backers on Capitol Hill have been making the case for continuing the agreement.

StratCom oversees the nation’s nuclear arsenal, which Richard described during the hearing as fundamental to America’s survival as a nation.

He echoed the mantra of previous StratCom chiefs when he said the nation’s “triad” of nuclear weapons, delivered by land, air and sea, must be “safe, secure, reliable and effective.”

“A powerful, ready triad remains the most effective way to deter adversaries from conducting attacks against the United States and our allies,” he said. “We should be reminded its credibility backstops all U.S. military operations and diplomacy around the globe and ensures that tensions, regardless of where or how they arise, do not escalate into large-scale war.”

A submariner, Richard would replace Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who has been elevated to vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second-highest-ranking position in the military.

The Senate voted last month by an overwhelming, bipartisan margin to confirm Hyten to that new post despite accusations from a former aide that he sexually harassed and assaulted her.

Hyten strongly denied the allegations, and the Air Force found insufficient evidence for a misconduct finding.

An Alabama native, Richard has previously served as deputy commander at StratCom, which he described as a special place.

He said he would live up to the expectations of those who serve there and the legacy of past commanders. He specifically cited Hyten.

“He is truly a remarkable leader and commander, and in large part responsible for my development as an admiral,” Richard said.

Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska is a member of the committee and chair of its subcommittee on U.S. strategic forces.

Fischer asked Richard about the need to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons systems in a timely fashion and also solicited his opinions on upgrading the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Some have suggested that those missiles have become redundant and have pushed to reduce funding for their modernization.

Richard agreed with Fischer that the ground-based ICBM is an important leg of the triad.

“It adds special, unique capabilities that we have from no other leg,” he said. “It is essential in achieving the nation’s deterrence objectives.”

Fischer issued a statement after the hearing offering her full support for Richard’s nomination.

“He’s a capable leader with exceptional knowledge and experience,” she said.

Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years