Fischer introduces bill named for Gretna couple who died after fire on cruise ship in Peru

Fischer introduces bill named for Gretna couple who died after fire on cruise ship in Peru
Larry and Christy Hammer of Gretna, who died on an Amazon cruise April 10, 2016, with daughters Kelly Hammer Lankford, left, and Jill Hammer Malott.

Three years ago, Larry and Christy Hammer set off on an Amazon cruise in Peru.

The retired Gretna couple’s cabin caught fire on April 10, 2016. Larry died on the ship, and Christy died en route to a hospital, according to the harbor master.

A Peruvian navy report found that a power strip provided by the cruise charter company, International Expeditions, caused the fire and that the cabin’s fire alarm didn’t work.

In response to their deaths and their daughters’ efforts to collect compensation, “Hammer’s Law” was introduced this week by Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer. It’s an attempt to address a federal law that doesn’t allow the Hammers’ two daughters to collect compensation.

The Death on the High Seas Act of 1920 was amended in 2000 to address people who die in airline accidents, “but cruise ship provisions have remained in the pre-World War II era,” Fischer said.

An attorney hired by the family said the act bars the recovery of damages that are typically allowed in a wrongful death case, such as a family’s pain and suffering.

The Hammers didn’t have wages as retirees, and their daughters are not dependents, Fischer said, so the amount of compensation available to their daughters is restricted. Compensation likely would have been available for a similar incident on land.

“Those who knowingly prioritize profits over consumer safety should be held accountable,” Fischer wrote in her weekly column.

“The only way we have found to move forward from the loss of our parents is by working to prevent future tragedies from devastating more families,” said Jill Hammer Malott and Kelly Hammer Lankford in a press release from Fischer.

State: Property tax plan would provide relief — but cost Nebraskans more for a variety of goods, services

LINCOLN — The State Legislature’s tax committee outlined a property tax reduction proposal Wednesday night that would deliver about $466 million in relief in the first year by substantially boosting state spending on K-12 schools.

The package is in defiance of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ call for no new taxes.

In an effort to garner the support of urban senators, the bill would also allow the Omaha school district an exception so it could increase its property tax levy to raise about $12 million a year to help close a $771 million gap in its teacher pension program.

While backers of the proposal said it would provide tax relief for all Nebraska taxpayers, at least two rural members of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee questioned whether it did enough for farmers and ranchers, who have been hit hard by property tax increases in recent years.

State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, a farmer who represents a rural central Nebraska district, said the plan needs an additional $300 million a year if it is to provide meaningful help to rural constituents.

“We’re presented with a generational opportunity to deliver on Nebraskans’ demand for property tax relief. We’re not going to take advantage of this if we sell ourselves short,” Briese said. Said Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, “This doesn’t do anything to fix the ($1 billion) shift on ag producers.”

But Sens. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn and Mike Groene of North Platte, the main authors of the proposal outlined Wednesday night, disputed that.

“Everybody wins a little, but nobody is 100% happy,” Linehan said. “That is how we get big things done.”

Groene said that every school district in the state would see increases in state aid and that all landowners would see a drop in their property valuation. A spending cap based on the consumer price index combined with new construction would, he said, ensure that the property tax reductions in the bill would be for the long term, unlike past efforts to cut property taxes.

“Everybody wins,” said the senator, who leads the Legislature’s Education Committee.

Their proposal, Legislative Bill 289, is tentatively slated for a public hearing on April 18 at 1 p.m. But the initial disagreement within the Revenue Committee doesn’t bode well for providing a comprehensive solution to an age-old gripe in the Cornhusker State: Property taxes are too high.

If all eight senators on the committee backed such a plan, it would send a strong signal of support to the 41 other state senators. If not? That sends a different message. Both Briese and Friesen said they could not support the bill at this point but are open to amendments.

Linehan urged her colleagues — some of whom have worked on property tax reform for years — to craft a bill that will gain 33 votes in the Legislature to withstand a likely veto by Ricketts, who has lampooned the idea of raising some taxes to lower other taxes.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Ricketts said on Wednesday, describing the Legislature’s proposals as a “scheme” in a luncheon speech to the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce.

The main features of LB 289, as presented Wednesday night, would:

» Increase state sales taxes by ½ cent, raising $171 million a year.

» Tax now-exempt pop and candy, raising another $30 million.

» Use most of the state property tax credit, which is budgeted at $224 million this next year.

» Earmark the estimated $51 million in new revenue from out-of-state Internet retailers for tax relief.

» Tax plumbing and moving services, about $13 million.

» Increase cigarette taxes by 36 cents a pack, raising about $29 million

» Reduce the valuation of ag land for property tax purposes to 65% of its value, and residential and commercial property to 90%. Currently, they are valued at 75% and 100%, respectively.

The tax relief would be funneled through the state’s program of state aid to schools through a complicated set of changes that would provide “foundation aid” to all school districts, particularly those mostly rural districts that get no so-called equalization aid from the state now. All school districts in the state, Groene said, would get an increase in state aid, with some of the smallest districts getting the most percentagewise.

The Omaha school district would get about $21 million more in the first year, just under a 10% hike, Groene calculated, with Millard getting $15 million more and Bellevue, an additional $2.7 million. By contrast, state aid to the rural Syracuse-Dunbar-Avoca Public Schools would increase 20-fold, to $2.4 million a year, and one of the tiniest school districts in the state, Loup County in the Sand Hills, would get a 50-fold state aid bump, to $361,000 a year.

Overall, Linehan said the increase in state aid to K-12 schools would put Nebraska more in line with the national average. Now, Nebraska ranks 46th in such state aid.

Ricketts didn’t get a lot of love for his property tax relief proposals from the Revenue Committee on Wednesday.

The committee fell one vote short of advancing his proposed constitutional amendment to limit property tax revenue increases to 3% a year. The committee did advance the governor’s proposal to increase the property tax credit program by $51 million, but because LB 303 isn’t prioritized, it’s unclear if it would be debated this year.

Nebraska GOP calls on Creighton to replace Kerrey as commencement speaker because of abortion views

The Nebraska GOP has asked Creighton University to rescind its invitation to Bob Kerrey to speak at the university’s commencement because of his position on abortion.

The state party’s executive director sent a press release Thursday saying Creighton should find a different commencement speaker.

“Creighton is a Jesuit institution formally affiliated with the Catholic Church, one of the country’s most consistent and reliable advocates for pro-life causes,” Executive Director Ryan Hamilton said. “Nebraska is a pro-life state and Republicans are a pro-life party. We strongly urge Creighton to take a stand for their pro-life values and find a more appropriate figure to honor at their upcoming commencement.”

Creighton declined to comment on the situation Thursday.

Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, said he will not speak if he feels that he will be a distraction.

“I don’t want this to be about me,” Kerrey said of the ceremony. “It’s about the students.”

Creighton’s commencement is May 18 at the CHI Health Center. There are two Creighton ceremonies that day.

It isn’t clear whether Kerrey is to speak at both, but most of the university’s commencement speakers do.

Creighton decided earlier this year to disinvite TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts for an awards ceremony.

Ricketts is a Catholic and the father of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican.

The university made the decision in February, when emails from 2009 to ’13 were made public in which Joe Ricketts participated in racist jokes, conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama and the derision of Islam. Ricketts has apologized and said the emails don’t reflect his values.

Hamilton said that was not a factor in the decision to send the press release.

Kerrey’s son, Ben, received a bachelor’s degree from Creighton in the 1990s and is now a physician in Cincinnati, Kerrey said.

“I just feel duty-bound to give back to Creighton,” he said.

He isn’t a Catholic, but his son is.

In the press release, Hamilton said Kerrey “voted against banning the grisly and inhumane practice of partial birth abortion” while in the Senate and has an extremely low lifetime score with National Right to Life.

Hamilton said in an interview that some Nebraska Republicans and stakeholders agreed that the party should speak up.

“We also wanted to speak out for our pro-life beliefs,” he said. Kerrey and the Catholics differ widely on the issue of abortion, he said. “It doesn’t make sense” to have him speak there, he said.

The press release calls Kerrey a “pro-abortion advocate.”

Kerrey said that kind of term is “the language of a fringe organization. … That’s what you do when you’re trying to get attention.”

Kerrey said he supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which prohibited many restrictions on abortion in the U.S.

“That doesn’t make you pro-abortion,” he said. “That makes you pro-civil rights.”

He said it has become hard to have a conversation over disparate political views in today’s environment. He said he will decide soon on whether he will speak at the ceremony.

Nebraska lawmakers question Medicaid officials over cost, complexity of expansion plan

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers grilled state officials Thursday over the cost and complexity of the administration’s plan for carrying out voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

In particular, they questioned why the Department of Health and Human Services wants more money to implement the expansion, despite delaying the launch of services until Oct. 1, 2020.

Agency officials unveiled their plan for covering an estimated 94,000 low-income Nebraskans last week.

Under the plan, those newly eligible Nebraskans will have different benefits and requirements than others on Medicaid. To get full coverage, they would have to work, care for a family member, volunteer, look for work, attend college or take part in an apprenticeship.

On Thursday, Medicaid officials unveiled their new budget request at a briefing for lawmakers.

State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman, challenged the officials about approximately $23 million of state funds in the request that he described as a “cushion” and a “buffer.”

“That’s something our committee will have to discuss,” he said. “Appropriations are awful precious.”

The total includes $11.2 million listed in the request as “contingency” funds. Stinner calculated the remaining $12 million as the amount that the state should be saving by launching the expansion nine months later than originally anticipated.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ budget recommendations called for spending $49 million on a full 12 months’ worth of health care services for newly eligible people in fiscal year 2020-21.

The new budget figures called for spending $46 million on nine months’ worth of services, based on the Oct. 1 start date.

Deputy Medicaid Director Jeremy Brunssen said the new request assumes that more people will sign up for expansion coverage immediately. The earlier figures assumed that enrollment would grow over time.

He said the contingency funds were included based on the experience of other states, which have seen higher-than-expected Medicaid expansion enrollments. States also have encountered federal penalties for enrolling people who were not eligible.

“There’s a lot of risk in that,” Brunssen said. “We want to make sure we have the dollars to pay for the benefits for these new people that are coming on.”

Other senators questioned the amount sought for administrative costs, which was more than three times higher in the new request than in the governor’s original request.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln said that tracking whether the newly eligible have completed work, study or other requirements to get a higher tier of coverage adds administrative costs to the system.

Under the administration plan, working age adults without disabilities would be offered two levels of coverage, basic and prime.

The basic coverage would be modeled after a Blue Cross Blue Shield small group insurance plan, rather than traditional Medicaid coverage. The prime level would include additional benefits such as dental, vision and over-the-counter medications.

Nebraska will have to seek federal approval of a so-called 1115 demonstration waiver to adopt the two-tier program. That process can take several months. Specifics of the coverage provided under each tier would be worked out with federal officials.

In the first year, to move up to prime coverage, people would have to cooperate with care management activities offered by the state’s Medicaid managed care contractors. They also would have to choose a primary care provider and attend an annual checkup.

In the second year, the newly eligible group would have to meet “community engagement” requirements to get prime coverage. Those include caring for a family member or spending at least 80 hours a month volunteering for a public charity, attending a postsecondary school, being in an apprenticeship, working or looking for work.

Those newly eligible under expansion include single adults and couples without minor children, who cannot qualify for Medicaid now, even if their incomes are very low. Also included are parents and disabled people with incomes higher than the current Medicaid cutoff.

Citizens who make up to 138% of the federal poverty level — $16,753 for a single person or $34,638 for a family of four — will be eligible. Noncitizens are not eligible.

Medicaid is a federal-state collaboration covering more than 70 million people, or about 1 in 5 Americans, and that makes it the largest government health insurance program. Expansion of the program was made possible by the federal Affordable Care Act. Under that law, the federal government will pick up 90% of the cost for covering the additional Nebraskans.

Nebraska Attorney General testifies about efforts to crack down on illegal robocalls

WASHINGTON — The maddening nuisance of spam robodialers is well known to anyone who has experienced a flurry of random calls from Slovenia or Azerbaijan.

Or maybe the caller ID is “spoofed” to indicate a local call, but the unfamiliar voice on the other end is asking for a credit card number to address money due the IRS.

With the volume of such calls exploding these days — 48 billion made in 2018 — consumers are shouldering most of the burden to protect themselves from annoyance or serious fraud, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson testified Thursday.

“They have downloaded apps for their smartphones or enrolled in a service provided by their carrier — yet the problem continues to grow,” Peterson said. “So we must do more.”

Peterson was among the witnesses at a Senate Commerce Committee subcommittee hearing highlighting a push for the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act.

Peterson has helped lead his fellow state attorneys general in urging passage of that legislation, aimed at mitigating illegal robocalls and spoofing.

It would require voice service providers to use call authentication to help block unwanted calls, as well as create an interagency working group and make changes intended to help federal regulators come down harder on bad actors.

The Commerce Committee unanimously advanced the legislation last week, and it has already garnered the bipartisan support of about half the Senate.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., is a member of the Commerce Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. At Thursday’s hearing, she asked Peterson about how to get to the root of the problem.

“It is so irritating to have these calls 24 hours a day from numbers that you think must be a neighbor calling,” Fischer said. “They spoof you on it.”

Experts say the solution lies in a mix of technology and aggressive enforcement of prohibitions on the activity.

Peterson said those behind the robocalls often see government fines as simply the cost of doing business, so criminal penalties could be more effective than civil action — but even that is no silver bullet.

“One of the challenges, whether or not it’s a civil penalty, or a criminal penalty, is the ability to get our hands around these people … to actually get them in a headlock,” Peterson said. “That’s not easy to do.”

Another part of the balancing act is trying to ensure that legitimate calls, including automated ones, aren’t caught up in the blocking.

Many people, after all, appreciate robocalls when they’re conveying flight delay information, credit card fraud alerts or a doctor’s appointment reminder.

Backers of the bill say they will be working through those concerns but don’t envision significant changes to the bill as they try to move it quickly through the Senate.

Peterson stressed the role of technology in identifying and blocking illegitimate calls.

“Stopping illegal calls before they reach consumers is especially important because, unlike legitimate callers, these nuisance callers will not be deterred by the prospect of enforcement, knowing that they will be very difficult to locate,” Peterson said.