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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 17, 2012 at 11:47 am •  Published: December 17, 2012
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Omaha World-Herald. Dec. 17, 2012.

Good intentions need oversight

Sen. Tom Coburn grabbed some headlines the other day with a new report on questionable federal spending that even featured zombies.

The misspent money wasn't such a large sum that it would make any real dent in the nation's $16 trillion debt. And like so many federal programs, this one has a solid aim — keeping Americans safe from terrorism.

But what the Oklahoma Republican found shows once again that good government intentions still require vigorous oversight.

Coburn's report, "Safety at Any Price," detailed findings of a yearlong look at the Department of Homeland Security's grant programs, including its Urban Areas Security Initiative. It concluded that "taxpayer money spent on homeland security grant programs has not always been spent in ways obviously linked to terrorism or preparedness."

A few examples:

— Paying the $1,000 fee for some first responders to attend a conference at a San Diego-area resort that included a "zombie apocalypse" demonstration to simulate a real-life terrorism event.

— Buying a $98,000 underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio, which the city council declared an emergency purchase "not because of security needs but because of 'federal grant deadlines.' "

— Providing $285,000 for an armored vehicle for Keene, N.H., a small town that is home to an annual pumpkin festival. "Do I think al-Qaida is going to target Pumpkin Fest? No, but are there fringe groups that want to make a statement? Yes," the police chief said. Many Keene residents opposed the idea with the slogan, "Thanks, but no tanks."

It's all enough to make a taxpayer's head hurt.

Yet the grant program is serious business. It stems from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the federal government's promise to help make certain that local officials were equipped to prevent attacks and respond if they occur.

Agency officials and its defenders say the program has boosted capabilities of local first responders. "The grants, for example, have helped improve first-responder communications between different jurisdictions and levels of government — a lesson learned from the 9/11 attacks when scores of New York City firefighters died because of poor communications," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has chaired the Senate's Homeland Security Committee.

Nebraska entities, too, got money. Some raised big-city eyebrows, The World-Herald reported in 2005, when the funds bought lariats, nose leads, halters and electric prods for county officials worried about cattle being intentionally infected with a disease. But state and local officials rightly pointed out that the funds also provided terrorism and disaster training for police and firefighters and helped acquire modern computer and communications gear needed for better coordination in emergencies.

Beyond zombies and pumpkin festivals, the Coburn report raises important issues. Two key findings:

— The Department of Homeland Security lacks any good way of tracking how the grant money is spent, and the agency has not produced adequate measures to gauge the actual needs of states and communities. "Significant evidence suggests that the program is struggling to demonstrate how it is making U.S. cities less vulnerable to attack and more prepared if one were to occur — despite receiving $7.1 billion in federal funding since 2003," the report said.

— While some of the responsibility for these failings clearly falls on Homeland Security department officials, much of it also lands on Congress. Congress, the report concluded, "is often more preoccupied with the amount of money sent to its cities than with how the money is spent, or whether it was ever needed in the first place."

The department is proposing a reorganization of its grant programs, Coburn says, so now is the time to reassess and make needed changes.

The agency and Congress must make sure funding goes to areas with genuine risks, institute serious scrutiny over this spending, spell out clear security goals and accurately measure whether those goals are being met. Without such rigorous oversight, taxpayers have no way of knowing whether they are getting their money's worth — or whether they are really any safer.

___

Lincoln Journal Star. Dec. 17, 2012.

Medicaid issues grow larger

Two news stories last week foreshadowed the budget drama that will be part of the next legislative session.

Picture a crowd of Nebraskans packed into a public hearing. Many are in wheelchairs, some are on ventilators. Some are accompanied by private duty nurses. Most are old.

Imagine another group of eager, hopeful faces. They're in college or public school classrooms, using textbooks, laptops and the other tools necessary to prepare them for the life that stretches out before them. Most are young.

The two groups represent two of the biggest items in the state budget. The first needs Medicaid dollars. The second needs funding for education.

In one story, state officials announced that Nebraska will lose $44 million in federal Medicaid matching funds, basically because the state's economy is doing better than many other states.

In the second, public school officials called for fully funding the state's school aid formula, which calls for an increase of $87 million next year and an additional $53 million in the second year of the budget cycle.

The two groups have been competing for dollars for decades now. History shows that Medicaid typically wins.

Twenty-five years ago, for example, Medicaid expenses were less than 9 percent of state spending. Today the percentage of state spending that goes to Medicaid is more than twice that figure.

Meanwhile, the proportion of state spending on the University of Nebraska and state colleges has steadily declined.

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