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Legislature
No tax increase but a bigger property tax bill: What a new Nebraska law is doing to address issue

Nebraska property taxpayers should start seeing double this year, with a new state law requiring all levels of local government preparing to collect more in property taxes the next year to hold a second public hearing and vote.

Too often, spending critics say, local politicians celebrate no increase in local property tax rates as no increase in property taxes. Then Nebraskans get their property tax statements in the mail, and their bills are higher than before.

For instance, the City of Omaha.

Mayor Jean Stothert proposed a budget that would hold property tax rates steady at 47.922 cents per $100 of valuation in 2020. But Omaha plans to collect more in property taxes in 2020 than in 2019 — about $11.3 million more.

The reason the city predicts the same tax rate will collect more revenue: The Douglas County assessor projects that the total valuation of properties within the city limits will increase by 6.65%.

Local officials say cities, counties, school districts and natural resources districts have long used the windfalls from valuation growth to cover the rising costs of governing, including inflation, salaries, health care and retirement.

Omaha City Council President Chris Jerram said he does not consider holding the tax rate steady to be a tax increase. Neither does Stothert. Both have said they realize that some constituents might disagree.

The Nebraska Legislature does. It unanimously passed Legislative Bill 103 in March to help rein in the growth of property taxes.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, said her goal was to help voters see what’s causing Nebraska’s property taxes to rise — local government spending.

She also wanted people to have a chance to speak up earlier in the budgeting process.

“We have to be clear about language,” Linehan said. “I don’t know whether they should or should not spend. But taxes don’t have to go up. They could drop the levy.”

The new law requires transparency from local governments with property taxing authority in the form of a separate public hearing and vote when they plan to collect more in property taxes than the year before.

It also makes them advertise the separate public hearing in a newspaper of record.

Local governments that expect local property valuations to increase can avoid the hearing and vote by lowering their property tax rates enough to collect the same amount as they did in the previous year.

Spending by many local governments has been growing faster than inflation, Linehan said.

That affects the state’s bottom line because Nebraska spends almost $400 million a year on local property tax relief. For example, in 2020, Nebraska is set to spend $88 million on the homestead exemption, which offsets local property taxes for the elderly and disabled.

Local governments have for years filed reports with the state auditor that disclosed property tax collections.

The increased transparency that LB 103 requires offers both opportunity and risk for local elected officials, said Jim Vokal, chief executive officer of the Platte Institute, a conservative think tank co-founded by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Vokal, a former member of the Omaha City Council, said he hopes that local leaders might think twice about casting votes that future political opponents could describe as votes to increase property taxes.

“This law requires them to hold a separate public hearing, explain why they want to keep the windfall and go on record,” Vokal said.

More reflection about the collective cost of increased spending by local governments — including bond issues — might help Nebraska avoid a voter revolt on property taxes, Vokal said. Taxpayers, he said, are “fed up.”

Linehan said she borrowed the idea for LB 103 from Virginia, where she and her family lived while she served in the State Department and as chief of staff for then-Sen. Chuck Hagel.

Omaha scheduled a second budget public hearing and vote for Sept. 10. Each will acknowledge that the city expects to collect more in property taxes in 2020 using the same property tax rate as 2019.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Articles
After Capital One hack, take steps to ensure your data is safe

More than 100 million credit card applicants in the U.S. had their personal information compromised in the Capital One hack announced Monday, illustrating again just how vulnerable consumer data can be even for the most security-minded organizations.

The hack, one of the largest ever against a financial services firm, comes just days after the credit-reporting company Equifax reached a $700 million settlement with U.S. regulators over the high-profile 2017 cyberattack that exposed the data of 147 million people.

FBI agents arrested a Seattle software engineer, Paige Thompson, on accusations of computer fraud. The bank says the hack exposed 140,000 Social Security numbers and 80,000 bank account numbers, as well as credit scores, balances and personal information such as addresses, birthdays and contact information.

Worried your data might have been exposed in the hack? Here's how to make sure your accounts are secure and to safeguard yourself against future attacks.

CHECK FOR SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY

Capital One will notify customers affected by the breach and is offering free credit monitoring and identity protection.

In the meantime, check your recent credit card statements and bank account transactions for suspicious activity. You should also check your credit report to see if any false accounts or credit cards have been opened in your name. Report any concerning activity to your bank immediately.

FREEZE YOUR CREDIT

Freezing your credit is a crucial step in identity protection, as it ensures no one, including banks, can access your credit reports without your permission. You can freeze your credit for free, either online or by phone, according to TedRossman, a CreditCards.com analyst.

"The number one thing consumers should do to protect their identities is to freeze their credit by contacting Equifax, Experian and TransUnion," Rossman said.

If freezing your credit isn't an option, you can contact a credit bureau to set up fraud alerts, said Daniel Markuson, a digital privacy expert at NordVPN. "Fraud alerts flag creditors and they verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name," Markuson said.

CHANGE PASSWORDS OFTEN

Rossman said a poll by CreditCards.com found that more than 80% of adults in the United States reuse their passwords. Setting up two-factor authentication, a second level of logging into your personal accounts, also is a good idea, whether that's through a text message sent to your phone or an external app such as Google Authenticator.

STAY ALERT FOR POSSIBLE SCAMS

Because the hack involved a great deal of personal information, it's possible it could lead to a rise in phishing scams, Markuson said

"Personalized phishing messages are designed to look as if they are coming from a legitimate bank or other familiar organization," Markuson said. "Such scams are usually very effective as criminals use a piece of real information, for example, your name and address."

Don't click links from parties you don't trust and don't give out personal information over the phone.


Money
Nebraska a top 3 state by 2030? Make what's good better, leaders say

Nebraska by 2030 should make itself a top 3 state to live in, add 25,000 more jobs, attract 43,000 young adults and increase per capita annual income by $15,000.

Those are among the goals set by Blueprint Nebraska, a 14-month effort to tackle the state’s challenges and improve the lives of people across the state.

“You start with the vision taking the ‘The Good Life’ in Nebraska and making it even better,” said Lance Fritz, chairman, president and CEO of Union Pacific Railroad and co-chairman of Blueprint Nebraska. “It’s about creating strong communities that are economically strong, vibrant, growing and a place where our young people want to stay because we’ve got the high-tech and high-value jobs they desire.”

To get there, the report released Tuesday says, Nebraska needs to realign the state’s tax structure toward making the state more competitive, promote diversity and inclusion, launch a “Choose Nebraska” campaign to attract young workers, increase collaboration between business and education, and promote formation of a high-tech business “cluster” that promotes entrepreneurship and innovation.

The Blueprint Nebraska report is the product of a group of business and community leaders who spent 14 months traveling the state, listening to 7,000 people and studying the state’s economy, seeking to develop an economic road map for where the state needs to go by the year 2030. Blueprint was launched in 2018 by Gov. Pete Ricketts and Hank Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska.

The final Blueprint report is some 100 pages long, but there’s a 10-page summary, too. Leaders encouraged Nebraskans to visit the Blueprint website, blueprint-nebraska.org, to read more.

When Blueprint Nebraska leaders took stock of the state’s economy, compared Nebraska with peer states and looked into the future, they found some concerning things.

The state is losing people to other states, the well-known “brain drain” the state has battled for decades.

They found Nebraska lagged in research and development spending, which is critical to helping to create the high-tech companies and jobs of the future.

And they also found that Nebraska’s workforce is not as statistically productive as those in competing states.

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Fritz said everyone on the steering committee was initially shocked and baffled by the last one, because they all knew how hard Nebraskans work. The state has long had one of the nation’s highest labor force participation rates.

“We love the labor force here in Nebraska,” Fritz said. “We have grit, we stick to things, we show up for work, we give it 100%.”

The problem, the study found, is that Nebraska is producing lower-value products, which then generate less economic gain from all the state’s hard work. Nebraska needs to work to transform its economy and compete to produce more of the value-added products and services that will generate more income.

The study found Nebraska has some critical strengths to build on.

Along with its strong workforce, Nebraska has some of the nation’s most productive agricultural land and a strong presence in many other industries, including financial technology, insurance, medicine, transportation and construction and engineering.

And it’s in the geographic center of the country, a two-day drive from either coast, which should make it the nation’s transportation and logistical hub.

In the end, the study identified 60 potential initiatives that will help the state meet the stated goals for job and income growth and improved quality of life, including 15 initiatives given highest priority.

As the Blueprint plan was rolled out in Omaha, Lincoln and Broken Bow on Tuesday, the importance of embracing diversity was a frequently discussed goal. Each rollout location included a young professional who spoke of the importance of inclusion to the people in their generation.

“They’re only going to come here if they feel welcome,” said Kayla Meyer, leader of Lincoln’s young professionals organization. “I look forward to the state of Nebraska stepping up and being a true welcoming neighbor, no matter what race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or handicap.”

Fritz said though diversity can be politicized, he thinks it also fits with the state’s “Nebraska nice” nature. And as a business leader who is looking for the best and brightest workers, that means “every population demographic that we can get our hands on,” he said.

“I think people are starting to wake up to that a little more,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.”

The report includes no estimate of the cost to implement the plan or how it would be paid for. It’s considered likely there will be both public and private investments. And the plan will be pushed forward “with an emphasis on remaining fiscally responsible, a trait that has served as both an asset and advantage to the Cornhusker State,” the report says.

Blueprint’s 15 priority initiatives are focused in four areas: people, places, government and industry.

For people, for example, the report urges Nebraska to:

  • Create more internships and apprenticeships to match young Nebraskans with the needs of expanding and locating businesses. The goal is to have more such opportunities than any other state in the Midwest.
  • Revolutionize education from early childhood to career, with goals of making Nebraska a leader in lifelong learning and preparing people for the jobs of the future. The initiative would involve fostering more cooperation between education and business and strengthening support for education, including child care.
  • Expand efforts to promote diversity and inclusion to make Nebraska “the most welcoming state in the Midwest.” Such efforts would involve community exchange programs and leadership programs promoting the importance of diversity and inclusion and making sure the state has the workers it needs.
  • Launch a “Choose Nebraska” campaign aimed at attracting 18- to 34-year-olds. It would involve creating incentives and cultural opportunities attractive to young people and promoting Nebraska in recruiting campaigns launched in identified markets.

The effort was patterned after a Blueprint Mississippi project, of which Bounds was chairman when he served as commissioner of higher education before moving to Nebraska. Bounds said that project generated thousands of high-paying, long-lasting jobs.

Now the leaders of Blueprint Nebraska want to broaden the effort further with more volunteers and partners from across the state as they seek to implement the priority strategies. Bryan Slone of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry vowed this will be one report that won’t sit on a shelf.

“This will get done and be a difference maker,” he said.

List: The Omaha area's largest employers

Military
'Nothing happened, ever': With accuser in front row, Gen. Hyten denies sexual misconduct allegations

WASHINGTON — Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser looked on stone-faced as Gen. John Hyten testified Tuesday that claims he sexually assaulted her are untrue.

“I want to state to you and to the American people in the strongest possible terms that these allegations are false,” Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee, describing an Air Force investigation into the matter as extensive and thorough. “Nothing happened, ever.”

Currently the head of U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Hyten has been nominated to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military’s second highest officer.

The committee chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in an interview that he expects the committee to approve Hyten’s nomination this week, before lawmakers leave for their August recess.

Spletstoser was a top aide to Hyten at StratCom, where she received positive reviews before being forced out for creating a “toxic” work environment.

After Hyten’s nomination to be vice chairman was announced, Spletstoser came forward with accusations that Hyten made a series of unwanted advances toward her.

Spletstoser sat in the front row of the hearing room’s section for the public Tuesday and told reporters afterward that Hyten was the one not being honest.

“He lied about a myriad of items ... he lied about sexually assaulting me,” Spletstoser said.

Spletstoser referred to “sophomoric” advances by Hyten toward her over her time working for him.

“Gen. Hyten was very much infatuated with me,” she said.

She has alleged that at the 2017 Ronald Reagan Defense Forum in California, Hyten came into her hotel room and rubbed up against her until he ejaculated.

In hindsight, she said, she should have raised an alarm at that time in order to hold Hyten accountable.

“As somebody who had just almost been raped that evening,” Spletstoser said, taking a long pause as she choked up, “I was just devastated as a human being and I was scared.”

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During the hearing, Hyten repeatedly denied all of the allegations, saying that he had never even visited the colonel’s hotel room. He cited the Air Force investigation that resulted in no action being taken against him.

Former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson introduced Hyten at the hearing, saying the allegations against him were taken seriously and exhaustively investigated. That produced a report totaling more than 1,400 pages, she noted.

“General Hyten was falsely accused and this matter should be set aside as you consider his nomination,” she said. “I accept that it is entirely possible that his accuser is a wounded soldier who believes what she is saying is true, even if it’s not.”

Spletstoser said Wilson’s comments show the former secretary was uninformed, and she disputed suggestions that investigation was thorough, saying it seemed aimed more at investigating her and did not include all relevant materials.

The committee includes two Republican women who have detailed their own experiences as sexual assault victims — and the two differed sharply in their approaches to the hearing.

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., revealed earlier this year how she was raped by a superior officer while serving in the military. She said she takes sexual assault allegations seriously but was unequivocal in backing Hyten.

“The truth is that General Hyten is innocent of these charges,” McSally said. “Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case. I pray the accuser gets the help she needs and finds the peace she is searching for, but it cannot be by destroying General Hyten with these false allegations.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, on the other hand, was responsible for some of Tuesday’s toughest questioning.

A retired Army National Guard officer, Ernst revealed earlier this year that she had been raped in college.

Ernst focused her questions on how Hyten allowed that “toxic” environment to develop at StratCom and suggested he did not tackle it appropriately.

“You serve in one of the most important positions within our United States military, overseeing our nuclear arsenal,” Ernst said. “However, you could not bring yourself to admit or recognize toxic leadership within your command.”

Hyten talked during the hearing about the difficulty of high-ranking officers seeing when otherwise high-performing subordinates create those kinds of toxic environments.

Ernst said she would watch how the rest of the confirmation process goes, but described what she views as a clear conflict between Hyten’s “personal inclinations” and professional responsibilities.

“This leaves me with concerns about your judgment and ability to lead in one of the highest positions in the U.S. military,” Ernst said.

Ernst told The World-Herald later in the day that “I think we’re in a position today because of a lack of leadership that was shown in the past.”

As for the sexual misconduct allegations?

“They can’t be proven, they can’t be disproven,” Ernst said.

Spletstoser told reporters that she did not think her approach to the job at StratCom was “toxic,” but that Hyten was well aware of her leadership style and encouraged it.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., is a senior member of the committee who said she believes that the sexual misconduct allegations are false. She focused her questions during the hearing on Hyten’s official duties.

“It’s nukes, it’s cyber, it’s space,” Fischer said. “You don’t have a better qualified individual than John Hyten.”

Fischer said she disagrees with Ernst about Hyten’s handling of the toxic leadership situation.

“He assumed responsibility when he heard issues, when people came to him,” Fischer said.

According to an Omaha Police Department report, Spletstoser was taken into emergency protective custody on Feb. 26, 2018, after threatening to kill herself.

The responding officers were advised that she had told Hyten earlier in the day that he had “24 hrs. to rectify the situation,” or she was going to kill herself with a family firearm, according to the report.

In response to emailed questions about the police report, Spletstoser’s attorney, Air Force Lt. Col. Nora Rule, said that Hyten called the police in an effort to have her committed for 72 hours.

But Rule said her client was not suicidal and never told Hyten that she planned to kill herself.

“The Omaha police arrived and found zero guns, and the hospital that she was sent to refused to keep her beyond a few hours after evaluating her,” Rule wrote.

Spletstoser said confirming Hyten to the uniformed military’s second highest position would send a poor message.

“It says that every general officer, or flag officer, is above the law, and that they won’t be treated under the same set of circumstances as anybody else,” Spletstoser said.

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