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State
AP
Property tax measure hits new roadblock in Nebraska

LINCOLN — Attempts to lower Nebraska’s property taxes appeared to stumble yet again Wednesday after some state lawmakers argued that the newest package could hurt local K-12 schools by restricting their ability to tax.

Senators debated the bill for about three hours but ended up skipping over it without a vote, leaving its prospects unclear. The only way it’s likely to return to the Legislature’s agenda now is if leading supporters can show they have at least 33 votes to overcome a filibuster, a tall order given the opposition to the bill.

“It appears to me that we are heading toward an impasse,” said Sen. Matt Williams, of Gothenburg. “If that horse can’t finish the race, we need to saddle up a horse that can finish the race.”

The proposal would substantially boost state funding for Nebraska’s K-12 public schools, which are by far the largest consumers of property tax revenue.

Farmers, ranchers and homeowners argue that rising property valuations have shifted an ever-larger share of the cost onto their shoulders, especially in rural areas with huge swaths of agricultural land. Increasing state aid is designed to ease that burden.

The bill would also tighten restrictions on how much revenue school districts can generate locally through property taxes, drawing objections from school officials and teachers. School administrators have said they don’t trust state officials to maintain their funding commitments, given the Legislature’s history of belt-tightening to balance its budget in lean times.

“I don’t think we have the money for this bill, and the money has to come from somewhere,” said Sen. Wendy DeBoer, of Bennington, who led the filibuster. “I care about property tax relief, but I’m not going to do it on the backs of our students.”

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who drafted the bill as chairwoman of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, said lawmakers need to pass it this year. She said home- and business owners in the state’s biggest cities are starting to feel the pinch as well as their property values rise, leading to higher tax bills.

“If we do nothing, if we don’t address this, this problem gets worse and worse,” said Linehan, of Omaha.

Sen. Tom Briese, an Albion farmer, said property taxes continue to be the most pressing issue raised by constituents in his overwhelmingly rural district, and he criticized fellow lawmakers for failing to pass the bill.

“If everyday Nebraskans could vote on this, it would pass overwhelmingly,” he said. “But instead we’re doing it, and we’re doing it with lobbyists and special interests in our ear.”

The bill faced uncertain prospects even before the coronavirus pandemic threatened the state budget, leaving some lawmakers wary about spending more money.


Covid-19
HPS requiring masks at graduation

With about 1,400 people expected to be at its graduation ceremony Sunday afternoon, Hastings Public Schools now will be requiring all in attendance to wear face coverings.

The district’s initial plan, which was approved by the South Heartland District Health Department, simply recommended masks be worn.

Adams Central and St. Cecilia high schools also are planning precautionary measures to protect public health at their commencement ceremonies, which both are Sunday afternoon, as well.

After further consideration, the Hastings Board of Education made the decision to enforce the wearing of face coverings in preparation for the upcoming school year, as well.

“We’ve been working a lot on our back-to-school plan, and we’re going to require (masks),” HPS Superintendent Jeff Schneider said. “And I think as graduation has gotten closer, and our board and our administration considered how to make this event as safe as possible, we feel like this makes the most sense.”

As is customary, the graduation ceremony will be hosted in Hastings High’s gymnasium, which has a capacity of roughly 3,500 people.

“We’re probably going to be the largest indoor gathering in Hastings that has taken place since the pandemic began,” Schneider said. “(Requiring masks) makes it a safer event for all.”

Graduates will be seated 4 feet apart in all directions. Rows in the bleachers will be taped off in order to allow families to socially distance. Hand sanitizer and disposable face coverings also will be available for guests.

Once the ceremony concludes, graduates will exit through the north doors and funnel out to the football field, where they may socialize, take photographs, etc.

HPS considered moving the ceremony outside; however, Schneider said the primary issue the district ran into with that idea was a lack of practical on-campus seating for attendees. Weather conditions played a factor, too.

The graduation itself will begin at 2 p.m. Doors will open for guests at 1 p.m.

“We’re hoping that reduces the crowding at the entries,” Schneider said.

HHS will be distributing diplomas to 270 students, although Schneider said he expects the actual number in attendance Sunday to be smaller as some have joined the military and others may have left for college already.

Each student was allotted four tickets for family members. Relatives, friends and community members who want to witness the ceremony but can’t attend in person can watch it livestreamed at https://striv.tv/channel/hastings/.

Back in May, Hastings’ senior class voted “overwhelmingly” in favor of hosting a ceremony in person versus virtually.

“We let the seniors have a voice,” Schneider said. “It’s their day.”

Sunday also is graduation day for Adams Central and St. Cecilia high schools, and precautions are being taken by officials of both school systems to ensure public health and safety in light of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Adams Central is scheduled to hold its graduation ceremony at 2 p.m. at the high school gymnasium.

Superintendent Shawn Scott sent a letter to the parents of senior students outlining the precautions being taken during the ceremony, due to the directed health measures.

The school is highly recommending everyone in attendance wear a mask. Graduates won’t have to wear a mask during the ceremony.

The school can only use 50% of the gym capacity at graduation. Parents of each of the 83 graduates received eight tickets for family and guests, excluding the graduate, and a ticket will be required to enter the building.

Families are asked to sit together and social distancing between groups is strongly recommended.

The district is encouraging the elderly or anyone who is medically vulnerable to COVID-19 to not attend. Anyone who feels ill or has symptoms of the coronavirus must refrain from attending.

Livestreaming of the ceremony will be offered on Striv for those who can’t attend, https://striv.tv/channel/adams-central/. A link can be found at the high school’s website, www.adamscentral.us.

Pictures after graduation will be allowed, but must be taken outside with at least 6 feet between groups.

The 32 graduates of St. Cecilia will be recognized at a 3 p.m. ceremony in St. Cecilia Catholic Church. Each graduate has six tickets for admission to the ceremony, one of which is to be used by himself or herself, meaning a total of 192 graduates and guests may be present.

Individuals presenting the tickets are asked to write their names and contact information on the tickets in case they would need to be reached afterward. Those attending are encouraged but not required to wear face coverings.

The graduates will march in and out of the church to recorded music and be seated together, occupying assigned spots in the front pews. Each graduate’s guests then will be seated together in either one long pew or two short pews assigned to them somewhere in the nave of the church, according to the outcome of a lottery.

Every other pew in the nave will be cordoned off to promote social distancing, just as it is normally for church services at this time.

The Rev. Thomas Brouillette, chief administrative officer of Hastings Catholic Schools, will present the diplomas to graduates and will sanitize his hands before doing so.

Relatives, friends and community members wishing to witness the St. Cecilia commencement ceremony may watch it in real time on the Hastings Catholic Schools Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/HastingsCatholicSchools, or on the HCS YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRkDbsqxpfofaBfxfmU5hmA.

***

Tribune journalists Will Vraspir and Andy Raun contributed to this report.


Business
AP
US signs contract with Pfizer for COVID-19 vaccine doses

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will pay Pfizer nearly $2 billion for a December delivery of 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine the pharmaceutical company is developing, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced Wednesday.

The U.S. could buy another 500 million doses under the agreement, Azar said.

“Now those would, of course, have to be safe and effective” and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Azar said during an appearance on Fox News.

Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE announced separately that the agreement is with HHS and the Defense Department for a vaccine candidate the companies are developing jointly. It is the latest in a series of similar agreements with other vaccine companies.

The agreement is part of President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program, under which multiple COVID-19 vaccines are being developed simultaneously. The program aims to deliver 300 million doses of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021.

Under the initiative, the government will speed development and buy vaccines — before they are deemed safe and effective — so that the medication can be in hand and quickly distributed once the FDA approves or authorizes its emergency use after clinical trials.

Trump, during a Wednesday briefing, described the agreement as “historic.

“We think we have a winner there. We also think we have other companies right behind that are doing very well in the vaccines, long ahead of schedule,” he told reporters.

Pfizer and BioNTech said the U.S. will pay $1.95 billion upon receipt of the first 100 million doses it produces, following FDA authorization or approval.

Americans will receive the vaccine for free, the companies said.

Azar said the contract brings to five the number of potential coronavirus vaccines that are under development with U.S. funding. Nearly two dozen are in various stages of human testing around the world, with several entering final test to prove if they really work.

As early as next week, a vaccine created by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc. is set to begin final-stage testing in a study of 30,000 people to see if it really is safe and effective. A few other vaccines have begun smaller late-stage studies in other countries, and in the U.S. a series of huge studies are planned to begin each month through fall in hopes of, eventually, having several vaccines to use.

Pfizer is finishing an earlier stage of testing to determine which of four possible candidates to try in a larger, final study.

Other countries are also scrambling to get a vaccine for COVID-19, which has killed more than 617,000 people, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Nearly 4 million Americans have been infected by the new coronavirus and at least 142,000 have died from COVID-19, the disease it causes, according to Johns Hopkins.

Britain announced Monday it had secured access to another 90 million experimental COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer and others, a move some campaigners warned could worsen a global scramble by rich countries to hoard the world’s limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

China, where the new coronavirus originated, also has several vaccine candidates entering final testing. Trump blames Beijing for not doing a better job of containing the virus and allowing it to spread around the world. Still, he said he’d be willing to work with China if it were first to the market with a reliable vaccine.

“We’re willing to work with anybody that’s going to get us a good result,” Trump said Tuesday. “We’re very close to the vaccine. I think we’re going to have some very good results.”

The FDA has told manufacturers it expects any vaccine to be at least 50% effective to qualify. But at a congressional hearing Tuesday, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said he was worried Trump could push the agency into prematurely clearing a vaccine.

“My fear is that FDA will be forced by the Trump administration to approve a vaccine that lacks effectiveness,” Pallone said.

Executives from five leading vaccine companies testified that they will take no shortcuts in their testing of the shots, so that people can be confident in the results. In addition, it won’t be just the FDA rendering an opinion — each vaccine will likely be judged nearly simultaneously by regulatory authorities in Britain and Europe.

“I don’t think any of the regulatory bodies that we have interacted with are lowering their standards,” said Menelas Pangalos, executive vice president of AstraZeneca, which is manufacturing a potential vaccine developed by Oxford University. “We would not be trying to launch a medicine that is not effective.”