Nebraska lawmakers had a grinder of a session this year, while also setting the stage for some heavy lifting on issues that will surely have long-term impacts on our state.
Described by several members from the trenches as a “long, difficult” 90 days, the 2013 session was a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of affair. We were pleased to see the Legislature pass a balanced budget without a tax increase and, in general terms, bring a conservative mindset to the table on taxpayers’ behalf. It was also a wise move to build up the cash reserve fund to $600-plus million, as that rainy day fund proved worth its weight in gold during the recent recession.
There were clearly some ideological and political differences bouncing around the chambers this year, which manifested itself in some testy testimony and fiery floor debate. That can be healthy at times as it reflects the emotions of what’s at stake and reminds senators that major changes in state law or philosophy aren’t supposed to be easy. Despite those major differences of opinion, senators remained civil.
As expected, Sen. Ernie Chambers resumed his role as the torch-bearer for strategic maneuvering. His tactics can be frustrating to watch, but are effective in slowing the process, which is not always a bad thing.
We tip our hat again to our own state senator for letting her voice be heard on several key issues. Sen. Annette Dubas has become a seasoned veteran at the State Capitol, stepping up to serve as chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Her leadership will be needed as that group takes an in-depth look at the Universal Service Fund during the interim.
Citizens who like to tune into the legislative process may not have much of a recess this year, much like the lawmakers themselves. Several interim studies are scheduled for the months ahead, including work by a tax modernization committee and water sustainability task force. Those two issues will impact every single Nebraska family for this and future generations.
Add to that agenda yet another run at revamping the K-12 public school funding formula and you can see that there is much work to be done before the 2014 session begins. Drafting a sustainable funding plan that treats urban and rural schools fairly, rewards districts for strong fiscal planning, and prevents placing undue burden on agriculture land-owners will be a challenging but critical task.
The setting was hauntingly familiar.
Last Wednesday, May 29, the skies grew dark over Aurora and much of Hamilton County as severe weather bore down, threatening at any minute to drop a funnel cloud to the ground. When a twister was spotted near Clay Center heading north, folks headed for cover, hoping and praying the danger would soon subside. It did, thankfully, with no reported damage. Ironically, five years prior to the day, Aurora wasn’t so lucky. Two tornadoes touched down on May 29, 2008, and straight-line winds blew with a fury many had never seen. The destructive force shredded metal buildings, blew houses apart and caused massive damage, though amazingly no one was injured.
Just over a year later, Hamilton County was twisted again, this time coming ever so close to making the national headlines of the day. A massive tornado, captured on video by several storm chasers, rolled down Highway 34 only minutes from the western edge of our fair city. One can only imagine what would have happened had that twister not miraculously lifted when it did.
Actually, we don’t have to imagine very hard at all. Images from the Oklahoma City area reminded America yet again in recent days how utterly devastating a tornado can be. The tiny town of Moore looked like a war zone in the aftermath of an EF5 twister.
Twenty-three people died in a town that had been hit hard several years prior. And then, in a brutal twist of fate, the region was hit again 11 days later, with five more people dying even as volunteers and emergency personnel worked to begin recovering from the initial blast. Those poor folks had to be at their wit’s end.
That’s life here in the Heartland, also known in weather terms as “Tornado Alley.” We may sometimes wonder why anyone would want to live in areas prone to hurricanes and coastal flooding, though we accept the possibility of tornadoes as inescapable reality. We can’t run from them or prevent their destructive forces, yet many wouldn’t consider living anywhere else.
“Sometimes it’s you, and sometimes it’s not,” noted Harv Bish, a long-time area resident whose classic car building was shredded back in 2008. “You can’t worry about it because there is nothing you can do to stop them.” Bish, and several other people who will never forget those winds of fury, shared their perspective five years later. (See stories elsewhere in this week’s edition.) You may notice a recurring theme in those stories of thankfulness to friends, family and even complete strangers who helped in a time of need, and life lessons about what’s really important. That, and a no-nonsense approach to listening for and heeding severe weather warnings.
“It was just some property, which can always be replaced,” Bish said. “Lives can’t.” Amen to that!
A good read
Hamilton County has a lot to offer. You know and we know it, but as always the challenge of rolling out the red carpet to prospective newcomers while at the same time welcoming natives back to the fold is an ongoing process. It is all about marketing, in a sense, but it’s also about just putting words and pictures to a wonderful story that deserves to be told again and again. One of the county’s most comprehensive marketing pieces is hot off the press this week in the form of a full-color magazine. The Hamilton County Guide offers guests and prospective newcomers a Reader’s Digest version of a place that’s very special to those who call it home. The News-Register has published the “Guide” for years, compiling information that in effect offers a snapshot of the county. If you’re new to town or thinking about moving your family and/or business here, it’s a helpful tool. The Guide was traditionally printed as a newspaper supplement, then distributed through the local chamber office, newcomer packets and at points of interest all over the county. That formula has worked well for decades. The last three versions of this biennial product, however, have featured a more modern magazine format which better reflects the colorful people and places you’ll find here. It should be noted that this project a joint venture with the Aurora Area Chamber & Development, which sought and received a grant from the Hamilton County Visitors Committee to help reduce the cost of advertising for local businesses. The 80-page document is chock full of information about area tourist attractions, which is part of the reason the Guide is distributed at visitor centers along Interstate 80 through the Nebraska Travel Association’s swap program. Travelers heading east or west in our direction are much more likely to turn off at Exit 332 if they have more insight on what they’ll find here. On that note, a study conducted a while back concluded that we weren’t tapping our full potential, from a tourism perspective, partly because the story of what all there is to do here wasn’t being told effectively. This resource is designed to do that, and more. In addition to photos and articles about the Edgerton Explorit Center, Plainsman Museum and other attractions, readers can learn about the area’s history, education and health care facilities, community services, as well as the many events that make Hamilton County unique. Area businesses and organizations are featured as well, helping paint a broad picture of all the opportunities available. And who knows, someone stopping through for a first-time visit or a local alum back in town for a class reunion or community celebration just might realize that this is a great place to live. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened, or the last. Kurt Johnson