Public Policy

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Prairie Fire Newspaper went on hiatus after the publication of the September 2015 issue. It may return one of these days but until then we will continue to host all of our archived content for your reading pleasure. Many of the articles have held up well over the years. Please contact us if you have any questions, thoughts, or an interest in helping return Prairie Fire to production. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you to all our readers, contributors, and supporters - the quality of Prairie Fire was a reflection of how many people it touched (touches).

Civic Health Update: Community Engagement and Political Involvement in Nebraska

By Kelsey Arends, Dr. Lisa Pytlik Zillig, and Dr. Mitchel Herian

Developing muscle strength can be a tedious process. Generally it starts by realizing a weakness. At the beginning of training, a muscle can feel awkward or sore, but before long, the muscle is strong, the body is more capable and efficient, and it’s difficult to remember life before the newfound strength.

Just like physical strength, civic life in Nebraska shows clear strengths, as well as areas that could use a metaphorical workout. Last month we introduced the topic of civic health, measured by indicators ranging from connecting with family and friends to having confidence in institutions to actions like volunteering and voting. Just as it is important for individuals to check up on their personal health, as a community it is important to check up on our civic health. That checkup comes in the form of the 2015 Nebraska Civic Health Index, which uses data from the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey to document Nebraskans’ tendency to participate in community and civic life.

Last month we looked at the strengths of Nebraska communities. In general, the data show Nebraska enjoys particularly strong social connectedness and high confidence in public institutions. This month we look at areas of civic health where Nebraska falls to the middle of the road and even the back of the pack when compared to other states and the District of Columbia.

The Face of the Niemi Report

The Best-case Nebraska Economy of the Future Depends on Highly Productive Individuals, Not Corporate Headquarters or a Smokestack Industry

We are extremely grateful to Dr. Richard Edwards for his leadership in the founding of the Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition. Moreover, it would not have been possible to publish Natural Treasures of the Great Plains: An Ecological Perspective, a new collection of twenty-six essays originally published in this paper, without his generous financial support. It seems appropriate to reprint our ecotourism essay from the inaugural July 2007 issue of Prairie Fire. Our support and participation in the 2007 economic study (the Niemi Report) calculating the benefits of a focused effort to promote and support ecotourism was one of the themes for our launch eight years ago. In many ways, Natural Treasures is a commemoration of our eight-year journey repeatedly sounding the theme of the many benefits of a strong ecotourism industry, through the trained eyes of our talented essayists. A review of the book will appear in a future issue of Prairie Fire.

By Sally J. Herrin and W. Don Nelson

Joe Hill—early twentieth-century labor organizer and martyr—said it best: Don’t mourn—organize.

By now, everyone knows that the population of most of rural America has declined precipitously over the past few decades, almost entirely due to declining farm income.

Nebraska Civic Health Strengths: Social Connectedness and Confidence in Institutions

By Kelsey Arends, Dr. Lisa Pytlik Zillig, and Dr. Mitchel Herian

Taking steps to be healthy—it’s something people are encouraged to do every day. Children are told to wash hands, wear helmets, and eat vegetables. Adults are reminded to eat well and exercise regularly. It’s common to do things to improve physical and even mental or emotional health.

Civic health, though, is not a highly discussed topic. Doctors rarely prescribe voting or schedule volunteering checkups. However, as it turns out, civic health is linked to and is an important factor impacting other forms of health.

Bringing Data and Historical Perspective to Nebraska's Tax Debate

Nebraska state senators during a recent session. (Unicameral Information Office)

By Renee Fry

Providing impartial research and analysis is particularly important this Nebraska legislative session with eighteen new senators, a new administration, and several other new elected officials eager for information on which to base their policy decisions. Our primary function at OpenSky Policy Institute is to bring data and facts to fiscal policy discussions. We believe lawmakers make better policy decisions when they have solid research, data, and analysis to work with. And sound policy decisions benefit us all.

Throughout this legislative session, lawmakers have been faced with a variety of tax cut proposals and a growing push to address Nebraska’s high reliance on property taxes to fund school and other key services. Compared to other states, our research shows Nebraska is second most reliant on property taxes to fund K–12 education.

Blue Nebraska, Red State

By Sally J. Herrin

Lincoln, Nebraska writer Mary Pipher published her first opinion column by invitation in the New York Times last Boxing Day, December 26, 2015. Her thoughtful piece has left me thinking about progressivism in Nebraska, about the institutions, public and private, which Nebraska progressive populists have built.

Nebraska populists, Democrats and Republicans both—these people build to last. The adept architecture that crafted governing structures of our state is a marvel, greater than the spectacular stone and bronze state Capitol that shapes and contains our day-to-day polity. Our nonpartisan Unicameral has served Nebraska exceptionally well. We are the only US state to set this very close kind of democracy in stone.

Securing Nebraska: Being Right on Crime

By Adam Weinberg

Many people are surprised that the Platte Institute publishes research on criminal justice issues. In fact, the Omaha World-Herald credited us as one of the first groups in Nebraska to call for prison reforms to address overcrowding and sentencing guidelines.

Coverage of our new corrections study, “Securing Nebraska,” reported on our “unusual” cooperation with the Nebraska ACLU. Even Mother Jones magazine took notice, listing Nebraska as a leading state on prison reform, with Platte Institute policy research guiding the way.

The Minimum Wage Increase: Making Hard Work Pay Is Good for All of Us

Minimum wage toon by Paul Fell

By Jeremy Nordquist

All Nebraskans value hard work. All Nebraskans want an economy that provides opportunity. Nebraska has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and one of the highest rates of working parents. Yet, despite working hard, too many Nebraska families are struggling to prosper, and it is weighing down our economy and support system.

In the upcoming November election, voters will be provided the opportunity to increase state minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9 per hour by 2016. Why is this important? Because jobs must pay enough for workers to meet their basic needs—like paying for a doctor visit or putting gas in the car. At the current minimum wage, a full-time salary is about $15,000 per year, far below what any workers need to support themselves and their families in any community in Nebraska. As a result, the lines are becoming blurred between the middle class, the working poor, and those who are living in absolute poverty.

Passenger Rail System Option for Nebraska’s Highly Dense Metro Region

By Victoria Nelson

Passenger rail has been a valuable option in Nebraska. In the 1800s and well into the 1970s electric streetcars and passenger trains were part of public transportation for Nebraskans. Since electric streetcars were discontinued in the 1950s and commuter rail service was abandoned in the 1970s, there has been talk about whether to bring them back. The electric streetcar system helped grow our two major metro areas into monocentric cities, defined as having a single central business district, usually the downtown area (Moore, Thorsne, Appleyard, 2007). Examples of Lincoln and Omaha monocentric patterns can be seen in figures one and two.

Keeping Talented Youth in Nebraska

By ACLU of Nebraska, Heartland Workers Center, and Nebraska Appleseed

In 2012 the president announced an important new policy to “defer action” on youth who grew up in this country since childhood but do not have a way to apply for immigration status until Congress fixes our outdated immigration laws. Called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program allows dynamic young immigrants who meet certain qualifications to remain in the country for a renewable two-year period, temporarily defers their deportation, and provides a temporary work permit.

Poor Boys at the Hoedown: One Hundred Years of Nebraska Farmers Union, Unauthorized and Unabridged, Part Three

By Sally J. Herrin, PhD

Milo Reno called the American Farm Bureau “the bastard child of the railroad trust and the Chamber of Commerce.” The enormous early success of the cooperative elevators, livestock commissions, exchanges, insurance, and other ventures cut US business monopolies to the quick, as co-op market share increased rapidly in every sector. Desperate to derail the cooperative movement, the US Chamber of Commerce and the railroads, with the complicity of the USDA (which preferred to deal with a more docile farm organization than Farmers Union), invented the AFB as a rival farm organization with a vague and watered-down mission statement similar to, but lacking the edge of, Farmers Union. Today, the Farm Bureau is supported by mandatory dues from its enormous insurance operation—six million members claimed, though US farmers number less than two million. Today the Farm Bureau continues to confound farmers with counterproductive political recommendations and rhetoric. Along with many check-off funded commodity organizations such as the Cattlemen and National Corn Growers, the Farm Bureau at both the state and national level effectively serves the interest of food processors, some of the largest and most powerful multinational corporations on earth.

O Canada!

Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada. (public domain)

By Jeff Cole

The reputation of Canada, our ever-so-humble northern neighbor, is taking a beating; perhaps justifiably so.

Exhibit A: Toronto’s coke-snorting, dancing-challenged mayor. You are not going to win many sympathy points with leadership or dance moves that egregious.

More ominously, we recently experienced the polar vortex, with weather maps showing those icy winds, born deep in the Canadian hinterlands, flowing unchecked across our porous northern border. One can scarcely fathom the hatred this subzero invasion created in the minds of millions of Americans whose plans for the first week of 2014 did not include having to enjoy a typical Manitoba winter lock down.

Stem Cells: Ready or Not, a Revolution

By Paul Knoepfler

Stem cells give real reason for hope to millions of people suffering from various conditions. At the same time stem cells are also all too frequently hyped or used as a wedge to divide people. How can one intelligently navigate the increasingly complicated field of stem cells? As a stem cell researcher and educator, I am here to help. In my talks last month in Nebraska, I discussed the stem cell revolution in more depth and answered questions.

Nebraska's College Savings Plan Account Owners Find Information, Advice Easy to Come By

By Don Stenberg

For the two hundred and fourteen thousand account owners in the Nebraska Educational Savings Trust (NEST), sound information and helpful advice are easy to come by. NEST is Nebraska’s state-sponsored college savings plan.

NEST account owners live in every state of the union, and beneficiaries attend institutions of higher learning across the United States and abroad. NEST is committed to providing thorough information and answering questions promptly and completely for all its account owners, wherever they may be.

NEST Provides Free Online Financial Literacy Program for Nebraska High Schools

By Don Stenberg

More than nine hundred Nebraska high school students from more than fifty schools across the state have started thinking about their own personal finances and their financial futures through a free program announced less than a year ago by the Nebraska State Treasurer’s Office.

The program, called Nebraska NEST Financial Scholars, is part of an initiative by the Treasurer’s Office to promote financial literacy education for high school students and to increase awareness of the state-sponsored 529 college savings program known as the Nebraska Educational Savings Trust (NEST).

Poor Boys at the Hoedown: One Hundred Years of Nebraska Farmers Union, Unauthorized and Unabridged, Part Two

By Sally J. Herrin, Ph.D.

Arguably, the single greatest accomplishment of the Nebraska Farmers Union has been our founding of the vast majority of the co-ops of this state. Creameries and grain elevator cooperatives dominated early days, but through the 1920s and ’30s and on, nearly anything families needed to farm or ranch, fuel, garden, or keep house was available through some nearby local or through the Farmers Union State Exchange stores in Omaha and across the state. No-frills warehouses, the exchanges prefigured modern big-box stores—but the profits were returned to the patrons instead of to outside investors like Wal-Mart today. The success of the cooperative model operated exactly upon the principles of ordinary business in the economy of the time, as today, with this single great exception—no untoward profit had (or has) to be generated. Each cooperative was created to serve its patrons, ordinary people who owned it through investment and patronage.

The Looming Retirement Crisis

By Al Mumm

Along with the inequality in income in this country, which is becoming a bigger and bigger issue, as it should, we all need to be aware of the coming retirement crisis. Several things have caused this crisis. The conning of defined benefit pension plans being replaced with defined contribution plans—401(k)—is a disaster that seems to have sneaked up on us; however, we all should have seen it coming. Increasingly, corporate America has discontinued the pension plans worked so hard for in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s by the labor movement. Remember the three-legged stool CWA and AFL-CIO always talked about for retirement? One leg a pension, another leg Social Security, and the third leg personal savings, including 401(k)s. More and more, the leg of pension is being kicked out from under workers.

It Is Long Past Time for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

By Kieran McCarney

A common criticism of the labor movement is that we only seek the betterment of our members and leadership. The stereotypical union boss, with a fedora and thick urban accent, enriching himself and his henchmen has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. However, both the prototypical union member and the modern labor movement could not be further from these images. At its heart, and since its founding, organized labor has devoted itself to two major goals: safe working conditions and fair and equitable treatment for all workers. From our earliest fights for the safety of miners in West Virginia and factory workers in Massachusetts, to the enactment of a 40-hour workweek and child labor standards, we have always stood for those who lacked a voice in the workplace. It is with these guiding principles in mind that we now stand united for comprehensive immigration reform.

The Farm Bill and What It Should Look Like

By Traci Bruckner

The Center for Rural Affairs has always held that family farm agriculture plays a critical role in strengthening small towns and rural communities and shaping the character of rural life. Quite simply, who farms matters to the health and well-being of rural communities.

Research has found that communities surrounded by farms that are larger than can be operated by a family unit have a few wealthy elites, a majority of poor laborers and virtually no middle class. The absence of a middle class has a serious negative effect on social and commercial services, public education and local government.

Federal Flood Insurance Reform

By W. Don Nelson

This publisher has read the Wall Street Journal, daily, for more than 35 years. We believe that it remains as one of the best newspapers in the world. Prairie Fire, as its readers can note, has a free market business plan and thus shares a common bond with the Journal. It is noteworthy, however, when Prairie Fire and the Wall Street Journal editorial page occasionally share a common opinion on matters of public policy. Such is the case with one of the Journal’s Dec. 2, 2013, editorials captioned “Flooding Taxpayers Again.”

Poor Boys at the Hoedown: One Hundred Years of Nebraska Farmers Union, Unauthorized and Unabridged, Part One

By Sally J. Herrin, Ph.D.

Small farmers are the main source and stronghold of freedom and independence for any people, many—myself included—believe. After all, everybody eats. This American agrarian idea, that all true wealth and virtue are derived from the land, as Thomas Jefferson maintained, has served as the underlying principle for most of the organized U.S. agriculture movements in the 19th and 20th centuries and until this day.

American farmers historically have been apathetic and unpredictable political actors, John A. Crampton notes in “The National Farmers Union: Ideology of a Pressure Group.” The Poor Boys of my title are not Farmers Union members but rather the mass of farmers and ranchers who never joined and never will, those who benefit most from Farmers Union labors, like any workers who won’t join their unions but enjoy the pay and rights and benefits the unions win.

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Immigration in Nebraska

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