Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Questions for Gov. Heineman on Tax Reform

by Kyle Michaelis
LB331, offered on behalf of Gov. Dave Heineman as the cornerstone of his 2007 agenda, is scheduled for hearing by the Legislature's Revenue Committee this afternoon. According to high-level sources in the state capitol, Heineman will actually be testifying at this hearing in support of the bill's eliminating the estate tax and changing Nebraska's income tax calculations.

I hope to be able to attend. In particular, I'll be listening for Heineman to answer some of the following, long overdue questions about the plan he's put forward:
1. Does Gov. Heineman deny that the unspoken hallmark of his reduction in income tax brackets is the outright dissolution of the lowest tax bracket, with those qualifying therein (students, retirees, the disabled, the unemployed) seeing a rise in the rate at which they are taxed?

2. Does Gov. Heineman deny that his proposal shifts a greater burden (as a percentage of the total income tax collected) onto working class Nebraskans (those earning less than $50,000 a year) to the benefit of Nebraska's upper-middle class and its wealthiest citizens?

3. Does Gov. Heineman deny that some select low-income taxpayers will see a tax hike under Gov. Heineman's proposal while those in the upper tax brackets will see across-the-board cuts? In fact, won't some taxpayers see a hike in their marginal tax rate as high as 44% (from 3.57% to 5.12%)?
If I'm able to attend the hearing, I'll also try and keep count of how many times Heineman tries to sell his plan as "middle class tax relief," even though the bulk of its benefits clearly rest with those highest on the economic totem pole.

It will also be interesting to see whether Heineman will continue to go on the offensive against alternative tax-cut proposals focusing on Nebraska's supposed property tax crisis. The majority of state senators and the weight of public opinion tend to favor the legislature's breaking with Heineman's lead and pursuing its options on property taxes.

The question now becomes whether those leaders who see the urgency and demand for property tax relief can come together on a single proposal that would both appeal to the average Nebraskan and reveal the many weaknesses of Heineman's plan. Several alternatives are on the table - many of them containing very good ideas - but probably the bill best positioned to succeed is freshman State Senator Tom White's LB453, which would provide an income tax credit up to $500 as a rebate for the property taxes paid by Nebraska homeowners.

The New Nebraska Network is watching White's plan and we're excited by the progressive priorities at its heart - not only encouraging home ownership but also returning a sizable chunk of change to taxpayers without writing a blank check to those with the least need and the most power.

We look forward to contributing further analysis of White's proposal in the coming days. For now, though, it's Heineman and his LB331 in the cross-hairs. Looks like we'll know soon enough just how far out on a limb the Governor's willing to go to get his way rather than doing the people's work.

It's also worth noting that, this weekend, the first signs of the Nebraska media offering some independent analysis of LB331 finally began to show, as both the Lincoln Journal-Star and the Omaha World-Herald made baby steps away from their prior regurgitation of whatever Gov. Heineman was spoon-feeding them.

If nothing else, both articles do a fair job of highlighting the enormous benefits Heineman seeks for those in Nebraska's highest tax brackets. Still a lot that's going unreported about his proposal - particularly its ramifications for Nebraska's poorest wage-earners - but at least the first trickles of the truth are starting to drip into the vast pool of public information.

All I can say's about damn time.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Dave Heineman's Spokesman Hired By His Mouthpiece

by Kyle Michaelis
Over the last two months, Governor Heineman's office and the Omaha World-Herald's Editorial board have clearly been working hand-in-hand to lay the groundwork and to pressure the Nebraska legislature into adopting Heineman's generally regressive proposal to reduce the state's income taxes rather than using the power of the state to address our supposed property tax crisis (Exhibit A; Exhibit B).

Not only have they used the same talking points but also the same bait-and-switch tactics to manipulate public opinion (so far, to little avail). With this in mind, the following story really doesn't surprise in the slightest. The Reader's Media Notes reports:
Aaron Sanderford is giving up his post as Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman's communications director to join the Omaha World-Herald as an editorial writer.

Sanderford, 29, spent more than six years at the Lincoln Journal Star before joining Heineman's staff in March of 2005. He reported on business, government, crime, courts, prisons, sports, and entertainment, in addition to serving as the newspaper's night city editor.

A Louisburg, N.C., native, Sanderford earned a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Kentucky. His last day of work for Heineman will be Feb. 23.

Heineman said the search for Sanderford's replacement will begin immediately.
Whether it's been the Omaha World-Herald writing Heineman's speeches or Sanderford writing the Omaha World-Herald's editorials, it's hard to say that Sanderford's relocation is really going to make a difference. This is just one more indication of how completely the Omaha World-Herald is immersed in Nebraska's power structure - to the point that it is completely, purposefully incapable of functioning as an independent press.

But, I'm not going to blame Sanderford for this situation. He's just a young guy pursuing a new career path - one who's proven himself quite talented, much to the Democratic Party's dismay and probably to Nebraska's long-term detriment. His job has been to build relationships with the Nebraska media and to control the message they carry to voters. He seems to have done an excellent job at these tasks - even if the ever-eager and complacent media made his an easier job than it had any right to be.

The World-Herald, however, should be more mindful of the public's trust - a trust they've violated in their coverage of the tax debate. To this trust, they also owe complete disclosure of how Sanderford got hired for his new position and what exactly that position will entail. For instance, will Sanderford be writing editorials on the very policies he's been pushing as a state employee over the last two years?

What precautions will be taken to prevent conflicts of interest? And, what assurances do readers have that this is anything more than a marriage of convenience that will only further blend Nebraska's disturbingly broad intersection between partisan politics and the state's most powerful newspaper? In fact, acknowledgement that the World-Herald may have crossed the boundaries of ethical journalism with their relationship to the Governor's office the last two months might already be in order.

Is Sanderford changing jobs or just locations?
Is this the end result of a relationship between Heineman and the World-Herald that had become far too friendly or does this just make it official...and, perhaps, permanent?

An intriguing situation. A scary one as well. The most interesting question might just be who answers to whom. Sanderford would know - no doubt about it. But, he no longer has to answer questions. His job is now to tell us what to think. Sadly, with the state of the Nebraska press corps, there was never much of a difference there in the first place.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

The World Herald's Big Lie

by Ryan Anderson
I really envy our neighbors in the Centennial State for enjoying the services of their very own Colorado Media Matters. For such a small state our press corps sure produces a lot of bullshit and our small (but growing) community of volunteer bloggers just isn't sufficient to keep up with it all. That said, I just couldn't let this editorial* in Saturday's Omaha World Herald go without comment:
Is the apparent end of Initiative 300 going to lead to hordes of corporate interests swooping into Nebraska, snatching up farmland and radically changing the economic dynamics long shaping the state's ag sector? Not likely.

David Aiken, an agricultural law specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was on the mark in a Friday World-Herald article. In many cases, he said, the demise of I-300 would mean that changes in land ownership likely would involve family members wanting to form corporations or limited liability companies (LLCs) to protect their nonfarm assets.

As the article stated: "Most concerns about Initiative 300, Aiken said, were from family members who inherited farms and wanted to form LLCs."
Now, to be fair, the OWH doesn't get it all wrong here. Nebraska's corporate farming ban does restrict the ability of farmers to work their land under the protection of a limited liability corporation... unless that corporation is majority owned by family members who actually work on the farm. That is, family farmers are unaffected so long as the family controls just over 50% of the LLC. The World Herald's claim that such restrictions actually hurt small farmers is both dishonest and disgusting.
Mega-hog farms are another main concern of I-300 supporters. But that legitimate issue is addressed by another development that has arisen through the normal course of events: the adoption, in nearly every Nebraska county, of strict zoning rules against large-scale hog confinements.
That the OWH vocally supports county zoning regulations admirably puts them one step behind the corporate lobbyists they've stolen their rhetoric from, but their argument here is lacking. Zoning regulations help communities place large farming operations appropriately. I-300 serves a different purpose entirely; confronting the critical issue of liability by requiring investors to operate under the same tax rules as most farmers. That's called 'leveling the playing field', making sure our state's tax and legal codes are working for our family farmers, not against them.

Protecting rural American values means protecting rural America... it amazes me how many opinion makers and muckrakers refuse to make that connection. And Initiative 300 is rural Nebraska's first and greatest defense.

This last point was demonstrated dramatically in a 2002 study (PDF) that compared 433 counties classified as "agriculturally dependent" and concluded that counties in states with anti-corporate farming laws generally had "less families in poverty, lower unemployment and higher percentages of farms realizing cash gains". States with the most restrictive corporate farming laws -Nebraska included- fared even better in terms of cash gains and unemployment.

Essentially, the World Herald's argument that "Initiative 300 has proved a hindrance to Nebraska's farm economy" represents just another attempt to make Nebraska a better place to do business by making it a worse place to live. From a quality of life perspective, the merits of I-300 as public policy are undisputed.

As a matter of law, however, things look pretty bleak.

The Friends of the Constitution deserve a great measure of gratitude from all Nebraskans for their tireless defense of Initiative 300, and Attorney General Jon Bruning certainly deserves credit for exhausting all options for appeal. There appears to be little hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the lower courts' decision, but there may still be a chance to save Initiative 300 if only we can bring this fight to Congress.

The current legal battle revolves around the "Dormant Commerce Clause", which reserves for the federal government the exclusive right to regulate interstate commerce. However, established legal precedent suggests that Congress can elect to delegate this responsibility to the states, as it did in 1945 by granting states the right to regulate the insurance industry (see theMcCarran-Ferguson Act). Theoretically, Congress could pass a law delegating states the authority to regulate corporate ownership of farmland, and I-300 would be saved.

Considering the wealth of campaign contributions from big agribusiness and the vocal opposition of Chamber of Commerce lobbyists, there remains a pretty wide gulf between theory and practice. But I can't help noticing that six of the nine states with corporate farming bans have Senate races coming up in 2008 -Nebraska included. If we lobby this idea, if we really push it, we may just be able to offer our candidates and senators (from both parties) a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate just how deeply dedicated they are to "protecting rural American values".

*Unfortunately, this editorial does not appear to be available on the new version of

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Nebraska's Progressive Blogosphere On the Rise

by Kyle Michaelis
In the last month, I've been very heartened to see the emergence of a number of bold new voices in Nebraska's online community. For starters, the UNO College Democrats have re-established their website as one of the best in the state with a flurry of activity. At the same time, the Nebraska Democratic Party's "Blog for Nebraska" has found renewed purpose not only taking the lead on the issues important to voters but also using its voice to build an organization about which we can all be proud.

Even more exciting than either of these more institutional developments, though, has been the arrival of two independent blogs - different in purpose but similar in focus - that have the potential to really contribute something special to those interested in Nebraska political debate and discussion. These websites are Paging Power and Smith Watch, both to which I offer my highest possible recommendations for their short but so-far superior efforts.

Paging Power has offered a wealth of political commentary since kicking-off in December, but its real strength and appeal lies in the extensive coverage it's provided of the Nebraska legislature. In particular, I suspect readers would take some enjoyment from Paging Power's many video offerings of oftentimes unreported but no less important (sometimes extremely amusing) highlights from the floor of the State Senate.

Right off the bat, I'd suggest everyone watch or listen to at least the first ten minutes of State Sen. Ernie Chambers' hour-long scolding of the legislature for its improper and dishonest handling of the state's tax policy, especially with LB344's proposed extension of the do-nothing Tax Policy Reform Commission. Sure, Chambers falls back on many of his familiar rants, but that doesn't change the fact that Nebraska would be well-served by every citizen in the state listening to what he has to say (at least, in this instance).

Smith Watch, on the other hand, is an exciting local example of what was a national trend in 2006 towards distict-specific, online watchdogs dedicated to holding a particular represenative accountable for his votes and for his record. Here, the Congressman in question is none other than the Nebraska Third's freshman Republican, Adrian Smith.

Smith had an undistinguished-to-embarrassing career as a State Senator. If he's going to do any better as a Congressman - or if the voters are going to have the knowledge and the ammunition to rid themselves of him in the next election - a site such as Smith Watch could serve an essential function and prove an incredible resource. Already, I'm impressed by the author's letter to Adrian Smith asking Smith to explain his thus-far insulting votes and pointing-out the continued influence the controversial Club for Growth holds over his every position. I also commend Smith Watch for its challenge to readers and voters of the Third District, reminding them of the role we must all play as citizens to make our democracy what it can and should be.

I am grateful for all the work that has been done by both of these sites. It's my sincerest hope that they will be able to maintain the energy and momentum they've already built - no doubt benefitting our entire state in the process. The New Nebraska Network simply can not devote the time and focus to the legislature and to Adrian Smith that both, respectively, deserve. I trust readers will enjoy the work done by Paging Power and by Smith Watch, generously offering them the active readership and encouragement it sometimes takes to feel our continued efforts are truly worthwhile.

The New Nebraska Network won't be around forever. This state needs more dynamic voices - more discussion - more challenges to the status quo. That requires helping one another out and acknowledging each other's work. If Nebraska's progressive community is to ever be anything more than a collection of disparate voices in the wilderness, it will take real effort at building that community into something worthy of the interests and ideas it claims to represent.

Consider myself and the New Nebraska Network dedicated to this cause - this building of something greater - for as long as we are able. We don't all have to see eye-to-eye on every issue. But, together, we will do a lot of good for this state we love - standing side-by-side, looking to and fighting for a better future.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Jeff Fortenberry Takes Offense (& the Offensive)

by Kyle Michaelis
On Friday, Nebraska's First District Republican Congressman, Jeff Fortenberry, responded to a Daily Nebraskan editorial a week earlier challenging his controversial vote against a Democratic-led proposal to cut student loan interest rates in half over the next 5 years. Fortenberry wrote:
A recent editorial examined my vote on a student loan issue before the United States Congress. Instead of focusing on the serious policy questions of this vote, the editorial board of the Daily Nebraskan chose to question my political motives and launch offensive insinuations.

The U.S. government is involved in helping students in a number of ways. It provides grants and direct loans and guarantees loans made by the private sector. Many of these programs have empowered more persons to access higher education than ever before.

However, I remain concerned that college tuition rates have greatly outstripped inflation, and there is reasonable apprehension that government programs, particularly borrowing, are correlated to these tuition increases. Nonetheless, in the last Congress I voted to increase borrowing limits for new students, decrease fees paid by students when obtaining a student loan and increase grant aid for low-income students. We also significantly increased fees on private sector loan providers in order to fund these new benefits for students.

This year, I carefully reviewed the proposal to increase the taxpayer subsidy, which may, in effect, encourage further indebtedness and fuel tuition increases. Instead of supporting legislation to temporarily reduce interest rates - providing benefits for graduates exclusively - I backed a measure that would have provided lower interest rates to low and middle-income college graduates and those serving in the Armed Forces. I'm disappointed you did not report on this important vote.

Another overlooked point by the editorial board is the fact that my office spends considerable time and resources working with the University of Nebraska to enhance projects and educational opportunities.

I would hope that more objective standards be applied in the future.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry
Oddly, Fortenberry failed to mention his vote to cut federal aid to college students by $12 billion last summer. It's also more than a little bit ridiculous that he would use as a defense his vote to "increase borrowing limits for new students," as if more debt at higher interest rates was to anyone's benefit but loan providers' (and big-time Republican contributors) like Nelnet.

One wonders if he will be similarly defensive and arrogant in his response to UNLs student goverment after declaring their formal disapproval of both his and Rep. Adrian Smith's votes against the College Student Relief Act.

Fortenberry claims he wants objectivity, but what this really reads like is a call for the Daily Nebraskan's silence and complicity as he votes against the interests of students, parents, and the state of Nebraska.

He expects the same kids' gloves treatment he received from the media in his first term, but it's a new year, a new Congress, and new rules apply. Though we're not there yet, as a New Nebraska takes shape, Fortenberry had better change his expectations or expect to pay the price.

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GOP Petition Targets Chuck Hagel

by Kyle Michaelis
The New Nebraska Network does not endorse the following petition, but the extent to which it demonstrates that Republican activists are mobilizing online against Sen. Chuck Hagel is not only relevant to Nebraska politics but also offers a glimpse into the discontent and disunity swallowing the Republican Party whole from the maelstrom that is the no-good-options/no-positive-outcomes war in Iraq.

Driven by the right-wing blogosphere and called "the NRSC Pledge," the petition reads:
"If the United States Senate passes a resolution, non-binding or otherwise, that criticizes the commitment of additional troops to Iraq that General Petraeus has asked for and that the president has pledged, and if the Senate does so after the testimony of General Petraeus on January 23 that such a resolution will be an encouragement to the enemy, I will not contribute to any Republican senator who voted for the resolution. Further, if any Republican senator who votes for such a resolution is a candidate for re-election in 2008, I will not contribute to the National Republican Senatorial Committee unless the Chairman of that Committee, Senator Ensign, commits in writing that none of the funds of the NRSC will go to support the re-election of any senator supporting the non-binding resolution."

This pledge - which currently claims more than 27,000 signatures - does not target Hagel by name, but its orchestrators at most certainly have. One such commentator, Dean Barnett, states:
FOR SIX YEARS, SERIOUS CONSERVATIVES have responded to every betrayal from a Lincoln Chafee or a Chuck Hagel with continued support for the organizations that enable them like the NRSC. This support in the wake of each and every disappointment said in effect, “Thank you, Senator. May I have another?”....

The time has long since come when Republican voters should demand that their office-holders be serious about the war. The anti-surge resolution is a frivolous thing, a pathetic exercise in rear-end covering. While differences regarding the war tactics urged by the White House are fair game, nakedly playing politics with matters of life and death is not.

The sooner the Republican Party gets serious about the war, the better it will be for both the country and the party.

Obviously the Republican Senate caucus isn’t capable of taking the lead in showing such resolve. But perhaps Congressional Republicans will be able to follow the lead of their supporters, supporters who are very serious about becoming “former supporters” if the party continues on its current trajectory.
Certainly an intriguing development - I don't have the heart or the stomach to gloat at the mess in which the Republican Party now finds itself - mainly because it's a mess from which none of us can wash our hands as Americans or as citizens of the world.

I am not so lost to partisanship that I can take pleasure in Hagel's predicament. Although against my better judgment, I must even admit to pitying President Bush for this evil situation he has done so much to create.

And, while I have vehemently opposed the Iraq War since well before it began, I can't help but relate with and respect the signers of the above pledge as they vow to put their money where their mouth is in standing for what they believe is right.

This is not a time for easy answers. There are none to be had. Our only hopes rest in introspection and investigation; honest debate and open questions. We have paid the price for our failure in both regards, as have so many others. We will continue to pay that price for years to come - it remaining largely a matter of form and substance measured by the untold, unknown blood and sacrifice to be exacted.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Jeff "Bought & Paid-For" Fortenberry

by Kyle Michaelis
You've read it all before, but now see it in actual print. You're beautiful, Daily Nebraskan:
Nelnet officials defended their contributions to the political campaigns of two Nebraska congressmen who voted last week against a bill that could cut interest rates on student loans.

The legislation, approved by the House last week and awaiting Senate approval, could affect the profits of large private lenders, including the Lincoln-based National Education Loan Network, Nelnet.

Nebraska Reps. Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith, who both voted against the House legislation, received thousands of dollars in contributions for their 2006 campaigns from Nelnet.

Representatives from Nebraska's congressional delegation have strenuously objected to allegations that the votes of any of Nebraska's House representatives are influenced by campaign contributions.

Fortenberry has not been available for comment since Tuesday.

Nelnet officials said Congress plans to pay for the interest-rate cut by "squeezing the lender incentives that could otherwise be passed on to students." In other words, they worry the cut in interest rates could end up costing students more.....

Federal Election Commission reports show that approximately $26,000 of Nelnet-affiliated funds made it to the campaign chest of Fortenberry for his 2006 congressional campaign....

Smith received $5,000 from Nelnet's PAC for his 2006 campaign.

The entire article demands a read. The only glaring omissions are the mentions that Nelnet was the largest contributor in the nation to the House Republican Campaign Committee in 2006 and that - surprise, surprise - the Bush Administration just negotiated a deal that allowed Nelnet to keep almost $300 million in ill-gotten, tax-subsidized profits without suffering any penalty.

When it comes to money, power, and politics, all rivers run together. This article doesn't explore all the streams and tributaries, but it at least does a good job of showing that, with Fortenberry and Smith, the flow is against the people they represent (Pardon the metaphor).

Luke Swarthout, a spokesman for U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (U.S. PIRG) puts it very succinctly:
"These tremendous (financial aid) subsidies are directly affected by congressional policy....

"Campaign contributions and lobbying payments are seen as and treated as greater investments in greater return and greater revenue."

College students will put up with a lot of crap: from higher tuition to one-hundred dollar textbooks; even being treated like criminals by the police when they go out for a drink. But, when their own Congressmen cast votes that would cost them thousands of dollars in interest on student loans - to assure greater profits for campaign contributors - that's just pushing them too damn far.

Nice to see the Daily Nebraskan push back - not with advocacy, but with the truth. I just hope, as voters, both parents and students are paying attention.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Inconvenient Truth About Adrian Smith

by Kyle Michaelis
Worse Than A Rubber Stamp....on Global Warming
I asked if Adrian believes in global warming. “No!” He believes many of the “facts” about global warming are in dispute.
-from conservative activist Steve Smith's "Interview with Adrian Smith" (11/23/2005)

America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. These technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment -- and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.
-President George W. Bush's State of the Union Address (01/23/2007)

It says a lot about 3rd District Republican Congressman Adrian Smith that he's actually slower than President Bush at recognizing a problem. Smith is living proof of the old adage: When ideas fail, being a Republican comes in very handy.

Or something like that.

Could someone please lend Smith a copy of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" on DVD to get him up to speed?

An Inconvenient Truth - funny, that's not a bad description for the fact that this joker Adrian Smith is actually the 3rd District's Congressman.

Pretty sad when you think about it. Even sadder if we do nothing to change it. On that note, please support the new website SmithWatch and do everything you can to force Smith's accountability to the voters of Central and Western Nebraska.


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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More Hagel Hypocrisy (or, "Chuck Hagel: Obstructionist")

by Kyle Michaelis
Sen. Chuck Hagel just voted along with 42 other Republican Senators to filibuster the Democratic-led, people-approved efforts to gradually raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour.

The bill passed with a strong bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives, as many Republican Congressmen (not Nebraska's) recognized this was an issue on which they could no longer defy the American public. As is, the minimum wage stands at its lowest real value in half a century, having remained fixed for almost a decade - a period during which members of Congress saw a pay raise of more than $30,000.

None of that holds any water with Hagel, who here reveals just what lies behind his bold talk on Iraq and his otherwise false pretensions of independence and bipartisanship.

It is at least great to see the Nebraska Democratic Party taking immediate action denouncing Hagel's vote. NDP Executive Director Matt Connealy stated in a press release, “It is deeply disappointing that Senator Hagel ignored the will of the American people and even President Bush’s own call for bipartisanship last night by rejecting a minimum wage hike for thousands of Nebraskans.”

Disappointing, indeed...but not surprising to those of us who have followed Hagel's record beyond the Sunday morning talk show circuit.

Not to defend the mistake I made this morning in reporting Hagel's vote on last summer's proposed "Gay Marriage Ban" Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but even here we see another example of the full extent of Hagel's hypocrisy. I'd originally reported that Hagel gave the Amendment a "Yes" vote, although Hagel did not actually participate in the vote and claimed his declaration of support only went so far as cloture and giving the measure a full vote before the Senate.

As the Lincoln Journal-Star reported at the time:
[Hagel] said he would have voted for cloture on the legislation, because he prefers moving most debates to an up-or-down vote.
Well, lookie here. When it's the farthest reaches of the Right-Wing demanding the opportunity to use the Constitution to target and discriminate against gay families, Hagel thinks THEY deserve an up-or-down vote.

Now, when it's America's poor and working-class demanding the chance at a better life and fairer wages, Hagel's decided they don't deserve that same right. Five Republican Senators showed some common sense and common decency in voting for cloture on the vote to raise the minimum wage, but NOT CHUCK HAGEL!

Here, we can clearly see Hagel for who he is. Not a moderate. Not a maverick. Certainly not anything remotely resembling an independent.

Instead, he's standing in the way of such a long-overdue reform as raising the minimum wage for purely partisan reasons on behalf of the corporations, lobbyists, and special interests he truly represents.

I suspect we'll be seeing more of this hypocrisy as Hagel and his Republican colleagues attempt to silence the voice of the American people and make this Congress every bit as incompetent and ineffective as what we'd seen under the last 12 years of Republican domination. I just hope the voters of Nebraska and across the nation see those efforts for what they are and direct their righteous anger at those who should be held accountable.

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Chuck Hagel Goes GQ & Almost Gets Away With It

by Kyle Michaelis
(**Update/Correction with Sincerest Apologies - This article has been corrected because it incorrectly stated that Chuck Hagel had voted for the June 2006 Gay Marriage Amendment. Hagel did not participate in that vote, but had announced he would have voted in support of cloture.)

The people at Sen. Chuck Hagel's political action committee were happy enough with the new interview with Hagel in GQ magazine to send it out to supporters via e-mail. But, despite its high-profile, one has to question whether this is really the type of publicity Hagel wants as he attempts to keep his options open for 2008.

For starters, the headline of the article labels Hagel as "The Angry One," a name that suggests doom and gloom far more than the hope and optimism that have traditionally fueled most successful presidential campaigns (foolhardy as they might be). The article is also accompanied by the not particularly flattering picture at right with an introduction that describes Hagel's voice as "reminiscent of sandpaper on rough oak."

Again, not very flattering.

Still, the interview is definitely worth checking out, and it gives Hagel the opportunity to go for broke on a couple of issues, especially the war in Iraq, to add a little more meat to his claim as the true straight-talking maverick about whom independents, moderates, and the growing ranks of Republicans who think Iraq was a mistake should be getting excited.

Judge for yourself:
Do you wish you’d voted differently in October of 2002, when Congress had a chance to authorize or not authorize the invasion?

Have you read that resolution?

I have.

It’s not quite the way it’s been framed by a lot of people, as a resolution to go to war. That’s not quite what the resolution said.

It said, “to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq.”

In the event that all other options failed. So
it’s not as simple as “I voted for the war.” That wasn’t the resolution.

But there was a decision whether to grant the president that authority or not.

Exactly right. And if you recall, the White House had announced that they didn’t need that authority from Congress.

Which they seem to say about a lot of things.

That’s right. Mr. [Alberto] Gonzales was the president’s counsel at that time, and he wrote a memo to the president saying, “You have all the powers that you need”....

[F]inally, begrudgingly, they sent over a resolution for Congress to approve. Well, it was astounding. It said they could go anywhere in the region.

It wasn’t specific to Iraq?

Oh no. It said the whole region! They could go into Greece or anywhere. I mean, is Central Asia in the region? I suppose! Sure as hell it was clear they meant the whole Middle East. It was anything they wanted. It was literally anything. No boundaries. No restrictions.

They expected Congress to let them start a war anywhere they wanted in the Middle East?

Yes. Yes. Wide open. We had to rewrite it. Joe Biden, Dick Lugar, and I stripped the language that the White House had set up, and put our language in it.

But that should also have triggered alarm bells about what they really wanted to do.

Well, it did.
I’m not defending our votes; I’m just giving a little history of how this happened. You have to remember the context of when that resolution was passed. This was about a year after September 11. The country was still truly off balance. So the president comes out talking about “weapons of mass destruction” that this “madman dictator” Saddam Hussein has, and “our intelligence shows he’s got it,” and “he’s capable of weaponizing,” and so on.

And producing a National Intelligence Estimate that turned out to be doctored.

Oh yeah.
All this stuff was doctored. Absolutely. But that’s what we were presented with. And I’m not dismissing our responsibility to look into the thing, because there were senators who said, “I don’t believe them.” But I was told by the president—we all were—that he would exhaust every diplomatic effort.....

But the more I look back on this, the more I think that the administration knew there was some real hard question whether he really had any WMD. In January of 2003, if you recall, the inspectors at the IAEA, who knew more about what Saddam had than anybody, said, “Give us two more months before you go to war, because we don’t think there’s anything in there.” They were the only ones in Iraq. We hadn’t been in there. We didn’t know what the hell was in there. And the president wouldn’t do it!
So to answer your question—Do I regret that vote? Yes, I do regret that vote.

And you feel like you were misled?

I asked tough questions of Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld before the war: How are you going to govern? Who’s going to govern? Where is the money coming from? What are you going to do with their army? How will you secure their borders? And I was assured every time I asked, “Senator, don’t worry, we’ve got task forces on that, they’ve been working, they’re coordinated,” and so on.

Do you think they knew that was false?

Oh, I eventually was sure they knew. Even before we actually invaded, I had a pretty clear sense of it—that
this administration was hell-bent on going to war in Iraq.

Even if it meant deceiving Congress?

That’s right.....
Definitely some interesting stuff. Right off the bat, Hagel does as good a job as I've seen deflecting criticism of his vote in favor of the 2002 Iraq Resolution. If John Kerry could have communicated that same message in 2004 rather than being crucified by the media for being a flip-flopper, we probably would have just watched his third State of the Union Address last night.

Nevermind that it's taken four years and Hagel's at one point declaring the U.S. had "achieved victory" in Iraq to discover this clarity. With that sort of double-standard, Hillary Clinton and any Democratic Presidential candidate who voted on the Iraq Resolution should be prepared for the worst. On the other hand, you have to give credit to Hagel as a politician when he can say with a straight face that he's "not defending" his vote when, of course, that's precisely what he's doing.

Beyond that, Hagel's admitting the National Intelligence Estimate was doctored ("Absolutely") while asserting that the "hell-bent" Administration intentionally deceived Congress are all statements that should earn Hagel the headlines and public attention he seeks.

During the rest of the interview, Hagel continues to speak boldly. On the Administration's use of secret military prisons, he calls for shutting down Guantánamo and any such secret facilities without hesitation. Good for him. Good for America. But, on a related issue, we see another instance of Hagel's newfound clarity not matching his muddled record:
What about civil liberties? Does it concern you that the administration has been searching bank records and personal mail, and listening to international phone calls, without warrants?

Very much. We have always been able to protect national security without sacrificing the liberties of the individual. Once you lose those rights, it’s very hard to get them back.
There have been arguments made that if we just give up a few rights, it will be easier to preserve our national security. That should never, ever happen. When you take office, you take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. That is your first responsibility.
While I couldn't agree more with the rhetoric, Hagel doesn't have the record to back it up, and it's a shame the media doesn't call him on that fact. From his seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, it was just last March that he chose to capitulate to the Administration's undemocratic demands on domestic spying rather than defend the Constitution as duty and conscience required.

I will welcome the day and owe Hagel respect when he finally comes clean and apologizes for these failures - not just on Iraq but in response to the entire "War on Terror." Sadly, that day will never come when the media refuses to do some simple research and hold Hagel to the standards and principles he espouses.

I'm also appalled that GQ and its interviewer let Hagel get away with the following:
How conservative are you really? Tell me the truth: You don’t care whether or not gay people get married, do you?

No. Personally, I think marriage is between a man and a woman, but that’s because I see it as a religious union. As a legal contract,
marriage should be up to the states. If a state wants to change the rules, that’s up to them.
Although it's nice to see Hagel returning to the federalist philosophy that would not turn the U.S. Constitution into a weapon against gay families in the name of conservative Christians' culture wars, it's a sin against truth and good journalism not to point out Hagel's hypocritical flip-flop on this issue since just last summer.

(**corrected - see above)
In June 2006, Hagel went back on his previous position and ended up supporting cloture FOR the politically-motivated constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. He actually did not partake in that losing vote, but his willingness to see it take one step further as law in our most sacred governing document raises significant questions. This is particularly the case because the amendment had no chance of overcoming a Democratic filibuster and because seven other Republican Senators actually showed the courage Hagel lacked to stand up to their party's unprincipled pandering to its extremist wing.

Accountability, folks - it's a bitch. And, it's about damn time Hagel be introduced and get his ass kicked a little bit. It may not make his path to the presidency any easier, but - ultimately - it would make him a better, more honest candidate and make ours a stronger democracy.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Adrian Smith: Worst of the Worst

by Kyle Michaelis
Let's take a moment to remember the Omaha World-Herald's characterization of now-3rd District Republican Congressman Adrian Smith in its October 15th, 2006 editorial:
When pressed aggressively...Adrian Smith falls back on sound bites and slogans....

Smith is not known as a skilled lawmaker. He is not known for an ability to build constructive coalitions for complicated legislation. He is not known as a skilled public speaker. He has no reputation for making substantive issues the subjects for his priority bills. He is not a lawmaker whom backers seek out to be the prime sponsor of major legislation.

He is not known as a leader.
Hard to believe that it was only a little more than three months ago when those words were written. But, from what we've seen of Smith in his first three weeks in Congress, he's more than lived up to his reputation ("lived down" would probably be more accurate).

The record of Nebraska's Republican Representatives in the first 100 hours of the new Congress has been pretty dismal. But, it really says something about Smith that, in just a few weeks, he's already earned distinction as worst of the worst, contributing nothing but partisan-driven vote after partisan-driven vote against an agenda with the over-whelming support of the American people.

Even First District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and 2nd District Rep. Lee Terry learned enough from the last election to recognize that the days of the Do-Nothing Republican Congress are dead and buried. Although both have so far managed records that would still fail any test with the voters, they at least knew better than to vote in lock-step opposition with the most extremist faction of the Republican Party.

Surprise, surprise....Adrian Smith did no such thing, putting himself in the same league as Iowa nut-job Steve King, who claims Joe McCarthy as a hero and calls the Iraq War a success. Smith and King, clearly birds of a feather, voted against every popular measure brought forward by the Democrats (1) implementing the 9/11 commission recommendations, (2) restoring pay-as-you-go budgeting, (3) raising the minimum wage, (4) expanding federal funding for stem cell research, (5) cutting student loan interest rates, (6) rolling back tax subsidies for oil companies and channeling the savings into alternative energy development, and (7) authorizing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

Of these, Terry only had the sense to vote for the rate cut on student loans. Fortenberry voted for the 9/11 recommendations, pay-go, and for the reforms in energy policy. Smith, on the other hand, just voted as told on every measure - as if the man were not even capable of an independent thought.

Adrian Smith: not known as a skilled lawmaker; not known as a leader. And, thanks to his choice to represent the most extremist wing of the Republican Party rather than the common sense people of central and western Nebraska, he never will be a skilled lawmaker or a leader.

One more line stands out from that World-Herald's desription of Smith three months ago:
[I]n terms of qualifications, the 3rd District deserves more...
That's more true now than ever. The 3rd District still deserves more and deserves better than Adrian Smith.I just hope someone will have the courage and faith to give voters the opportunity to correct their mistake before too much irreparable damage is done by Smith's unthinking Congressional incompetence.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

More Jostling for Hagel's Senate Seat

by Ryan Anderson
It's an interesting if inevitable phenomenon: the more presidential Chuck Hagel sounds, the less senatorial his would-be successors seem.

In the wake of the Bush Administration's enormously unpopular decision to increase troop strength in Iraq, Hagel has assumed the role of soundbite king. And what soundbites they are! Hagel, who even in his personal life is reportedly obsessed with Iraq and its parallels to his own experience in Vietnam, deserves credit for couching his criticisms in plain but powerful moral language that should make any Democratic presidential hopeful envious. Though Senator Hagel deserves his "mock maverick" moniker, his introduction last week of a formal if non-binding resolution opposing a troop surge at least demonstrates that his "All Talk Express" is no longer limited to running circles around the Sunday morning talk shows.

Whether Hagel will take this message to the endless rounds of debates and forums that will define this presidential primary season remains to be seen (although recent reports that he's considering an independent run appear doubtful), but happily Omaha businessman David Sokol has seen fit to give us Nebraska political junkies a sneak peek at what a Hagel-less Senate race might look like. Shockingly, the results show none other than Sokol's good friend Attorney General Jon Bruning leading all comers for the 2008 Republican nomination.

Bruning -who easily breaks 50% in head-to-head match-ups with Senate losers Hal Daub and Pete Ricketts- has sought to solidify his lead by championing a bill which would make it a crime to send any e-mail that "uses or transmits any indecent, lewd, lascivious, or obscene language". Meanwhile, Bruning's most competitive opponents, Congressmen Lee Terry and Jeff Fortenberry (curiously, former Governor Mike Johanns was not polled) have been busy voting against raising the minimum wage, funding stem cell research and allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices (although, to be fair, they really, really wanted to support these measures).

You and I know that Senator Hagel is not the great maverick and savior of his party that the national media sometimes portrays him to be. He's a very conservative and rather loyal Republican. But he's also a thoughtful public servant who's demonstrated a willingness to step outside of his party's "message box", to speak the truth of his own internal convictions. The history of Nebraska politics is rife with individuals possessing these rare and admirable qualities; the Nebraska Republican Party is not.

The challenge remains for the Democratic Party to prove that they have the right man for the job.

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A Nebraska Newspaper Doing Its Job!!!

by Kyle Michaelis
Here's a highly recommended editorial in today's Daily Nebraskan - a welcome, much-needed reminder that it is possible for voices of reason and relevance to break through to the masses, even in Nebraska.
Politicians not putting Nebraska first in money matters
Hats off to the budding young journalists at the DN for their willingness to speak the truth and do more than look away as Gov. Dave Heineman and Nebraska's Republican Congressional delegation have turned their backs on higher education and the future of our state.

Wow. I'd almost forgotten that an editorial demonstrating genuine common sense, doing honest-to-goodness reporting, and putting some actual thought into tying the issues together was possible in the Nebraska press.

Nice to know that at least someone else is paying attention. I just hope the DN will keep up the fine work and - by raising its standards - force others to follow suit.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Omaha World-Herald's Selective "Skepticism" on Tax Policy

by Kyle Michaelis
The Omaha World-Herald has not published a single bit of substantive criticism of Gov. Dave Heineman's regressive proposal to shift more of Nebraska's tax burden onto Nebraska's poor, young, and working class to subsidize massive cuts in the income tax for the upper/upper-middle classes. It won't even allow this raw, undeniable truth about Heineman's plan into its pages.

Nor has the OWH displayed any understanding or concern for the fact that the state's wealthiest citizens are also the only ones who benefit from Heineman's concurrent proposal to eliminate Nebraska's estate tax. In fact, the World-Herald has done little but cheerlead in its attempts to strong-arm the legislature into adopting the Heineman Tax Hike since before it even saw the light of day.

No scrutiny. No skepticism. And, let's not forget the most important component of fulfilling the Heineman-Herald agenda: an absolute double-standard for any competing proposals, particularly those with the audacity to reflect the will of the people by tackling property taxes.

For just a taste of this double-standard, allow me to share the latest morsel of the World-Herald's hypocrisy in its Sunday editorial:
To hear some people, one would imagine that the sharp disagreement over using state income- and sales-tax revenues as a way to provide "property-tax relief" is something new for Nebraska. In reality, it is one of the most longstanding public-policy disagreements in the state.

And skepticism toward the effectiveness of such "relief" - skepticism based on legitimate, policycentered grounds - has a long pedigree. Consider this sampling from World-Herald editorials and articles from years past:

• Editorial from Oct. 5, 1983 - "The increasing suggestion that 'property-tax relief' is a proper goal for the 1984 Legislature should put Nebraska taxpayers on their guard. In tax matters, 'relief' almost always is spelled 's-h-i-f-t.' . . . The term 'tax relief' warrants similar caution. Unless someone guarantees a reduction in government spending, 'tax relief' for some taxpayers almost always means a heavier burden for others"....

• Editorial from Jan. 4, 1995 - "A New Year's thought for Nebraska taxpayers: Don't get your hopes up over talk of property-tax relief in the Nebraska Legislature. Nebraska has had nearly 30 years of schemes designed to reduce property taxes by raising the rates of the sales and income taxes. That approach hasn't worked.....

Note: This year marks 40 years since the creation of Nebraska's state sales and income taxes, along with the false hope of long-term property-tax relief.

Such considerations should not pre-empt an impassioned and informed debate in Lincoln this year over how to restructure Nebraska's woefully dysfunctional tax system. Conscientious lawmakers such as State Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine...and State Sen. Tom White of Omaha have introduced serious legislative proposals that take a run at this longstanding issue.

As the debate on those and other proposals unfolds in Lincoln, however, everyone needs first to acknowledge that this is no new debate. It is a very old one. And it involves a long string of disappointments for Nebraska taxpayers.

Which is why any new bold proposal for state-directed "property tax relief" deserves rigorous scrutiny. History provides ample basis for skepticism.
One can't help but wonder how much the World-Herald's long-standing skepticism towards property tax relief hasn't directly contributed to its supposed failure over the years. When the state's most powerful voice has, for decades, been dismissive of efforts to reduce property taxes, their nay-saying is bound to have been a contributing factor in the do-nothing mentality they now hope to perpetuate.

The World-Herald doesn't want the state to do anything about property taxes, and they have used the guise of historical distrust to mask what is little more than a difference in priorities. Yet, in demanding property tax relief, the people of Nebraska can stand-up to Heineman and the Herald's bullying to remind state legislators who it is they actually represent.

By the way, is anyone else astonished to see that quote from 1983 about property tax relief representing a "tax shift"? Looks like Heineman is not only relying on the World-Herald to carry his water with the public but also to write his speeches and feed his rhetoric.

What's different from 1983 and today is that the World-Herald was then at least honest that "tax relief for some taxpayers almost always means a heavier burden for others." Today, Heineman wants to thrust - or shift - that heavier burden on the backs of those least able to bear it, and the World-Herald stands silent - without scrutiny or skepticism - but towards those plans that are far more equitable to the majority of Nebraskans.

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Fortenberry Responds as Supporters Play "Kill the Messenger"

by Kyle Michaelis
The Lincoln Journal-Star has a fairly active website when it comes to readers' comments, and it's fun to see how much feedback a simple "Letter to the Editor" can generate. Unfortunately, while there was much relevant discussion of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's record - especially his vote against raising the minimum wage - many of the comments on my most recent foray in this peculiar art of press-savvy citizenship demonstrate a disturbing tendency to attack me personally just for having questioned Fortenberry's votes.

As a testament to my egotism and self-amusement, allow me to share a few of the highlights:
Gerard Harbison: "If the Nebraska Young Democrats are going to be using the letters column of the LJS to issue partisan press releases, shouldn't they be labeled as such? Here, let me help you, LJS. Kyle Michaelis is the first district chair of the Young Democrats. That will give your readers a little better perspective on where his letter is coming from."
Seems like "The Right-Wing Professor" is keeping tabs on me (see his similar attempt to discredit me last July). Don't know whether to be flattered or scared for my well-being. Although far from a celebrity, I suppose this is the price of a none-too-common name and a digital paper trail available for all the world to Google.
SupportFort: "...Fortenberry, Smith and Terry...certainly support me and most folks I know and they do it well. Sounds like they don't support your viewpoints so you have resorted to character assasination instead of rational, logical dissent. I suspect you are a Democrat."
Character assassination? Huh? I called Fortenberry's votes "out of touch." If anyone cares to explain to me how that's character assassination, I'd love to hear it. Seriously, how does this sort of reflexive denunciation do anything but stifle the "rational, logical dissent" this reader supposedly desires? Is that even a question worth asking or are the inherently contradictory motives behind this response just as apparent as they seem?
Hey Michaelis: "If Fortenberry is so out of touch with America and Nebraska, why did 59% of the 1st district re-elect him?? Maybe you are out of touch with Nebraska. Please move away. Thank you."
At least that's an honest comment. Polite as well....beyond the whole bit about asking me to move away from the state (and the Congressional District) in which I've lived my entire life. But, I really appreciate the reminder that it only takes a change of opinion in less than 10% of the population to swing this state's politics in a bold, new direction. Maybe not a short-term project but certainly a worthwhile goal.
Who?: "Kyle Michaelis is the same college student who attempted to turn the congressional campaign into a race war. I checked him out and found that he is a college student, Democrat activist, and really scary liberal blogger. Perhaps when he gets a job and starts paying taxes, he may have less time to criticize his doubly-elected congressman."
"Really scary liberal blogger" - that's some ego-strokeage right there...especially since I generally fall prey to accusations of a too measured, too moderate approach on the issues. Need to look into having that put on some business cards and a t-shirt - maybe even a line on my resume.

Of course, the real pay-off comes in today's Journal-Star, with Fortenberry responding personally to my letter. He writes:
A recent letter on this page mentioned my vote on a proposal in Congress to increase the minimum wage.

I support a minimum wage increase. Almost a decade since its last adjustment, an increase in the wage is socially just. However, it must also be economically responsible. An increase, mandated without consideration of its effects on American small businesses, would have implications (reduced employee hours, increased prices, job layoffs) that would in effect harm those the policy seeks to help.

That’s why I co-sponsored the Working Families Wage and Access to Healthcare Act. This legislation proposes a $2.10 increase in the minimum wage. At the same time, it provides small business assistance that helps small employers and entrepreneurs shoulder the new demands of a wage increase. One of the ways it does this is by opening the door to new ideas to pay for employees’ health care, a significant expense to small businesses.

Unfortunately, the legislation proposed by Democratic leadership neglected to address these concerns, and proposals to help make the bill better were not allowed to be heard. As the U.S. Senate undergoes its deliberation of the bill, I am hopeful that these provisions will be included.

Then Congress will have crafted a minimum wage increase that is both socially just and economically responsible. That is good public policy, and it is the right thing to do.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry
In other words, Jeff Fortenberry supports increasing the minimum wage but voted against the bill that would have done just that. Just like he supports making college more affordable while voting against cutting the interest rates on student loans.

At least, he's consistent in his hypocrisy, if nothing else. And, in that, he's not alone. As the UNO College Democrats point out, 2nd District Congressman Lee Terry "just voted against a bill that would allow the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices - to keep prescription drug prices low."

Clearly, Fortenberry and Terry deserve each other. But, the people of Nebraska deserve so much more than their shared tendencies to partisan double-speak. Games of message control and kill the messenger won't prevent the dawning of this realization. The truth may be delayed, but it will not be contained.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Jeff Fortenberry's Predictable Partisanship On the Opinion Page

by Kyle Michaelis
I often fall back on the familiar refrain asking NNN readers to write letters to the editor on the issues important to them. Just scroll down a little ways on the sidebar, and you'll see some of the local newspapers that are just dying to print what you have to say - in some cases, sharing your words with more people in a day than read this site in a month.

Don't get me wrong. I'm extremely grateful for every one of this site's readers. It's an honor to have been shown so much kindness and respect over the preceding two years. But, let's not fool ourselves - at the end of the day, this site does not have the reach to change a state's political identity and to create the New Nebraska that is its promise and purpose.

I'm not a preaching to the choir kind of guy. In fact, I don't think there's a whole lot of value in having ideas if you're not willing to put those ideas out there for all the word to see. As an admitted, unrepentant progressive in a state that confines itself to an ill-fitting Republican identity that does not fit its legacy or its people's character, we can not fear criticism. We must welcome it. We must invite it. We must even listen and learn from it.

Why? Because as soon as you've shared your ideas in a public forum, you've started a discussion. Criticism allows that discussion to continue, taking on new life and new power in the public's imagination. If we truly believe in democracy and our supposed ideals, then the willingness to initiate these conversations is the most powerful statement of all. We need to take it upon ourselves to challenge the comfortable conformity of the status quo, not just having a different vision of our own but articulating it for the masses.

This isn't about a revolution. It's about making Nebraskans think, about who we are as a people and where we're headed as a state. If we can just get the people to open their eyes, open their minds, and - yes - even open their hearts enough to start asking tough questions and expecting honest answers of our politicians and our press, then we will have fulfilled our moral and democratic duties as citizens of this land we love.

But, talk is cheap. I can't ask readers to do and say that which I will not. So, keeping faith and hopefully encouraging others to follow suit, I want to share two letters I sent in my own name that were published this week by the 2nd and 3rd most widely read daily newspapers in the state....both of them concerning the out of touch values and voting record of Nebraska's First District Congressman, Jeff Fortenberry.

First, the Lincoln Journal-Star published the following:
Fortenberry out of touch

I want to thank the Lincoln Journal Star for its reporting the votes of Nebraska’s Republican Congressmen Jeff Fortenberry, Lee Terry, and Adrian Smith on the issues so far addressed by the Democratic Party’s “100 Hours” agenda. Too often, the Nebraska media fails to inform voters how we are actually being represented in Washington, D.C.

Still, I believe the Journal Star has a responsibility to go one step further in its coverage. With Fortenberry’s votes against raising the minimum wage, against allowing the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices and against expanded funding for potentially live-saving stem cell research, voters have a right to know why their congressman stands in opposition to the vast majority of the American public.

Our new Congress has brought with it the opportunity for Fortenberry to finally represent the people rather than his party. I fear Fortenberry will only live up to this promise, though, if a vigilant press and an informed public give him no other choice.

If we are to expect accountability from our elected officials, we must start by expecting more from the press and from ourselves. In the future, I hope the Journal Star will do a better job of holding its reporting on Congress to this high standard, no longer giving Fortenberry a free pass without explaining his out-of-touch votes on the issues important to the American people.

Kyle Michaelis

That same day, the Daily Nebraskan printed:
Fortenberry should consider student needs

In 2006, the interest rates on student loans skyrocketed as the Republican Congress cut $12 billion out of the federal student aid programs to pay for another round of tax giveaways for corporations and the wealthy.

Now, in one of the first acts of the new Democratic majority in Congress, Democratic leaders hope to pass the College Student Relief Act of 2007 (H.R. 5). For anyone who believes in accessible and affordable higher education, this proposal really should be a no-brainer as it promises to cut interest rates in half in the next five years for undergraduate students with subsidized student loans. Best of all, there are no new costs to taxpayers.

Once fully enacted, it's estimated this plan will save students an average of $4,420. Unfortunately, Nebraska's Republican congressional delegation seems unlikely to vote for this sensible and long-overdue legislation for reasons of partisanship and personal interest. This is especially the case for Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.

The largest contributor to Fortenberry's 2006 campaign was Nelnet, a local student loan provider that stands accused of bilking the federal government out of hundreds of millions of dollars. H.R. 5 offsets its costs by changing the terms for lenders - almost certainly cutting into the outrageous profits that allowed Nelnet to also be the top contributor in the country to the House Republicans' national campaign committee.

Regardless of who funded his campaign or his party, Fortenberry is our representative. He should know that the students of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are watching this legislation and will hold him accountable for his vote.

Kyle Michaelis

Sure enough, Fortenberry voted exactly as predicted, one of only 71 Republicans to vote against the American people's interests in making higher education accessible to all. I'm sure Nelnet will remember that vote come the next election but so should we, the students, graduates, family members, and aspiring dreamers who look to a college degree with hope for a better life.

And, guess what, whether by suggestion or coincidence it was a pleasant surprise to see the headlining front-page story in Friday's Daily Nebraskan that actually got Fortenberry to go on record with this pathetic explanation for his vote:
Once in full effect, the cuts are projected to save borrowers with $13,800 of debt up to $4,400 over the life of the loan.

Fortenberry said the policy would increase debt and exacerbate a negative trend in tuition inflation for college students.

"My policy's emphasis is on the front-end - helping people get to college and go to college," he said.
Who does Fortenberry think he's kidding? Is he really going to act as if higher interest rates and the promise of endless debt aren't two of the most significant factors in keeping people from pursuing higher eduation?

Clearly, he is that far out of touch or that much of a liar considering his vote last year to cut $12 billion from the Federal Student Loan program. No logical consistency. No principle. No problem.

But, at least we've got him on record, and that's a start. What a start it would actually be if the Nebraska media held up its end of the bargain on more issues, keeping Fortenberry and his like accountable to the people they represent.

You can help make that happen. Dare to have high expectations. Make some phone calls. Write some letters. Demand to be heard and to hear what our politicians have to say.

Just forcing the discussion of a progressive agenda works to our advantage because these are issues that people care about and ideas with which they funadamentally agree.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the more our Republican politicians say, the less they make sense. They know that. They fear it. And, they damn well should.

I say, let's keep'em talking.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Stop the "Heineman Tax Hike"

by Kyle Michaelis
Media Fails to Report That Wealthy Benefit Most Under Governor's Budget

Following up on my earlier post about the lie at the heart of Gov. Dave Heineman's budget and his State of the State Address, I want to delve very briefly into that realm of independent analysis where the Nebraska media fears to tread.

Although Heineman's plan has been laid out for all to see for nearly two weeks, it says some very ugly things about the journalists in this state that no one's reported on the many fronts of Heineman's deception and hypocrisy. The very best that could be said of Nebraska's political reporters and editorial boards is that they are afraid of math or simply can't run a calculator. Alas, I suspect the truth is a tad more sinister.

While I still hope to finish a more thorough dissection of the rhetoric fueling Heineman's budget, for now, I just want to point out one more simple, perfectly obvious, but entirely unreported fact - Dave Heineman wants to raise the income taxes of those least able to afford them.

Don't believe me? Surely, if that were true, it would have been pointed out amidst all the bally-hooing and praise? Right?

Well, let's see: one of the central tenets and biggest selling points of Heineman's proposal is that it will supposedly simplify Nebraska's income tax by reducing its number of tax brackets from 4 to 3. That, by itself, raises concerns because this sort of structural change tends to result in a less progressive system. Such is definitely the case with Heineman's proposal. Yet, it takes a look at the actual numbers to appreciate the true severity of the plan's regressive implications.

Although full calculations can not be made from the marginal tax rates Heineman has provided - which capture only the rate on the last dollar earned by a taxpayer - these numbers are still enough to reveal the general thrust of Heinemean's plan and the priorities reflected therein. It's quite telling that at the same time Heineman proposes a 25% cut in the marginal tax rate for married couples with a joint adjusted gross income of $90,000, he advocates a hike in the marginal tax rate of nearly 20% for every married couple with a joint AGI of less than $4,000. Heineman would also impose that same 20% hike on every Single taxpayer with an AGI less than $2,400.

It's fair to say that all Heineman's done structurally to reduce the number of tax brackets is erase the lowest tax bracket. They pay more in income taxes as the working-class (those married, filing jointly with AGIs up to $50,000) pay the same marginal rate. All to the glorious benefit of Nebraska's upper/upper-middle class.

Except, even that fails to tell the whole story. Heineman's proposal also imposes a much larger tax rate hike of 44% for any unfortunate individuals with Head of Household status and an AGI between $24,000 and $25,000. Meanwhile, single taxpayers earning between $16,000 and $17,500 would see their own rate hike of 44%.

Of course, it may be convenient to dismiss these outrageous tax rate hikes of 20% and 44% as anomalies - the price paid for a better, simpler system. But, imagine how those who actually fall within these categories would feel, come tax time, realizing they and they alone have been asked to pay more so those far wealthier can pay less.

And, if such anomalies/discrepancies were necessary for reform - to make the numbers work - what does it say about Nebraska that our Governor has specifically targeted the poor, the young, the retirees, and the disabled to cover the costs of change? Wouldn't it have made a lot more sense to err on the side of common decency and to ask a little bit more of some tiny segment of the state's wealthiest class that otherwise sees the most benefit from Heineman's plan, particularly in its totally one-sided elimination of the estate tax?

Heineman seems to have gone after Nebraska's weakest and most defenseless (in politics, as in life) for no other reason than their being the easiest target. As constructed, Heineman's plan is a sin - plain and simple. While the public can justify some pretty heinous policies that target the poor under notions that they're lazy and should finally be asked to pay their fair share, many of those in Heineman's sights are going to be students working part-time jobs just to keep themselves afloat and those just starting out in the work force (or who spent part of the year unemployed).

Heineman has asked the rich and the middle class to be complicit in reaping benefits for themselves on the backs of detasselers, dish washers, and dog walkers. He wants the state to stick it hard to those facing hardships in their lives. He honestly thinks a 17 year-old kid working part-time at McDonald's just to cover his car payments should pay more so you can pay less.

Nevermind that Heineman's budget, as proposed, would result in skyrocketing college tuition rates that will close many windows of opportunity for young people at both our universities and state colleges. Now, they should take on a greater share of the tax burden to have that door to progress slammed in their face.

What a repulsive agenda for Nebraska...and what a sad comment on Heineman's low expectations of its people.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ken Svoboda & Lincoln GOP Already Using Dirty Tricks

by Kyle Michaelis

You knew it was only a matter of time, but who could have guessed that Lincoln mayoral candidate Ken Svoboda and his minions in the Lancaster County Republican Party would go so negative, so early in their attacks on Democratic candidate Chris Beutler?

In keeping with Lincoln Republicans' legacy as the worst, most shameless political thugs in the state, Svoboda supporters showed up to Tuesday's mayoral debate armed with the latest in a long line of lies, distortions, and distractions in service to their diseased politics of personal destruction.

Before the three-man debate between City Councilman Svoboda, long-time State Sen. Beutler, and local businesssman Roger Yant had even begun, members of the hosting Lincoln Independent Business Association (LIBA) sat down to their lunches and found an anti-Beutler flyer at their tables purporting to be his "Business Report Card."

Paid for by the Lancaster County Republicans, the flyer went on to attack Beutler for having "spent most of his adult life in the Nebraska Legislature." It also likened Beutler to State Sen. Ernie Chambers and accused him of having an "anti-job creation voting record," resulting in the Republican Party giving Beutler an F "on business issues."

What an utter load of crap! The city of Lincoln is still a full two-and-a-half months away from even its primary election, and already Svoboda's campaign is taking the low road. But, what did we expect? The low road is the only one they know.

The always convenient race-baiting comparisons to Ernie Chambers are one thing, but it's when the flyer stoops to outright deception that the full extent of the Lincoln GOPs depravity again shines through. Citing a Lincoln Journal-Star article, the flyer states:
Beutler argued that the 2006 state income tax cut was not necessary because Nebraska didn't need the money.

Compare that to what was actually written by the LJS:
"I do not want to cut taxes now in good times when people don’t need the money,” Beutler said, and be forced to raise taxes when people can’t afford it....

Because of the property tax increase, “I really don’t know understand why any governor would want his name to this package,” Beutler said.
First, the Republican Party twists Beutler's actual statement to erase his genuine concern that the 2006 "tax cut" would result in future tax hikes. Then, they fail to mention how Beutler completely foresaw and warned against the increase in property taxes that has since left voters up-in-arms.

If the Lincoln Journal-Star has even an ounce of self-respect, it has a duty to call-out Svoboda and the Republicans for these outrageous lies and abuses of its own reporting.

Of course, lies and distortions are nothing compared to the Republican Party's miserable, borderline terrorist antics the last time Lincoln held a city election. In 2005, they engaged in outright hypocrisy in their attacks, not to mention ludicrous assaults on the character of then-Councilman Terry Werner for not supporting our troops and - I'm not kidding - for being an enemy of Lincoln pet owners. All this earned a deserved rebuke by the Journal-Star, which then wrote:
The Republican Party is putting all the warts of partisan politics on display with its attack ads in the race for three at-large seats on the Lincoln City Council....

Republican Party officials don't give a fiddle about the issues. They're not focused on finding the best way to deal with the challenges facing the city. All they care about [is] scoring an election victory.
What's saddest and scariest is that all this was said even before the Chair of the Lancaster County Republican Party admitted to hiring a private investigator to follow Werner and to assist in their efforts at character assassination.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Republican Party relies on the ugliness and the spirit of ill will they've created in Lincoln politics by writing in its self-proclaimed Report Card, "If you liked how Terry Werner voted on business issues...If you like (current Mayor) Colleen Seng's reord of 'leadership' for Lincoln...Then you'll love Chris Beutler." They even go so far as including pictures of Werner and Seng.

Of course, what's ironic about these attacks is that every supposed failure by city government since Werner and Seng were elected has come under Svoboda's watch. He's been serving on Lincoln's City Council the entire time - even as its Chairman - meaning that voters wanting change should be voting for Beutler...unless Svoboda's already desperate attacks work.

In 2005, Svoboda tried to distance himself from the despicable actions of his party. But that isn't the case this time around. At the LIBA debate, Svoboda stood perched at the entrance, shaking hands with people as they walked in, at the same time as these lies and distortions were being distributed to the audience. He was there. He benefitted. He may as well have handed the damn things out.

These people are shameless, and they must be stopped. As the Journal-Star warned in 2005:
If the attack ads succeed, they'll multiply in the next election.
Well, here we are, and that's precisely what we're seeing. After the failure of Pete Ricketts' endlessly negative 2006 campaign for the U.S. Senate - getting only 30% in Lancaster County - you'd expect Svoboda and the Republican Party would recognize that Lincoln's voters are sick of their dirty tricks.

Alas, political hacks never learn. This is how they do it because this is all they know. It looks like the people will have to teach them a lesson once more, proving once again that they are better than this degradation of our democracy by voting for a leader with actual vision and integrity. That man - that mayor - is Chris Beutler.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

"Make Room for Elkhorn" - Time to Expand the Omaha City Council

by Kyle Michaelis
In October of 2005, a great idea was floated by Omaha Councilman Jim Suttle to add an additional representative to that seven-member body to compensate for the continued growth of the city, including it's then-planned annexation of neighboring Elkhorn.

From that idea, a wonderful discussion began on the UNO College Democrats' blog in which I (and others) praised Suttle for his visionary concern for good democracy - even at the expense of dilluting his own power on the city council. Yet, many of us were of the opinion that the addition of one more councilman invited and/or demanded the addition of a second, bringing the council to nine total members. This would not only maintain an odd-numbered council less likely to result in tie votes but also create a more representative body in which each member would still represent approximately 45,000 citizens.

Unfortunately, no action was taken on Suttle's proposal. 15 months later, though - with Omaha's annexation of Elkhorn finally receiving what seems the ultimate blessing of the courts just last week - this most worthy idea of expanding the City Council has again been raised.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Now that Omaha has received the go-ahead from the Nebraska Supreme Court to annex Elkhorn, city officials must decide how Elkhorn's residents will be represented in city government.

The Omaha City Council has not finalized plans for how district boundaries would be redrawn to include Elkhorn. The leading proposal would split Elkhorn into two districts, said Council President Dan Welch....

Not everyone is happy with the idea of splitting Elkhorn into different council districts. State Sen. Dwite Pedersen, who represents Elkhorn, said he plans to introduce a bill in the Legislature next week to add two members to the Omaha council. His hope is that only one person would represent Elkhorn on the council....

"Elkhorn has always been unified, and I don't want to see the community sliced into two," Pedersen said. "I'm very concerned about representation, because the people of Elkhorn haven't had the opportunity to vote for those who will represent them on the council"....

The idea of adding two seats and creating a nine-member council was first initiated by Pedersen and Omaha Councilman Jim Suttle in late 2005. It received a lukewarm reception from other council members at the time.

Suttle said he would still support the measure, but not because he is concerned that Elkhorn would lack adequate representation under the city proposal.

Suttle said having smaller, similar-sized districts would help provide representation for minority populations. It also would give citizens a louder voice with their council representatives because they'd have fewer constituents, he said.

Welch said he is not convinced that adding council members is a good idea.

"I would prefer to keep the number where it is," Welch said. "It seems like the more people you have on a legislative body, less things get done."
If that's the best argument Welch can make, he really should keep his democracy-hating mouth shut.

At the end of the day, expanding Omaha's city council to nine representatives is an entirely reasonable idea that should be no detriment to that body's effectiveness beyond empowering the voters and giving the people a larger say. As seems to be the case of Welch and his fellow councilmen who opposed this plan originally, theirs is an almost unjustifiable position more about holding onto power for themselves than doing what's right for the city of Omaha and its newest citizens.

One more positive effect of expanding the city council is that it will, as explained by Suttle, encourage greater diversity. For what I believe has been the last six years, the council of Nebraska's most populous city has been entirely comprised of men. It's about damn time that Omaha women again have a voice in their city government as well.

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