Excerpts from recent Nebraska editorials 

Lincoln Journal Star. Jan. 27, 2012.

Foster kids on psych drugs

Sen. Gwen Howard wants a task force to examine why more than one in five foster children in Nebraska is taking psychiatric medication.

A review of the state's policies is justified. Her legislative proposal to set up a 12-member task force would cost only an estimated $3,000 and could provide valuable new information and lead to better state oversight.

The possible overmedication of foster children is a nationwide concern. In the general population, only about 4 percent of children are taking psychiatric drugs, according to a landmark study conducted by Tufts University.

Yet foster children take the drugs at rates that range from 13 percent to 52 percent in the 47 states covered in the study. In Nebraska, 22.5 percent of foster children are taking psychiatric drugs.

There's little doubt that psychiatric drugs can provide tremendous benefits to children when they are prescribed properly.

A Government Accountability Office report released last month noted that the higher rate of prescriptions for foster children could be because they had "greater health needs, greater exposure to traumatic experiences and the challenges of coordinating their medical care."

The report went on, however, to note that in the five states studied by the GAO, hundreds of foster children were taking five or more psychotropic drugs.

According to the GAO's experts, no evidence supports the concomitant use of that many drugs by either children or adults. In addition, thousands of the foster children were taking higher than recommended doses. (Nebraska was not included in the federal study.)

Other states have begun efforts to reduce the rate at which foster children are prescribed the drugs. In Oregon, the prescription rate dropped from 20 percent in 2008 to 14.3 percent in 2010 after enactment of a law requiring child welfare officials to monitor the prescriptions more closely.

Oregon officials noted that only 4 percent of foster children placed with a relative were prescribed the drugs, while 18 percent in a nonrelative foster home took the drugs. An investigation by The Oregonian newspaper revealed that foster parents in that state received more money if the children were taking psychiatric medication.

The drugs, which include stimulants for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, antidepressants, antipsychotics and others, have potentially serious side effects.

The state of Florida did not take action to reform its policies on psychiatric medications for foster children until a 7-year-old boy hung himself.

It should not take a tragedy for senators in Nebraska to grasp the importance of ensuring that the state provides adequate oversight of the powerful drugs prescribed for the children in its care. Passage of Howard's LB837 would be a step in the right direction.

___

Grand Island Independent. Jan. 27, 2012.

Limits on occupation tax would harm G.I.

Just when Nebraska municipalities thought their financial issues could not get any tighter, along comes a bill in the legislature that would require voter approval before a city could implement an occupational tax or adjust the rate on one that already exists. The bill would also require that a specific use of the tax funds be identified and that it include a sunset date for when it would cease to be levied.

The debate in the legislative committee began Wednesday on the bill sponsored by Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine.

We have already agreed with two of the three mandates in the bill. We have consistently urged for a sunset clause on Grand Island occupation taxes. We also have supported the idea that the tax fund a specific need.

As for the need for the occupation tax to be approved at the ballot box, we think the city council can assume the responsibility of voting on the tax. They are the designated representatives of their wards and they should be able to determine if the tax is warranted. It is more efficient than waiting until the next election cycle and it can be implemented quickly by the city administration once it is approved by the local council.

Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek spoke against the measure Wednesday and reminded the committee that local government has to respond quickly in the case of an emergency and pointed to the tornado disaster that crippled Joplin, Missouri, recently. That city found itself with dramatic unforeseen expenses that needed to be dealt with in a speedy fashion.

Grand Island has three occupation taxes, including one on food and beverages to pay for the city's resulting expenses when the State Legislature moved the State Fair to Grand Island only 14 months after the July 9, 2009, groundbreaking. That resulted in the creation of the Community Fieldhouse recreational center at Fonner Park. A second occupation tax is attached to cellphones and is used to support public safety. The third occupation tax is on hotel/motel rooms to support the Heartland Events Center. Over the years, Grand Island has shown remarkable restraint in applying the occupation tax, as have most Nebraska cities.

Legislators and the governor, in their quest to reduce the state budget, have stopped much state funding of city government. Property taxes have been reduced and many programs that received state funding have been pushed back to local governments, including cities and counties. Yet with state mandates on the maximum local sales taxes, normal budgeting of city services is almost impossible.

Many see Fischer's bill as another of the legislature's intrusions on local government and we have to agree. This bill would seriously impact Grand Island's flexibility to fund needed projects.

___

McCook Daily Gazette. Jan. 25, 2012.

Things are not as good, not as bad as they say

Things are definitely not as good as President Obama made them sound in Tuesday night's State of the Union address.

Nor are they as bad as the gloom-and-doom Republican response made them sound.

For instance, Republicans blasted the president for the denial of the Keystone XL pipeline permit — an issue he didn't address directly — despite their own culpability in boxing the administration into a corner that left it few other choices.

We predict the pipeline will eventually be built, following a route avoiding the most sensitive parts of the sandhills, despite continued opposition by those whose true goal was killing the project outright.

Southwest Nebraska might be interested in the president's call for partnerships between community colleges and companies, to train workers for new careers. But is that something that has to be coordinated through a new federal program?

We could also feel a positive impact from Obama's call for creation of a Veterans Jobs Corps to help cities hire former military personnel, as well as tax credits for companies that hire veterans.

All of us feel the effects of health care reform, and Obama's claim that the new system "relies on a reformed private market, not a government program," is only partly true, according to fact checking by the Associated Press.

"About half of the more than 30 million uninsured Americans expected to gain coverage through the health care law will be enrolled in a government program," Calvin Woodward said in an AP story. "Medicaid, the federal-state program for low-income people, will be expanded starting in 2014 to cover childless adults living near the poverty line," he wrote. The other half will be in private health plans through new state-based insurance markets, but many of them will receive federal subsidies to make their premiums more affordable — also a government program. Assuming the Supreme Court upholds the concept of an individual mandate to buy health insurance, everyone will be required to carry health coverage, either through an employer, by buying their own plan, or through a government program.

Despite mentioning jobs 32 times and calling for increasing the exports, the president failed to mention agriculture, one of the most productive and export-successful industries in the United States.

Nor was there much to cheer the Southwest Nebraska ethanol industry, Obama instead opting to focuses on domestic oil and natural gas production, as well as renewing Section 1603 tax credits for wind and solar development, which are equivalent to about 1 percent of U.S. power production capacity.

He also touted the fact that U.S. oil imports were at their lowest point in 16 years, without mentioning that an increase in biofuel production deserves some of the credit.

The president is reportedly planning to unveil his "Blueprint for a Bioeconomy" next week. We'll have to wait and see what he has in mind.

Unfortunately, both Obama's speech and the Republican response sounded more like campaign rhetoric than real plans for lifting the country out of its current economic gully. Let's hope it doesn't take a bigger crisis to spur Washington leadership into finding real, lasting solutions to our problems.

___

Omaha World-Herald. Jan. 27, 2012.

Tiff over TIF can be solved

Tax-increment financing has cleared the way for major economic development projects across Nebraska. Municipalities need flexibility to continue using TIF to grow the state's economy.

A legislative bill to limit the use of this tax break is well-intentioned, but its sponsor, Sen. Abbie Cornett, is right to shift the proposal in another direction. Cornett says she plans to amend her bill to focus more on promoting better communication with affected school districts.

With tax-increment financing, taxes for projects are paid on the valuation that the property had before its redevelopment. Revenue from the growth in the property's value goes back into the project, paying for such items as demolition, streets or sewers instead of funding the city, school district or other local governments.

The project's full valuation goes on the tax rolls typically 12 to 15 years after the project is completed. In exchange for getting the funding, developers must attest that the project wouldn't have taken place without the incentive.

The need to make certain school districts are well informed is understandable.

When the City of Omaha planned to declare a large section of Omaha "blighted" in order to allow TIF for a proposed Crossroads Mall redevelopment, that step would have affected some 80 percent of the commercial property in the area encompassing the Westside Community Schools. Westside voiced its concern, and that rightly led the city to reduce the TIF plans to lessen the impact on Westside.

Cornett developed her legislation, which would restrict a taxing district from placing no more than 7 percent of its property valuation in TIF status.

At a hearing this week, city officials and economic development supporters from across the state described how such a cap would undercut this key development tool for Nebraska communities. The 7 percent cap, for instance, would stop 25 Nebraska cities from any new use of TIF in the immediate future, according to 2010 figures from the Nebraska Department of Revenue.

Those communities: Adams, Albion, Atkinson, Beatrice, Bennington, Bridgeport, Cambridge, Central City, Fairmont, Gothenburg, Jackson, Lexington, Madrid, McCool Junction, Mead, Minden, Ord, Ravenna, Roseland, Stromsburg, Valley, Waverly, Waterbury, Waterloo and Wood River.

Omaha, which has nearly $1.3 billion in redevelopment projects already approved, would have only $55 million left under the cap to use for TIF purposes within the Omaha Public Schools boundaries, which covers downtown and the inner city areas where the city long has focused redevelopment efforts.

Given these major, practical difficulties with the bill, Cornett has said she'll amend the bill so that it focuses instead on making sure that school districts are kept informed of the property tax ramifications whenever new TIF projects are being proposed.

That is the right approach. Nebraska communities need to keep focusing on promoting new development, and TIF can play a major role in those efforts.

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