Friday, March 30, 2007

The Birth Of "The Nebraska Bloc"?

by Kyle Michaelis
Iraq War Creates Total Chaos in Nebraska Politics

Longtime Foes Nelson & Hagel Present United Front As Hagel Condemned By Mentor McCollister

The Omaha World-Herald's Thursday Editorial page - so foolishly and short-sightedly hidden away from view by online readers - was an absolute hodgepodge of political intrigue centered on debate of the Iraq War, opening whole new worlds of speculation about the future of Nebraska politics.

Unsurprisingly, in its lead editorial, the World-Herald offered an unqualifed endorsement of President Bush's expected veto of a Congressional appropriations bill including benchmarks for progress in Iraq, a possible redefining of the mission, and a non-binding target date for troop withdrawal. I'm not going to waste any time typing up what was essentially an endorsement of Bush's authority to conduct an endless war without oversight or input by Congress.

To be honest, I respect certain Constitutional concerns about Congressional interference in military operations, but denying that Congress has any powers and responsibilities over these matters is an assault on democracy itself. Congress - and the American people - must have some means to assert themselves against a President whose dictates have become increasingly tyrannical and out-of-touch.

If the World-Herald is going to condemn Congress for the actions it has taken to make some end possible to this unpopular and unjust war, then it has an obligation to discuss how Congress might better oppose a President and his policies unless he's considered to have absolute authority over U.S. Armed Forces.

But, the real action - the important stuff on Thursday's editorial page - had nothing to do with the World-Herald's opinion on Iraq. No, for the purposes of Nebraska politics, there were two other eye-popping elements that could well reverberate and have unforeseen consequences for years to come.

For starters, Senators Ben Nelson and Chuck Hagel wrote a joint article explaining their united front in casting what can honestly be called the two deciding votes allowing Congress to take this next step in challenging President Bush's Iraq War policy.

Just one week prior, both Nelson and Hagel had voted against similar measures imposing timelines for troop withdrawal. The vital role each played in crafting a more acceptable alternative proved indispensible, with the resulting changes in their respective votes making all the difference, turning what had been a two vote shortfall into a two vote advantage.

Thanks to Nelson and Hagel, the bill passed 50-48 in the Senate - on final reading passing 51-46. So, as soon as joint legislation between the two Houses of Congrss can be worked out in Committee at some point in mid-April, it will be off to President Bush's desk, where he will veto and disregard the voice of the people at his own peril.

Now, the fact that Nelson and Hagel are voting together is one thing. Then, there's also the fact that both their votes and their voices have proven so disproportionatly important in the national debate. As a political observer, though, the most intriguing fact might simply be that Nelson and Hagel have demonstrated such an unexpected and previously unheard-of united front.

Voting together? That's going to happen in a legislative body, no matter the years of supposed bad blood between Nelson and Hagel going back to the 1996 election and still very much in evidence in last year's race pitting Nelson against Pete Ricketts. But now, suddenly, they're not only voting together. It seems like they're actually working together.

On the most important issue of our day, the American people just saw the power and potential of what could be called the Nebraska bloc.

Although very different in terms of personality and approach, both Hagel and Nelson have revealed a willingness to break with strict partisanship that is very much reflective of Nebraska politics' singular emphasis on the nonpartisan ideal. In so closely divided a Senate with their respective positions as outsiders in their own parties - Nelson because he's more conservative and Hagel because he's too outspoken - I believe there is real potential for Nebraska's Senators to set the agenda for the entire country. And, maybe - just maybe - Nelson and Hagel are starting to see this for themselves.

This may all be circumstantial. Perhaps this alliance is nothing more than the product of one writer's fertile but fevered imagination. But - looking at what we've just seen, regardless of whether or not it actually exists - is there any denying the potential of the Nebraska bloc?

I really don't think so. And the benefits to our state from such a partnership could be downright beyond belief.

Sure, that could mean a lot in the way of bringing home the bacon (i.e. pork-barrel spending), but the real potential lies in exercising influence and exporting Nebraska's own particular brands of common sense and pragmatism to which we so often lay claim.

Well, here we have the opportunity to prove it - perhaps remaking the entire country in the process. Not in our image but certainly to be more reflective of our political character.

Sound crazy? It should. We're Nebraska, for crying out loud. 1.7 million people. A statewide identitiy crisis since the collapse of our college football team. So Republican that we can't possibly be considered a Swing State or even a Bellwether. Still, none of this means that some positively ridiculous levels of influece aren't a distinct possibility.

The problem is that Nelson and Hagel remain very different people, and their animosity might even remain intact. Moreover, there aren't a whole lot of issues on which they currently stand united. But that, in itself, is just one more example of how their working together could set the terms for our national debates. On immigration, on Social Security solvency, on Medicaid reform - these are all issues on which plans by Nelson and Hagel could take front and center...if they were only able to resolve their differences and come to some sort of compromise.

On some of these issues, I'm not at all convinced that I'd like what a Nelson-Hagel teaming might come up with. But, be it in the name of Nebraska's nonpartisan ideal or driven by the media's buzz word mentality towards all things bipartisan, I stand by my estimation that our Senators' potential to do great things and to make big changes really does exist. The Nebraska Bloc could be a reality, though I can't yet honestly assert that it actually is or that it ever shall be.

Which brings me to my final point - after way too much typing and way too long a night. Just days after publishing a letter to the editor from a three-term National Committeewoman of the Nebraska Republican Party defending Chuck Hagel at the expense of every other Republican in Congress, Thursday's World-Herald included a letter from former 2nd District Congressman John Y. McCollister taking a much different approach.

McCollister served three terms of his own in the House from 1971-1977. In that time, he's responsible for giving a young Hagel his start in Washington D.C. while also serving as his political mentor. The two have evidently remained close throughout the years - as evidenced by any number of statements by both men - which makes McCollister's letter so remarkable for its unmistakeable criticism of Hagel.

McCollister wrote:
Regardless of one's view on the Iraq War, the congressional votes setting deadlines for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are a tragic mistake. The president will veto the bill and give Congress a chance to do it right. Unfortunately, the votes will strengthen our enemies and dishearten our soldiers....

I believe that some people disregard the awful consequences of a premature withdrawal and want to end the war, period. Others have a consuming, burning hatred of George W. Bush as their dominant legislative priority. Those who carelessly throw out talk of "impeachment" are of the same stripe.

There is no place for blind hate, however disguised, in any legislative body.

John Y. McCollister, Omaha
No matter how vague and without mentioning him by name, there is no room for doubt that McCollister's stunning and stinging rebuke is targeted squarely at Hagel.

Hagel's has been the most prominent voice in the entire country to even mention the possibility of Bush's impeachment. According to McCollister, Hagel's "careless" use of the word speaks to "a consuming, burning hatred" of Bush that has "no place" in Congress.

In essence - looking at these statements - I'd go so far as saying that McCollister has just declared open season on Hagel's Senate seat. Hagel's friend and political mentor just said there's "no place" for him in Congress. If that's not an invitation to another prominent Republican to step-up and challenge Hagel, then I really can't imagine what would qualify as such.

The green light has been given. Gentlemen, start your engines. I still have a hard time seeing a legitimate primary challenge actually happening, but the implications from McCollister's letter are perfectly clear. There's really no mincing his words. They make quite the impression, and I'm sure Hagel got the message loud and clear.

I won't speculate any further what consequences might result. I've personally exhausted one day's editorial page to its breaking point. But, please, share your thoughts. The Freudian dynamics of McCollister vs. Hagel as father and son? The proper extent of Congress' war powers? Whether my theory about "the Nebraska bloc" makes me a Nebraska blockhead? It's all fair game, and we want to hear what you have to say.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Media Spins Stories (About Bloggers Spinning Facts) To Fit Own Agenda

by Kyle Michaelis
The New Nebraska Network received mention in Tuesday's North Platte Telegraph in an article surveying Nebraska's political blogs and our respective coverage earlier this month on the confusing reports of more than $140,000 in payments from 3rd District Congressman Adrian Smith's 2006 campaign to his father, Neal Smith.

Honestly, it's a pretty fair report with a mostly accurate depiction of the events. It's only the unfortunate headline - Bloggers Can Spin Data To Fit Own Agenda - that needlessly (and so hypocritically) challenges the integrity of sites such as this and SmithWatch.

See for yourself:
Political pundits blog opinions about elected officials and sometimes, putting out information leads to criticism or kudos. The story isn’t always complete before it gets posted for the world to see, as one Nebraska blogger, Lisa Hannah, found out....

Some choose to be public with their names, like Hannah, who started SmithWatch, and Kyle Michaelis with New Nebraska Network. Others like BeatriceFiddler are anonymous, as is Uncle Wiggily who hosts a pro-Rep. Adrian Smith blog....

Nebraska Democrats are vocal about the actions of Nebraska’s elected officials, and post opinions discussing information found in newspapers, on-line news resources, and on other Web sites, like is the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics, which claims it is a “non-partisan, non-profit research group based in Washington, D.C. that tracks money in politics, and its effect on elections and public policy.....

Hannah’s SmithWatch blog picked up on more than $116,000 that was paid to Smith’s father, Neal, for payroll processing. She quoted the source as, which listed amounts paid to individuals and vendors for services during the election campaign.

Hannah admits she is keeping an eye on Smith; she voted for his opponent, Scott Kleeb. Michaelis blogs at New Nebraska Network, generally on the Democratic side .... However, even the information from can be skewed, depending on the blog site.

The expenditures listed for Smith were totals, with no additional comments, memos or disclosures. Hannah and Michaelis picked up on the disclosure posting the totals to their blogs and other blogs picked up Hannah’s posting.

Smith supporters were quick to challenge the disclosures, and Smith detractors praised Hannah for telling the story....

Hannah blogged shortly after that other FEC documents showed the salaries listed in order...The salaries paid from the amount given to Neal Smith equaled the amount paid out to Smith’s employees as wages.

Although some bloggers are fielding comments that Neal Smith was paid that amount, he did not receive the money as a salary payment. And, the Smith’s did nothing illegal by paying salaries this way. Unusual, perhaps, but not illegal.
Although I was careful not to outright accuse Smith's campaign of any wrong-doing, I'll be the first to admit that I probably still overreacted to the underlying story. I've also expressed my regrets to the author of SmithWatch for helping to put her in a tough situation where she continues to be held responsible for little more than relaying to NNN and to AmericaBlog what had already reported.

We're the ones who ran with the story and put it in the headlines, but she was left holding the bag. And, it was she who - the very next day - did the follow-up on the story that largely clarified the situation. Through it all, she never complained or attempted to blame anyone else for the confusion even though she would have been well-justified in doing so. For that, I can't possibly commend SmithWatch highly enough.

Still, I'm not going to apologize for NNN's original response. Recognizing that there are very obvious limitations on this site's resources - and that blogging/citizen journalism is a different medium with separate standards and expectations from its counterparts in the traditional media - I trust most readers would agree.

The New Nebraska Network asked a question - Did Adrian Smith's Family Cash-In on [the] 2006 Campaign? Thanks to SmithWatch, we have since received an answer that was immediately reported. The situation may not have been so suspect as it first appeared, but it remains disturbing that the press would turn a blind eye to these suspicions - or use them to undermine bloggers' credibility - rather than analyzing all the very legitimate issues and potential for impropriety raised by Adrian Smith's campaign's activities.

Payments made to a candidate's family members in such massive sums - more than $140,000 - damn well do deserve to be brought to light. Creative and still-unexplained accounting practices by politicians and their campaigns also demand investigation and disclosure to the public. Yet, it's unlikely that there would have been any sort of scrutiny whatsoever were it not for Nebraska bloggers.

This may not be our finest moment, but it's absolute proof of just how much of a need there is for the independent and progressive voices we provide that are otherwise so lacking in our state. The media won't do their job, and it's our democracy that has paid the price. So, here we are doing what we can to pick up their slack.

Our methods are somewhat different. Our motives are a hell lot more clear. And - damn it - we're not going anywhere. Deal with it.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Republican Leader Defends Hagel By Denouncing GOP

by Kyle Michaelis
The following Letter to the Editor appeared in the Omaha World-Herald earlier this week:
U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel is honest enough to publicly state what he believes, and he is one of very few Republicans who will do so....

While I do not always agreee with Sen. Hagel, I will support him because I am comforted by his virtue, I believe in his character and I trust in his leadership.

So, thank you, Sen. Hagel, for your fortitude and willingness to speak out. I wish there were more Republicans in Congress with your courage.

Pat Dorwart, Sidney, Neb.
Republican National Committeewoman, 1992-2004
Take Dorwart's comments on Chuck Hagel for what you will, but it's hard to deny that so established a leader within the Nebraska Republican Party expressing such open disdain and disappointment in her own party's leadership should send a powerful message to Nebraska voters.

In particular, this should force people to take a good hard look at our Republican Congressmen - Jeff Fortenberry, Lee Terry, and Adrian Smith. Each of them fails Dorwart's tests of courage, character, and leadership - proving time and again that they truly are the Timid Trio.

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Nelson and Hagel 'Walk the Walk' on the Iraq War

by Kyle Michaelis
Dave Sund of the UNO College Democrats' blog - and a frequent contributor at Daily Kos - has put together two excellent reports on the deciding votes cast by Nebraska Senators Ben Nelson (D) and Chuck Hagel (R) in Tuesday's 50-48 showdown over keeping an Iraq War withdrawal date attached to the latest Appropriations Bill. As much as I love the sound of my own typing, I'm happy to let Dave tell you the rest since he's already done such a good job with the story. Definitely check out both of the above links.

But, please be sure to come back to the New Nebraska Network for our next big report on State Sen. Kent Rogert's inexplicable fondness for Nickelback and Poison - the white-trash poet of my generation and the shame of 80s hair bands, respectively.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Little Bit of Fun With Ben Nelson

by Kyle Michaelis
In my lifetime, I can't say that I ever expected that I might one day see a headline reading "Sen. Ben Nelson: Crazy Stones Fan." Yes, the "Stones" in question are none other than The Rolling Stones - those ageless rock gods who might be the only thing other than cockroaches to survive the next Ice Age.

Ben Nelson a Stones fan? The same Ben Nelson who sings indescribably catchy country songs about his love for Western Nebraska? The same Ben Nelson whose musical choice I was forced to defend last October when he told the Lincoln Journal-Star he "likes Sousa marches"? THAT Ben Nelson listens to the Rolling Stones?

Well, that's what we're supposed to believe if the Washington Post's headline writers and behind-the-scenes political blogger know what they're talking about.

The Post's The Sleuth "reports":
Just how big and crazy a Rolling Stones fan is Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)? So big and crazy... that he's linking to the legendary rock band's European tour schedule on his official Senate web site.

The Benator, as his staff calls him, has one of the more fun-for-Congress Web sites....It has a "Benformation" news ticker, where you can plan your Summer trip to the nation's stinking hot capital. Or learn about the "Budget Vote-O-Rama" on the Senate floor. Or... keep up to date with the Stones' concert schedule.

The Benator's ticker provides a hyperlink to the official Rolling Stones Web site touting its "A Bigger Bang" summer tour through Europe....

Nelson's site also features a 10-second riff off Keith Richards's acoustic lead-in to the Stones' hit song "Factory Girl" off the band's 1968 "Beggars Banquet" album....

Nelson...manage[d] to score tickets to the Stones' first show in Omaha in close to 40 years last January. (Yes, it was Nelson's first live Stones' concert; He's not exactly a live-music kinda guy.)
To think, it's not even April Fools Day yet. Sadly, it seems Nelson's website has been rearranged since last week, when the above article was published, and I've been unable to find any trace of the Stones' tour schedule or Keith's "acoustic lead-in." The always handy "Benformation" does, however, mention its being featured in the Washington Post - with a link - so at least some remnant remains of whatever ridiculousness previously occupied the page.

I'm just sorry I missed it. Not the biggest Stones fan - more of a Who man myself. But, I'm glad Nelson's staff has found such creative ways to amuse themselves, and the New Nebraska Network salutes the Benator's efforts to broaden his musical horizons.

Skip the Zeppelin, check out some Bowie, and I think this could be the start of something beautiful.

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Ask Senators Nelson and Hagel to Embrace Online Reporting

by Kyle Michaelis
The Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act (S.223) has been introduced in the Senate by a bipartisan coalition led by Russ Feingold (WI) and including such Senators as John Kerry (MA), Barack Obama (IL), Dianne Feinstein (CA), John McCain (AZ), and Ken Salazar (CO). The Sunlight Foundation explains this worthy and long-overdue reform of the U.S. Senate's rules for Campaign Finance reporting:
Before an election, money pours into the coffer of candidates. And because of online reporting, the press, citizens and you can see which lobby groups are trying hardest to buy their lawmakers' favor...except if the candidate is running for the Senate.

Election rules require every candidate for the House of Representatives and the Presidency to file finance reports online with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Voters can immediately see which interest groups are supporting each candidate.

Yet despite nearly seven years of grassroots efforts, the Senate has refused to subject itself to the same rule. Senators file their campaign finance reports on paper, and then taxpayers pay a quarter of a million dollars for those paper results to be entered into a computer, which is then shared with the public months after the contributions are made and weeks after they are filed.

Members of the public go into the voting booth not knowing who has paid for the campaigns of the people for whom they are voting. In 2004, voters entered the voting booth while $53 million in campaign contributions were still unreported.

It's time to bring some transparency to the Senate. Please tell your Senators that you want them to support S. 223 that would require FEC reports to be filed online.
The bill is now in the Committee on Rules and Administration of which Sen. Ben Nelson and Sen. Chuck Hagel are both members. According to the Sunlight Foundation, it is important that the bill leaves committee without amendments or it will be killed.

Nelson, Hagel, and the entire U.S. Senate should not fear accountability and citizen oversight. Nor should they feel entitled to play by different rules than the U.S. House and Presidential candidates. Online campaign finance reporting has been a positive step for our democracy, giving citizens and sites such as this the power to exercise an important check on the corrupting influence of money in politics.

Please sign the Sunlight Foundation's online petition, and contact Senators Nelson and Hagel to ask that they support S.223 - as is - on behalf of the people of Nebraska, itself home to one of the best and most progressive campaign finance systems in the country.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Chuck Hagel's Impressive Performance

by Kyle Michaelis
Sen. Chuck Hagel was very impressive in his talk show-mode on ABC's "This Week" yesterday. In a 15-minute discussion, Hagel played up his maverick persona to the hilt - calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez's resignation, mocking the Bush Administration's attempts to restrict Congressional investigation, and even celebrating the newfound Congressional oversight of the Iraq War - breaking with four years of Republican complicity that paved the way for this current international crisis of our own creation.

Of course, readers of this site know to take what Hagel says with a grain of salt because he so rarely backs it up with action. But, after watching Hagel's most recent Sunday morning performance, I think we could probably all use a little more sodium in our diets. Whatever his motivations, the man has a way of saying things that need to be said, and that's a rare commodity on Capitol Hill.

Omaha World-Herald and Internet headlines have focused on Hagel's brief mention of impeachment as Congress' ultimate recourse to a President who believes himself beyond accountability, but what he said was really no more than a reiteration of comments made to Esquire magazine in a profile earlier this month. Hagel has not and will not advocate impeachment - he's just willing to say "the I word" with a Republican President in office.

To be honest, I was more amused and more impressed by Hagel's telling the Bush Administration that they "should read the Constitution" before claiming Congress has no role overseeing the war in Iraq. Word that Hagel is working on a bipartisan plan for the war with Virginia Senator Jim Webb also seemed imminently more newsworthy - even if the details were not yet available.

When pressed, Hagel also touched on his infamous non-announcement of two weeks ago. On that front, he did a pretty good job of shifting the blame to the national press for overhyping what was supposed to be a simple statement to the people of Nebraska about his plans for 2008. Of course, I don't buy that story for a second, but it probably sounded like a plausible enough explanation to viewers at home who aren't aware of Hagel's addiction to the spotlight.

So, Chuck Hagel is still very good at being Chuck Hagel. He puts on a mean Sunday morning performance - speaking with forthrightness and clarity one really can't help but appreciate.

Does it serve his presidential ambitions? Does he back it up the other 6 days of the week? Am I sometimes forced to ask myself 'what the hell is this guy thinking?' All valid questions, but none of them change the fact that, even if Hagel is a total phoney, he's our phoney. And - on a certain level - his feigned independence and out-sized ego probably positions him as the quintessential Nebraska politician.

For whatever that's worth.

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Four Years in Iraq Lamented By Hundreds at Local Peace Rally

by Kyle Michaelis
Saturday, March 17th - Coalition for Peace - Downtown Lincoln, NE
Theme: "Listen to the People Now"

If you're looking for proof that there are Nebraskans who give a damn, take heart from the above video. One thing you won't see, however, is the extent to which that afternoon's speakers went out of their way to express support and solidarity with our men and women serving in the U.S. military.

I am an ill fit for this sort of activism. It's not my scene - it's just not who I am. But, I have profoundest respect for those who are better able to keep alive this hope for a world without war.

These are good people - good Nebraskans - with whom I am proud to stand. Even if I cannot join in their slogans and rallying cries, I am inspired by their passion and thankful for their reminder that peace might just be possible.

For variation on a similar theme when the Iraq war was just a bad idea (Oct. '02), allow me to recommend the following article from my pre-blogging days - Kyle Michaelis: Get Off the Bus.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Behind the Headlines: The Death Penalty Debate

by Kyle Michaelis
Last week saw the first real debate of Nebraska's death penalty on the floor of the legislature in almost 20 years. The crucial vote to move Sen. Ernie Chambers' repeal of the death penalty (LB 476) out of the first round of debate failed by a single vote, 24 For to 25 Against. As the Omaha World-Herald highlighted in its coverage, that deciding vote was cast by State Sen. Arnie Stuthman of Platte Center, who initially did not register a vote in hopes that his vote "would not be needed."

Of course, moving the bill to the next round of debate would not by any means have assured its ultimate passage. But, the people of Nebraska seem to have been genuinely surprised by the level of support that was demonstrated for repealing Nebraska's death penalty. The fact that the vote was so close assures that the issue will be raised again, likely in the 2008 session. There has been talk of less drastic restrictions on the death penalty being brought to the floor this year to capitalize on the apparent momentum behind outright repeal, but one wonders if Chambers wouldn't stand in the way of such proposals to force a prolonged public debate and a final showdown next year on the ultimate issue of capital punishment.

Then again, at this point last year, the people of Nebraska were still completely in the dark about Chambers' controversial plan to divide Omaha Public Schools into three racially-distinct school districts, so there's really no knowing what card the legendary firebrand might have up his T-shirt's metaphorical sleeves.

From everything I've seen and read, the debate of LB 476 was a very honest, impassioned, and - for some Senators - an understandably painful demonstration of democracy in action. Having personally wrestled with the death penalty in a very abstract way for years, I do not envy anyone having to make a choice influenced by so many competing emotions raising such fundamental questions of who we are as a people and what we stand for as a society. But it's the decisions such as this that are the true test of elected office - decisions from which a politician cannot hide before the voters, before the judgment of future generations, and before the dictates of his or her own conscience.

Although I'm not philosophically opposed to capital punishment, there is no overcoming the mountains of evidence of economic disparity, racial bias, and outright injustice in its actual application. Although I can not say that the people and the state have no right to execute the most heinous of criminals, this is so great a power that it brings shame upon us all in its current conception. Until we can absolutely avoid the proven error and inequality that makes such mockery of our justice system, we do not deserve and should not exercise this right to kill.

So, I applaud Chambers and the other 23 Senators who voted for repeal of capital punishment. And, I call on readers to join the Lincoln Journal-Star and the New Nebraska Network - amongst others - in demanding that those Senators who succeeded in defending the status quo wake up to the inexcusable reality of the death penalty in practice. The right to execute does not overcome our higher responsibilities to justice and to our own humanity that cannot be reconciled with our current system.

In particular, I would recommend that constituents of Tony Fulton (LD 29), Russ Karpisek (LD 32), Arnie Stuthman (LD 22), and Tom White (LD 8) contact their State Senator and ask that he reconsider his position. As the World-Herald reported of Sen. White, his father signed the 1994 death warrant for Harold "Walking Willy" Otey, and the murderer of his wife's brother-in-law 27 years ago remains on death row in Nevada. But, it's the following connection that should be all the convincing White needs to change his vote:
White's brother is a public defender in Cook County, Ill. In Illinois, more than 50 people were released from death row after DNA tests showed their innocence.
A system fraught with that much error is a broken system that can not be allowed to continue. And, anyone who thinks these mistakes are confined to Illinois has another thing coming.

This vote is over, but the debate has just begun. Get out there and be heard. Sure, there's an almost certain veto by Gov. Dave Heineman looming that would require an unlikely 30 votes to override. Such veto might even play to Heineman's advantage with many voters.

But, the politics of the issue are secondary to the principles for which we must stand. At last, on this issue of life and death, let us find the strength to be true to our better selves.

As published by the Lincoln Journal-Star and

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Announcing: NNN Tagging

by Kyle Michaelis
It's going to be a bit of a long-term project, but the last month's worth of articles at the New Nebraska Network have been marked with a tag/"label" (see below). This allows readers to conveniently browse past articles by topic rather than relying on our imperfect search feature or daring to read through the full archives month-by-month (even I get scared by that much text).

Time-willing, I hope to have NNN's more than two years' worth of material updated to take advantage of this new feature within the next couple of weeks. Please be patient. Considering the tediousness of this particular project, I'm darn well counting on readers finding this a useful change that will improve their NNN experience.

Any suggestions or words of encouragement are certainly welcome as comments to this post.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Organized Labor Must Fight Back Against 'Pro-Business' Agenda

by Kyle Michaelis
Following up on my earlier post, today's Omaha World-Herald published a great letter to the editor challenging all the cheerleading about Nebraska's newfound ranking in the Top 10 pro-business states:
According to the Pollina Corporate Real Estate Inc. rankings, Nebraska is now in the top 10 of pro-business states.

Pollina directs businesses to the cheapest places to operate. How sad it is to be ranked with Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, Alabama and Georgia. Evidently, our business leaders and the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry believe low wages will attract businesses to our state.

This state needs high-paying jobs that will reduce the taxes for all residents. Readers should note that the Pollina study, which compares states based on 29 facts, excludes property taxes. How convenient.

I was among the labor leaders who supported the 2005 Nebraska Advantage Act, which offers a variety of tax credits, exemptions and refunds to encourage businesses to expand or locate in Nebraska. I was assured that the intent was to attract good jobs to Nebraska. It looks like we now need to makes some changes in that law.

Jim Sheard, Papillion
I'm glad Sheard was willing to take-on the prevailing, misguided notion that whatever benefits corporations must be a plus for Nebraska's economy. That just isn't the case, and low wages are a legitimate example of one place where the people's agenda is very, very different from the agenda of the business community.

The fact that the Nebraska Advantage Act is credited with our rising the ranks of pro-business states should be cause for suspicion. This seems to suggest the state's job incentives carry some imbalance in the corporations' favor - some angle that they're completely able and only to happy to exploit. Of course, the harm of these programs is no more firmly established than their supposed benefits, but there's already a reasonable inference to be made that Nebraska taxpayers are getting screwed.

And, more alarming than just the fact of Nebraska's pro-business ranking is the purpose to which it's being used in the Nebraska press. I'd previously mentioned Heineman using it to bolster his plans to end the estate tax on Nebraska's wealthiest citizens and to focus massive tax cuts on the top income bracket. But, as revealed in the subtext of the Lincoln Journal-Star's Tuesday coverage, that's only the beginning of how these numbers are being used against the interests of working families and organized labor:
Nebraska has jumped into the top 10 pro-businesss states....

Nebraska...does well because it is a right-to-work state, which means unions represent bargaining units of people who can't be required to join the union....
For those in the know about what's going on in the Nebraska Legislature, that right there is an interesting justification for Nebraska's pro-business ranking because it's being directly challenged by State Sen. Don Preister's LB57. This legislation would provide for Fair Share representation in which non-Union members would be expected to pay for some of the costs of a Union's collective bargaining efforts that they currently benefit from without contributing a dime.

The business community carefully selected its "Right-to-Work" terminology, but it's quite misleading. Rather than Fair Share vs. Right-to-Work, the real debate here is between Fair Share and a Free Ride.

LB57 breezed through Committee but has been held-up by the full Legislature. There's been some suggestion that it won't make it any further this session. But, this is a change organized labor has been seeking for a long time, and they can't stay quiet on it if it's to have any realistic chance at passage.

Heineman and business leaders are already using this conveniently-timed pro-business ranking to undermine LB57, and organized labor has to fight back. My suggestion - admit that LB57 might hurt our standing with corporations but only because it restores some much-needed balance and benefit to the working men and women who make Nebraska great.

That's a debate I want to see. That's a debate we can win.

In other words, let's tell Heineman, Pollina, and the Chamber of Commerce - on behalf of Nebraska's working families - to take this Top 10 ranking and shove it!

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Nebraska Joins Pro-Business 'Top 10' - Really Something to Celebrate?

by Kyle Michaelis
In a Monday news conference that also served as an advertisement for Gov. Dave Heineman's tax-cut agenda, Heineman was joined over the phone by Ronald Pollina, a corporate site selection consultant also responsible for compiling the annual, self-titled list of the "Pollina Corporate Top 10 Pro-Business States." Together they announced that, for the first time ever, Nebraska had cracked Pollina's Top 10.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Nebraska's new business tax incentives program has pushed the state into the No. 10 ranking of pro-business states, Gov. Dave Heineman announced Monday....

But he said the new ranking doesn't reduce the need for the Legislature to pass tax cuts to encourage economic growth....

"I still think we have work to do, obviously, on the income tax side," Heineman said.

The 2007 Pollina list was unveiled Monday at the International Economic Development Council in Arlington, Va. Nebraska had ranked 17th last year and 18th the two previous years. The report is in its fourth year....

Pollina said the state could rank even higher if income and sales taxes were reduced. Nebraska ranked 34th on corporate taxes and 32nd on individual income taxes. Pollina said his study does not look at property taxes as a separate category.
I am by no means a reactionary in opposition to all things corporate. But, that said, I'm not ready to join in Heineman's hopeful celebration that Nebraska might soon be viewed as the promised land for big business.

I don't doubt that corporations can be a strong engine for economic progress that can ultimately lead to job creation and higher incomes. But, that's a long ways from saying what's good for the corporations is automatically good for the people of Nebraska. It's this distinction that rankings fail to grasp and that a politician like Heineman refuses to acknowledge.

It's pretty simple really - corporations are not people, and it's the people to whom Heineman should owe his allegiance. If that were the case, though, there are far better indicators in terms of employment, wages, and cost of living that say a lot more about how people are actually doing than some overhyped survey of the business climate.

Of course, on some level, all these roads do lead together, but our priorities as a state are being dictated by a path far removed from that walked by the common man. To celebrate the effect of Nebraska's corporate tax incentives without considering the resulting loss of revenue and services - not to mention the shifting of the tax burden onto real people, often in the form of property taxes for which Pollina takes no account - is to selectively blind ones self to our economic reality.

Again, corporations are not people, and its the peoples' interests that should predominate, if not be a democracy's sole concern. That isn't to say that corporations desrve no consideration but only to the extent that they truly serve - and can be shown to serve - the common good.

Nebraska's ranking as the 10th most pro-businesss state doesn't even come close to clearing this most basic hurdle. In fact, in many ways, being pro-business can be practically defined as being anti-people and anti-democratic.

Corporations may play an essential role in the modern economy, but government should not be made to serve their bottom line. The work of government cannot be stated purely in terms of dollars and cents. Nor can any true plan for economic development be grounded in tax incentives that remain unproven but as evidence of the Chamber of Commerce's influence in the legislature.

As with Heineman's tax plan, the true story here is one of priorities. And, whether its tax giveaways for corporations or targeting the bulk of a tax cut towards the state's highest income bracket, there is ridiculously little concern for doing what's best for the average Nebraska family or for the people as a whole.

So, we're now in the top 10 pro-business states. That can be a good thing. That can have some positive effects. But, don't forget that there have been plenty of trade-offs along the way. And, don't assume they've been worth it just because they're not reported.

Heineman may be right to celebrate. He's been fairly upfront about his agenda favoring corporations and the wealthy, and this shows he's got at least someone convinced that progress is underway. But, the progress of Heineman's agenda has little in common with progress in general. In fact, they might have nothing in common at all.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Lee Terry & Adrian Smith Play 'CHICKEN' With Nebraska's Future

by Kyle Michaelis
After 12 years of politically-motivated budget chaos - as the Republican Congress literally went mad with earmarking thinking it could buy its way to a permanent majority with taxpayer dollars - the new Democratic Congress is keeping its word to the American people by taking on earmark reform. One of the chief provisions of these overdue reforms is a requirement that Congressional Representatives register their earmarks and certify whether they have any financial interest in their funding.

While clarification has been sought by both Democrats and Republicans on what this "financial interest" might entail, it's disturbing but not at all surprising that the Republicans should be using this momentary uncertainty to play partisan games. While the American public finally sees Democratic-led reforms for which its been clamoring for years, Republicans are doing everything they can to undermine these efforts and to justify their years of inexcusable inaction.

As a Nebraskan who believes in reform, it is particularly embarrassing and insulting that two of our Republican Congressmen are leading the way in their party's disingenuous assaults on common sense and fiscal discipline. Even worse, though, is the fact that 2nd District Rep. Lee Terry and 3rd District Rep. Adrian Smith are both sacrificing their constituents' interests to further their partisan agenda.

The Hill reports:
Republican legislative directors frantically exchanged e-mails last week as they sought guidance over a rule stipulating what a “financial interest” in an earmark was. Earmarks requests had to be filed by last Friday.

At least three members have decided against filing their earmarks altogether because of lack of clarity on the rules, and they signed a letter to Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) articulating their position.

One of them, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), said yesterday that he has decided against filing any earmarks because of the “ethical uncertainty of any earmark defining personal financial interest.”

For example, said Terry, current language could define a provision for sewer improvement as an earmark if it was done on property near the member’s home. Current rules could classify that as personal gain on a lawmaker’s property if the values increase as a result of better sewer management.

“There is so much uncertainty no matter how pure and emeritus an earmark may be,” Terry said.

Freshman Reps. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) and Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) also have opted not to file earmarks for fear of ethical pitfalls....

A Democratic aide countered, “Republicans are void of ideas, and they are nit-picking.”
This is much worse than nit-picking. This is bullshit - plain and simple. Terry and Smith should be ashamed of themselves for playing these sorts of games, and Nebraska voters should be outraged.

The Omaha World-Herald provides a little more perspective into Terry's and Smith's partisan publicity stunt:
Millions of federal dollars might be funneled to anti-drug programs, research facilities, military operations and other Nebraska projects under a wish list drawn up by Rep. Lee Terry - but those budget "earmarks" are in limbo.

Wrangling between Republicans and Democrats is threatening to keep the items out of spending bills as they pass through the House. Terry did not submit his list of earmark requests by a Friday deadline because of the dispute.

If that dispute is resolved, the Nebraska Republican again will seek money - $6 million this time - for ongoing efforts to separate Omaha's storm water and sanitation sewers. Combined sewers in older parts of the city, primarily north Omaha, mean that heavy rains can push sewage into people's basements.....

Terry said he would like to continue his annual requests for federal funding for Omaha's sewer projects, but that might be construed as affecting his city property tax bill. Does that constitute a financial interest?

Terry said he couldn't take the risk of submitting his request without clarification of the rules. Democrats are expected to issue additional guidelines this week and could extend the deadline to submit requests.....

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., didn't submit any requests, either. A spokesman said Smith did not offer a list because the rules confusion cut short the process.
This is just another instance where it's become clear that Nebraska does not have representation in the House. What we have are Republican hatchetmen who - time and again - put their party's interests before their constituents'.

Does Terry really believe that people are stupid enough to fall for his false concern about having a personal interest in improvements to Omaha's sewers? That's a very fitting example because Terry's argument smells funny and is generally full of crap.

Somehow I bet Terry would be a lot less likely to play this sort of game if it were his basement filling up with raw sewage.

Even taking Terry's lie for what it's worth, there's a whole list of important projects for which Terry has also risked losing funding just to take a cheap shot at Democratic reforms. I would love to know what bad faith financial interest Terry would claim in $14 million that was supposed to be earmarked for the University of Nebraska Medical Center to study vaccines for respiratory infections, to study improvements to battlefield medical equipment, and to provide lung cancer screenings for low income populations.

According to the World-Herald, here are some other funding requests Terry may have just sacrificed:
• $413,500 for Nebraska State Patrol equipment and training for anti-methamphetamine operations

• $800,000 for Heartland Family Nebraska to help establish a methamphetamine treatment program in Nebraska modeled after a successful one started in Los Angeles

• $4 million for the University of Nebraska-Omaha to fund a joint project with the Peter Kiewit Institute for research into improving and accelerating military decision-making

• $2.5 million for Creighton University's Center for Bioterrorism Response for clinical research into biological agents

• $16.952 million for a 97th Intelligence Squadron facility at Offutt Air Force Base

• $23 million for a 338th Combat Training Squadron facility at Offutt Air Force Base
Terry has just tied Omaha's health and safety to the railroad tracks - jeopardizing tens of millions of dollars, not to mention soldiers' well-being, the struggle against meth, and even the war on terror - to make a cheap political point that will only cost Nebraska in the long run.

With Terry willing to play this sort of game with almost $50 million worth of funding targeted for military and counter-terrorism purposes, it's also a very real possibility that he's singled out Omaha for immense budget cuts and loss of its traditional role in national security.

After all, if Omaha's own Congressman doesn't see fit to prioritize these programs - not to mention the thousands of jobs they bring into the community - then that sounds like a pretty damn good place to start making cuts.

As for Adrian Smith, I assume he's just following Terry's lead on this one - straight into political oblivion if the Third District's voters have any sense in the next election.

Both Terry and Smith have made nonsense arguments to justify their own shameless partisanship and outright ineptitude. They have AGAIN shown their true colors - not only by making a mockery of Democratic attempts at reform but also by risking projects and funding that their home districts desperately need in the process.

Making foolish and short-sighted political calculations like that, is it any wonder that Nebraska is the 52nd State in terms of Congressional influence? With two of Nebraska's three Congressman two of the three Congressman nationwide who were stupid enough to make this partisan gambit, you have to assume that, if we can get any lower, we'll be there shortly.

Nebraska - prepare for the worst. With Lee Terry and Adrian Smith in Congress, we've probably earned it.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

BIG SURPRISE - Jeff Fortenberry Supports Nelnet's $300 Million Swindle

by Kyle Michaelis
There was a bit of a delay in processing, but this March 9th Lincoln Journal-Star article should be of interest to anyone who believes corporations (and the politicians who protect them) should be held accountable for committing fraud against the American taxpayer:
The U.S. Department of Education is under fire from members of Congress for its decision to allow Lincoln student loan company Nelnet to keep $278 million in profits earned from a disputed loan subsidy.

Two different groups in Congress sent letters this week to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings asking her to better explain the department’s January settlement with Nelnet. One group of seven Republican and three Democrats called for Spellings to consider rescinding the deal.

The settlement allowed Nelnet to keep the about $278 million it earned from a government subsidy that guaranteed a 9.5 percent return on certain loans, even though the department’s Inspector General recommended that Nelnet pay back most of the money....

The first letter to Spellings, dated Monday, from seven Republicans and three Democrats called the settlement “irresponsible” and said it is setting precedent that “will encourage further abuse by lenders in the Federal Family Education Loan program”....

None of Nebraska’s three representatives signed either letter.

In the last election cycle, Nelnet was First District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s biggest financial contributor, at $26,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Fortenberry, a Lincoln Republican, said the decision on the Nelnet case was Spellings’ to make, not Congress’s.

“However, the congressman respects the concerns of members of Congress and welcomes any additional information regarding the secretary’s decision-making process,” Fortenberry spokesman Josh Moenning said.

The two letters asking asking that both the Dept. of Education and Nelnet actually be held accountable to the American taxpayer can be read here:
10 Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee

Bipartisan group of 7 Republican and 3 Democratic Representatives

The decision "was Spellings' to make" - can you believe that is Jeff Fortenberry's response? He "respects the concerns" of those who actually think Congress has a role in holding American corporations accountable when they rip-off almost $300 million from taxpayers, but he personally thinks Nelnet should get away with it scot-free.

I suppose that shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering that Nelnet was the largest contributor to his 2006 campaign and the largest contributor to the House Republicans' Campaign Committee. No wonder that Fortenberry was named to the Campus Progress Hall of Shame for being such a lackey for student lenders against students' interests.

For some perspective, Nelnet directly contributed $26,000 to Fortenbery's campaign. For that investment, they seem to have bought his complicity to their walking away with $278 million of the American people's money. That's a return of more than $10,000 for every dollar spent - though, of course, Fortenberry's was only one voice of the many Nelnet tried to buy in the last election.

A small price to pay and probably a sound investment when you've got politicians like Fortenberry eager to play along.

Then again, none of Nebraka's Republican Representatives had the decency to stand up for enforcement of the law and fiscal discipline by asking that Nelnet be held accountable. And, they never will - at least, not until they themselves are reminded that they are accountable not to the Tom DeLays, George Bush's, and Nelnets of the world but to the voters and taxpayers of Nebraska, who have just been screwed royally on the Timid Trio's watch.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Lincoln-Area Invitation

by Kyle Michaelis
A young activist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln asked NNN to share the following invitation with readers, and we are - of course - happy to oblige. There are a lot of events of this sort all over the state that it would be great to have listed in a single, comprehensive location. Someone really should get on top of that, don't you think?

Take it away, Hannah......

Hannah Ledford on
"Invisible Children" and the Crisis in Uganda

You might find it odd that the following is being posted on a left leaning, Nebraska-specific blog. The following post does not belong here. The fact that children are being slaughtered in Northern Uganda has virtually no impact on the good people of Nebraska. In addition, this post is about human rights violations currently taking place and while this is clearly a political issue, it is a completely non-partisan issue. However, you are able to help the people of Northern Uganda, and that should prompt you to read further.

Despite its brutality, few outside of Uganda have acknowledged the country’s twenty year war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. In 1986, the LRA began a ruthless campaign to overthrow the government of Uganda. The LRA has been ultimately unsuccessful. However, the level of pain, suffering and fear felt by the Ugandan people (especially children) as a result of this rebellion, has been virtually unparalleled. More information can be found here.

In 2003, three independent filmmakers traveled to Uganda to document the war. They made a documentary from their footage and proceeded to begin a non-profit organization, the goal of which is to raise awareness for Uganda in the United States, and create jobs and further education in Northern Uganda.

On March 20th and 21st. Representatives from the Invisible Children Organization will be at the Ross Media Arts Center at 7:00pm as part of their Second Annual National Tour. They will be showing their documentary and having a Q&A session afterward. The representatives will also be giving the audience information as to how they can become involved and make a difference in this situation.

For more information, please contact Hannah Ledford ( or Karen Philabaun (

A number of other screenings wil be held in Lincoln over the next week. For a complete listing, go to

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Chuck Hagel's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

by Kyle Michaelis
It's safe to say that Sen. Chuck Hagel had a tough week. After falling on his face with Monday's major announcement of nothing and insulting a national conference of professional firefighters on Wednesday, he still couldn't catch a break when Attorney General Jon Bruning upstaged him on Thursday just by making an actual announcement regarding his own 2008 plans.

While kissing Hagel's ring with obligatory promises not to challenge Hagel if he runs for reelection, Bruning's announcement of an exploratory committee for a Senate campaign was a definite shove - attempting to push Hagel into making a decision and to position Bruning as the frontrunner of those waiting in the wings. Bruning also made clear that he won't necessarily let Hagel control the clock if he waits too long before making up his mind.

The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
Bruning acknowledged he might have reservations about stepping aside at the last moment if Hagel waits until his filing deadline next Feb. 15.

One course available to Hagel is to pursue the GOP presidential nomination and still have the option of meeting the Senate filing deadline if he does not fare well in a front-loaded series of presidential caucuses and primaries that peak on Feb. 5.

Would Bruning still stay out if Hagel waited that long?

“I don’t know if I can answer that,” the attorney general said. But, he said, he’s sure Hagel will make his decision about a Senate race well before that.

That, my friends, is called chomping at the bit.

Meanwhile, the fun continues at Chuck Hagel's expense at Hotline. First, they compiled some of the choicest quotes responding to Hagel's non-announcement:
FNC's Hume: "It takes a courageous man to decide he's undecided" ("Special Report," 3/12).

MSNBC's Carlson: "Hagel looks like he just went bankrupt and just woke up at the same time" ("Tucker," 3/12).

Washington Post's Milbank: "This is the political equivalent of Geraldo opening Al Capone's vault" ("Countdown," MSNBC, 3/12).

CNN's Bash: "It was the political version of kicking the can" ("Situation Room," 3/12).

Then, even more fun, Hotline sent out an e-mail sharing the proposals they'd received for new definitions of the term "pulling a Hagel" - an insult that has apparently been all the rage with Capitol Hill Republicans:
We asked you to define "Hagel." You said:

(1)to cause a hoopla that deserves neither "hoops" nor "las";

(2)to negotiate with one's own ego or to "haggle" internally;

(3)to heavily arouse then abandon ("I had a date last night, but she Hageled");

(4)to sustain life on weekend show green room food;

(5)to downward spiral into insignificance, like a toilet flush ("That giant sucking sound? That's Hageling");

(6)to light a firecracker with no gun powder;

(7)to know everything about everything, but not tell anyone anything;

(8)"in Danish Hagl means small balls of ice falling from the clouds";

(9)to turn from media darling to media punching bag so fast Alberto Gonzales is saying, "Glad I'm not him";

(10)to invite people to your home for a feast and then serve only corn waffles;

(11)to submit NCAA brackets anonymously to avoid publicly deciding;

(12)when an individual with a speech impediment says "hey girl";

(13)to simultaneously be deleted from Russert and Broder's speed dials; and

(14)"I'm writing today to announce my family and I will make a decision on what Hagel means later this year."
Those are pretty damn priceless. I can't completely explain it, but - personally - I think the "corn waffles" (#10) do the best job of capturing what Chuck Hagel is really all about.

If any clever NNN readers want to take their own crack at defining "Hagel", this is the place. Shoot me an e-mail or submit a comment, and I'll happily post the best of them on our frontpage.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Chris Beutler: The NNN Interview - Part II

by Kyle Michaelis
Continuing from Tuesday's installment, here is the second half of the New Nebraska Network's interview with long-time State Senator and 2007 Lincoln mayoral candidate Chris Beutler.

For readers outside Nebraska's capital city, Beutler here proves ready and willing to look beyond Lincoln's borders - speaking about his vision for a greater Omaha-Lincoln metropolitan area, as well as his two decades of leadership in the state legislature.

Michaelis: On the economic development front, Lincoln has been pretty slow in developing towards Omaha along the I-80 corridor even though so much untapped potential for this community and for the entire state seems to lie in that 45 to 55 mile expanse. Instead, most residential and economic development has been to the south, as if Lincoln were almost scared of the future and of losing its individual identity. In your vision, how closely tied are the futures of Lincoln and Omaha?
Beutler: Well, I think we need to be logical about what’s happening. And, the fact of the matter is that Lincoln and Omaha in that corridor with Council Bluffs are all developing into one large, metropolitan area. That’s the way the future will be. And, the question is do we acknowledge that and do those things that create the best environment and the best relationships and the best planning? Or, do we assume that we’re not all together in this but going our separate ways? That’s kind of a fundamentally different way of looking at the area.

But, I believe [in] developing the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, developing the University of Nebraska at Omaha, working together with Omaha. Not becoming like Omaha - we can still be very different on this west end of what will be in the future the metropolitan area - but it’s to our best interests to figure out how we can best work together with Omaha.
Do you foresee that relationship - if you were mayor, with the city of Omaha – as one of competition, cooperation, or kind of a friendly mix of both?
I kind of like your terminology – a “friendly mix of both.” Again, I don’t personally want Lincoln to become like Omaha, and I don’t think most people in Lincoln want to become just like Omaha. We want to develop our own destiny and have our own unique sense of place that’s separate and apart from Omaha. But…there are just so many kinds of cooperative relationships that can develop that we should look to because they’re to our economic best interests and our best interests altogether.

So, I would like us to develop a more flexible attitude with regard to Omaha and be more accepting of the possibilities of cooperation. And be a little less suspicious. Learn what we can from Omaha and teach them what they need to learn.
Now, I hope you don’t mind, I’d love to change gears just a little and talk about your experience in the Nebraska legislature and – hopefully - get your views on some of the major issues being faced this session. Having stepped away from state government after so many years of being right there at the heart of it all, how difficult has that been for you?
Well, I have to say, every once in a while, when I pick up the paper, there’s certainly something I’d like to get my two cents worth in on. But, I’ve turned my mind so completely to the future and to the problems at the local level that – honestly – I haven’t paid nearly as much attention to things as in prior days.

But, leadership in the city of Lincoln – good leadership in the city of Lincoln – requires that I need to pay attention to a number of the issues at the state level. So, I continue to do that – the issues that are most relevant to Lincoln and to municipal government. But, I’m trying to focus on the state issues that relate to local government and the local issues – and not get too far a field and misspend my time on things that I can no longer change.
And, of course, right now you have a campaign to win.
While running for mayor…you have been quite vocal with promises that you will NOT raise property taxes to balance the city’s budget. Do you believe the state should play any substantial role in providing property tax relief even though they are collected at the local level?
The state does need to play a very strong role in diminishing the burden of property taxes. I might start out by pointing out that has been the history of state government – in terms of shifting the overall state and local tax burden away from property taxes and more onto sales and income tax. If you look at the history of this state from the beginning of the modern tax system in the late 1960s when the sales and income and property tax all came into existence together for the first time, at that point in time about 60% of the total taxes spent were property taxes. Now, it’s down to a little over 40%.

So, over time – mainly through the vehicle of state aid to education but through other state aid programs and through budget limitations and tax levy limitations - even though people still find the property tax the most burdensome and even though we still have a ways to go, the legislature has been and must continue to help us shift away from property taxes.

At the legislative level, I think I voted – it’s hard to remember over 23 years – but I know that I voted almost 100% in favor of homestead exemptions, state aid to education, all those programs that go out to the reduction of property taxes.
The tax plan Gov. Dave Heineman has put forward – LB331 – would eliminate the estate tax and cut income taxes, targeting a majority of its benefits to those currently in Nebraska’s highest tax bracket. Do you feel very strongly one way or another as to how well Heineman’s plan would serve our state – let alone the city of Lincoln?
I don’t want to get involved because I don’t currently, now, have inside information – all the budget details and revenue details that were once available to me. But, I would just say this – I think, in the minds of most people, the property tax is still considered the most burdensome tax, and tax relief should continue to be focused towards property tax relief.
Sen. Beutler - as a life-long Nebraskan - I want to thank you for the 15 years of leadership and dedication you showed in the legislature on the issue of campaign finance reform. In particular, thank you for the important role you played in holding former Regent David Hergert accountable and eventually even seeing his impeachment for his intentional violation of the state’s laws last year. Also, last session you were finally able to overcome years of quite vigorous opposition to get some long overdue reforms to the campaign finance system enacted. Tell me - how confident are you in the system and its disclosure requirements as they currently stand?
Well, you’re asking very complex questions and good questions. The campaign finance situation is another one of those complex and tough situations that I’ve taken on because it was an area that needed leadership.

I think Nebraska has the best campaign finance law in the country. Now, having said that, you also have to acknowledge immediately that the United States Supreme Court has not yet loosened its views on free speech to the extent that would be required in order to get your arms all the way around the subject of campaigns. Right now, independent expenditures are allowed under the law and can not be prohibited by state law. So, even though our mechanism works well for campaign committees, it doesn’t preclude such things as independent committees doing their own thing independently and once again making the influence of money such that a fair fight doesn’t occur.

What we’re seeing in Nebraska is a ballooning of independent expenditures, and we’ll just have to wait and see whether the court allows us to deal with that.
Would you feel comfortable claiming campaign finance reform as your greatest legacy as a State Senator?
I don’t know if I would call it my greatest legacy, but I would say that I think it’s one of the most creative things I’ve done. It’s a unique system that’s looked at all the time nationally. Elements of it I think are being picked-up elsewhere. That we managed to politically get it in place somehow – I’m not sure how we were able to do that actually. [laughter]

But, it’s a unique system and it’s a very good system if we could just be allowed to get our arms around independent expenditures.
Getting back to your campaign for mayor in the time that we have left, longtime legislators often learn that their voting records prove quite the liability in seeking higher office. You’ve had to make choices that are easily taken out of context and spun for whatever purposes an opponent might imagine. How do you overcome these attacks?
I think – how can I put this – over a period of 23 years in the legislature, I’ve made the tough decisions. And, the tough decisions are not necessarily [on] the same side of the ideological divide in each instance. There have been times when I thought the University of Nebraska was being too destructively cut - when state employees were being treated unfairly. In those instances, with two very important groups to the economy of the state and the city of Lincoln, sometimes you have to do things that involve increasing revenues.

I will make that tough decision if that’s what’s the most intelligent thing to do. And that will create a problem for me in terms of campaign rhetoric. But, I think the people want to know that you’re thoughtfully looking at things and doing what is - in a common sense way - the best thing to do.

I’m proud of all the decisions I’ve made in the legislature. I don’t have any regrets. I think I’ve been very balanced and very protective of Lincoln’s interests. So, I look forward to that discussion.
Finally, on the same day you announced your intentions to run for Mayor last September, the Lancaster County Republican Party already issued a press release attacking you as “another recycled liberal” who would be “the most liberal mayor in the history of the city.” Now, with many of my readers, you probably just scored a lot of points, but what do you say to ease the concerns of the average voter who just wants good government, not a government serving first and foremost as an ideological battleground?
First of all, the release was most interesting because it assumed that they had researched every mayor back to the beginning of Lincoln to determine that I was the most liberal. Obviously, they had not done that. But, people who know me know that I’m very pragmatic and not ideological. That I’m interested in a broad and strong middle-class. That I’m interested in fairness - a reasonable and fair distribution in the economic system because I think that’s what has made a strong America and will continue to make a strong America....

Basically, that’s where I stand.
The headline of that first press release was, “If you liked Terry Werner, you’ll love Chris Beutler” – referring to a former Councilman who local Republicans smeared in rather unprecedented fashion during the last city elections. That year, the GOP County chair even went so far as bragging about hiring a private investigator to follow and to intimidate Werner. The Lincoln Journal-Star then said of the Republican Party, “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.” The Journal-Star also warned, “If the attack ads succeed, they'll multiply in the next election.”

Well, here we are. Considering that Werner was defeated, do you expect and is your campaign prepared for a repeat of these same sorts of ugly and quite vicious attacks?

I think the campaign is prepared for anything and everything. We’re trying to anticipate all eventualities. I’m not sure my wife is so entirely prepared, but we’ll see.
Have you seen any black cars following you around?
No. [humoring his interviewer with a hearty laugh]
Anyone going through your trash?
No. So far, I don’t think they’ve gone to that extent. But, hopefully it won’t devolve down to that level because I do think the people of this city really are interested in ideas – real ideas - about the future of Lincoln. And I think we’ve done very well in that regard, in supplying those ideas.

The New Nebraska Network thanks Sen. Beutler for his time and wishes him well in both the April 3rd primary and the May 1st general election. We hope readers enjoyed this peek into the mind and the vision of a true Nebraska progressive who's been paving the way for better government and a brighter future throughout his impressive but unfinished career in public service.

Again, this is THE election of 2007 in Nebraska politics. To learn more about Chris Beutler and his campaign to become Lincoln's next Mayor, please see and consider contributing in any way possible.

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Thanks to Timid Trio, Nebraska "52nd State" in Congressional Power Rankings

by Kyle Michaelis
This is embarrassing - but it really puts into perspective the failure and ill repute of Nebraska's all-Republican House delegation. While Sen. Ben Nelson sky-rocketed up the charts of's Power Rankings after a landslide reelection and assignment to the Appropriations Committee, as Sen. Chuck Hagel held steady at #48 despite the Republican Party's loss of its Senate majority, Nebraska still finds itself in the unenviable position as the 52nd state in terms of political clout because of our weak-willed, do-as-they're-told Republican Representatives.

52nd!!! There are only 50 states, yet we somehow managed to rank below the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and even American Samoa. The only states we managed to rank ahead of are Idaho and hurricane-ravaged Louisiana.

Pretty pathetic, isn't it? But, looking at the individual rankings of our Congressmen, it's hard to argue with the results. The Second District's Lee Terry is understandably the highest-ranked in our House delegation since he's in his fifth term in office. Still, he came in no higher than 377th out of 439. And, of the 34 Representatives from the Class of 1998, Terry is tied for 2nd weakest.

Then, there's the First District's Jeff Fortenberry, who has to be the biggest let-down of the entire bunch. After almost managing to surpass Lee Terry in 2006 - in only his first term in Congress - Fortenberry has plummeted to 420th out of 439.

Of course, some of this precipitous drop can be written-off as the result of the Democrats taking the House, but that doesn't explain why Fortenberry would receive special demerit for his "weak committee assignments" and why he ranks as the 3rd weakest of 41 Representatives from the Class of 2004. 19 Republicans rank ahead of Fortenberry in his own class. That doesn't speak well of Fortenberry, and it's not a good sign for Nebraska's First District - not at all.

Finally, there's poor Adrian Smith, our Freshman Congressman from the Third District who's come into office with such low expectations that he's probably congratulating himself for not being at the very bottom of the list. Smith actually ended up ranking 426th out of 439 - still doing a lot of damage to Nebraska's overall numbers but a bit of a moral victory, nonetheless.

Nebraska - the 52nd State. I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. But, unless some things change in the next election, there's no reason to expect our situation to improve. We are as powerless as the ineffective Representatives we've elected, and we - the voters of Nebraska - are the only ones who can do anything about it.

Terry, Fortenberry, Smith - we know what they are. These rankings just confirm what we've already seen, heard, and experienced for ourselves. We'll either wake-up in 2008 and demand something more, or we can expect and will rightfully deserve more of the same.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Chuck Hagel's Rude Awakening

by Kyle Michaelis
The media response to Sen. Chuck Hagel's over-hyped non-announcement was pretty brutal, and rumors have been flying about internal pressures and a last minute flip-flop by the Indecisive One.

If nothing else, this whole ridiculous ordeal does finally give Hagel a bit more separation from President George W. Bush. Just months after Bush's famously declaring "I'm the decider," Hagel showed the entire nation that's one title he won't be claiming for himself anytime soon.

The problem for whatever lingering presidential ambitions Hagel might have is that - as asinine as Bush's comment was - people do want decisive action from their leaders. The nation is sick of Bush's deadly cocksure attitude and has seen the cost of it in Iraq, but a majority of voters would probably still prefer that to the over-wrought, gunshy, hedging of his bets they've just seen from Hagel.

This puts an interesting spin on Hagel's post-pseudo-announcement fundraising letter, in which he suddenly claims "strong bipartisan support." His political director - whose judgment is in serious question right now - writes:
Dear Friend and Supporter:

The momentum for Chuck Hagel is building thanks to your help and support.

Now is the time to build on our grassroots organization with the launch of our new website,

Our goal is to rapidly raise $100,000 through this website to highlight the strong bipartisan support for Chuck Hagel around the country. If each of you would consider contributing $100, $250, $500, $1,000 or more… we could reach our goal very quickly. A $100 contribution by 1,000 people would reach that goal.

So, now is the time to tell your family, friends, and neighbors to support Senator Hagel. The contribution goes directly to Senator Hagel's campaign and will be used by him to campaign around the country and energize our grassroots team.
I'm not sure what momentum they really think is building, but it certainly sounds good on paper - disregarding Hagel's public belly-flop. Who knows - it might turn out to have been a brilliant tactical move a year from now, but he sure looks like a bit of a jackass at the moment.

As for Hagel's highlighting his "strong bipartisan support," you can sense that Hagel is trying to keep his options open. He really wants to believe that he's somehow different from other politicians and that the American people are clamoring for his particular style of leadership. He might even honestly believe that this "strong bipartisan support" exists even though, just last year, he was the #1 Senate supporter of Bush's failed agenda and he went out of his way to target fellow Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson for defeat - breaking long-standing Senate traditions - for no other reason than petty party politics.

If Chuck Hagel has "strong bipartisan support," then I might just be his biggest online cheerleader. Except there's this little thing called reality that keeps getting in the way.

For Hagel's actual reality, I suggest we take a look in the pages of today's Roll Call:
There sure wasn’t any news coming out of Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) overhyped press conference on Monday. But the non-event wasn’t a total loss. It spawned a new expression that’s quickly catching on around Capitol Hill: “pulling a Hagel.”

After the House Republican Conference weekly meeting on Tuesday, reporters asked House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) for specifics on what amendments Republican appropriators would offer to the war supplemental. Not wanting to reveal any details, Blunt quipped, “This is like a Chuck Hagel news conference — come back Thursday.”

Later Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) dropped the phrase at a press conference opposing the inclusion of any Iran language in the supplemental. While Democrats already removed the provision, Pence still lauded the decision, “at the risk of sounding like Chuck Hagel,” he said.

One GOP aide said he could see it creeping into Hill lexicon. “I like it,” the aide said. “It’s like ‘just make a decision, don’t pull a Hagel.’
Chuck Hagel is a joke - literally. And, those making the jokes are his fellow Republicans - who've jumped at the chance for revenge after years of his outspoken, holier-than-thou, playing for the cameras on the talk show circuit.

This should be a bit of a rude awakening for Hagel. Of course, he is welcome to hold on to this dream of "strong bipartisan support," but he does so at his peril. Alas, this bipartisan support that isn't there can only do so much to mask the Republican support that isn't there either.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chris Beutler: The NNN Interview - Part 1

by Kyle Michaelis
The biggest election in Nebraska in 2007 is the race for mayor of Lincoln, the state's capital city and its second-largest population center. The race will be decided in a May 1st election after an April 3rd primary whittles the field down to two challengers.

Last week, the New Nebraska Network enjoyed the opportunity to sit down with longtime State Sen. Chris Beutler - a proven visionary and a personal favorite in Nebraska politics - who is seeking the mayor's office after serving the city of Lincoln for almost a quarter century in the state legislature. What follows is the first in a two-part interview:

Michaelis: Sen. Beutler, I want to thank you for your time this morning. For a local race, I think it’s safe to say that your campaign is really breaking some new ground in Nebraska politics with its use of technology and new media. There’s the video content on your website. There’s your profile on MySpace. And, let’s face it, here you are doing an interview for a blog like the New Nebraska Network. What do you think it says about you and your campaign that you’re trying these new avenues of connecting with voters?
Beutler: I hope it’s a new way of saying the same thing about myself. I want to be accessible to people. When I ran for the legislature, I went out door-to-door because you could do that in a legislative-sized race. I went to every door in the district. I’ve always used every means possible to contact people and to give them the opportunity to express their opinions. And, these are new ways of contacting people.

I think you need to go to where people live, and some people live on the Internet now. They live on MySpace. They live on the various websites – go to your blog. Communication is extremely important to leadership, and to the extent that I can take that leadership and try to communicate on every level with every possible person by every means possible, I think that’s the way to go.
For the last decade, Lincoln has a history of being pretty hard on its mayors. When sitting mayor Mike Johanns first ran for Governor, he did not win the city of Lincoln. He was followed in office by Don Weseley and then Coleen Seng – both of whom had significant problems with the local press and just in public opinion in general. Now, there’s a lot of talk about Lincoln needing new leadership with a new attitude in city government. But, do you have any concerns that the attitude of the community itself might be a part of the problem?
I do have a lot of concerns with the negativism in Lincoln right now. It seems to be building on itself and feeding itself. It’s becoming destructive. When you have a city council person that’s putting in a national magazine language to the effect that this is not a good place to do business, that’s not helpful.

Lincoln is – I think - a hard city to govern. You have some political elements that are maybe unique in the sense that you have a large number of neighborhood associations that are active politically. You have neighborhood associations in other cities but leadership in this city requires incorporating them into the political dialogue.

Instead of having one strong business association, you have two in this city. You have the Chamber of Commerce and you have LIBA [Lincoln Independent Business Association]. They don’t always agree with each other. They take different attitudes toward city government – one, a very critical attitude toward city government. Then, you have...all of the independent thinkers over at the University. Other cities have Universities but still most cities do not on the scale that we have. That’s another part of the political dialogue in this city.

So, it is…a hard city to govern. For that reason, I’ve suggested – you may have seen on our website – this MOVE Council. We have not heretofore brought all those political elements together at one table and asked them to sit around and make some compromises on some of the priorities of the city and to work on a strategic plan that we can call the city’s strategic plan. To devise the necessary compromises on prioritization - on public contribution to projects. We haven’t gotten together in the most meaningful political sense all of the elements to move forward on an economic development plan or a vision for the city. Whether that vision incorporates elements in addition to economic development…in today’s world, everything you do in a city relates to economic development….

But, one of the very most important things to me is changing the tenor of the debate in this city. Changing it from constant bickering and negativism to something much more positive.
The lack of leadership in city government is a pretty consistent theme in all the campaigns for mayor. In this regard, what most seems to distinguish you from your chief opponent, City Councilman Ken Svoboda, is that he wants to lay that blame squarely at the Mayor’s door – as if everything else is perfectly fine. How deep would you say the problems in city government run, and is a new mayor really going to be enough to change the way things get done in Lincoln?
Well, I think the problem is not only in the mayor’s office, but it’s also in the city council. And, I don’t think people on the city council escape responsibility by claiming to be in the minority. You know, for example, I was always in the minority in the legislature. I was never in the majority. Yet, I could get things done. I could work with people and change visions to realities at the legislative level. And, at the city council level, they’re a legislative body. They have the power to offer amendments, to offer ordinances, to change policies, to change this city’s direction. And they have not done that.

They have not come to grips with the major problems of the city…..the lack of roads infrastructure financing money, the failure to come to grips with the budget problems in a long-term meaningful way, and the failure to come to grips with quality management problems of one type or another that have been persistent in our current city culture. All of those things are both the responsibility of the city council and the mayor and - in my opinion - they have sat around and waited - and waited - and hesitated on these major questions and not come to grips with them.

So, a major theme in my campaign is strong leadership and strong leadership means coming to grips with these major problems and moving ahead.
There seems to be a certain perception that the winner of this race will be the candidate who best succeeds at separating himself from Mayor Seng and the perceived failures in city government under her watch. Now, Councilman Svoboda seems to be relying on your being a Democrat - like Mayor Seng - to position you as closest to her record in the eyes of voters. Yet…Svoboda has been in office throughout Seng’s entire term – even serving as Chair of the City Council. If voters really are unhappy with the way things are being done in the city, which do you think they’re more likely to pursue – a change in party or a change in personnel?
I think the voters of the city of Lincoln are a very independent sort. And, frankly, I don’t think they give much weight to party labels. At least, not the vast majority of them. I think they’re going to look to the individual leadership characteristics of the candidates who are offered to them, and I think they’re going to choose the person that they think will provide the strongest leadership and who is offering the best opportunities to solve these on-going problems and restore confidence in city government.

I don’t think there’s been a time in recent history in this city when people have more wanted city government to be restored to a positive system in their minds. I think, right now, they see one unhappy circumstance after another – whether its fire trucks or Verizon or complaints from businesses that they can’t get through the permitting processes. There’s just a number of things that cry out for quality management. I think people want to know that their city government is operating again in an intelligent, efficient manner before they’re going to be willing to go ahead and look at things like strategic plans and visions and to consider city involvement in those kinds of bigger, futuristic items.

I see the movement in the next two years as a kind of two-step process: one, restoring competence in city government and, then, from that point, working with a broad community strategic plan to move forward to new things and better things and a broader vision of the community. Again - I’m repeating myself, but it’s so important that competence in government be restored first.
Now, on the campaign trail, you’ve often talked about Lincoln’s need for a leader “with vision and grit who comes from outside city politics.” What makes these qualities the most important for Lincoln’s next mayor, and why are you that leader?
Those qualities are important because we’re going to be faced with a number of tough decisions. Solving the infrastructure financing problem will involve tough decisions. Solving the budget problem will involve – in the short term - expenditure cuts, and those will be tough decisions. I vow – I promise - to set the budget straight next year without increasing property taxes because I don’t think any mayor can take office and solve a problem by increasing property taxes and have any credibility for the future. So, those will be hard decisions for me because…most of the services we provide are good services. I would be reluctant to [cut them], but I will do it if it’s necessary to – again - restore credibility in government…..

Working with directors and middle-level managers to get going with some performance standards and benchmarks and changing the way they do things so that processes can move ahead more efficiently and effectively, that will also be hard work and some hard decision-making. So - in the short term - a number of the decisions that need to be made are just difficult decisions by any standard.

My history has been one of being willing to make tough decisions at the legislative level. You’ve worked statewide. You know about the water issue. You know how tough that is. And, you know that I spoke up on that issue. My history in the legislature has been taking up those issues that other people don’t want to deal with and dealing with them – whether it’s campaign finance reform or restructuring the court system….

Many of the tough, tough decisions at the legislative level I’ve taken on because other people didn’t want to do it. And, that’s okay because what I get satisfaction out of is solving the hard problems. I enjoy working with public policy and complex problems. I enjoy that part of it a lot more than I enjoy campaigning.
The only element [you didn’t address] is “the new beginning” – bringing in someone from outside city politics. Is that absolutely essential in this election year in the mayor’s office?
I think that it is – especially in the context of this particular election because the main competition is Ken Svoboda. Ken Svoboda has sat on the city council and has watched all these things happening and has not taken initiative. The city is either going to choose Ken or myself, and I think there’s a significant contrast in the way that Ken and I look at things.

I believe in limited government. I believe in tight, disciplined, focused government. But, having said that, I believe in positive government. I believe that government needs to be responsibly responsive to the community and represent the community. And, government is responsible for seeing that economic development goes forward – seeing that there is a strong relationship, a partnership with business. But, not only with business – with the neighborhoods, with the non-profits, with all of the elements of a community. It’s the government that needs to see that we’re moving forward in all these different areas. I believe in positive government.

Ken, on the other hand, I think is philosophically and psychologically handicapped by his notion that government should be diminished. That government should “get out of the way,” as he frames it. That government shouldn’t take the leadership on economic development. That government shouldn’t be going to the legislature to solve the State Fair Park problem. That government shouldn’t get involved with the cable franchise. I don’t think he’s going to be able to effectively use the tool of government to move the city ahead because he doesn’t really believe in it. It’s a fundamental difference between the way we look at things.

Stay tuned. The interview with Chris Beutler will continue later this week (click here for Part II) - exclusively at the New Nebraska Network.

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