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Ballot measures, campaigns await as Nebraska session ends

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska lawmakers will finish a short, 60-day session Wednesday dominated by bitter disputes over the state budget, tax policy and social issues — and those battles aren't done yet.

The session's end sets the stage for new debates that will continue through the November election and into next year's legislative session.

Here are some things to watch:

Turning to the people

Frustrated that their bills stalled, some lawmakers and advocacy groups are trying to bypass the Legislature with petition drives that would take the proposals to voters in November.

One is a property tax ballot measure that would eventually direct more than $1 billion in state revenue each year into tax credits for property owners. Another possible ballot measure would expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a proposal Nebraska lawmakers have rejected six times.

Supporters of both measures said they're confident they'll get enough signatures to qualify for this year's general-election ballot.

"We've been very pleased with the level of enthusiasm we've seen from folks across the state," said Molly McCleery, a health care advocate for Nebraska Appleseed, which is working on the Medicaid expansion measure.

Organizers of the property tax petition drive began collecting signatures in February and have made good progress so far, said Trent Fellers, a former Lincoln city councilman who is managing the campaign.

"Our focus hasn't been what's going on the Legislature," Fellers said. "There's been gridlock there for two years on these types of tax issues."

The property tax measure will face organized opposition from Nebraska's largest business groups, which argue it could hinder efforts to cut income taxes.

The credits for property tax owners would increase annually if the ballot measure passes, costing the state an estimated $1.35 billion by fiscal year 2025. Nebraska's current state budget is about $8.8 billion, spread over two years. Gov. Pete Ricketts has said it would force lawmakers to make drastic cuts to state services and possibly approve a large tax increase.

It's unclear whether the Medicaid expansion measure will have organized opposition, but previous bills have drawn criticism from Ricketts and other top state officials.

Advocates for legalized marijuana are also seeking a ballot measure, but their previous attempts have failed.

Back so soon?

Nebraska lawmakers could return to the Capitol in just a few weeks to debate property taxes, if some senators have their way.

Sen. Tom Brewer, of Gordon, submitted a letter last week to the Nebraska secretary of state with 12 co-signers that requests a special session to lower property taxes.

At least 10 senators were needed to start the process of convening a special session. After receiving the letter, Secretary of State John Gale sent letters Wednesday to all of the remaining senators asking if they would support a special session.

If at least 33 of the Legislature's 49 members respond favorably, state law requires Ricketts to call the session. Lawmakers have until April 23 to respond.

"This really is the last legislative tool in the toolbox," Brewer said.

Brewer acknowledged his push for a special session is a long shot, but said lawmakers need to explore every possible option. If he succeeds, lawmakers would likely reconvene in late April or early May. Ricketts and Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer oppose the idea.

More money woes?

Nebraska lawmakers may have balanced the state budget, but a shaky farm economy and the new federal tax law could lead to more financial problems next year.

Nebraska collected far less tax revenue than expected in March, according to the state Department of Revenue. Tax collections are still 1.6 percent above projections in the current fiscal year, and that could change in the next few months.

Much of the uncertainty comes from the federal tax law President Donald Trump signed in December. Although lawmakers passed a bill to negate many of its effects on state tax collections, state officials still don't know how the new law might change taxpayer behavior.

"It's almost impossible to put a finger on it," said Nebraska State Tax Commissioner Tony Fulton. "We don't know how all of this is going to play out."

Fulton said state officials should know more after April, traditionally the biggest month for tax collections.

Lawmakers faced a $173 million shortfall at the beginning of this year's session, forcing them to impose across-the-board and targeted cuts to state agencies, including the University of Nebraska. They also drew heavily from the state's cash reserve, which is intended for emergencies and one-time expenses.

Campaign time

With the session behind them, many lawmakers will shift into full-time campaign mode ahead of Nebraska's May 15 primary.

Sixteen of the Legislature's 49 senators are up for re-election, and 11 of them will have to overcome primary challengers to return next year.

Two others are running for higher office. Sen. Bob Krist, of Omaha, is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Ricketts, a Republican incumbent. Krist had previously been a Republican but switched his affiliation to nonpartisan in September. He joined the Democratic Party after he encountered major obstacles to getting on the ballot as an independent.

Krist will face fellow Democrats Tyler Davis and Vanessa Gayle Ward, both of Omaha, in the primary.

State Sen. John Murante, of Gretna, is looking to become Nebraska's state treasurer, but he faces a primary challenge from fellow Republican Taylor Royal, of Omaha. Both are vying to replace Republican State Treasurer Don Stenberg, who is leaving office because of term limits.

Passage of 'lunch shaming' bill leaves school funding issues

DES MOINES — The embarrassment of having a credit card declined for insufficient funds is hard enough for adults.

For a child, standing in a school cafeteria line, a similar experience — through no fault of their own — can be traumatic.

A bill that passed the Iowa Legislature this week targets so-called "lunch shaming," where students whose families owe money are singled out, given inferior meals or even have their food dumped in the garbage.

"The personal stories from all across Iowa from parents and children on food shaming could not only break your heart but are in stark contrast with the fundamental Iowa way that we treat our children," Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, a Cedar Rapids Democrat, said during floor debate on the bipartisan bill, which awaits final approval from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The challenge faced by schools is how to pay for meal services when families can't or won't replenish school meal accounts. Some still provide meals, while others turn to cheaper substitutes or allow a child to go without food altogether. Many students living in poverty qualify for federal subsidies that cover the full cost of their meals, but not all eligible families complete the necessary paperwork.

Some districts have turned to private donations. Earlier this year, for example, the Fresh Thyme Farmers Market in Ames ran a fundraising promotion to help the Ames Community School District, donating about $7,750 over three weeks to pay for student meal debt, which exceeded $52,000.

Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Washington-based nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, has examined Iowa's bill and thinks it will be effective.

FitzSimons said the bill would make sure food served to children isn't thrown away, that children whose families owe money aren't punished and that schools don't make public which families owe unpaid meal fees.

"We know that kids who are hungry can't learn, have a hard time focusing and concentrating, and there is a whole range of academic impacts that come from kids being hungry," FitzSimons said.

Iowa is following the lead of several states that have passed anti-shaming legislation. New Mexico was the first, approving such a law about a year ago. The U.S. Department of Agriculture required schools to adopt policies on unpaid meal debt by last summer.

New York, California and other states since have launched anti-shaming efforts, including a bill signed into law in Virginia last month. Lawmakers in Louisiana and Maine are currently considering bills similar to Iowa's legislation.

Some states, such as Oregon, require schools to provide the regular meal to children regardless of how much debt they've accumulated. Iowa's legislation encourages serving regular meals but doesn't require it.

Nationally, three-quarters of school districts have some level of unpaid meal debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. The total amount of school meal debt in Iowa isn't known. The Iowa Department of Education doesn't collect data, although spokeswoman Staci Hupp said an informal, anonymous survey that included about one-third of Iowa organizations that participate in the school lunch program found just over $300,000 in negative balances.

"It all really depends on how each individual school district has decided how to handle those balances," said Scott Litchfield, the legislative chairman of the School Nutrition Association Iowa.

Litchfield said individual school district negative balances can range from $500 to in excess of $50,000. The average meal costs around $2.75 — "a lot less than any restaurant that I've ever been to," Litchfield said.

Schools would be allowed to make claims against delinquent families' tax refunds and lottery winnings, although a nonpartisan analysis of the bill concluded districts won't have the necessary information to file claims.

A federal program known as community eligibility offers another path for high-poverty schools. The program allows for certain qualifying schools to offer free meals to all students.

FitzSimons said the program is a "game-changer for schools." More than 100 schools in Iowa already participate in the program, including two-thirds of those in the Des Moines Public Schools.

Amanda Miller, the district's director of food and nutrition, said Des Moines is still evaluating how it will respond to the new legislation if it's enacted. But she said that community eligibility has made a positive impact for the district, and it avoids accumulating unpaid debts.

"It levels the playing field," Miller said.

Private giving is another possible way to address meal debt. School districts will be allowed to set up special funds to collect donations under the new legislation, which requires the money to be used only for that purpose.

Memory Bleth, a Council Bluffs woman who gave $3,000 to a local elementary school in 2016, said she doesn't understand how schools could pay large salaries to administrators when some children can't afford lunch.

"I didn't realize that was a thing that people even had to worry about," Bleth said. "To me, that is just a burden that people shouldn't have on their shoulders."

Spring storm moves east after blanketing central US in snow

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota residents slogged through a mid-April storm Sunday that dumped 2 feet (half a meter) of snow on parts of the Upper Midwest, coated roads with ice and battered areas farther south with powerful winds and tornadoes before plowing toward the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic U.S.

The storm system prompted Enbridge Energy to temporarily shutter twin oil and gas pipelines in Michigan that may have been recently damaged by a ship anchor strike.

The Line 5 pipelines were temporarily shuttered Sunday afternoon due to a power outage at Enbridge's terminal in Superior, Wisconsin, Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy told The Detroit News. Enbridge decided to shut down the twin pipelines until weather conditions improve in the Straits of Mackinac, which links Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, Duffy said.

At least four deaths were blamed on the weather.

At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where more than 13 inches (33 centimeters) of snow had fallen, 230 flights were canceled Sunday. Two runways were open, but winds were still strong and planes were being de-iced, spokesman Patrick Hogan said. On Saturday, the storm caused the cancellation of nearly 470 flights at the airport.

The wintry grip on the Twin Cities continued to keep the boys of summer off the diamond, forcing the postponement of the third straight Minnesota Twins-Chicago White Sox game. The New Yankees and the Tigers were rained out Saturday in Detroit and had planned to play a doubleheader on Sunday, but those games also were postponed. The Los Angeles Angels at Kansas City Royals, Atlanta Braves at Chicago Cubs and Toronto Blue Jays at Cleveland Indians games also were rained out Sunday.

The prolonged wintry weather is "starting to beat everybody down," said Erik Ordal, who lives in downtown Minneapolis and was taking his 3-month-old golden retriever puppy, Dakota, out for a walk in the snow. Ordal, who grew up in South Dakota, said he is used to the cold, snowy weather "but I'm certainly ready for some warmth."

Two northeastern Wisconsin communities, Tigerton and Big Falls, received more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) of snow over the weekend, the National Weather Service in Green Bay reported. Parts of the state that were already blanketed were getting a second helping of snow on Sunday. The heavy snow caused part of a hotel roof to collapse over a pool at a hotel in Ashwaubenon, which is next to Green Bay, but no one was in the pool area at the time and no one was hurt.

The storm finally let up in South Dakota, allowing the airport in the state's largest city, Sioux Falls, to reopen for the first time since Thursday. Interstates 90 and 29 in parts of eastern South Dakota also reopened, and no-travel advisories were lifted across the state border in southwestern Minnesota.

In Michigan, freezing rain that began falling overnight had left roads treacherous and cut power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses by midday Sunday even as heavy snow was forecast to dump a foot or more of snow on parts of the state's Upper Peninsula by early Monday.

In North Carolina, authorities declared a local state of emergency in the city of Greensboro after an apparent tornado caused damage Sunday afternoon in several locations. Greensboro police said in a tweet that there also was one storm-related fatality but they did not elaborate. Media reports prior to the police tweet said high winds damaged at least seven homes, destroyed a mobile classroom at an elementary school, and toppled trees and power lines.

To the south, officials in Lexington County, South Carolina, said several buildings were damaged and toppled trees were blocking roads, but no injuries were reported.

Tens of thousands of homes and businesses in the Carolinas were without power Sunday.

In addition to the Greensboro fatality, three other deaths were blamed on the weather.

A sleeping 2-year-old girl in Louisiana was killed when a tree fell on her family's recreational vehicle early Saturday. A Wisconsin woman was killed when she lost control of her minivan on slick roads and veered into an oncoming SUV. And an Idaho truck driver was killed when his semitrailer struck a semi in western Nebraska that had been stranded on a highway by the bad weather.

In Arkansas, a tornado ripped through the tiny Ozark Mountain town of Mountainburg on Friday, injuring at least four people. In Texas, hail the size of hen eggs fell south of Dallas, according to meteorologist Patricia Sanchez.

And another round of snow is possible midweek in the Upper Midwest, said meteorologist Eric Ahasic at the National Weather Service in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

"It's not going to be as much snow as this one, thankfully," Ahasic said.


Callahan reported from Indianapolis.

South Dakota swears in new US marshal

PIERRE, S.D. — A man who spent nearly 30 years at the South Dakota Highway Patrol has been sworn in as the state's new U.S. marshal.

The Pierre Capital Journal reports that 64-year-old Dan Mosteller was sworn in April 3 as the U.S. marshal for South Dakota. The Senate confirmed Mosteller last month after President Donald Trump nominated him in October.

Mosteller joined the state Highway Patrol in 1983, serving as superintendent from 2003 until his retirement in 2010. Mosteller has since worked in security at the Capitol and became the law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. attorney's office in South Dakota.

The U.S. Marshals Service is the country's oldest law enforcement agency. The term normally lasts four years but tracks with a president's term in office.

-- Associated Press

Obit Index

Butler, Blaine, 92; Denison, Iowa

Blaine C. Butler

Denison, Iowa

Blaine C. Butler, 92, of Denison, Iowa, died peacefully on Wednesday, April 11, 2018, with his family at his side at Eventide in Denison.

Celebration of life services were held 11 a.m. Friday, April 13, at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Denison, with the Rev. David Loeschen officiating and Mary Kuhlman providing accompaniment for congregational hymns, "I’m But a Stranger Here," "Amazing Love," and "Amazing Grace." Military honors followed the service conducted by American Legion Post 66 of Charter Oak, with Kelly Meinen serving as bugler. The family then invited everyone to remain at the church for fellowship and a luncheon provided by Staley’s Catering and the Our Savior Ladies Guild. Arrangements were under the direction of Pauley Jones Pfannebecker Funeral Home of Denison.

Blaine C. Butler, son of Thomas and Blanche (King) Butler, was born on May 4, 1925, in Charter Oak, Iowa. He attended public school and graduated from Charter Oak High School in 1943. That same year, Blaine enlisted in the United States Navy serving in World War II and was honorably discharged in 1945. After serving in the Navy, Blaine returned to Charter Oak, where he married his high school sweetheart, Lois Louise Kuhlmann, on Sept. 15, 1946, at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Charter Oak. From that union, four sons and one daughter were born and raised in Charter Oak.

Blaine’s years of employment started soon after returning home from the armed forces, where he worked at an electronics store. Thereafter, he became employed at Butler Motors, which was owned by his older brother, Robert Butler. In 1947, he became a rural letter carrier for the United States Postal Service until his retirement in 1981. For 15 years, Blaine worked simultaneously at the Charter Oak Grain and Elevator as a bookkeeper. After retirement, Blaine traveled to California, where he was employed in the security division of 3M Company in Camarillo, from 1982 to 1985.

Blaine and Lois moved from Charter Oak to their home on Crestview Drive in Denison in 1981, where they spent many years before relocating to SilverRidge Senior Living in 2014, where Lois currently resides. Blaine’s dedication to not only his family but his community was evidenced in many ways, some including coaching youth baseball for over 25 years, serving as a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church Council in Charter Oak as well as the Our Savior Lutheran Church Council in Denison and serving as secretary for the board of education during the consolidation of the Charter Oak and Ute schools. He was honored for his commitment to the community as Charter Oak’s Citizen of the Year in 1979. 

Blaine died peacefully, with his family at his side, at Eventide in Denison, on April 11, 2018, attaining the age of 92 years, 11 months, and 7 days. As a dedicated husband, father, and grandfather, Blaine’s commitment to his family was of utmost importance and he leaves his family a legacy of caring and love.

Thankful for the years spent with Blaine and for his gift of life are his family whom he leaves behind, his wife, Lois Butler of Denison; sons, Craig Butler of Sioux City, Steven Butler of Hemet, Calif., Timothy Butler of Nipomo, Calif., and David Butler and his wife, Kristina Butler of Dunedin, New Zealand; daughter, Jill Butler and her husband, Mark McCoy of San Ramon, Calif.; grandchildren, Abby Bockholt and her husband, Nate, Paul Butler and his wife, Chloe, Anna Lukehart and her husband, Alex, Blaine Butler, Vance Butler, Natasha Fitzgibbon and her husband, Corey, and Alex Paul; great-grandchildren, Claire, Annika, Bryce and Nina Bockholt, Harriet Butler, Henrik and Emilia Lukehart, Colton, Griffin and Kennedy Fitzgibbon. In addition to his immediate family, Blaine will be missed by his many nieces, nephews, and special friends, Jim and Dorothy Leinen. Blaine’s sense of humor, determination, and compassionate nature will be held close to our hearts forever.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his sister, Ila Krueger; brothers, Robert and Richard Butler; son, Noel; and daughter-in-law, Barbara Butler.

Honorary pallbearers were John and Elsie Cookson, Anna Lukehart, Alex Paul, Iva Lee Kuhlmann, Abby Bockholt, Blaine Butler, Paul Butler, Natasha Fitzgibbon, and Vance Butler.


Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal