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Ricketts picks taxes, flood recovery as top issues in 2020

LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts will attempt to lower taxes for homeowners, farmers and military retirees this year while setting aside money to help the state recover from the historic 2019 floods.

The governor pledged in an Associated Press interview to present lawmakers with a property tax package during the legislative session that begins Wednesday. He said he’ll also continue pushing for one of his earlier priorities, a tax exemption for military retirees equal to half of their benefit income.

“What you’ll see in the budget that I lay out is us continuing to make significant progress on property tax relief,” Ricketts said. “We made progress in 2019, and we want to continue to build upon that.”

Ricketts and lawmakers will have more revenue at their disposal this year, thanks to higher-than-expected tax collections over the last several months.

“We have the opportunity to be able to deliver significant tax relief,” Ricketts said.

However, members of the tax-focused Revenue Committee still haven’t completed a property tax proposal for the upcoming session. Ricketts said he remains opposed to any measure that lowers property taxes by increasing other taxes, an approach the committee considered last year.

Revenue Committee members are now considering a bill that would reduce the amount of property that school districts can tax.

If it passes, school districts would only be allowed to tax 55% of the total value of agricultural land, down from the current 75%. They could tax 85% of the value of residential and commercial property, down from the current 100%. Nebraska would compensate the schools with increased state funding, but the bill would also impose spending limits on each district.

“The governor wants spending controls, and I do too,” said Sen. Mike Groene, of North Platte, a Revenue Committee member and chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “Just throwing money at it isn’t going to work.”

The push comes as activists and some state senators gather signatures to place a property tax cut measure on the 2020 ballot. Ricketts has opposed the ballot measure, saying it would create budget problems and potentially lead to other tax increases. In the interview, he said there’s little he can do to stop the ballot campaign, and he plans to remain focused on addressing the issue in the Legislature.

“This is not a one-and-done kind of issue,” he said. “Even if we make progress on this issue this year, we still need to continue to work on this issue in the future.”

Ricketts said his budget proposal to lawmakers will include additional money to help cover the state’s flood recovery expenses. The federal government is expected to pay most of the cost, but the state must provide matching dollars for road repairs and to fix local, publicly owned bridges and buildings. Ricketts said the state will likely spread the costs out over several years.

“We just have to manage that within our budget,” he said.

Another Ricketts priority, the tax bill for veterans, is set for debate in the Legislature on Jan. 13. Sen. Tom Brewer, of Gordon, introduced the measure last year but it didn’t advance out of committee until just before the 2019 session ended.

Brewer said he believes the measure has a good shot at passing. He said Nebraska’s tax on military retirement income discourages former service members from remaining in the state, particularly when they can move to neighboring Iowa or Missouri and not pay any tax on their benefits. Those who do move often start new careers or businesses that generate other taxable income, Brewer said.

“This issue is bigger than people realize,” he said. “I’m really hopeful this will work out.”

STEAM team

Aiden Aldrich went through a lot of trial and error to accomplish his objective Saturday afternoon.

The objective was to get a Sphero rover robot to push two taped-together red Solo cups carrying table tennis balls 20 feet across the carpeted floor of the Hastings Public Library’s conference room, around another cup and back to the starting line.

Aiden, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Hastings Middle School, used block coding and a tablet to control the Sphero rover, which proved to be a challenge. The robotic orb either went too far or too fast — knocking over the cups and spilling the balls.

His setbacks just inspired him to work harder.

“It’s just nice to see that every time I succeed it’s like 10 steps forward and then when I inevitably mess up it’s like one step backward,” he said. “It’s nice to feel the pull.”

Aiden eventually was able to complete the objective. He used a drive program that turned the tablet into a remote, which was easier to control than using block coding.

Aiden was one of a pair of middle school students to participate in the Sphero Lunar Rover Races, a Hastings Public Library Teen STEAM activity. STEAM activities explore science, technology, engineering, art and math.

He hadn’t used a Sphero before but had used similar rovers. He was familiar with block coding, using it at school.

“It’s called that because all the things are in squares,” he said.

Jacob Doyen, the other HMS sixth-grader to participate in the Sphero Lunar Rover Races, chose to focus much of his attention on the “A” of STEAM during the activity.

Exercising his artistic side he attached balloons and pipe cleaners to his Solo cup to create a crazy alien.

He said he liked the creativity of building his alien.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Jacob Doyen constructs a carrier for table tennis balls that will go on top of a Sphero rover robot during an event for the Hastings Public Library’s Teen STEAM Saturday.

Jacob is part of the library’s teen advisory board, which meets once a month to plan activities other sixth- through 12th-graders would like to do.

Rachel Mueller, HPL teen services library assistant, oversees the teen advisory board just like she oversaw the Sphero Lunar Rover Races on Saturday.

“It’s never me saying ‘Well I think we should do this,’ ” she said. “It’s all of what is teen-centric in our community as opposed to what I think would be cool.”

The group’s next activity is Library-Con on Jan. 25 — Hastings Public Library’s take on Comic-Con, with a costume contest and different activities and Marvel versus DC Jeopardy.

Blowback: Iran abandons nuclear limits after US killing

TEHRAN, Iran — The blowback over the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general mounted Sunday as Iran announced it will no longer abide by the limits contained in the 2015 nuclear deal and Iraq’s Parliament called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil.

The twin developments could bring Iran closer to building an atomic bomb and enable the Islamic State group to stage a comeback in Iraq, making the Middle East a far more dangerous and unstable place.

Adding to the tensions, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to demand billions of dollars in compensation from Iraq or impose “sanctions like they’ve never seen before” if it goes through with expelling U.S. troops.

Iranian state television cited a statement by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration saying the country would not observe the nuclear deal’s restrictions on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran no longer faces any limitations in operations,” a state TV broadcaster said.

In Iraq, meanwhile, lawmakers voted in favor of a resolution calling for an end to the foreign military presence in the country, including the estimated 5,200 U.S. troops stationed to help fight Islamic State extremists. The bill is subject to approval by the Iraqi government but has the backing of the outgoing prime minister.

In yet another sign of rising tensions and threats of retaliation over the deadly airstrike, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq said it is putting the battle against IS on hold to focus on protecting its own troops and bases.

The string of developments capped a day of mass mourning over Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Friday. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets in the cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad to walk alongside the casket of Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran’s proxy wars across the Mideast and was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in roadside bombings and other attacks.

Trump responded to the Parliament’s troop withdrawal vote with a monetary threat, saying the U.S. expected to be paid for its military investments in Iraq before leaving and threatening economic sanctions if the U.S. is not treated properly.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One.

“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” he said

He added: “We’re not leaving until they pay us back for it.”

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus earlier said the U.S. is awaiting clarification on its legal meaning but was “disappointed” by the move and strongly urged Iraq to reconsider.

“We believe it is in the shared interests of the United States and Iraq to continue fighting ISIS together,” Ortagus said.

The leaders of Germany, France and Britain issued a joint statement on Sunday calling on Iran to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal and refrain from conducting or supporting further “violent acts.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson specifically urged Iran to “withdraw all measures” not in line with the 2015 agreement that was intended to stop Tehran from pursuing its atomic weapons program.

Iran insisted that it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it wouldn’t seek a nuclear weapon.

However, the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran’s longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.

Iran did not elaborate on what levels it would immediately reach in its program. Tehran has already broken some of the deal’s limits as part of a step-by-step pressure campaign to get sanctions relief. It has increased its production, begun enriching uranium to 5% and restarted enrichment at an underground facility.

While it does not possess uranium enriched to weapons-grade levels of 90%, any push forward narrows the estimated one-year “breakout time” needed for it to have enough material to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog observing Iran’s program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Iran said that its cooperation with the IAEA “will continue as before.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi earlier told journalists that Soleimani’s killing would prompt Iranian officials to take a bigger step away from the nuclear deal.

“In the world of politics, all developments are interconnected,” Mousavi said.

In Iraq, where the airstrike has been denounced as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said that the government has two choices: End the presence of foreign troops or restrict their mission to training Iraqi forces. He called for the first option.

The majority of about 180 legislators present in Parliament voted in favor of the troop-removal resolution. It was backed by most Shiite members of Parliament, who hold a majority of seats. Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal.

A U.S. pullout could not only undermine the fight against the Islamic State but could also enable Iran to increase its influence in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority-Shiite country.

Soleimani’s killing has escalated the crisis between Tehran and Washington after months of back-and-forth attacks and threats that have put the wider Middle East on edge. Iran has promised “harsh revenge” for the U.S. attack, while Trump has vowed on Twitter that the U.S. will strike back at 52 targets “VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. “

He doubled down on that threat Sunday, dismissing warnings that targeting cultural sites could be a war crime under international law.

“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way,” Trump told reporters.

The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans “of the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks.” In Lebanon, the leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah said Soleimani’s killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair game for attacks. A former Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader suggested the Israeli city of Haifa and centers like Tel Aviv could be targeted should the U.S. attack Iran.

Iranian state TV estimated that millions of mourners came out in Ahvaz and Mashhad to pay their respects to Soleimani.

The casket moved slowly through streets choked with mourners wearing black, beating their chests and carrying posters with Soleimani’s portrait. Demonstrators also carried red Shiite flags, which traditionally symbolize both the spilled blood of someone unjustly killed and a call for vengeance.

The processions marked the first time Iran honored a single man with a multi-city ceremony. Not even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, received such a processional with his death in 1989. Soleimani on Monday will lie in state at Tehran’s famed Musalla mosque as the revolutionary leader did before him.

Soleimani’s remains will go to Tehran and Qom on Monday for public mourning processions. He will be buried in his hometown of Kerman.

Omaha man who helped make Saturn movie speaks at Hastings Museum

Bill Eberly remembers being in high school when the Cassini-Huygens space-research probe reached the orbit of Saturn’s moon, Titan, and began taking photos there.

“The images from Titan, I remember refreshing my computer as those were coming down,” he said. “These amazing images and so few people have seen them.”

Eberly, a banking software computer programmer in Omaha, was one of hundreds of volunteers who worked on 2018’s “In Saturn’s Rings,” directed by Stephen van Vuuren. “In Saturn’s Rings” used more than 7.5 million photographs and numerous film techniques to create the effect of flying through space around Saturn and among its rings.

“In Saturn’s Rings” opened this month at the Hastings Museum. Eberly attended a viewing of the movie Sunday afternoon and spoke to the audience afterward about his experience.

“Being able to work on a project like this where the goal is to get these images out there so people can see them is really special to me,” he said.

The Cassini mission launched Oct. 15, 1997, and was active in space for nearly 20 years. It spent 13 years orbiting Saturn and studying the planet and its system after entering Saturn’s orbit July 1, 2004.

The mission ended Sept. 15, 2017, when Cassini burned up in Saturn’s upper atmosphere to prevent any risk of contaminating Saturn’s moons.

Van Vuuren has been working on “In Saturn’s Rings” for about 10 years.

Eberly got involved with the movie about six years ago. He saw one of the first trailers about six years ago, which had a crowd funding campaign.

“I thought I would donate to it, but by the time I got there the donation goals had already been met,” he said. “I was looking around the website seeing if there was anything else I could do because I thought the movie looked really cool. They said they were looking for computer programmer volunteers. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

He sent an email expressing an interest to help with the project and was chosen.

“I thought I’d be working on it for a month or two here and there,” Eberly said. “I’ve been working on it for six years now.”

“In Saturn’s Rings” is a nonprofit film. Nearly everyone who worked on the film donated their time to do so.

Eberly said it’s a weird experience to see his name in the credits of a movie.

“I’ve never had anything to do with a film before,” he said. “I’m not a very artistic guy. I work in computer code and that sort of thing.”

He worked primarily on a tour included in the film of 5 million galaxies beyond the Milky Way. The footage, which gives the galaxies a three-dimensional appearance, lasts 40 seconds.

He worked with two other people to take the raw images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a ground-based telescope in southern New Mexico.

The team used 200,000 images. Eberly said it’s likely no one had seen some of those images prior to “In Saturn’s Rings.”

There were nearly 100 million galaxies in those images. The team was able to present 5 million galaxies in 3-D.

Most of Eberly’s work was writing the code that downloaded and processed the images and located the galaxies in the data provided by the telescope to tell how far away the galaxies are.

Data then was transferred into animation software. The film was made in Adobe After Effects.

“That 5 million-galaxy shot you saw took 5 ½ years of computer processing time to render that 40-second shot,” he said.