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Taxes still top focus as Nebraska lawmakers resume session

OMAHA — Nebraska lawmakers will return to their legislative session Monday for the first time in almost four months with most of the same challenges they faced back in March, plus new questions about how the coronavirus will squeeze the state budget.

Most lawmakers still want to lower property taxes and pass a new tax incentive program for businesses, although they acknowledge that one won’t pass without the other because neither measure has enough backing to advance by itself. Rural lawmakers are pushing for the property tax measure to ease pressure on farmers and ranchers, while the business incentives are mostly of interest to Omaha and Lincoln senators.

“If we can get enough people to coalesce around a specific proposal, we’ll be fortunate,” said Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer. “If not, we’ll walk away empty-handed.”

Property taxes and the incentives bill are arguably the most high-profile issues senators will confront, along with the potential impact of the coronavirus on the state. Lawmakers are also expected to consider legislation to further clamp down on abortion rights and impose anti-bias training requirements for police. The training bill was on their radar before several high-profile police killings of Black citizens, but it’s likely to gain new significance in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.

Lawmakers were forced to suspend their session on March 25 after passing an emergency coronavirus funding bill. It was the 43rd day of their 60-day session, and lawmakers are now bracing for long days and late nights until their new scheduled adjournment on Aug. 13.

“We only have 17 days left and we still have some heavy lifting to do,” said Sen. Mark Kolterman, of Seward.

The property tax measure would pump millions of state dollars into local school districts while putting new restrictions on how those districts can generate through local property taxes. The business incentives bill would replace the state’s current tax program for businesses, which is set to expire at the end of this year.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chairwoman of the tax-focused Revenue Committee, said she’s concerned that lawmakers will end up gridlocked and little else will get done if they don’t address property taxes in this year’s session.

“Property taxes affect the vast majority of Nebraskans, and it’s a crisis in our rural communities,” she said.

The coronavirus triggered widespread layoffs and a surge in unemployment in Nebraska as in other parts of the country, but so far it appears the state’s tax collections aren’t as dire as initially feared.

Lawmakers will get a better idea of how much money they’ll have available on Thursday, when the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board meets to set new tax revenue projections.

“I’m cautiously optimistic from a revenue standpoint that we’ll be in a workable situation,” said Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

But one tax-policy think tank warned that the situation could change quickly.

“Given the tremendous uncertainty about the pandemic’s impact on our state and its economy, legislators should be cautious about passing new measures that increase the state’s spending obligations,” unless it’s related to the pandemic, said Renee Fry, executive director of the OpenSky Policy Institute.

The need for speed

After what has, in some cases, been months of training it was nice to get out and compete.

For many of the 24 participants in the Hastings Family YMCA’s sprint triathlon on Saturday morning, it was one of the first athletic competitions in quite some time. The event was postponed from May.

“It was awesome,” said Tim Lavington of Greenwood. “Honestly it was the best thing, to get out and do a triathlon, because all year everything’s been canceled.”

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Tim Lavington (left) and Scott Croner shake hands after finishing in the Hastings Sprint Triathlon Saturday.

Lavington, 42, won Saturday’s triathlon, completing the 400-yard swim, 12.2-mile bicycle ride and 3.1-mile run in 1:00:20.

The triathlon was just his third event this year, since regulations began to ease.

“This one was supposed to be in May and I do it every year,” he said. “Luckily they were able to have it. It means everything when you’re training and you don’t have any races, so you’ve got to look forward to things like this. So I’m really thankful they were able to have it.”

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Scott Croner competes in the swimming portion of the Hastings Sprint Triathlon Saturday.

Lavington caught second-place finisher Scott Croner during the bike ride, after Croner had the individual lead through the swim. Croner finished in 1:03:23.

For Croner, who lives in Mound City, Missouri, but grew up in Hastings, Saturday’s triathlon was his first time competing in the event since 1991.

This is the 40th year of competing in triathlons for the 55-year-old Croner.

His first triathlon took place at Libs Park when he was still a student at Hastings High School.

“I ran, I thought I could kind of swim and I had a Schwinn varsity bike,” he said.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Jordan Hoff crosses the finish line while competing in the Hastings Sprint Triathlon Saturday.

Since then, he has gone on to compete on the world stage. He finished in 30th, 33rd and 30th place the last three years in his age bracket at the International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Grand Finals.

“We’re really lucky he came back and was able to do another triathlon with us,” said Erika Knott, wellness director for the YMCA.

Both Lavington and Croner are part of Team Nebraska Triathlon.

Croner hopes to get another 20 years of competition.

While he’s lost some speed with his running, he said he is almost as fast in the swim and bike as he was when he was 25.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Caitlin Irvine hugs her children Cejay, 8, and Caden, 10, after finishing in the Hastings Sprint Triathlon Saturday.

Many races scheduled to take place during the pandemic instead were replaced by virtual events. Participants would complete the required distance and send in their times to organizers.

In Croner’s mind, virtual racing isn’t racing. It’s training.

Competing against other athletes is important.

“We all want to race, no matter what,” he said. “We’re going to race.”

The YMCA took several measures to ensure participants’ safety.

Among those measures, organizers took all participants’ temperature upon arrival and swimmers were in separate heats to maintain one swimmer lane.

Due to the swimming heats, Jordan Hoff of Lincoln was the first runner to cross the finish line. He finished eighth overall, with a time of 1:19:23.

This was his second triathlon, after completing one in Lincoln last year.

“I wanted a little event to look forward to and keep me motivated to train,” he said. “I had a blast today. It was a beautiful day. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Among the competitors were seven teams. Five of those were Kiwanis teams organized by Kiwanian Neil Grothen.

Grothen has organized Kiwanis teams at the triathlon the last seven years. Initially, all of the team members were Kiwanians. This year only four of them were members of the service club.

He’s gotten to meet a lot of new people through his involvement with the triathlon.

“When I was participating I loved the camaraderie and I think other people do too,” Grothen said. “Just being around these people, it’s just fun.”

With 24 total competitors, Knott said participation was about one-third of a normal year.

Whether the YMCA would even be able to have a triathlon, with all the different guidelines and regulations, was up in the air until June.

“Our mission is to help people be active and so we’re really glad we can help people get out, have some normalcy, continue to be active and healthy,” Knott said. “That social aspect has really been missing, so for them to engage with some other athletes is really a great thing too.”

Grand Island considers state ownership of veterans cemetery

GRAND ISLAND — The condition of the headstones and grave markers at the Nebraska Veterans Memorial Cemetery is not a new issue.

Some Grand Island residents aren’t happy about the way a few of the headstones lean at the cemetery. Some of the markers also need work.

“We’ve known that for 30 years,” Hall County Veterans Service Officer Don Shuda told The

Grand Island Independen


Since early this year, the city of Grand Island has held the title to the cemetery, 2300 W. Capital Ave.

If state Sen. Dan Quick and local veterans supporters have their way, the land will become a state cemetery.

The process may take five or six years. But if it happens, Quick feels that leaning headstones will be a thing of the past.

Quick carried the bill, LB911, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Brewer, chair of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. Several other senators have signed on.

If passed, LB911 will start the process of turning the Veterans Cemetery and adjacent land into a state cemetery.

The bill would begin the process of finding out the cost of the conversion. Once that information is obtained, the state then could apply for federal money.

Making the land a state cemetery is “just a great way to honor our veterans,” Quick said.

Shuda and other veterans have been working hard with Quick to make the transition happen.

“It’s been a successful venture so far,” Shuda said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts supports the bill, Shuda said. So does John Hilgert, director of the Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Shuda would like to see a state veterans cemetery in Central Nebraska. That achievement would “put Grand Island back on the map in supporting veterans and having a place for veterans to have eternal rest,” he said.

The Nebraska Veterans Cemetery in Alliance is a state cemetery. National cemeteries in the state are the Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell and two properties in the Omaha area.

The Grand Island City Council and Hall County Commission have gone on record in support of LB911.

Quick is hopeful that the bill will be approved during the legislative sessions that begins July 20.

Some additional acreage may be added to the Veterans Cemetery if its ownership is transferred to the state.

If the state takes ownership, more people could be buried in the cemetery than is currently allowed, Shuda and Quick said.

The city would benefit from not having to worry about maintaining the Veterans Cemetery, said City Administrator Jerry Janulewicz.

State cemeteries are typically eligible for federal grant money to help develop and upgrade those facilities. “That’s all part of it,” Janulewicz said.

Quick’s bill would require a state agency to apply for that federal funding.

If there are problems with leaning headstones and related issues, that’s the condition the cemetery was in “when it was conveyed by the state to the city,” Janulewicz said.

In agreeing to take over the cemetery, the city consented to bury 14 people whose burial the state had approved.

At this point, burying additional people would be a decision made by the City Council.

If the transition to state ownership goes through, Quick feels that the deterioration of headstones will stop. He said he believes the memorials will be aligned and improved to fit federal standards.

In putting together the bill, Quick met with local officials and veterans groups.

He also worked with Hilgert and the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services.

The goal was “to make sure when we put this bill in we were talking to everybody that might be involved,” he said.

“That’s what making a bill is all about, is having a group from your constituents come to you and say, ‘We’d like to see this happen’ and then me being able to help them with the process and bring that forward,” Quick said.

He was proud “that they asked me to carry that bill and then work with the city of Grand Island to make sure that we could address everybody’s issues to make sure that we did it the right way.”

Grand Island Parks and Recreation contracts the maintenance of Veterans Cemetery with a private contractor. “And actually we think he’s doing a really good job,” said Parks and Recreation Director Todd McCoy. He mows and fertilizes the grass, does the trim work and does “general maintenance of the property,” he said.

“And, yes, the headstones are going to be an ongoing issue,” he said, adding that they’ve been an issue for a number of years.

But as long as the city is responsible for maintaining Veterans Cemetery, it will do the work “the best we can. And we will continue to make sure it’s a high priority,” McCoy said.

The city is responsible for one other graveyard, the 90-acre City Cemetery on Stolley Park Road.

Facing uncertain fall, schools make flexible reopening plans

MANCHESTER, Mo. — Administrators in the Parkway school district in suburban St. Louis spent the summer break crafting a flexible reopening plan, with options that include full-time classroom learning, full-time online instruction and a hybrid system.

It’s a good thing because the dangers of the coronavirus are so uncertain that district officials are reluctant to make predictions about the fall semester, which begins in only five weeks. Confirmed coronavirus infections in Missouri’s hardest-hit city waned in June, but they are now spiking, along with hospitalizations. Schools plan to resume classes Aug. 24.

“If you had asked me even two weeks ago, ‘Do you think we would be able to come back?’ I would have said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Assistant Superintendent Kevin Beckner said. “Today my answer is ‘I’m not sure,’ just because of how the situation has changed so quickly.”

Schools around the U.S. face the same dilemma. With the number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths still rising, districts must grapple with whether to bring students back to classrooms, and how to keep pupils and teachers safe if they do.

Pressure is mounting in many areas to reopen classrooms. President Donald Trump has urged schools to bring children back to class in the fall and has threatened to cut off federal funding if they do not.

“Young people have to go to school, and there’s problems when you don’t go to school, too,” Trump said in an interview aired Sunday on Fox News. “And there’s going to be a funding problem because we’re not going to fund when they don’t open their schools.”

The Republican president blamed Democrats for the push to keep some states and schools closed.

“We got hit with the virus — shouldn’t have happened — and we had to close up. We saved millions of lives,” Trump said. “Now we’ve opened it up, got to go back to school.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest public school system behind New York City, announced last week that all classes will be conducted virtually when they resume next month.

Speaking Sunday on NBC’s “’Meet the Press,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, noted that many school districts in his state “are going back as planned, as normal, taking the kinds of precautions that health experts and scientists recommend.”

In Missouri’s St. Louis County, the Parkway district on Monday is scheduled to announce its plans for the fall, but it will stay ready to pivot quickly if the spread worsens or the outlook improves, Beckner said.

“Even if we are able to bring back all of our students, it won’t look the same as it was in February,” Beckner said. “There will be more hand-washing. There will be more restrictions on how we’re able to do things like lunch, like recess.”

Signs will encourage social distancing, and desks will be spaced farther apart. Face coverings will be required for all students, instructors and staff. Some teachers will wear masks with clear coverings so students who are deaf or heard of hearing can follow what they are saying.

Times will be scheduled for hand washing and using hand sanitizer. Plexiglass will separate librarians, office staff and teachers interacting one-on-one with students.

A nurse will perform contact tracing on confirmed cases.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, third-grade teacher Leigh Grady is preparing to enter both a new school and a new world after a tornado demolished most of East Brainard Elementary in April.

“It’s going to be a hot mess express,” she said. “I can’t even wrap my mind fully around what it’s going to look like.”

Face masks will be mandatory for staff and all but the youngest students. Seating will be assigned on buses, and lunches served in classrooms. Water fountains will be off limits, and restrooms will disinfected “after each class goes as a group.”

If a teacher or student tests positive for the virus, schools will close for 48 to 72 hours, and the county is working with a staffing agency to line up substitutes.

If a rise in confirmed cases warrant it, schools will operate under more restrictive measures, with students taking turns spending part of the week at school and part at home.

“All it’s going to take is one kid with a positive test, and that will shut everything down,” she said.

As of Sunday, there have been 3.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 140,000 deaths in the United States, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins.

Grady said her own children will be attending 10th and 12th grade in person, and she’s comfortable with that if schools stick to the safety plan.

“I need them to be at school,” she said. “I need them to be around other people.”


Ramer reported from Concord, New Hampshire. Associated Press Writer Anita Snow in Phoenix contributed to this report.