Governor Ricketts' Budget

Lincoln -- Governor Ricketts has offered his state budget recommendations for the coming biennium. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of detractors. Higher education leaders say it will force up tuition; the Nebraska Farm Bureau says it does not offer enough property tax relief; the Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court warns that the budget is seriously inadequate for the judiciary and corrections. Those who work in foster care are concerned that the progress of the recent past will be lost and children will suffer badly for it.

Is there anything good about the budget recommendations? Yes, compared to what a Governor Heineman or a Governor Brownback might have offered.

• There are funds at least to start dealing with the corrections mess left over from the Heineman/Bruning years of neglect and misfeasance. Chief Justice Heavican is appropriately engaged.

• The income tax cuts in the budget are subject to a trigger; that is, they don't happen unless revenues meet their targets. Kansas Governor Brownback cut taxes recklessly, based on the theory (with scant empirical evidence to support it) that more, not less revenue would result from state tax cuts. It may take Kansas decades to recover.

• The budget uses the non-political Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board's revenue assumptions. Nebraska has been wise to create such a body and to set aside "rainy day" funds to establish boundaries for responsible budgeting. The Ricketts budget may dip too far into these funds, but at least what he is doing is transparent.

The discussions around the Governor's budget recommendations also provide an opportunity for serious reflection about Nebraska's cyclical and structural budget issues. Nebraska's economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, so much so that it rises or falls based on what Congress enacts in farm bills and approves in trade treaties. Which means that a Nebraska governor must be active on these issues at the national level to make certain that Nebraska's interests are represented. For example, do farm bills promote consolidation of farms and consequently depopulate Nebraska's rural areas? (Unfortunately, they often have.) This is too complex a subject for this discussion, but it seems like a bad move for U.S. Senator Sasse to give up a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Did Governor Ricketts confer with him about this?

A structural problem in the Nebraska state budget is support for higher education. Per capita, Nebraska ranks among the highest in the nation in higher education spending. To oversimplify using a football analogy: Nebraska wants to play in the Big Ten on a Big Sky population. But it's not so simple to cut higher education spending once started. For my part, I think it is essential for taxpayers to keep up their support, especially for innovation and research in order to be able to guide the direction of these efforts toward ends that pay off for Nebraska and its economy. It is not a given that outside research dollars that might replace state tax dollars will be beneficial. Reseach integrity is even less of a given with outside funding.

So what might the legislature do in response to the Governor's budget recommendations? That could be a subject for subequent blog posts, but here is one suggestion. Deal with the corrections and human services part of the budget with a separate, additional revenue stream for a number of years until the state has recovered from the damage done in these areas by previous administrations (and legislatures). I'd raise so-called "sin taxes" on products that are not good for Nebraskans' health in any case (and where there may be behavioral, causal connections between the products and the issues the state is facing). Obviously this means higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol, on which taxes are currently comparatively low (41st and 35th in the country, respectively). Not so obvious: soft drinks, which research is showing are comparably harmful. Many of us remember the state cigarette tax hike to pay for Game and Parks projects, the Devaney Center, and the Beatrice State Home. It worked.

Such taxes would also be everyday reminders that the salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen, and when citizens are not watchful about how their state is being run, as was the case in corrections and human services, there is a price to be paid.

Call It HeritageCare

Washington -- Congress and the country are tied up in knots over what to do with Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It either needs fixes to help people pay premiums (Democrats' position), or it needs to be repealed and replaced (Republicans' position).

There is great confusion about the underlying issues. An Uber driver in Washington expressed his frustration well when he said he was all in favor of doing away with Obamacare, which he didn't like, but the politicians should be warned to keep their hands off his ACA policy, with which he was very happy.

Not to laugh–he was on to something. Names and appearances are all-important. Obamacare is actually a version of Romneycare in Massachusetts, which in turn was modeled after the health insurance proposal of the Heritage Foundation in 1990. The Heritage Foundation is a right-of-center think tank, perhaps most famous for its policy input into the first Reagan Administration.

The Heritage proposal is well worth reading, and not just to establish paternity. Note the lengthy discussion about the exclusion from taxation of employer contributions for medical insurance and care, and how it distorts health care markets and drives up costs. In 2016, this is by far the largest tax expenditure in the federal government, at $216 billion in 2016. It is a concern across the ideological spectrum.

How about this for a solution: trim back the huge, counterproductive tax expenditure, use the revenues to fix the Obamacare problems, and call it HeritageCare. Coverage is continuous, no one dies in the streets, tax-policy is reformed, and both sides can claim victory.

The vehicle would be Budget Reconciliation, with appropriate instructions to the revenue committees. Of course there would be howls of protest from corporation and unions alike, but now is the time to act. Never let a crisis go to waste.

Unanswered National Security Questions

Washington -- Try as I might to find intelligent commentary on current (and perhaps even urgent) national security issues, there seems to be little public discussion about looming problems as of January, 2017. Who in the U.S. government is working on the following questions?

• Inasmuch as Russia is actively attempting to destabilize Western Europe, what is the U.S. doing to assist our allies such as France and Germany? Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic are already under the influence or control of autocrats friendly to Russia. Will U.S. intelligence about Russian covert activities be shared with potentially vulnerable allies, or will the new, incoming U.S. president, an admirer of the Russian leader, instruct the CIA and NSA to stand down from such cooperation? Has the current president anticipated such a possibility and made advance provisions for other Western intelligence agencies such as Britain's GCHQ to be ready to come to the aid of remaining democracies in Europe?

• Because the incoming U.S. commander-in-chief has unconventional ways of communicating his thoughts and wishes, what is being done to update communication protocols from him so as to prevent the nation's military from committing acts of war (conventional or nuclear) or the breaking of treaties that might be accidental, ill-considered, illegal, or catastrophic? Should procedures be updated to require that a national security briefing of the commander-in-chief must precede any order that would break a treaty or take the nation to war? For decades, it was a given that any U.S. commander-in-chief would be fully briefed before taking national security actions, but this can no longer be taken for granted given the incoming president's stated disdain for such briefings.

• No person in the military can be required to follow an illegal order, but how are those who have taken an oath to protect and defend the country to know the difference between orders that are legal, illegal, or something in between, to carry out a foreign policy of being unpredictable? Whatever the advantages of unpredictability and doing the unexpected to advance U.S. national security, such tactics may confound our own people as much as our adversaries.

Ordinarily, the press would have an opportunity to ask a president-elect such questions in an open press conference, uncomfortable as the questions may be. But these are not ordinary times and there may never be such an opportunity. If I know the war-gamers at DOD and State, they are grappling with these and perhaps even more troubling questions, and likely losing sleep. These are dangerous times.

What's an Elector of Conscience (and Patriotism) To Do?

Washington -- As I write this, there are only five days left before the Electoral College convenes. Some of the Electors have grouped themselves into what they call "Hamilton Electors," indicating they will be voting in accordance with Alexander Hamilton's explanation of their responsibilities in Federalist #68, which allows them considerable discretion. Specifically, that includes taking into consideration the qualifications of the candidates and whether the preceding general elections may have been tainted by foreign involvement. In Hamilton's exact words, "the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils."

So far, only one among the Hamilton Electors is an Elector for Donald Trump. It would take about 12% (or only about one in eight) of the remaining Trump Electors to deny him the presidency in the Electoral College. The rest are Hillary Clinton Electors, whose votes may be symbolic but of no practical consequence.

Although the goal of the Hamilton Electors seems to be denying the presidency to Trump, there is, to me, another reason for Electors to deny any candidate an Electoral College majority. Without a majority, the selection of the president would be left to the House of Representatives. This is the procedure set up by the Constitution. The House presumably would select Trump, but not without first having the opportunity to determine the involvement of foreign powers in the general election. This would actually help legitimize Trump, if he is chosen. He would then be the properly chosen president under the Constitution, taking Federalist #68 into consideration.

Using this procedure would have other advantages:

• Electors would have a clear conscience, knowing that they acted responsibly as the founders of the country intended. The choice of president would not forever be disputed, for example, on whether the CIA adequately divulged what it knew before the general election.

• It would provide more time to look into the involvement of foreign powers before the House votes. The House could compel the production of relevant documents.

• It would signal, for future elections, that tampering with the general election, as may have been done in 2016, is not necessarly a formula for victory, because the Constitution provides checks and balances on both the popular vote and on the Electoral College.

• It would ease the consciences of many, many voters who, as it now stands, may have to acknowledge that they were duped. Consider, for example, veterans who voted for Trump not fully aware that he was the candidate of a foreign power against which they once risked their lives, and against which they may have lost compatriots directly or indirectly. Consider any voter who would have voted for Trump under any circumstances, but would feel better with validation through the workings of the Constitution.

Better to have the House take a vote. It would very likely not change the outcome but the process would be cleansing and cathartic for our republican form of government.

A Reply to Tom Vilsack

Lincoln -- Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is scolding his fellow Democrats: "Stop Writing Off Rural America."

He is half right. He points to his own success in Iowa, based on extensive travel and campaigning in rural areas. He was elected governor twice; his fellow Democrats controlled the Iowa Legislature after he was governor. But he is wrong if he thinks Iowa will vote Democratic again if only Democrats will wear down more shoe leather. The real problem is that Democrats lack a message for most Iowans.

A few years ago, Thomas Frank looked at his home state of Kansas, bewildered about why Kansas turned so far right politically. In What's the Matter with Kansas, he concluded that the Democratic Party had nothing to offer a rural state like Kansas, that the party essentially wrote Kansas off.

And now big losses in rural states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio have cost the Democratic party not only the presidency, but sent the Democratic party into a tailspin at all levels and branches of government.

What could and should Tom Vilsack's Democrats have offered for states like Iowa?

• For starters, a decent farm program that did not tear down Iowa's precious topsoil in order to provide China with bargain-priced food. Federal subsidies have been structured to pay Iowa farmers to overproduce, driving down commodity prices for buyers like China. This does not make intuitive sense, and many midwesterners know it.

• An alternative to the myth "Got to Feed the World" as propagated by the agribusiness industry, which profits from overproduction. Almost all our agricultural exports go to developed countries, not to impoverished ones. In a generation or two, we may indeed need to feed the world's hungry, which is why it is not good policy to use up our topsoil resources prematurely.

• A farm program that would allow farmers the freedom to farm responsibly as they know how to do, rather than taking instructions from their bankers. Admittedly, bankers have little choice other than to require farmers to engage in overproduction, but this is a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped.

• Incentives to farm sustainably and to take marginal land out of production, rather than the other way around. Tax policy is one vehicle to do this. The federal tax deductibility of local property taxes against income is inadequate when income is low or even negative. Make it a means-tested credit and pay for it with cuts to overproduction subsidies. Make good farmers' balance sheets work without dictates from bankers. And save the pollinators in the process.

• Real support for "Know Your Farmer" and other USDA programs that support the production of healthy food, but in reality have been only window dressing for programs that encourage production of unhealthy food. High fructose corn syrup is a major cause of diabetes. Why do we have a current farm policy that makes our people sick?

Tom Vilsack and the Democratic party's lack of a vision for rural America that is different from that of the agribusiness lobbyists is a problem greater than faulty Democratic campaign strategies. Tom Vilsack probably could have been on the ticket as vice president himself had be not been a Monsanto "Governor of the Year," which made him anathema to many in the party. Although Vilsack is right to condemn his Democratic party for writing off rural America, he is in no position to blame others for the party's rout in the elections.

Topsoil as Infrastructure

Lincoln -- It's likely Congress will pass infrastructure legislation in the coming year to rebuild roads, bridges, railways, airports, harbors, power grids, and the like. Without doubt, the nation's infrastructure has been neglected and has deteriorated over decades of increasing demands. Infrastructure improvements are also an important source of jobs.

But rebuilding the nation's deteriorating topsoil will not be on the list of infrastructure improvements because, as most any politician will tell you, that's a matter for the farm bill, not an infrastructure bill.

This is a mistake for multiple reasons:

• The enormous loss of topsoil is arguably more severe than the deteriorations in any other category. The United States loses an average of three tons per acre per year. It may sound alarmist, but responsible estimates suggest that, at current rates of loss, the world has only sixty years of topsoil left.

• The current farm bill has been a disaster, cutting soil and water conservation programs while encouraging agricultural overproduction, which in turn depresses prices and farm income but increases federal spending on subsidies. The economies of states like Nebraska are in trouble.

• Unmitigated topsoil erosion presents a huge cost to other infrastructure improvements. If soil and water were retained better on the land, consider how much longer roads and bridges would last, how less frequently rivers and harbors would require dredging, how cities would save on stormwater infrastructure, and how cleaner water would result from better natural filtration, lessening costs of water treatment facilities. Consider as well how hydroelectric plants would generate electricity more efficiently, and how much healthier our off-shore reefs and fisheries would be.

• "Green infrastructure" involves construction projects much the same as other infrastructure efforts. Examples: aquifer recharge structures, bio-swales, wetlands restorations, terraces and waterways, small watershed dams, pervious pavements, and rainwater harvesting facilities, just to name a few. No one should forget the substantial infrastructure effort (shelterbelts and cover crops) put forth in the 1930s to combat the Dust Bowl; all that has largely disappeared.

• Infrastructure improvements have health and safety implications, with concomitant economic benefits. Safer transportation systems are an obvious example. Likewise, topsoil is a health and safety issue. Chemical fertilizer and pesticide run-off is a major problem all the way up and down the food chain.

So what is stopping Congress from addressing topsoil deterioration as an infrastructure issue? Lack of imagination, for one thing. Silo thinking ("it's a farm bill issue") for another. Congressional rules also can get in the way. However, Congress increasingly turns to so-called reconciliation bills to get around jurisdictional problems and filibusters. The infrastructure bill could be handled through reconciliation.

Maybe Nebraska's congressional delegation would step up for topsoil? It should, not only for the good of the country but also to get a share of federal infrastructure spending for the country's heartland.

Deep Regrets and Narrowed Opportunities in Higher Education

Washington -- Those who work in higher education policy, who care deeply about the well-being of students, families, and taxpayers in the administration of federal higher education programs, are surely feeling dismayed at the prospect that the Trump Administration will roll back well-intentioned efforts to protect these vulnerable and often-neglected constituencies. I know I am.

These efforts over recent years have resulted in regulations and program adaptations that aim to protect student loan borrowers, student victims of illegal for-profit college practices, and students who suffer under all manner of civil rights violations.

But there should also be a feeling of deep regret that more was not done, when there was plenty of opportunity, to work these protections into law and into the fabric of the federal system through which higher education is organized and managed in this country. Why wasn't more of an effort made to:

• Reduce student loan borrowing by requiring states and institutions to keep up their financial support, in exchange for federal dollars, through state and institutional matching and maintenance of effort requirements? It has been clear for many years (indeed, decades) that federal aid increases have been undermined, especially by reductions in state support.

• Protect for-profit college students by requiring states to share the responsibility against financial ruin of students and families who were duped by false advertising and illegal recruiting? Such a requirement would have complemented the federal Gainful Employment regulations and served as a fail-safe backup against the weakening or elimination of the regulations. If states had been required to put up funding as match or as insurance in the first place, the problems never would have grown as they did. Most state legislatures would never fund dubious enterprises like many of the for-profit colleges; they are almost entirely a federal government creation.

• Advance civil rights protections through state attorney general offices? Although some AGs have stepped up, many have not and the whole subject is fraught with problems of jurisdiction, mishandling of due process, and concerns of federal overreach.

I'd like some answers, or at least a discussion. Why did so many people think 100% federally funded programs, accompanied by ever-increasing regulations to try to control the inevitable abuses that occur with such programs, would work on their own without being simultaneously woven into our national/state/local system of federalism? One answer is hubris among those who placed their faith in a benevolent federal government over their fears for the constituencies they presumably were out to protect. As we should have seen from past experience, the power of the national government is not always exercised toward good ends.

There is an opportunity to salvage some protections for students, families, and taxpayers through the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. But success will depend on the outcome of a struggle within the Republican Party between those who sincerely believe that federalism can tame crony capitalism, and those who want to use the Department of Education as a giant piggy-bank to reward corporate interests and their associated political campaign beneficiaries who stand to gain billions of dollars from exploiting these constituencies. The stock market has already placed its bets on the latter, guessing that for-profit colleges will be unharnessed to return to their anything-goes days, and that the financial services industry will somehow get back the income stream or other largess from federal student loans.

I'm thinking the stock market has it right. Federalism of any kind, let alone progressive federalism, has not had much of a foothold in federal higher education policy for decades. Students, families, and taxpayers: prepare for difficult times.

On the other hand, the reauthorization of the HEA has a history of being a bipartisan effort. Several Republicans are amenable to injecting "skin in the game" provisions into the HEA, which are the essence of federalism. Conservative think tanks like AEI have creative ideas that could replace student loans with an IRS line of credit. Some Republicans may still be repulsed by the waste, fraud, and abuse that ensued with the last round of crony capitalism that ran rampant for years and still has not been eradicated from the Department of Education. Democrats have an opportunity, albeit a narrow one, to carve out a higher education agenda for the HEA that protects students, families, and taxpayers. The question is, will they pursue it?

Not a "Positive" Idea At All

Lincoln -- A Lincoln businessman and Marine Corps veteran appeared before the NU Board of Regents to ask for plaques on Memorial Stadium to honor veterans killed in war. He said this would be an appropriate and positive response to three football players who knelt, rather than stood, during the national anthem at a game, actions he disapproved although he recognized the players' right to do so.

“I said there’s the high road and the low road,” he said. “I could blow it off and not do anything, or I can do something positive.”

As a veteran myself, I don't think this is positive. It would represent not-so-subtle retaliation against the players, juxtaposed as it is so clearly against their actions; moreover, it would diminish the NU president's affirmation of the students' rights to express their opinions. As a veteran, I don't want veterans' names and causes used in a tit-for-tat contest against the right of free speech. It comes across as snarky, not patriotic. Veterans sacrificed for freedom of speech and other freedoms and should not be mis-used in an effort to diminish or demean the exercise of those freedoms.

And where would the money come from? This Lincoln businessman already has a history of making suggestions for dubious uses of other peoples' tax dollars. Many of us can think of better uses for the $500,000 that this plaque project would cost. The same goes for privately-raised money. For example, the UNL History Department does not have any of its faculty devoted to Nebraska state and local history. Rather than plaques, how about some research on just who these veterans were and why we should be grateful for their sacrifice? If the plaque idea moves forward (to put the memorial idea back in Memorial Stadium), it should be expressly de-linked from the suggestion that this is comeuppance of those who exercise freedom of expression.

Bad Week for State and Local Government

Lincoln -- Last week was a bad one for state and local government in Nebraska. Newspapers reported that the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services owes tens of millions of dollars back to the federal goverment for mismanaging funds, and that Lancaster County is wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on needlessly removing trees while bridge repairs and other priorities go begging.

The DHHS story is a continuation of costly embarrassments that have gone on for months, if not years. The Omaha World-Herald editorializes that it must be the fault of state employees who are inept and pay no attention to whomever is governor, inasmuch as the scandal stretches back from current governor Ricketts to his predecessor Heineman to his predecessor Johanns. I'm not buying it; it's too easy to blame state employees. DHHS is a code agency, directly under the control of the state's chief executive. The buck must stop with the governors, who need to be held accountable.

Responsibility for the Lancaster County misadventure is harder to pin down. The County Engineer argues for taking property from a landowner and cutting down his trees along North 27th Street (at a cost of $200,000), because the county has already spent money on its road-widening project and no other owners along the stretch have objected. But the hold-out landowner points out that the county's road-widening project would be paid for by developers should the area be developed, at no cost to the county and, moreover, the land in question is environmentally protected. (It's adjacent to the Shoemaker Marsh.) The County Engineer nevertheless plunged forward with the argument that, essentially, other funds already expended would be wasted if more are not wasted. This won the support of three of the five county commissioners. Bridge repairs and other county projects apparantly can and will wait.

All of this is painful for me to watch, as I have long been a supporter of state and local governments. They are closest to the people and best able to deliver essential governmental services. There was a time, it seems to me, when these governments worked better, when state and local employees took greater pride in their work, even taking pleasure when they gave their fellow taxpayers back more than what they were paid in salaries. I worked among them for several years; they came to work eager to innovate and to serve. Now I sense that many in state and local ranks are demoralized and don't care as much. And it does not take much insight to figure out why.

One of the unfortunate legacies of Ronald Reagan's presidency is his oft-repeated quote, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" This quote became folk-wisdom for a whole generation of voters and taxpayers who, whenever governments messed up, preferred to repeat the outrageous quote and mindlessly blame government itself rather than rolling up their sleeves and correcting the problems at hand.

This misguided sentiment has progressed to the point where huge numbers of voters and taxpayers now celebrate the failure of government at any level. Yes, celebrate. And vote for politicians who promise more such celebrations by cutting and demoralizing governments and their workers even further.

I long for the day when we all start once again to take pride in the effectiveness and efficiency of our governments at all levels, whether that's our National Parks and FEMA at the federal level, Human Services and Corrections at the state level, or bridges and public schools at the local level. Let's stop celebrating government failures, begin anew to address our problems squarely, and get to work on what needs to be done. I'm a taxpayer, and I want my money's worth from governments and to be able to feel good once more about governments that succeed -- federal, state, and local. That's what we should be looking to celebrate, not governments' failures.

Varieties of Buttercups

Washington -- So now an Iowa lawmaker will introduce a bill into the Iowa legislature to reduce funding for any public higher education institution that uses Iowa taxpayer dollars to provide safe spaces or otherwise "coddles" students who are upset with the outcome of the presidential election. He's got a great title for his bill: "Suck It Up, Buttercup."

Got me; I chuckled. The day before the election, I remarked to many people how bizarre it was for the national higher education trade press (CHE and IHE) to have more articles on the nuances of microaggressions than on the election. No wonder the outcome came as a shock to the higher ed community.

But on reflection, I think the Buttercup appellation needs expansion. The real Buttercups in this election are those tender souls who think they're owed a job in the same industries their fathers worked in, regardless of changes in the economy. These Buttercups are good at complaining about the lack of safe spaces for themselves, even as they drop out of school, take drugs, smoke, eat bad food, and take up all kinds of bad behaviors no one is forcing on them. These are Trump's Buttercups, many of whom are content to have their wives work two jobs while they drink beer down at the tavern and complain about how politicians have neglected them. Suck it up, Buttercup! Take a job, even a menial one alongside immigrants; if your bosses exploit you, form a union as your ancestors did. Go back to school. Economize by cancelling your cable television subscription. Grow a garden. If you're so smart, start a business. Relocate to where jobs exist, if you must. That's how your ancestors did it. Suck it up, Buttercup!

If you actually wound up in my classroom, I'd give you whatever safe space you need to work things out and get your life back on track, politics and all else aside. I've had many a student like you, especially when I taught for a community college under a Defense Department contract. I'll respect your views; you'll appreciate it. If you're a veteran, we'll have something in common. You'll learn a lot; so will I, from you. We'll get along fine. I won't actually tell you to suck it up. You'll figure that out for yourself.