To all my faithful subscribers: If you haven’t already migrated over to my new home at Nebraska Watchdog, I hope you will do so today. Last night I published a story about the real story behind the breakup of the two most active downtown developers in Lincoln right now — the same developers who are responsible for all of the private buildings that will be built near Lincoln’s future arena.
You can find my story here. And thanks for migrating with me.
When I left my job at the Lincoln Journal Star more than a year ago, I figured I’d try my hand at something completely different from what I’ve done for two decades.
Maybe open a shabby chic store – Funky Junk, I’d call it – or do what most journalists do to make better money, go into public relations.
Maybe run for office – I certainly had learned the ropes after covering government and politicians for so long. How liberating would it be to be able to give my opinion for once?
For sure, I’d be a good mom who had warm brownies ready when the kids arrived home from school, and supper bubbling in the Crockpot every night.
Instead, I found that even when given a whole day to plan supper, I still usually started planning about 10 minutes before 6. I found myself spending most of the day reading and blogging and reporting and writing.
Just the other night I made tetrazzini, and nobody ate it.
I started a blog just for fun, mostly – I figured if I didn’t do it right away, in a year nobody would ever be able to find it. I quickly gravitated toward politics and government and one day my husband pointed out that I was basically doing my old job, except for free. In his mind, this did not make good economic sense, so I took freelance writing jobs to support my blogging habit.
I had to tear myself away from blogging to write a freelance story that paid two to three times per hour what I made at the paper. I found myself going to occasional budget meetings or public meetings on roundabouts — not because I was being paid to be there, but because I truly wanted to be there.
So after a year of contemplation and freedom and experimentation and rest, I am returning to what is clearly my passion: journalism. I have accepted a job writing for a nonprofit, online publication called Nebraska Watchdog. Nebraska Watchdog was the first of what has grown to be a national consortium of government watchdog websites funded by donations.
Its mission is to uncover and analyze the actions of state and local government and ensure good government with unbiased news reporting.
“We will investigate and inform the public about waste, fraud, abuse, ethical questions and safety concerns involving the use of taxpayer dollars,” the website says.
I will be stationed in Lincoln and write about about both local and statewide issues, and you can read my stories online.
As newspapers cut back statehouse bureaus and reporters in general, websites like this have stepped into the breach. They are the future.
Since I’ve long been a watchdog reporter who loves to dig, this is a perfect fit. I join longtime Omaha investigative reporter Joe Jordan, who has worked as a political and investigative reporter on TV and radio for 40 years in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska. He has been reporting for Nebraska Watchdog for two years now.
I appreciate all the support and encouragement you’ve given me during the past year, and I hope you will continue with me on this journey at Nebraskawatchdog.org.
Gov. Dave Heineman has called for a special legislative session — beginning Nov. 1 — to deal with the Keystone XL Pipeline, which a Canadian company wants to build from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
State Sen. Deb Fischer — a Republican contender for the U.S. Senate — expressed support for TransCanada’s controversial oil pipeline during a televised meeting with local officials in North Platte.
Fischer said during the meeting that she would tell people concerned about the pipeline running through the sandhills, “We build roads in the sandhills… they recover. It’s how you manage it.”
A campaign spokesman told me today Fischer supports building the Keystone XL pipeline, but hasn’t committed to the currently proposed route that goes over the Ogallala Aquifer.
Later today, Sen. Fischer released the following statement on the pipeline:
As I have stated consistently over the past three years, I share many of the concerns expressed by Nebraskans across the state regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. For that reason I have worked with constituents and landowners to find answers to their questions.
At this point I have received Senator Dubas’s proposed legislation and am thoroughly reviewing that bill. I have received additional communication from Senator Dubas that she is also researching questions about her proposed bill.
Today, TransCanada sent a letter to Speaker Mike Flood that offers additional safety measures for the currently proposed route. I will thoroughly review that proposal before making further comment.
Several hundred Lincolnites showed up for a public meeting Wednesday night about a controversial three-lane roundabout scheduled for construction later this month at 14th and Superior streets.
And many of them were mad.
The meeting began at 6 p.m. but the city wasn’t scheduled to begin a presentation until 6:30 p.m. By 6:28 p.m., people were getting itchy and one man stood up and started loudly asking what time it was and why the presentation wasn’t beginning. People began clapping in unison – faster and faster as if to say, “Let’s get it started.”
The city gave out full-color, glossy fliers explaining the $11 million project and the merits of the three-lane roundabout that is its centerpiece, but opponents also stood by the door handing out their own black-and-white fliers outlining concerns. The city ran out of fliers at 200.
Miki Esposito – the city’s interim public works director – was baptized by fire as she had the unenviable task of trying to run the meeting. She opened by asking people to be patient and respectful. She said her son attends Kooser Elementary School and she uses the 14th and Superior intersection to get to work.
Thomas Shafer, head of design and construction for the city public works department, told the audience he lives in North Hills and drives through the intersection about 20 times a week – and then a man started yelling at him. Shafer said the roundabout is the safest, most cost-effective option and will be able to handle more traffic than a signaled intersection. He said the intersection has had 90 accidents in three years, and cited a 2000 report that said crashes dropped 39 percent after traditional intersections were converted to roundabouts. Injury accidents dropped 76 percent and fatal or incapacitating accidents dropped nearly 90 percent, according to the report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by auto insurers and associations.
But when Shafer began citing those stats, a man yelled, “That’s not true!”
When Shafer pointed to a computer simulation of what the roundabout should look like in 2025, some people hooted and howled.
“That is never gonna happen like that!” one yelled.
At that point, some people started leaving. Many people were frustrated because even though city officials say they’ve held 20 meetings on the topic, many felt city officials did not listen to them.
When City Engineer Roger Figard said the roundabout went through “a lot of process,” someone yelled “Who discussed it?”
At one point, someone asked people who supported the roundabout to raise their hands, and about a dozen did so.
The meeting seemed on the verge of spiraling out of control when Shafer wisely invited former Police Chief/current Public Safety Director Tom Casady to come up and give his opinion. In a quiet, soothing voice, Casady calmed the crowd somewhat — speaking like a teacher in control of a classroom, he said, “I’ve spent most of my adult life being yelled at by people. If you wanna hear what I have to say… before the yelling starts. If you don’t, I’ll go home and cook.”
Casady said he was skeptical before the city built the roundabout at 33rd and Sheridan Boulevard and wondered whether the city was ready for it.
“I’ve seen a lot of people in Lincoln looking at a detour sign like cattle looking at a new gate,” he said.
In the eight years before the Sheridan roundabout was installed, there were 104 crashes, 27 with injuries. In the eight years since, Casady said there have been 21 crashes, two with injuries.
However, a person yelled that the Sheridan roundabout has “One lane not three!”
As for the underpass that some people fear will be unsafe for middle school kids, Casady said it’s better than having students bolt across the street. When someone began yelling, Casady said, “Do you mind, sir?” The man kept yelling, so Casady asked the crowd, “How about everybody else?” and many applauded in agreement that the man should zip it.
After the city finished its presentation, city officials tried to steer people toward the back of the room to privately ask questions at several booths set up with renderings of the project, but they were basically buffaloed into allowing people to come up to the front of the room and ask questions via microphone.
For the rest of the meeting, people came up and asked questions, complained and occasionally offered support.
One of the leading opponents, Carol Brown, questioned why the city shelved the other option: a traditional intersection with dual left turns, two through lanes and a right turn lane.
“This is not gonna work there,” she said of the roundabout.
Figard said the city used world-renowned consultants who have done roundabouts all over the nation, and tested the new double roundabout by Memorial Stadium with semis, fire trucks and city buses — all of which were able to navigated them. But he knows roundabouts are controversial: He said typically 60 to 80 percent of people oppose them.
“Roundabouts are coming,” he said. “They’re now in the driver’s manual.”
Construction is set to begin Oct. 24 and the roundabout is scheduled to open in November 2012. The whole project — which is being paid for with all local money — is scheduled to be done in May 2013.
This is the first time I’ve seen the city allow a true public meeting to be held on a city project. The city normally sets up booths with pictures of the project and allows people to ask questions of the people manning the booths. No public presentation, no Question & Answer period, no opportunity for things to spiral out of control like they nearly did tonight. However, I applaud the city for making an exception. It was democracy in action, even though it probably makes city officials nervous and certainly the mayor will not like seeing the TV news and headlines about the rancor.
Unfortunately for opponents, I don’t think they can stop this train. After the meeting, as people were trickling out, I asked the public works director whether there was any chance the city would reconsider the roundabout.
“The project is going forward,” Esposito said, moments after a woman predicted a child would be killed in the roundabout some day, and told her she’d have blood on her hands when it happened.
State Sen. Annette Dubas is one of four senators meeting today with the Canadian oil company that wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska.
She also has a conflict of interest — the Fullerton senator’s family rents and owns land that TransCanada would be building a pipeline on. Dubas disclosed this conflict of interest to the state Accountabiity & Disclosure Commission in February 2010, but said she still intended to participate in discussions about the pipeline because it’s an important issue in her district.
Dubas and three other senators are meeting with the oil company today to discuss concerns about the pipeline path — and some lawmakers want to hold a special legislative session about the pipeline, which has faced significant opposition in Nebraska.
People who oppose the roundabout set to be constructed at 14th and Superior have convinced city officials to allow them to hold a public meeting about the controversial $11 million project and push back the construction state date to the week of Oct. 24.
An opponent of the roundabout sent me a flyer advertising a meeting to be held on Wednesday at the Belmont Recreation Center, 1234 Judson St., from 6 to 8 p.m. The city had planned to hold an “open house” on Monday — one day before construction begins. But at the city open house, there is no formal presentation or opportunity for people to line up at a microphone and give the city their two cents about the wonderful/insane project. Instead, there are renderings to look at and consultants to ask questions of and city officials to chat with, but this sort of setup keeps things calm and quiet and non-controversial. Nothing to see here.
But opponents say the city has now agreed to allow them to hold a public meeting, where (according to the flyer), people can voice their concerns and opinions (gasp!). And there will actually be a presentation (this is unusual, people) at 6:30 p.m. The meeting will include a discussion of neighborhood traffic issues and tunnel visibility and the public will be able to comment on the project timeline. Not sure if that’s all they’ll be allowed to comment on.
Does that mean the city is reconsidering the roundabout portion of the project? I highly doubt that. But this way, the mayor’s office can say it gave opponents a chance to speak their mind. Opponents had been promised a public meeting — but they never got one, except for the open house which had been hastily scheduled for one day before construction begins.
People who live and work near the intersection do not believe a roundabout is the best option for the area, and also don’t like plans for a pedestrian tunnel planned on the west and south sides of the intersection — saying it’s not a good plan for middle school students. The project will also widen 14th Street to four lanes from Superior to Interstate 80 and the Department of Roads also is building a bridge over Interstate 80 on North 14th Street.
The I-80 bridge is scheduled to open in August 2012, and the roundabout is scheduled to open in November 2012. The entire project is expected to be completed in May 2013.
The Nebraska Republican Party has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson and the Nebraska Democratic State Central Committee alleging illegal spending practices between the two organizations.
The Federal Election Act of 1971 says the maximum coordinated spending limit between a political party committee and a Nebraska Senate candidate cannot exceed $240,600. However, according to public records, the NDSCC and Nelson have spent at least $458,625 in coordinated television campaign advertisements.
Federal law also states that communications paid for by a political party must be clearly disclaimed; yet Senator Nelson’s campaign ad omitted the word “Democratic” from its disclaimer in an attempt to mask the ad and the source of funding, Republicans say.
“In an attempt to cover-up his failed Washington record – which includes providing the 60th vote for ObamaCare and his critical support for the $825 billion stimulus – the NDSCC and Ben Nelson have engaged in a coordinated campaign that has surpassed the legal federal limit by at least $218,000,” said Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Mark Fahleson.
Despite all being paid for by the NDSCC, Senator Nelson’s four recent campaign ads identify three different sponsors: “Promise” and “Wrong Way” state that they are paid for by the “Nebraska Democratic Party.” “Skunk” states that it is paid for by the “Nebraska Democratic State Central Committee.”
The GOP claims the most egregious case is the “Nelson Ad” – backed by a $219,422 NDSCC media buy funded by the Democrats’ national campaign committee — which says it was paid for by the “Nebraska State Central Committee” – a name that wholly omits “Democrat” from the identification and masks the ad as being sponsored by a non-partisan, or even state-funded, entity.
“Nebraskans deserve to know the exact amount of illegal spending that has occurred by the NDSCC – and that Washington dollars paid for it – and why Ben Nelson is an active participant in this blatantly illegal act,” Fahleson said in a press release.
However, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party said the claim is without merit and he expects it to be dismissed.
“We’ve run issue ads like this in prior campaigns, and because they are issue ads, they are not subject to spending limits,” Brandon Lorenz said. “Protecting programs like Medicare is an issue we will continue to talk about because it’s a program thousands of Nebraskans depend upon.”
Read the full Complaint against Nelson here.
A new poll by Public Policy Polling shows Attorney General Jon Bruning still leads the Republican pack in the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson — but his support his eroded 10 percentage points since January.
The poll also showed Nebraskans would choose former Godfather’s pizzeria chairman Herman Cain as their Republican nominee for president right now, garnering the support of 27 percent of the people polled. He is followed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with 19 percent, Newt Gingrich with 12 percent, and then it’s a three-way tie between Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and “someone else” — all with 8 percent.
Public Policy surveyed 400 Republican primary voters in Nebraska from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, and 37 percent of them said they’d vote for Bruning, followed by State Treasurer Don Stenberg with a distant 16 percent, Sen. Deb Fischer with 14 percent and Pat Flynn with 6 percent. Another 27 percent were undecided.
(I reported last night that Newt Gingrich was the GOP favorite, but he just had the highest favorabiity scores; I missed the next page of the poll, which asked who people would vote for.)
Attorney General Jon Bruning is characterizing his decision to buy a $675,000 lake cabin with two Nelnet officials as no big deal — but a new poll indicates otherwise.
In a recent interview with KHAS-TV of Hastings, Bruning accused U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of trying to get voters to focus on the fact that “my wife and I and two other couples own a lake house. Big deal, you know, it’s where I teach my kids to water ski, right. I mean it’s not unlike a lot of families in Nebraska. I love Nebraska. I’ve got a lake house in Nebraska. So what?”
Bruning also told the TV station all the negative publicity that has swirled around him in recent months has not hurt his polling numbers, that he’s still leading in “the most recent voters’ poll.” He’s probably referring to Public Policy Polling’s poll showing Bruning is still the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, but his support has slipped 10 percentage points since their last poll in January.
Bruning led the pack with 37 percent, followed by State Treasurer Don Stenberg with 16 percent, state Sen. Deb Fischer with 14 percent, and Pat Flynn with 6 percent. Stenberg’s standing dropped 3 points, while Fischer gained the most, jumping from 6 percent to 14 percent.
Public Policy’s analysis:
Bruning has had a lot of less than positive press coverage in recent days and it appears to be taking a toll on his image. His net favorability has declined 19 points over the course of this year. He was at +45 (57/12) in January but now he’s at just +26 (48/22). It’s definitely to Bruning’s advantage that he has three opponents rather than one. 37% of voters want him and 36% want someone else but since the ‘someone else’ is split three different ways it allows him to maintain a pretty healthy lead overall.
Stenberg interestingly has almost identical favorability numbers to Bruning at 46/22 but for whatever reason that’s not translating directly into votes for him. Although Stenberg has seemingly been trying to run to the front runner’s right, Bruning actually has his strongest numbers with voters describing themselves as ‘very conservative,’ at a 47-15 advantage. It’s moderates who split their votes most evenly. So at least at this point Bruning doesn’t appear to have a ‘Tea Party’ problem, although that could present itself further down the road.
The favorability numbers are troubling for Fischer: The survey of 400 Republican primary voters (taken Sept. 30 to Oct. 2) found 18 percent had an unfavorable view of Fischer, and 16 percent favorable, with a whopping 66 percent undecided. That would seem to indicate people don’t really know her.
However, State Democrats continue to pound away on Bruning and his Nelnet cabin, hoping to further weaken the frontrunner.
“If Jon Bruning thinks it’s no big deal to buy a $675,000 cabin and not list it as required, he’s been spending too much time out in the sun,” said Jim Rogers, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “Most Nebraskans don’t own $675,000 homes, much less cabins, and most Nebraskans that do own cabins don’t try to cover up their ownership.”
Last month, the Nebraska Democratic Party filed an ethics complaint with the Accountability and Disclosure Commission over Bruning’s failure to list the home on his statement of financial interests for three years. Dems have also questioned how Bruning tripled the value of his non-publicly traded assets since 2007 and has held positions on at least 24 different banks, private businesses and LLCs, not counting personal trusts and private foundations, while serving as attorney general.