This Week's Editorial
Transparency PDF E-mail

We welcome the sunshine this week, and not just in anticipation of spring.

This is National Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative designed to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. It’s a topic that may seem more focused on the halls of Congress and the Oval Office in Washington, but in fact it’s a premise ever so important to life right here in Aurora, Hamilton County and across Nebraska.

Our government, by design, is intended to be of the people, for the people and by the people. Transparency in what our elected officials are doing on our behalf is critical at all levels, but as we know from recent events in Washington citizens aren’t always told the whole story.

Nebraska has fairly strong open meetings and public records laws, as compared to many other states. We also have local officials who generally understand those laws, though there are still times they would no doubt prefer not to have public discussion about controversial issues or decisions. Nebraska law simply doesn’t allow that, fortunately.

I recall an experience in Huron, S.D., early in my career when the mayor and city council knowingly conducted business is an illegal meeting. I wrote about the violation in that week’s editorial, assuming local citizens would engage in the process, and was told in no uncertain terms by the city administrator to look the other way. “You and I both know that open meetings law is just an exercise in futility,” he said. The “old boy network” had worked for years in that area, and it seemed obvious to me the community suffered a severe lack of trust and cooperation because of it.

That’s not the attitude here. The News-Register generally receives willing cooperation when covering the area’s elected officials in local schools, city and county government, as well as area villages. It’s one of our most important roles, frankly, because in most cases we’re the only media outlet in the room working to share information with interested citizens.

There has been significant change in the media business in recent years, starting with the internet and more recently with email communication and social media reporting. Those tools can help spread news more quickly, but there are reports in some states where elected officials are communicating on public issues via email or text, in effect hiding important dialogue from those who may want to hear the debate. That’s a disturbing trend that will only erode the public’s trust over time.

It takes diligence and a genuine willingness to comply with the spirit and letter of the law for government to run openly. National Sunshine Week reminds us how important it is to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and for elected officials to give access to information that makes their lives better and communities stronger.

Kurt Johnson

Let it pour PDF E-mail

If it has to be a lion, let’s hope it’s a thirsty one.

The familiar old adage of “in like a lamb, out like a lion” looks to be holding true this year. We may be just a couple weeks away from the official arrival of spring, but the weekend’s winter storm sent yet another chill down the spine. We’re hearty soles here in the Heartland, but this deep freeze phenomenon is getting old.

The bigger issue at play in the weather watch these days is not so much the temperature, but what comes with it. We need moisture, and lots of it.

It’s more than just spring fever in the air as we anxiously await the arrival of what used to be predictable spring rains. A lot of things seem less than normal about the global climate patterns these days, but that’s another conversation for another day.

What we do know is that the stakes are incredibly high now in terms of measurable moisture. Last year’s annual rainfall was better, but 2012 was a brutal drought year across Nebraska and much of the nation. Its impact is still being felt, even here in Hamilton County, long known as the deepwell irrigation center of the nation.

It was a banner year for crop yields, but only because irrigation systems were pumping at full tilt. Records show that a whopping 12 acre inches of moisture were applied across the Upper Big Blue NRD, which eventually dropped the groundwater table an estimated four feet.

Based in large part on the 2012 drought, the Upper Big Blue NRD passed new regulations effective Feb. 1 which put a lot of weight on spring groundwater level readings for the foreseeable future. If the district hits a trigger level with a three-foot drop, which is not expected this year, area farmers will face water restrictions for the first time ever.

For the first three years, the limit would be 30 acre inches, or 10 inches per year, then drop to 45 inches for the next five years, or nine acre inches per year. That’s pretty serious language with potentially serious consequences which would ripple through the local economy.

All of which could be avoided if Mother Nature does its job and lets it pour. We need moisture, and lots of it. Snow. Rain. Sleet. Ice. In whatever form we’ll take it, and bite our tongues if it makes our lives a bit more challenging on any given day.

Kurt Johnson

Golden moments PDF E-mail

It’s a spectacle unlike any other.

Every four years, we tune in to watch drama, national pride, emotion and intense stories of personal sacrifice play out on television under five familiar rings. The torch of the XXII Olympic Winter Games is out now, but while it was burning in Sochi we were reminded again how sport can rise above the politics of our times.

Heading into these Olympic Games, it seemed that controversy could trump the competition. There were severe security concerns, reports of shoddy construction in the Olympic village and as always threats by some nations to boycott the Games in protest of the host nation’s policies. Reports that a suicide bomber may have entered the Olympic village just days before the opening ceremonies made the world hold its collective breath that something horrific wouldn’t happen on center stage.

The cost to welcome the world and host this historic event is in and of itself disturbing, quite frankly. Russia’s president seemed hell bent on proving that his country could wow the world and Sir Vladimir was Putin on the Ritz to the tune of a staggering $52 billion price tag. That topped Beijing’s $44 billion bill in 2008, both of which were ridiculous. The bidding process and concept that you have to build all new everything to host these Games needs revamped in a big way.

But all that conversation faded, fortunately, once the flame was lit. Over the past two weeks we’ve been captivated by the tension, pure emotion and unbelievable talent on display in sporting events that aren’t normally even on the radar. In many cases, young teenagers poured their heart and soul onto the ice or snow with fearless abandon, melting away pre-Olympic turmoil and perhaps, even if temporarily, a bit of global angst.

Though Nebraska’s own Curt Tomasevicz didn’t win gold this time around, we cheered him on, as we did all the young men and women who wore the USA uniform. Knowing his story more in detail and the sacrifice he has made for so many years just to get to that starting gate makes us swell with pride. He looked thrilled to claim the bronze, as well he should.

That’s the beauty of the Olympic spirit, a feeling rekindled every two years between the winter and summer Games. The looks on those young faces lightened our own spirits in the midst of a cold Nebraska winter, if only for a moment.

Kurt Johnson

Serious safety issue PDF E-mail

Texting and driving don’t mix.

You know it. I know it. Young drivers should know it too, though some seem oblivious to the notion.

Law enforcement personnel know it all too well, unfortunately, but they are currently handcuffed in their ability to cite violators for putting themselves and others at risk by focusing on their phones rather than the task at hand -- driving.

Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff has been on a mission to address this issue and his priority bill this year (LB 807)  would take a giant step forward in that regard.

Harms proposed LB 945 in 2010, a measure which made texting while driving illegal. It passed, though its impact has been limited by a provision that said law enforcement could only cite violators if they were pulled over for another reason.

Violators have been fined $200 for the first offense, $300 for the second and $500 for the third and subsequent offenses.

Four years later, Harms suggests it is time to put more teeth in the law by making it a primary offense, and we agree.

The research on this issue is stunning. Sending and receiving text messages takes drivers’ eyes off the road an average of 4.6 seconds, which at 55 mph is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field. If you are on the road much at all, you can see this problem with your own eyes on the streets here in Aurora as well as up and down Interstate 80.

There seems very little reason not to make this change, though Sen. Annette Dubas, who chairs the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee which will decide whether or not to advance this bill, says it has “an uphill climb.”

“The majority of the committee isn’t looking favorably on this bill due to a concern with enforcement,” she said in a town hall meeting last week in Aurora.

That’s discouraging to hear, frankly, because other states are reporting that enforcement is not apparently a problem. Officers who suspect a driver is texting can use phone records to help determine if a violation was made, which is perhaps one reason why all but four states in America now consider texting while driving a primary offense.

It’s time for Nebraska to upgrade its tech-related approach to driving safety. Our state’s highways and byways would be safer if fewer people were so tempted to send text messages while driving, and this bill would help heighten public awareness of a dangerous situation by giving consequences to those who do.

Kurt Johnson

GOP game changer PDF E-mail

The field is set now for what promises to be an interesting race to replace Dave Heineman in the Nebraska governor’s mansion.

Jon Bruning surprised many with this week’s decision to throw his hat in the ring, though he instantly becomes the man to beat despite his 11th-hour entry. A week before Bruning was even listed as an official candidate he had a 2-1 lead over Pete Ricketts as the early favorite, according to a Harper poll.

On the GOP side, Bruning and Ricketts are joined by Mike Foley, Tom Carlson, Beau McCoy and Bryan Slone. There is a good mix of conservative leadership, legislative experience and fire in the belly from that group, though Bruning and Ricketts have a huge lead in statewide name recognition at this stage of the game.

Chuck Hassebrook is the only name on the Democratic ticket, after Dist. 34 Sen. Annette Dubas withdrew from the race. That could have been a close primary, and it’s disappointing, frankly, that there isn’t a choice to be had for Democratic voters.

As for Bruning’s late entry, there are a couple of questions that loom large for the sitting attorney general. Topping that list is why in the world did he wait so long to declare?

In his Saturday debut, Bruning said he “realized in the last week or two” that he has the experience to get things done. There is a lot more to it than that, truth be told, since Bruning had to be thinking about this possibility the day after he was stunned in a 2012 primary loss to Deb Fisher, who went on to win a U.S. Senate seat.

That was a blow for Bruning, who had to be asking how and why GOP voters didn’t give him the nod. He could have stayed where he was as attorney general, though anyone who has followed his career knew he had aspirations for higher office.

It’s obvious that Bruning was watching the governor’s race field shape up during the last year and seeing no Mike Floods in the hunt decided this was his time. It’s a risky gamble, as he now has to go all in and leave the AG’s office, unlike the Senate race where he had a comfortable Plan B.

With approximately 90 days left until the May primary, Nebraska Republicans have a lot to consider in choosing their candidate for governor. It’s been a long, long time since the last time that happened, dating back to the 2006 primary between Heineman and Tom Osborne.

Then, as now, some of the top issues on the minds of Nebraskans are property taxes, education, health care and sustainable water resources. Selecting the right man to help navigate those challenging waters will be critical for the next generation.

Kurt Johnson

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