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Leavenworth goes after the Don

Do those guys over at Leavenworth Street have any idea who they’re messing with?

The Don — as in, Don Walton, the esteemed, 50-plus-year veteran political reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star.

The Republicans on Leavenworth Street are ticked at Don for writing a couple of weeks ago that the Nebraska Republican Party was listed as a client of Maptitude, a company that sells software that presumably helps make gerrymandering easier on the brain — the better to buttress Democrats’ contention that Republicans played politics with district boundaries. Well. The GOP was a client… in 2001. But not now.

Once the error was pointed out to Don, he Tweeted about the mistake and changed the item in his online column. That was not enough for Leavenworth, who spanked Don for merely enlightening the electronic readers, but not informing those poor people who still just read the actual newspaper.

So the ever-affable Don tried to appease Leavenworth yet again yesterday, with a column item (third one down) clarifying that his original column was unintentionally misleading, since the GOP is not actually a client of Maptitude anymore. Leavenworth is still not exactly happy.

I remember a few months after joining the Journal Star, I learned a story of mine had not one, but two mistakes in it. That was the day I learned of the Journal Star’s rather draconian correction policy: If you made five or more mistakes within a year, you were basically put on suspension. And then if you made another mistake within three months, you were hanged by your toenails, or fired. Or something along those lines. They didn’t mention that until I made two mistakes in one day. That was not a good day.

I had never worked for a paper with such a policy, and it was a frequent source of irritation to the reporters who did not cover Rainbows and Butterflies. Like political reporters who wrote stories with all kinds of numbers in them, stories that required the reporter to actually do math, or stories that attempted to explain something like Tax Increment Financing. In addition, those same reporters were often crankers: They wrote one or two stories per day, on average, as opposed to those on the more relaxed one-column-a-week schedule.

So on top of the fact that certain reporters write a much bigger volume of words per year — thereby increasing the chance they’d make a mistake — they were covering much more complicated subjects. But no matter: The rules were the rules and they applied to everyone, uniformly. Oh, and if you made a mistake and didn’t correct it, you could be fired. Didn’t matter whether it was an error that “substantially changed the meaning of the story” (the World-Herald standard at the time — although they so rarely printed corrections we doubted that was even the threshhold). And clarifying the mistake in a subsequent column was never acceptable when I worked for the LJS.

A reporter actually told me she avoided ever using numbers in stories to avoid making a mistake. Another young, brazen reporter told me she simply did not report her mistakes — that was a risk she was willing to take (she got by with it, by the way). That was the kind of hysteria the policy fostered.

But getting back to the Don-Leavenworth fight: I am surprised Don didn’t run a correction right away, in the paper, but then I’ve seen a lot of mistakes in recent months and no corrections. So either nobody noticed, nobody cared, or nobody enforces much of a correction policy at all anymore.

More interesting to me is the back story: I was out of state when I got the same tip Don apparently got: That the Republicans were clients of Maptitude. I knew I didn’t have time to call the GOP about it, so I didn’t mess with it. A political operative tipped me off, and I’d bet a subscription to Leavenworth Street that the same guy tipped off Don. Don just made the mistake of not calling the GOP for comment, where he would have undoubtedly learned they were no longer customers. Happens to the best of us.

But then Leavenworth gave Don one final blow, with this:

And we are also very cognizant that this sort of “mistake” would not have been made against Ben Nelson. It just wouldn’t have. And if it had, it would have been corrected and retracted until we were all sick of it.

And we all know that. But every once in a while, it needs to be said.

Being a political reporter is not always fun — you make a mistake, you’ll be hanged. If not by your boss, by the bloggers.


Weird sites along the highway

This story explains why I saw three skateboarders rolling along a highway while I was driving from South Dakota to Lincoln last week. Then again, I’d seen buffalo, a falcon, pheasants and damn near hit a half dozen wild turkeys, too, so nothing surprised me at that point (sorry the photo is blurry: I was driving and taking a picture at the same time!) Although it looks like this kid is walking, he is actually skateboarding. Uphill. On a long, lonely highway:


Fire union head OK with Casady becoming public safety head

The head of Lincoln’s firefighters’ union says the group doesn’t have an opinion on the mayor’s decision to make the police chief the head of a public safety department, overseeing both the police and fire chiefs.

Dave Engler, president of the Lincoln Firefighters Association, which represents about 270 fire employees, said the union was never asked for input on creating a public safety head.

“We were told this is the way it’s going to be,” he said. “My boss will be the fire chief. That’s who we will still deal with.”

He said Police Chief Tom Casady is an intelligent guy.

“I’m not one to say that the sky’s falling because he has the ability to bring a lot to the table,” Engler said.

While the relationship between police officers and firefighters is traditionally tense, Engler said in Lincoln the two have a “professional working relationship” that’s not as strong as in some cities. In some cities, police fraternize with firefighters at the stations.

“We get along to some extent, I would say,” he said. “I don’t think it’s (their relationship) as strong as it is in some cities.”

On another fire issue, Engler said his union is close to a contract with the city. In Omaha, the mayor’s decision to proceed with a fire union agreement has come under fire because it would be approved before the new state law governing negotiations goes into effect. However, Engler said the new law wouldn’t have any effect on the agreement – which calls for no raises for firefighters next year, even though salary surveys indicate they are entitled to an increase.

Firefighters took heat earlier this year for getting 6 percent raises this year, plus longevity bonuses that pushed some raises past 10 percent. Engler said the union negotiated 0 percent raises the year prior, and some city officials expressed concern that if they didn’t take raises this year they would just fall farther behind on salaries and then have to catch up in coming years.

That conflicts with some city officials’ claims that if the city didn’t approve the 6 percent raise this year, the fire union would likely go to the state Commission of Industrial Relations and get an even bigger raise.

“This year we’re taking 0 percent because you’re never gonna win in this,” Engler said.

I give the firefighters props for that — and a demerit to the mayor’s office for portraying firefighters as willing to run to the CIR, when in reality they offered to take no raise at all this year.


Americans for Prosperity calls on Suttle to wait on fire contract

Americans for Prosperity-Nebraska is calling on Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle to hold off on signing a new contract with Omaha firefighters until state legislation changing the system of setting public salaries goes into effect.

This week the Legislature passed the first overhaul of the Commission of Industrial Relations — which settles labor disputes — since 1969. But just days earlier, Suttle announced he’d reached an agreement with the firefighters’ union, meaning the contract wouldn’t be subject to the new rules that will govern setting public salaries once the legislation goes into effect later this summer.

In a press release, AFP said Suttle’s own communications director criticized the Commission of Industrial Relations when he said, “The Mayor has said, if we go to the CIR, we won’t like the results.”

AFP has launched a grassroots petition project to show Mayor Suttle there is widespread support to halt the fire union contract currently being negotiated and instead focus on ensuring meaningful CIR reform legislation passes.

“Time and again Mayor Suttle has been on record blaming the CIR for the city’s irresponsible union contracts,” said AFP-Nebraska State Director Mike Friend. “Mayor Suttle should use this opportunity to force the unions to bargain, and to deliver responsible union contracts for the taxpayers of Omaha. The question must be asked, why negotiate now without the benefit of CIR reform.”

The grassroots petition demanding Mayor Suttle halt the contract negotiations and instead focus on meaningful CIR reform is available at


BNSF demands an extra $3.4 million for arena; threatens to throw project off schedule if city doesn’t pay

Arena coordinator Dan Marvin acknowledged today that Burlington Northern Santa Fe wants the city to pay it an extra $3.4 million to account for costs the railroad says it will incur due to a two-month delay in the construction schedule.

That would be in addition to the $44 million the city is already paying BNSF to move its railroad tracks west and sell property to the city for its arena project.

Marvin told Coby Mach of “Drive Time Lincoln” that the city’s agreement with BNSF allows the railroad giant to get more money from the city, if its costs increase.

“This is not what I would consider to be great news,” Marvin said. “I would say it was unexpected that we would get a charge of $3.4 million.”

Marvin said construction was originally supposed to be underway by the end of last summer, but didn’t begin until mid-October – after a closing was delayed because it took longer than expected to get legislation passed by the City Council and Joint Public Agency overseeing the project.

BNSF says that delay “has them scrambling to get men and material” together to meet their deadline of being out by September 2012. They say the cost to catch up is $3.4 million – and they will have to itemize those costs for the city. So far, BNSF has documented $54,000 in real costs due to the delay.

BNSF has threatened that if the city refuses to pay the extra $3.4 million by June 2, BNSF would consider that another delay caused by the city and said there’s no way the project can get done on schedule – and the mayor has long promised to bring the project in “on time and under budget.”

“They’ve said the cost could escalate to a point where we couldn’t even pay an amount to make the deadline,” Marvin said. “I think it does put the project in a certain amount of jeopardy if we don’t do that. We’ve certainly represented that we would like to have the building open by September 2013.”

Wow. In other words: Pay up or you’re not going to open the arena on time.

This puts the city in an interesting position – since it needs BNSF to move, no matter what. As Marvin put it, “We have a relationship we have to maintain with BN to meet a timeline.”

If the Joint Public Agency – a three-member board that oversees construction and financing of the arena – approves the cost increase, the money would go into an escrow account and be drawn upon by BNSF.

Marvin said the city has saved $1.5 million on the cost of issuing debt, and $1.5 million in environmental cleanup north of O Street – so the city could use those savings to cover the unanticipated cost. In addition, the project has a $25 million contingency fund – although it’s a bit early to begin dipping into that. More likely, the JPA will find savings elsewhere to come up with the remaining $400,000.

The JPA meets on June 2.


Big House on the Prairie


A couple of years ago, an old friend from high school finished construction of a $1.7 million house that is literally in the middle of nowhere – in the rugged, oil-soaked Badlands of southwest North Dakota.

I had to see this place – but rarely get back home. I cannot remember the last time I was in my hometown. Last week, I went home for my nephew’s graduation, and was determined to see The Big House.

My friend has a Smaller House in my hometown of Bowman (population: about 1,500), but The Big House is south of the hamlet of Marmarth. On Thursday, she decided to pack up her five kids and go to the Big House, so I went along. It was raining – as it had been since I left Alliance, Neb.

We crossed the Little Missouri – which looked more like the Big Missouri.

As we drove her big black Expedition on gravel roads south of Marmarth, we met a couple in another SUV, who were on their way into town to call my friend, Heidi, and tell her all the roads to her house were impassable. A second SUV stopped, and the man inside said he’d just been to the creek near Heidi’s house, and the water was almost touching the bridge.

What once was a lazy little Beaver Creek was now a raging river. Even before the downpour, the bridge had been in such bad shape that normally they crossed the creek on a ridge they built in the creek bed, near the bridge. That path was now under several feet of water.

We parked near the bridge and debated whether to drive across or walk across and then another half-mile or so to the house. Now, Heidi is no wimp: She once played “chicken” with her sister on horseback, and their horses collided. One horse died, one sister broke her arm.

There’s little tolerance for fear out here.

We decided to leave the two twin babies in the SUV with the teenager and walk to the house. And then it occurred to us: If we got across and then the bridge went out, we’d have no way to get back to the SUV. No cell phone service, either. So we drove back to Bowman.

Two days later, the father of those five kids, Brad, returned home from the oil patch and was determined to go to the Big House. He walked his five kids across the bridge to safety, and then drove that black SUV across the bridge while they all bawled, fearing he’d drown.

Heidi and I came later – but we walked across and then got a ride from Brad. The Big House on the Prairie was worth it. As nice as any resort or hotel I’ve stayed at, it had five fireplaces, 20,000 square feet, a theater, a pool, whirlpool tubs and walk-in showers with ceramic tile. Brad has worked in the oil industry almost his whole life – following in his father’s footsteps.

And even though there are 16 oil wells pumping on his 1,500 acres, he doesn’t own the mineral rights to any of them. Neighbors are making hundreds of thousands of dollars off the oil every month – but Brad works for his oil money. He lays the pipe that transports that oil – and he has traveled the nation, following the oil.

Right now, the big play is in North Dakota — with more than 5,000 oil wells statewide, on the way to what one state official estimates will be 28,000 wells eventually. Each of those wells produces an average of 575,000 barrels of oil, he said, and each of the owners of the mineral rights gets paid an average of $6.9 million over the lifespan of the well.

Which gives you an idea how life on the prairie has changed — for some people.


Going home

Even before I hit the city limits, the frontier spirit was evident: As rain poured down and Highway 85 hard to find in front of me, I noticed hardly anybody had their headlights on.
Just me — with my Nebraska plates, apparently a wuss in a sea of dual-wheeled pickups bearing down on my hometown of Bowman, N.D.
Not only did they refuse to turn on their lights in this foggy rainstorm, they also continued to pass each other as they went up hills on this two-lane road. I’d forgotten this rural tradition of throwing caution to the wind and going for it, without knowing whether another vehicle would bridge the horizon at any moment and be the second half of a head-on collision.
So there I was driving home, wedged between semi trucks and pickups whose drivers apparently were all on a suicide mission. It was only the beginning of my re-initiation into life on the hardscrabble plains and Badlands — where just getting home in your SUV can be a gamble with life and death, when you’re traversing a flooding creek.
Welcome home.
The buffalo literally roam in the pasture next to where my family once had a barn and some farmland north of Bowman:


One more word, from the GOP executive director

Jordan McGrain, executive eirector of the Nebraska Republican Party, sent me a letter expanding upon Mark Fahleson’s answers to my questions in the previous post. Here it is:

On GOP contributions to Buffington: The NEGOP does not contribute directly to candidates and I don’t believe the state Democrats do either. So direct monetary campaign contributions are an irrelevant measure of support and not indicative of NEGOP participation in any given race.

It was clear after the Primary that the Buffington, Nelson, and Hilty campaigns were not in a position to compete. We did spend money in support of Chad Wright for the only open council seat and came up just short in a tough district where we were outspent 2-1.

On Democrats spending more money: Obviously the NDP campaign was not the result of a strategic decision to spend Party resources in city races – it is very clear that their efforts were funded almost exclusively by the Beutler Committee and the Lincoln Firefighters. Without that support, I doubt the NDP would have been much of a factor. That’s an important part of that discussion.

I see also that Bobbi Kosmicki made a $1500 contribution to the NDP that turned into a $1500 expenditure on her behalf, perhaps an attack on Jon Camp that she didn’t want her name attached to. So, in some cases, NDP participation was the direct result of a monetary contribution from the candidate

And finally to your last question, I wanted to point out that Lee Terry was President of the Omaha City Council when elected to Congress, and Adrian Smith had also served on city council prior to his election to the Legislature and Congress. I believe that validates both your question and Chairman Fahleson’s response.

However, I am curious as to Jim Suttle’s inclusion on your list with Fortenberry and Johanns since there is NO chance Suttle ascends to anything resembling a statewide or federal office!


Just a few more questions for the GOP party chair

I was eager to read Don Walton’s Sunday story on GOP state party chair Mark Fahleson — thinking he might have something interesting to say about the Republicans’ recent poor showing in the Lincoln spring election.

GOP chairman Mark Fahleson

I was disappointed. Not a word. It was more of a profile of Fahleson. Now I love The Don — he is an institution and a sweet guy — but I think he should have asked at least one question about the election results. So I shot Fahleson an email with some “questions I would have asked,” and he was kind enough to answer them. Here they are:

What do you think of the municipal election results in Lincoln? It seems as though the Democrats have figured out how to win almost any election in Lincoln.

Since I became chair of the Nebraska Republican Party in 2009, we have held a series of strategic planning sessions to establish specific, measurable and achievable goals for the state party. We are a state party, not a municipal party or county party. At no time have the Lincoln municipal elections appeared anywhere in our top priorities since I have been chair.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that replacing Sen. Ben Nelson is goal number one for the NEGOP between now and November 2012. That’s our focus, and that’s where we are spending our time, energy and resources.

Why did the GOP contribute so little to (Republican mayoral candidate Tammy) Buffington’s campaign? I believe I saw just a $250 donation or so?

See my answer above. Again, Lincoln municipal races were not a priority for the state Republican Party. Rest assured we’ll be spending a tad bit more than that working to replace Sen. Nelson.

If it was because she was not considered a good investment, why didn’t the party find a better candidate?

I, in coordination with Lancaster County GOP officials, met with several potential candidates for mayor, city council and school board (which is not uncommon — we do the same in other communities and counties as well). Candidates choose to run for personal reasons, and that’s the way it should be. If they don’t have a personal passion to run and the proverbial “fire in the belly,” then frankly I don’t want them running.
When I was Lancaster County Republican Chair I helped recruit guys like Sen. Colby Coash and Bob Swanson to run for state Legislature here in Lincoln. Both were passionate about their races and the issues that were important to them and their constituents. Colby won, Bob lost, but both are in the top tier of candidates I have had the pleasure to help recruit. I am always looking for my candidates like them, who are willing to make the personal commitment and sacrifice to win, even if at the end of the day they are like Bob Swanson and come up a few votes short.

Overall, it appears the Dems had much more money to spend on the local races — is that the case or does the state Republican Party just choose to spend its money on other races? If so, why?

It’s cyclical, and it wasn’t a priority for us in 2011.

Do you see any threat that many of the Dems being elected on the local level in Lincoln and Omaha will some day be strong candidates for statewide and congressional offices?

No. The Democrats who are getting elected in Omaha and Lincoln simply are unelectable statewide. The one Democrat who has successfully run statewide in recent years is Ben Nelson, and that will come to an end with the November 2012 elections. He was able to pull the wool over many Nebraskans’ eyes by pretending he was a moderate or conservative when he is back here in Nebraska while siding with Harry Reid and the liberal Democrats in Washington. The gig is up thanks to his Cornhusker Kickback and decisive vote on ObamaCare. Simply put, dust has gathered on the Democrat bench, and I do not forsee any threat.

Why wouldn’t Lincoln and Omaha city elections be a focus for the party — given the fact that people like Jim Suttle, Jeff Fortenberry and Mike Johanns all started out on the city level?

Name the last Democrat who won statewide after ascending from local office? Voting records help Republicans in Nebraska, not Democrats.


City budget survey makes it clear: Tax increase coming

The mayor’s office is doing its annual tradition of surveying Lincolnites about their budget priorities, and it’s pretty clear what the aim of the survey is.

Now that Mayor Chris Beutler is safely ensconced in his (newly built, at taxpayer expense, I might add) office for four more years, he wasted no time before testing the water to see how a tax increase will play in Lincoln. Right on the primer page, the introduction bemoans the state of the budget (funny we never heard any of this during the campaign) before saying,

This leads to an important question affecting the current fiscal situation: Would Lincolnites be willing to support another increase in taxes to address the city’s budget shortfall? This remains an open yet critical question.

Then you go on to take the survey and learn that if we don’t raise taxes, libraries, swimming pools and even fire stations could close unless the city raises taxes enough to come up with $2.8 million — just to keep funding at current levels.

Faithful Winterized readers won’t be surprised by this — but some of those LIBA members who endorsed Beutler might be. (See my story way back here.)

Beutler has done this survey several years in a row now, and I always find it to be most useful for giving insight into what he’s thinking about doing with his next budget — which will be released this summer. He’s testing the water, and he’s proven to be the type of mayor who will back down if there’s enough controversy. So which of the mayor’s potential budget cuts are likely to stir up controversy?

• Closing the fire station that gets the least calls — which I believe would be in the Airpark area. This surprises me, considering the city is also looking at asking voters to approve a bond issue to build a new fire station.

• Closing the Pioneers Park Nature Center.

• Discontinuing funding for the Bethany, South, and Williams neighborhood branch libraries — although this threat is often wielded, it is seldom delivered. (Can’t tell you how many times Councilman Jonathan Cook has saved the South Library from closure.)

• Cutting the forestry budget by a half million dollars — again. Recall the brouhaha last year when the city forester’s job was effectively bagged.

• Ending funding for Airpark, Ballard, Belmont, Eden and Irvingdale neighborhood pools.

• Cutting $200,000 in programs for seniors, the Retired Volunteer Services Program, Foster Grandparent Program and Senior Companion Program.

• Eliminating the No. 54-Veteran’s Hospital bus route.

Radio talk show host Coby Mach was in a dither yesterday over some of the weird statements in the survey that people were asked to rate your level of agreement with — such as this one:

In these troubled times laws have to be enforced without mercy, especially when dealing with the agitators and revolutionaries who are stirring things up.

and this one:

Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.

And this one:

The self-righteous “forces of law and order” threaten freedom in our country a lot more than most of the groups they claim are “radical” and “godless”.

My personal favorite:

“Thinking is not my idea of fun.”

(You had to think to answer the question.)

However, those questions were part of research being done by the Nebraska Public Policy Center — which conducts the Taking Charge surveys for the city — on public engagement. Yes, your tax dollars paid for the whole survey, but those questions are not really part of it. Still, they were kinda weird, huh?

I think no matter how you slice it, a tax increase cometh to fund the next budget. The budget deficit is just too big ($6.3 million not counting most employee raises and lost state aid) and those pots of money are getting too small to raid (I believe there’s only like $4 million left in the economic development fund that would be about the only pot of money left). Last year, the mayor was able to avoid a tax increase because he really, really didn’t want people to think taxes were being raised as a result of the arena project. Now, that danger has passed (I guess) and he’s been safely re-elected.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong to increase the tax levy, I’m just saying I told you this was coming…

(Illustration by jscreationzs)

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