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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

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Omaha World-Herald. Jan. 29, 2016

Samantha Flynn's triumph is an inspiration.

The tragedy at the Von Maur department store rocked Omahans in December 2007. The community reeled for months after mentally troubled Robbie Hawkins gunned down eight innocent people and wounded five others.

Eight years later, many of us have largely moved on. We might reflect on the shootings during the holidays or as we pass the plaque commemorating Beverly Flynn, Janet Jorgensen, Gary Joy, John McDonald, Gary Scharf, Angie Schuster, Dianne Trent and Maggie Webb. But for their friends, co-workers and families, moving on isn't so simple. They will carry their grief the rest of their lives.

That is what makes the story of Samantha Flynn remarkable. She was 13 when her mother, Beverly, was killed. Instead of allowing her grief to become bitterness, Flynn has found balance in her life. Yes, she remembers her anger, grief and frustration after the slayings, but she also remembers the love and support that enfolded her family.

As Flynn recounted in Thursday's World-Herald, she credits her mother for her strength — strength that supported her again in 2011, when another troubled young man burst into her high school, Millard South, killing Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar and wounding two others.

Now 21 and a college senior, Samantha Flynn says that her career choice, criminal justice, is her way of thanking the community. Her mother, she writes, continues to inspire her.

But Samantha, thanks go to you, too. For inspiring us.


The McCook Daily Gazette. Jan. 27, 2016

Uninsured young Nebraskans caught in healthcare dilemma.

Gov. Ricketts vehemently opposes expansion of Nebraska's Medicaid program in line with the Affordable Care Act, saying it places the state budget at unreasonable risk.

Rejected three times in three years, expanding Medicaid eligibility would add primarily able-bodied adults to the program, Ricketts said, and adding that he doesn't trust the federal government's promise of matching at least 90 percent of the cost.

Many health care providers don't accept Medicaid patients because it reimburses about half of what private insurance does, and adding tens of thousands of new enrollees for the limited number of providers who take Medicaid would overload the system.

This year's Medicaid expansion proposal would use tax dollars to buy private insurance for Medicaid patients, but Ricketts said a similar program in Arkansas has expanded out of control.

After six months, the Arkansas program had expanded by $137 million, or 61 percent over budget. Now, more than 40 percent of Arkansas citizens are on Medicaid, making it one of the most Medicaid-dependent states in the nation, Gov. Ricketts said.

Medicaid has grown from 2.9 percent of the Nebraska state budget to almost 20 percent, and a 2015 study found that expanding coverage with private insurance would cost 94 percent more than traditional Medicaid, Ricketts said.

If taxpayers don't pay for additional healthcare, however, who does?

With Sunday being the deadline for signing up for Obamacare, millions of young adults will be facing fiscal realities as fines climb for not having insurance.

The minimum penalty is $695 in 2016 for someone uninsured a full 12 months and not eligible for one of the law's exemptions, more than double last year's $325.

That's the minimum, but it will be higher for many, because the law sets the penalty as the greater of $695 or 2.5 percent of taxable income this year. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation estimates the average 2016 penalty at $969 per uninsured household.

The IRS enforces the law, usually by deducting fines from tax refunds. The penalty will be increased by a cost of living factor in the future.

So where does that leave us?

For many, especially young working Nebraskans, it means jobs that don't offer insurance or pay enough to buy private policies, and being fined for not having coverage.

For others who have insurance, and the health care providers who serve them, it means higher prices to provide piecemeal, expensive, medical care to those who don't.

Sounds a lot like the situation before the Affordable Care Act was passed.


The Lincoln Journal Star. Jan. 30, 2016

Time to take the hint

The decision by the NCAA to allow beer and wine to be sold at the College World Series in Omaha is another hint to the NU athletic department to loosen its rigid no-alcohol stance at UNL.

A consultant report last year revealed that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was the only institution among 37 members of the Power 5 Conferences in the survey that refused to allow a drop of alcohol in any of its sports facilities.

The consultants said the reasons for the national trend include a desire to boost revenue, to discourage binge drinking before a game and because fans want it.

All those reasons provide a solid rationale on why beer should be sold at the Pinnacle bank Arena.

The NCAA said the alcohol sales at the College World Series would be a one-year pilot program.

Jack Diesing Jr., president of Omaha's local organizing group, said a decision on whether to continue the sales would be made after comparing alcohol-related incidents to previous years.

"We're moving slowly but surely into the 21st century in determining what's good for the fans," Diesing said. "This allows controlled access to beer and wine at concession stands, and I think it'll work out to be a fan-friendly result."

It may be counter-intuitive, but the NCAA reports that schools that sell alcohol at events report a decline in alcohol-related incidents. "Theories suggest that making alcohol available in the stadium prevents incidents of binge drinking before events and discourages people from attempting to bring outside alcohol into the venue," the NCAA said.

After the NCAA announcement on alcohol sales at the CWS, NU athletic director Shawn Eichorst reiterated his opposition to alcohol sales. In an interview with the Journal Star Eichorst said , "And our students, they'd like for us to be able to keep it the way it is. They love the environments we're in in which we compete."

It's worth pointing out, however, that Eichorst's comments were limited to student views as expressed by an advisory committee that represents student athletes.

A broader expression of students views is reflected by a resolution passed by UNL student government, which encouraged NU leaders to talk about allowing alcohol at the arena and nearby Haymarket Park, where the Husker baseball team plays.

In the context of national trends and fan preference it seems inevitable that sooner or later UNL will allow alcohol sales at both locations, which already have equipment and trained staff for serving alcohol. It's certainly time to start talking seriously about it.


The Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Jan. 28, 2016

Changes in drone regulations could change the way we work.

Imagine a tornado rips through your town. The destruction is vast. The carnage and devastation goes on for miles.

A newspaper reporter who wants to tell the story of the disaster has a few options. He can walk the streets and take photographs. He can talk to people who lived through the event.

But even the most gifted of descriptive writers will struggle to convey to the reader the sheer scale of the wreckage.

Enter drone journalism.

Digital cameras mounted to flying, remote-operated aircraft can convey the scale and context of a natural disaster such as a tornado.

For University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Matt Waite, journalism professor and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at UNL, drones open the door to another realm of storytelling.

"Getting a shot from the air adds a level of perspective you just can't get from the ground," Waite told me in an interview.

The storytelling power of a drone became evident to Waite when he saw a BBC video of the Auschwitz concentration camp. It wasn't until he saw the video that he realized how large the camp was. "It was breathtaking," he said.

Those who attended the Scottsbluff-Gering Chamber of Commerce awards banquet on Tuesday can attest to that. The Chamber showed a drone-shot video of changes to the local business landscape, including flyovers of new hotels, restaurants, car dealerships and construction at Scottsbluff High School. The perspective a drone can provide is dramatic and oftentimes effective.

Our problem in the news business is the amount of red tape we have to get through to appease the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to legally operate a drone.

According to Waite, the three primary categories for drone operators are government, hobbyists and commercial. The FAA considers journalism to be a commercial activity.

If you're not flying for the mere fun of it, Waite said, then the FAA requires specific authorization. A commercial operator must file for a 333 grant of exemption, an authorization certificate, the drone must be registered with the FAA and, here's the kicker, the operator must have a pilot's license.

According to a report in the Columbia Journalism Review, in 2012, Waite and his UNL students used an unmanned aerial vehicle to take video of the drought conditions along the North Platte River. A year later the FAA sent him a cease-and-desist letter telling him to ground his drones.

So Waite spent last summer working to get his pilot's license. After receiving his license, Waite filed for his exemption in September and has been waiting to hear from the FAA ever since.

I asked Waite about Legislative Bill 720, proposed for this session in the Unicameral by Sen. John Kuehn, which would make "the unauthorized capture of images by unmanned aerial vehicles a trespassing offense."

From Kuehn's website: "As the technology advances, the law regarding an individual's right to privacy with drones flying over personal private property and taking photos and videos has not kept pace. LB 720 requires express permission to capture an image over private property using a drone flying below 200 feet. It does not affect the flying or use of drones, but rather protects citizens, their homes, businesses and farms from unauthorized photos and videos."

Waite said he has sympathy for the bill, but had some questions about the evidentiary rules. It'll be nearly impossible to determine at what height the drone was flying when it captured video, for one. Property lines are invisible, for two.

A potential problem could arise if a farmer who is using an unmanned aerial vehicle to map his field overshot a little and inadvertently took video of his neighbor's land.

Some opposition among the agriculture and livestock community has arisen out of distrust over operators' agendas, namely environmental and animal rights' activists.

"That fear runs deep around here," Waite said.

He said he has heard of drones being shot down all over the country.

When he's able to conduct the class, Waite tells his students to avoid flying drones over property, especially if they have a reason to believe it will be considered antagonistic. He recommends talking to a landowner and getting permission.

Everything could change this year for those of us who would like to take video with unmanned aerial vehicles. The FAA has set a spring deadline for new guidelines which would legalize commercial drone use.

Amazon has said it will start delivering packages via drone as soon as the FAA makes it legal. I don't need a drone to deliver me a pizza, but I'd like to be able to fly one over a prairie fire, blizzard or a train wreck.


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