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A number of you have told me that you don’t look forward to reading the column on your computer screen. That’s not necessary if you have a printer. Print out the column and take it with you to the breakfast table or wherever else you choose to read printed material. (You can also call up past columns in case you missed them.)
And, if you haven’t already done so, let us know your e-mail address so that we can send you a weekly reminder when a new column is available.
January 14, 2010
Nebraskans will hope, of course, that even a 60-legislative-days session of the Legislature will leave time for serious consideration of important state issues in addition to the must-decide-now issue involving taxes, spending and producing a balanced budget.
Those budget-balancing issues and the important longer-term issues—protecting the state’s underground water supply, for example—shouldn’t be impeded by consideration of issues that don’t require immediate attention or, in some cases, arent’ worthy of much attention in this or any other legislative session.
In this latter category, it seems to me, is yet another proposal to bail out the horseracing industry. The legislators will be asked to authorize a popular vote on the question of amending the state constitution so that there can be pari-mutuel gambling on horseracing at locations scattered across the state—something like the legal equivalent of what used to be called “bookie joints.”
At a time when people are pressed economically (even though Nebraska is much better off than most other states in this regard), it simply doesn’t make sense to entice them to lose money by making pari-mutuel more available throughout the state.
The president of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (protective of people who benefit from breeding and running racehorses), made an incredible statement in support of the proposed constitutional amendment: the additional pari-mutuel gambling sites would not amount to expanded gambling because the state already allows betting on horse races.
How’s that again? If more legal pari-mutuel gambling sites were scattered around the state, there would be no expanded gambling? Then what’s the point in pushing for more legal gambling sites?
Another legislative non-starter, as I see it, should be the proposal to increase the state gasoline tax 5 cents a gallon to finance completion of the last 174 miles of the four-lane, limited access “expressway” state highway system.
Keep in mind that the “expressway system” concept was not that of highway engineers who saw the need for such a system but rather the desire of legislators 20 years ago to see that their legislative districts shared in the four-lane “expressway” concept popularized by the Federal interstate highway system.
As usual, there are proposals on which the Legislature shouldn’t waste any time at all. For example, a bill that suggests that the Legislature ask Nebraskans to adopt a constitutional amendment rolling back salaries paid to the governor and other state officials, imbedding those lower salaries in the state constitution, where they can only be increased by another vote of the people.
One speculates that this would be a sort of revenge for—or at least call attention to—the fact that legislative salaries have been frozen into the Constitution at the $12,000 level, despite efforts to win voter approval of larger salaries or create a mechanism for legislative salaries.
Legislative salaries do need to be increased—the subject is currently under legislative consideration—but it makes no sense at all to try to “spread the inequity” by proposing that other state officials’ salaries be reduced. (The governor’s compensation, for example, would be cut from $105,000 to $85,000 a year.)
* * *
The Legislature’s attention will be focused on water issues in this short session, thanks to a proposal from State Senator Tom Carlson of Holdrege—a proposal strongly endorsed editorially by The Omaha World-Herald.
But the initial explanation of Carlson’s proposal—and the initial reaction to it—are potentially more disquieting than comforting, as I see it.
In the first place, it has been reported that Carlson’s target is to protect the Ogallala aquifer which underlies a good portion of Nebraska. But the impact of perhaps irreversible depletion of the state’s underground water resources extends beyond the limits of the Ogallala aquifer.
And the supposed protective limitations mentioned by Senator Carlson seem to me to be potentially dangerously too lenient. For example:
Carlson has said that lowering of the Ogallala aquifer’s saturation level would, under his legislation, face these restrictions: When decline in the level exceed 10%, wells would be metered and water allocations would be made if they weren’t already in place. A depletion of more than 20% would cut water withdrawal allocations in half. And a 30% decline in the underground water level would shut off the irrigation wells altogether.
My reaction, after years of studying the frequently unwise use or exploitation of Nebraska’s water resources, would be that to allow a 30% decline in the Ogallala aquifer levels before shutting off pumping would be a potential disaster. Senator Carlson said that when the aquifer levels recovered, pumping could start again. But we are told that the average rate of recharge is one inch annually over the aquifer’s eight-state region.
Even with pumping stopped altogether, how many years would it take to recharge the 200-foot to 1,000-fot deep aquifer in Nebraska to its pre-existing level if the recharge rate were in the neighborhood of one inch a year?
There may be a good answer to this question, if so Senator Carlson and his supporters should come forward with this, clearly and promptly.
I commend Senator Carlson for his concern. I’m just suggesting that any legislation should be very carefully crafted, after consultation with hydrologists and other water experts who can provide facts and recommendations which can stand up under the pressure which can come from irrigation interests who may be thinking of the next summer, not the next generation.
The irony—I hope it isn’t a tragic irony—is that Nebraska was warned more than a half century ago by the director of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation that it was not too early to start adopting legal machinery to protect the state’s precious water resources. And while I was working at World-Herald Square (so you know it was more than 20 years ago), we devoted a summer of intensive news coverage to the water issues facing Nebraska. In 1980 we printed a broadsheet compilation of these articles under the title: “Water: Will It Last?”
The question still hasn’t been answered.
* * *
Another water issue of extreme importance to Nebraska and, indeed, to the nation, since the stream is a true national treasure. The issue: protection of the scenic and recreational and ecological diversity of the Niobrara River basin.
The Niobrara valley’s importance in the national scheme of things has been recognized by designation of a 76-mile stretch as a federally-protected scenic and recreational river. Putting the river in its position of unique importance is the fact that it is the only place in the United States where six plant species systems—from eastern hardwood to prairie grass to Rocky Mountain forest—come together.
There are strong legislative interests at work to weaken the Niobrara Council, created under federal mandate with power to negotiate environmental easements which preserve the nationally important integrity of the Niobrara River. There are landowners, primarily ranchers along the stream, who would like to use more Niobrara water for irrigation. They hope to do this by reducing the power of the Niobrara Council.
We have allowed portions of the Platte and Republican Rivers to be pumped dry during some stretches in some summers. It would be a tragedy to allow that—or something even approaching that—to happen to a scenic and recreational river which means so much to so many Nebraskans, not just to those who own property along its banks.
* * *
It was entirely predictable.
After a front page story had spotlighted the fact that Federally-promoted overly liberal mortgage loans had left many homebuyers unable to pay off their mortgages, housing prices fell, The New York Times came up with this solution:
Put White House pressure on reducing the amount of the mortgage, thus rescuing the borrowers from the mistake of taking on larger loans than they could afford to repay.
Who pays the bill for the mortgage reductions? The Times indicated that the Obama administration should have pressed lenders “to grant principal reductions.” Since this wasn’t done, who may be expected to pick up the tab? The banks and other lenders? More likely the target is you, Mr. Taxpayer.
* * *
Let’s hear it for—and from—my readers, or at least two of them
A very nice note of sympathy and understanding came from an Omaha reader following my report of the sorrow which we felt recently when we said goodbye to our senior Cocker spaniel, sweet Sarah, who had to be put to sleep a month short of her 14th birthday.
The Omaha reader sent an e-mail saying she knew what Marian and I were going through, explaining that “we lost our Yorkie, Jake, early on the morning of his 13th birthday…We still choke up thinking about him. He was a mama’s boy and would wait by the door to the garage waiting for me to come home whenever I would leave the house.”
This reminded me of how many times Sarah would sit looking at the door—or sometimes go to sleep right at the base of the door—through which she knew her beloved mistress would be returning.
A longtime reader and friend, Maxine Christensen of Exira, Iowa, a fellow newspaper columnist, wrote to tell Marian and me of her family’s love affair with a dog named “Bandit,” given to them by a man who said he had to find a home for the dog or put him to sleep. As related in her column—and as you might have expected—Bandit soon took charge and lived to reach 16 when he developed cancer and had to be put to sleep.
“We both cried, brought him home and one of our sons helped bury him right outside our kitchen window. We put up a small marker, which is still there;” Maxine wrote.
Maxine says her boys are wanting her to come live with one of them and “That I will absolutely not do!”
I will close for the day with that remarkable declaration of independence from my 88-year-old friend.
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