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Cook-off raises funds for youth camp

For Karen Grothen-Neff of Lincoln, the Teen Reach Souper Bowl Masterpieces competition on Sunday provided a chance for redemption.

Her cheesy ham and potato soup was selected by voters to be the best soup in contention. The soup recipe came from the Hallam Steakhouse, which she owns.

“It was kind of exciting because I won by one vote and last year I lost by one,” she said. “So I redeemed myself a little bit.”

The annual event is a fundraiser for the Teen Reach Adventure Camp that serves youth in Hastings, Grand Island and surrounding areas.

Teen Reach camps, which are operated by donations and volunteer contributions, have the mission to “provide hope for the future” to youth who have been abused, abandoned and neglected.

There are Teen Reach camps in Hastings, Kearney, Lincoln and two in Omaha, as well as several dozen others throughout the country.

Teen Reach Adventure Camps are an extension of Royal Family Kids Camp and serve youth once they age out of Royal Family.

“This is our biggest fundraiser of the year. Obviously all the money we raise here goes to send all the youth to camp,” said Kelly Sparr of Lincoln, who is part of the leadership team for the Hastings camp.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Joel Zach and his daughter Cassia, 2, enjoy some chili during a chili and soup cook-off Sunday at the Adams County Fairgrounds. The event was a fundraiser for the Teen Reach Adventure Camps.

The north section of the Adams County Fairgrounds, which played host to the soup and chili cook-off, was full for most of the three-hour event.

Sparr said Hastings and south central Nebraska have been great about supporting the camp.

“The community’s really great about coming around us and showing support,” she said. “We’ve even had some people here today who are first time to the cook-off and they want to help next year by donating stuff or co-sponsoring the event for us. It’s just good to get the word out and let people know what we’re doing.”

In addition to voting for best soup and best chili and other categories including best booth and best overall theme among the 12 submissions, visitors to the event could purchase raffle tickets for donated items.

The cook-off is a family affair for Grothen-Neff. Her daughters help run the camp.

Her son and sons-in-law also submitted soups for Sunday’s competition. That includes Zac Griess of Grand Island, who won the chili category.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Tim and Holly Mudgett with daughter Aubree get some chili from Pat Gartner during a chili and soup cook-off Sunday at the Adams County Fairgrounds.

He finished second a couple of times.

“It feels good to finally win one,” he said.

His barbecue-based chili — with homemade barbecue sauce plus a lot of meat including burger, bacon and smoked brisket he smoked himself — was so popular he ran out of it before the competition ended.

“It’s not your normal chili, so I think it catches people. It catches their palate because they know it’s something different,” he said. “And it’s not hot, so anybody can try it.”

Griess said it’s fun to compete against familiar faces.

“We talk about it throughout the year and get up for it,” he said. “Our family puts a lot of work into this event.”

It’s also rewarding to help raise funds for the Teen Reach Adventure Camp.

“Teen Reach Adventure Camp is a great opportunity for youth in this area,” he said. “Any amount of money we can raise to make that camp better is well worth it.”

Griess is a volunteer there.

“I know how much it means to be able to have the camp and support that camp,” he said.

There are two Teen Reach camps in Hastings each year, one for girls and one for boys. Each camp includes 24 campers and 50 to 60 volunteer staff members.

Sparr said it is a safe environment for the campers.

“It’s just a chance for them to be kids,” she said. “You see them when they come and they don’t know anybody or trust anybody. They really get loved on and we do a lot of fun stuff that maybe they haven’t been able to do. They are also exposed to Bible teaching and worship, which is really awesome for them too.”

Property tax proposal relies on influx of income and sales taxes

Property tax reform has been a main discussion point during state Sen. Steve Halloran’s Saturday morning town hall events for all of his three years in office so far and the latest gathering was no different.

What was different Saturday was that Halloran was joined at the Eagles Club by Bruce Rieker, vice president of government relations for the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, to discuss the latest attempt at property tax reform: LB974, which was introduced Jan. 13.

Rieker and other farm groups worked with the Nebraska Legislature’s revenue committee to help formulate the bill.

The goal of LB974 is to reduce the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund public K-12 education by providing a dollar-for-dollar reduction in K-12 property tax funding. State aid would be increased to reduce the reliance on local property taxes for funding K-12 education.

LB974 doesn’t raise income or sales taxes, nor does it eliminate any sales tax exemptions. It doesn’t repurpose or change the property tax credit fund. The property tax credit fund will continue to work as it does today.

As introduced, LB974 will reduce the taxable valuation for all public school districts over a three-year period. Agricultural land will be reduced from 75% of actual value to 65% of actual value in 2020-21 and 55% of actual value in 2021-22 and thereafter. Residential, commercial/industrial and centrally assessed land will be reduced from 100% of actual value to 95% of actual value in 2020-21. It will be reduced to 90% of actual value in 2021-22 and 85% of actual value in 2022-23 and thereafter.

Rieker said in the past the majority of the Legislature wasn’t willing to eliminate sales tax exemptions or increase sales tax.

What has changed is that the state is experiencing higher-than-anticipated general fund tax revenues from income tax and sales tax.

Nebraska Farm Bureau is among organizations working with the revenue committee on projections.

Rieker said Nebraska already has experienced $178 million of general fund revenues above what was projected.

He said according to modeling, income tax and sales tax receipts look to come in $400 million and $520 million above what was originally projected.

That surplus has been identified to reduce property taxes.

He said in year one, the bill would provide $742 per student to every school in the state. There are 244 school districts.

Nearly 170 of those Nebraska districts receive little to no state aid, Rieker said.

For districts that currently receive more than $742 per student, until that per student figure eclipses what the district already receives, the districts won’t lose money.

In year two that amount increases to $1,540 per student and $2,416 in year three.

“That adds up pretty quick when you have over 300,000 students in K-12 education across the state.” Rieker said. “This bill we’re talking about is a $520 million bill. It’s a major change in how we fund schools and provide property tax relief with the creation of foundation aid.”

He admitted there’s no guarantee of sustainability for the additional funding.

As he point out, any budget — whether it is for a government, business or personal use — includes revenue projections.

Adjustments also would have to be made when it comes to unforeseen expenditures such as disaster relief.

“Those are things we have to deal with,” Rieker said.

There is no such thing as a one-time fix, he said.

“We’re always going to be at the table talking about income tax, sales tax and property tax,” he said.

Rieker said the education community has expressed concerns about the plan and how that might affect funding for public schools with the fear it may result in a decrease of funding for schools.

Among the projections are funding estimates for every public school district in Nebraska.

Rieker shared projections for Hastings Public Schools on Saturday.

He said with no changes to the state aid formula, Hastings is slated to lose about $49,000 next year.

With LB974 in place, Rieker said Hastings would receive about $600,000 more in state aid in year one; in year two that funding would increase $686,000 above year one. Year three would see an additional $1.262 million.

Answering a question about the source of this funding, Rieker said corporate income is “off the charts” higher than what was anticipated.

“Sales tax is right there with it,” he said.

Sales tax receipts are bolstered by the recent addition of online sales tax collection, he said.

Halloran referenced that question, mentioning that when he came into office three years ago the state was experiencing a revenue shortfall.

“I think your concern, and a concern I share with you is, with all this modeling what if it doesn’t happen? What if that revenue doesn’t come in?” Halloran asked.

Rieker said the answer would be to expand the tax base or cut spending.

In addition to LB974 and sales tax reform, Halloran also spoke to and answered questions about LR300CA, a constitutional amendment for a single-rate consumption tax introduced by Sen. Steve Erdman.

The constitutional amendment would eliminate all other taxes.

Halloran said the consumption tax would only be in effect for new items such as houses or vehicles and not for the purchase of used or older items.

Halloran, who chairs the Legislature’s agriculture committee, also spoke to agriculture bills of interest and his own, sponsored bills.

The next Coffee with the Senator will take place March 7.

Nebraska, Iowa target vaping after new federal restrictions

LINCOLN — Roughly one month after the federal government announced a new crackdown to keep e-cigarettes away from children, state lawmakers in Iowa and Nebraska are forging ahead with similar proposals of their own.

Both states are considering new laws to raise the minimum age for vaping to 21 years old in addition to other measures to try to restrict the product, such as a ban on flavored vaping liquids and a proposal to bar minors from even possessing vape devices.

States across the nation are pitching their own regulations after the FDA announced Dec. 20 that it was raising the minimum age to 21 to buy products with nicotine to comply with a law approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump. Some states are looking to ban certain flavored vaping products as the FDA has done, and others have already done so. States that are pursuing laws after the federal ban are generally trying to align themselves with federal law so that local authorities can prosecute violators.

An Iowa Senate subcommittee has advanced a measure to raise that state’s legal age from 18 to 21 to eliminate the conflict with federal law. In Nebraska, a legislative committee will review its own 21-and-older bill on Tuesday, and the sponsor said he doesn’t anticipate any major opposition now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s policy is in place.

“It will help level the playing field among our retailers,” said Nebraska state Sen. Tom Briese, of Albion, the chairman of the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee.

Under current law, Briese said, “you could have one retailer who chooses to follow the FDA regulations and another down the street who thinks, ‘The FDA’s not going to visit me, I’m only going to comply with state law.’ It creates an unfair competitive advantage for the retailer who’s willing to roll the dice.”

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that turn liquid, often containing nicotine, into an inhalable vapor. They’re generally considered a less dangerous alternative to regular cigarettes, but health officials have warned nicotine is harmful to developing brains. V aping also may encourage kids who don’t smoke to take up the habit.

The Iowa proposal would bar anyone younger than 21 from buying, possessing, or using vapor, tobacco or nicotine products.

“To me, the question boils down to one of enforcement,” said Iowa state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, of Ames. “I think we want to empower our local police and sheriff’s departments to enforce the age of 21. We don’t want to have to rely on the feds.”

Quirmbach said he’s optimistic lawmakers will accept the proposal given an apparent rise in minors who use vaping devices. But another proposal that would regulate vapor products under Iowa’s smoke-free air act is facing resistance from industry leaders, who argue that vaping mist and cigarette smoke are different.

Nebraska lawmakers will also consider a bill to prohibit youths under the age of 19 from even possessing vaping devices. Current state law only bars them from smoking the devices.

Nebraska Sen. Dan Hughes, of Venango, said he introduced the bill at the request of K-12 school administrators who are struggling to keep the devices out of their buildings.

“It’s about the health and safety of our kids,” Hughes said. “Their bodies are still growing,” and the effects of vaping aren’t fully known.

Another Nebraska bill would prohibit retailers from selling flavored vaping liquids except for ones that taste like menthol or tobacco. Briese, the bill’s sponsor, said flavors such as chocolate, honey, vanilla and fruit could appeal to children and encourage them to take up vaping.

Sarah Linden, who owns vape stores in Nebraska and Iowa, said she’s concerned that Nebraska “might be jumping gun” with a law that restricts flavored vaping liquids.

She noted that the federal government has already prohibited them in e-cigarettes and vaping products, and most stores have already sold out their inventory in advance of Feb. 7, when the ban goes into effect. However, Linden said the FDA left open the possibility that it might approve flavored liquids in the future, and if the agency did, Nebraska’s ban would be stricter than federal law.

“There’s really no reason to have this additional bill,” said Linden, the president of the Nebraska Vape Vendors Association. “We should let the federal government dictate which products are approved or not based on research.”

Linden said her group favors keeping Iowa and Nebraska’s current minimum ages, but understands that both states may need to raise them to 21 to stay aligned with federal law. States that contradict federal law are sometimes at risk of losing federal money.


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Pennsylvania groundhog declares early spring 'a certainty'

Associated Press

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s most famous groundhog on Sunday declared: “Spring will be early, it’s a certainty.”

At sunrise on Groundhog Day, members of Punxsutawney Phil’s top hat-wearing inner circle revealed the cuddly oracle’s prediction — his 134th, according to the Pennsylvania Tourism Office.

Awoken by the crowd’s chants of “Phil!” the groundhog was hoisted in the air for the assembly to hail before making his decision. He then grasped the glove of a handler as a member of his inner circle announced that spring would come early this year.

The annual event has its origin in a German legend that says if a furry rodent casts a shadow on Feb. 2, winter continues. If not, spring comes early.

In reality, Phil’s prediction is decided ahead of time by the group on Gobbler’s Knob, a tiny hill just outside Punxsutawney. That’s about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Over the past five years — from 2015 through 2019 — Phil has predicted six more weeks of winter thrice and an early spring twice. According to records dating back to 1887, the Pennsylvanian prognosticator has predicted more winter more than 100 times, making this year’s forecast a rare one overall.

Phil’s prediction was mirrored by one of his fellow groundhogs in New York.

At the Staten Island Zoo, schoolchildren and elected officials cheered Sunday morning as a curtain was pulled back at a glass enclosure containing Staten Island Chuck. He also didn’t see his shadow.