North Platte Telegraph. March 2, 2014.
Introducing the $58,000 fat cat
It is an election year, and we hope Nebraskans are paying close attention to the debate — or should we say, "non-debate" — in Lincoln over reducing the state's punitive income tax rates.
Will 2014 be the year when voters finally, after virtually decades of promises by lawmakers to return the state to its low-tax Western ways, root out the big taxers, the big spenders and those who are stuck in neutral whenever the subject of taxes is addressed?
We're not holding our breath. But we suspect the frustration level of long-suffering taxpayers may be reaching the boiling point, after the announcement last year that the group appointed to study modernizing the tax system announced that they didn't intend to lower rates, just rearrange them.
Now this year, a chamber-backed proposal to reduce the top rate from 6.84 percent to less than 6 percent is apparently going nowhere, roundly dismissed as too expensive. Is it just our imagination, or is expense a much more serious topic among lawmakers when the subject turns to cutting taxes, far more of a deal killer than with the myriad other items upon which they spend our money?
When it comes to leaving money in your pocket, the state purse slams shut, and lawmakers become penny-pinching Jack Bennys.
We were struck this week by a story under the headline, "Tax questions remain," that ran on our front page. The World-Herald News Service story reported this:
"Right now, a married couple with as little as $58,000 in adjusted gross income pays the highest rate of 6.84 percent." The next paragraph went on to report that the median income in Nebraska currently stands at $52,000.
So, if you happen to be reckless enough to make $6,000 more than the median income, you are a certified fat cat, probably a shameless 1 percenter and eligible for a good 6.84-percent shakedown on your top income. One has to wonder what they're smoking over there in Lincoln if they think $58,000 merits the highest income tax rate.
While that little morsel would seem to support those who just want to rearrange the income tax rates in Nebraska, we would argue that it is an indication that this fish is odoriferous from the head down, and that — here's an idea — tax modernization that actually changes the tax system is long overdue. Until that happens, we remain at a serious disadvantage to next-door neighbors South Dakota and Wyoming, states that somehow get along just fine on no state income taxes at all. Imagine that.
Another story reported that the Legislature must juggle tax relief with prison overcrowding, state aid to schools, proposals to reduce conflicts over water and other issues. And of all the bills proposed, we challenge anyone to show us the determination to make expense cuts. We won't even ask for significant expense cuts. How is it possible that a state with a $5 billion budget cannot routinely find programs to eliminate? Elected officials seem to believe that their value is based on the number of new programs they can create, problems to solve and lives to save. And they feel soul satisfied in helping our fellow man — at the expense of everyone else. That is not altruism. It is self-serving glorification.
Where the long-beleaguered taxpayer ends up in that line of priorities remains to be seen, but at the moment, we appear to be bringing up the rear.
Perhaps this year, voters will be thinking about that in November. It could happen.
Fremont Tribune. March 1, 2014.
Breakfast isn't government's job
One way to help students succeed in school is to make sure they have a healthy breakfast each day.
A bill working its way through the Nebraska Legislature is designed to help more school districts encourage students to fuel up before the first bell rings. Sen. Bill Avery's bill would help create alternative breakfast programs, such as grab-and-go meals or food served in the classroom.
Grab-and-go meals typically can be made up the day before and are packed with easy-to-eat items such as a bagel with peanut butter or muffins and fruit. A carton of milk completes the meal. They are easy for students to grab as they walk into school.
Many of Nebraska's students aren't taking advantage of current school breakfast programs. The Associated Press reported that Nebraska has the third-lowest participation rate for free and reduced-price lunch students participating in school breakfast programs across the country. Only 31 percent of those who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals use a breakfast program, the Department of Education stated.
Sen. Avery's bill aims to change that. Over the next few years, it would make available grants to school districts that don't offer a breakfast program so they could implement one. The one-time grant would be available to districts where half of the students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. The bill would sunset in 2017 or when funds are depleted.
How important is breakfast for kids? Studies show that students who eat breakfast on average attend 1.5 days per year, score 17.5 percent higher on math tests and are 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school. Those benefits carry into adulthood. Studies show high school graduates earn $10,000 more per year than those who didn't achieve that level of education.
Ideally, every student would be able to eat a nutritious breakfast at home before heading off to school. Today's rushed world is far from ideal. So we need to take steps to help every student start the day off right.
One step is for parents to pack grab-and-go breakfasts for their own families. We also need to look for other local solutions that do not expand government's reach into our daily lives. Government can help by offering healthful suggestions, protecting the safety of our food and providing assistance to those in need, but that's really as far as it should go.
Breakfast is an important meal. But government shouldn't be setting our breakfast table.
McCook Daily Gazette. Feb. 27, 2014.
Younger farmers needed to keep ag on track
After years of declining farm numbers, we've come to expect more of the same.
It was a pleasant surprise, then, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture showed Nebraska bucking the national trend.
The report, released every five years, showed that the number of Nebraska farms increased 4.7 percent to 49,969 from 2007 to 2012.
The national ag census showed a 4 percent decline in the number of farms over that same period.
That was despite the fact that the amount of land being farmed fell about 148,000 acres, to 45.3 million.
That translated to the size of the average Nebraska farm falling from 953 acres to 907.
Fueling the increase in farm numbers was a boom in the market value of agricultural products, up 49 percent to just over $23 billion.
One thing that didn't improve — but did maintain status — was the age of the average farmer, 55.
That last number illustrates how important it is that young people be encouraged to get into agriculture, so that Americans have the plentiful supply of food and fiber they need.
Efforts like the "100 Cow, 100 Acre" program at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture are a step in the right direction.
The Curtis college's Ownership Advantage programs help connect farm and ranch owners with beginning farmers or ranchers to see to it that this vital industry continues far into the future.
The Grand Island Independent. Feb. 25, 2014.
To fight poverty, support marriage, intact families
Much has been written on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and the trillions of dollars that have been spent to improve the lives of the least fortunate among us.
Yet after 50 years, poverty statistics are little changed. The official measure of those living in poverty now stands at 15 percent...almost exactly the same as in the 1960s. Thus, the question: after so much money and so much effort, why are over 47 million people in the United States poor?
There aren't simple answers to this question. Some factors are beyond our control, such as rapid advances in technology and the globalization of labor. Both dramatically affected less educated and unskilled workers. Other adverse factors, however, were thought to be lessened by intelligent government policies. Those policies have not been as effective as was hoped.
Today, one factor in particular deserves greater attention: marriage. In 2012, among families headed by two married parents the poverty level was 7.5 percent. In families headed by a single mother, the level was 34 percent...over four times higher. In addition, children growing up in a home without a father are three times more likely to end up in jail and 50 percent more likely to be poor as adults.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the importance of marriage in avoiding poverty and other social ills, government and society haven't yet figured out how to effectively promote successful marriages. This is especially ironic in light of the huge costs involved in dealing with many children of single-parent families. The Heritage Foundation reports that these children are more likely to be physically abused, smoke, drink, drop out of high school, use drugs, and engage in violent and criminal behavior.
Of course, not all single-parent children fit into any of these categories. There are almost heroic single parents (especially mothers) who raise wonderful children. But both statistics and common sense tell us that intact families are ideal, and an important part of a cohesive society.
Government can help by rethinking existing tax and welfare policies, and how they are linked to marriage. At present the focus is almost exclusively on helping those who aren't married, or aren't raising children in intact marriages. There are almost no incentives or rewards for marriages and intact families. Many critics summarize current government policies by saying they subsidize failure and ignore success.
The statistics are stunning and absolutely awful. After 50 years, it's time to try some new ideas.