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Associated Press

Lincoln Journal Star

Nebraska’s chief Supreme Court justice says the courts faced a big challenge due to the coronavirus pandemic but continue to serve the public with the use of technology. Justice Michael Heavican says the pandemic has forced courts to turn to livestreaming and video chatting services to keep proceedings accessible. Heavican says the court’s online payment systems allowed residents to pay traffic tickets and court fines without leaving their homes, and the judiciary also offers an online education system to help judges, lawyers, guardians and others meet continuous education requirements.

Nebraska lawmakers have rejected a new effort to require a public vote when they choose legislative leaders, despite a push from some conservative senators for transparency. Lawmakers voted 30-19 against the motion to change the Legislature’s internal rules. Committee chairs and the speaker of the Legislature are elected through a secret ballot.

Nebraska Association of Public Employees

Nebraska state employees have a new contract that includes pay raises for those who receive a satisfactory rating in their performance reviews. Gov. Pete Ricketts says the contract reflects the culmination of six years of culture changes in state government to become a more performance-based organization. He says the contract will allow state administrators to recognize workers for excellence in work.

WOWT

A 25-year-old Iowa man has been sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for having a Molotov cocktail during racial injustice protests in downtown Omaha last year. Steven Fitch, of Council Bluffs, was sentenced Wednesday in federal court for unlawful possession of destructive device. He will serve three years of supervised release after his prison term. Prosecutors said Omaha police found Fitch with a Molotov cocktail in his front pants pocket during protests on May 31. The device contained a clear liquid inside a bottle with a red rag attached.

Omaha World Herald

The Nebraska Capitol was mostly quiet as President Joe Biden was sworn into office, but there was more security than usual inside the building. Members of the Nebraska State Patrol stood watch inside the building’s public entrances, but business otherwise continued as usual. Outside, three protesters walked around the building’s perimeter waving a Trump 2020 campaign flag and a flag that said, “Biden is not the president.” Lawmakers spent their morning session introducing bills to be debated later this year. 

  

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s campaign to vaccinate people for the coronavirus is further along in some rural parts of the state. At least half a dozen health districts across the state have already started giving vaccines to seniors living outside long-term care facilities, the Lincoln Journal Star reported. Officials in Lincoln and Omaha are still working to vaccinate health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. State health officials have said they expected the campaign to progress at different rates throughout parts of Nebraska.

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska lawmaker is proposing a state takeover of K-12 public education funding as a way to lower property taxes. Sen. Tom Briese, of Albion, introduced a constitutional amendment that would require state government to pay for local schools. Currently, public schools are financed through a combination of state aid and local property taxes. Briese says rising property taxes are driven by the state’s unwillingness to adequately fund schools. His proposal would place the issue on the 2022 general election ballot, where voters would decide whether to approve it.

Unicameral Update

A decades-old rule designed to promote transparency and accountability in the Nebraska Legislature could be in jeopardy. A proposed rule change would bar reporters from otherwise private “executive sessions” of legislative committees, where lawmakers discuss and vote on bills. The sessions are closed to the general public, but legislative rules allow reporters to attend and report what happened. Sen. Dan Hughes, of Venango, says he introduced the measure after getting quoted several years ago in what he believed to be a private, frank discussion with fellow lawmakers.

A 31-year-old southeast Nebraska man has been sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison for letting more than 200 cattle die and for selling livestock he didn't own. Aaron Ogren, of Exeter, was sentenced Tuesday on seven charges. He initially faced 43 counts after being arrested last April when sheriff's deputies found more than 200 dead cattle on land near Exeter. Ogren was supposed to be caring for the cattle. Several other cattle later died because they were in such poor condition when they were found. Authorities said Ogren also sold livestock he didn't own.

Nebraska.gov

A spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson says he did not have advanced knowledge of robocalls urging supporters of President Donald Trump to descend on the U.S. Capitol last week. The calls were reportedly issued by a Republican group to which Peterson belongs. The Omaha World-Herald reports that Suzanne Gage, spokeswoman for Peterson's office, said he first became aware of the calls made by the fundraising arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association on Thursday. Peterson is a member of the association. State Sen.

Lincoln Journal Star

Gov. Pete Ricketts says Nebraska will take steps to ensure public safety at the state Capitol on Inauguration Day, although he notes that last week’s rally in Lincoln to support President Donald Trump was peaceful. Ricketts made the comments as supporters of the outgoing president prepare for protests at state capitols throughout the country. A violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol last week to try to stop Congress from certifying that President-elect Joe Biden had won the race.

WOWT

Omaha police and fire investigators say they have not determined the cause of an explosion that killed three people last year. Investigators said Thursday natural gas was leaking inside the south Omaha home in early December. Several sources, such as the furnace or pilot light, could have ignited the gas. Investigators do not have evidence to indicate if criminal activity was involved but will continue to investigate. Theresa Toledo and Angela Miller died. Toledo's grandson, Alexander Toledo, died a day later.

NET

The state law that allowed President-elect Joe Biden to win one of Nebraska’s Electoral College votes could once again be in jeopardy under a new bill introduced in the Legislature. The measure would reinstate the winner-take-all system in Nebraska, awarding all five of its Electoral College votes to the statewide winner in presidential races. Nebraska Republicans have tried for years to repeal the 1991 law that lets the state divide its votes. Nebraska is overwhelmingly Republican, and a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won statewide since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Lincoln Journal Star

Nebraska lawmakers have kicked off a new session with plans to redraw the state’s political districts and promises to minimize the dysfunction that has creeped into the Legislature over the last several years. The new session began on a cordial note, with newly elected Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers pledging to treat all senators equally and ensure full and fair debate on all measures that come before them.

Nebraska.gov

A new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus that has been discovered in five states is probably in Nebraska as well, but officials say they haven’t yet confirmed its presence. Dr. Gary Anthone says the new strain is concerning because it could lead to an increase in hospitalizations in Nebraska. Anthone says the state’s public health lab is purchasing its own equipment to test for the mutated virus. The new strain has led to a national lockdown in England, and the virus has been detected in California, Florida, New York, Georgia, and neighboring Colorado. 

Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer is planning to vote in favor of certifying the Electoral College results to elect Joe Biden as president.  Fischer announced yesterday that even though she voted for President Donald Trump, the president's legal team failed to make the case in court that there was widespread voter fraud sufficient enough to overturn election results in any state.  Fischer went on to say that if a state's results are not counted, millions of voters will be disenfranchised. 

Lincoln Journal Star

Nebraska lawmakers will begin a new session Wednesday that’s likely to be scaled back because of the pandemic, but they’ll still have a lot of big issues to debate, including a proposed $230 million prison and the mandatory redrawing of the state’s political districts. High on this year’s priority list is the Legislature’s once-a-decade redistricting ritual, a bitterly partisan process where lawmakers redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts and others.

Monolith Materials and Nebraska Public Power District are working to bring a large renewable energy project to the state. Monolith announced Monday that it signed a letter of intent for NPPD to provide enough renewable energy to generate 2 million megawatt-hours every year. The Lincoln Journal-Star reports that is enough power for Monolith to completely power a $1 billion expansion of a plant near Hallam with renewable energy. NPPD President and CEO Tom Kent said the utility will seek proposals for wind and solar generation in March and expects to have agreements by Sept. 1. 

Strictly Business Omaha

Nebraska restaurants that were allowed to start selling carryout cocktails amid the pandemic want to continue doing so even after it wanes. The Omaha World-Herald reports that the Nebraska Restaurant Association plans to push for the expansion during the upcoming 2021 legislative session. The group's executive director, Zoe Olson, said it's proposal would include a requirement for some sort of seal on carryout beverages that, if broken, would indicate that someone had opened their takeout drink in transit.

The Nebraska State Patrol plans to consolidate several Lincoln offices into one new headquarters building next year. The State Patrol said it expects to move into its new headquarters just northwest of where Interstates 80 and 180 meet in Lincoln next March. The move will allow the agency to have most of its Lincoln-based staff under one roof. After the move, the State Patrol’s headquarters staff, communications division, criminal investigation unit, carrier enforcement officers and most Lincoln-based troopers will all work out of the new building.

Brushbuck Wildlife Tours

Officials in central Nebraska are worried that next spring’s sandhill crane viewing season will be disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic just like this year’s was and hurt the area’s economy. The annual migration of sandhill cranes across central Nebraska normally draws thousands of visitors to the area who want to see the birds gather along the Platte River in the midst of their annual migration. Kearney Visitor Bureau Executive Director Roger Jasnoch told the Kearney Hub that there is little demand for the hotel rooms in the area that visitors normally fill.   

KLKN

Four Midwestern universities have formed a space-oriented academic and research alliance aimed at luring the U.S. Space Command headquarters to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. The Omaha World-Herald reports that University of Nebraska President Ted Carter says the partnership with the University of North Dakota, Kansas State University and Purdue would develop new degree programs and research initiatives. Offutt is among the six finalists to become the headquarters.

KETV

Nebraska’s corrections department will propose to lawmakers a new, $230 million prison to reduce chronic overcrowding that the agency's director says is likely to get worse. Corrections Director Scott Frakes will present the plan in the upcoming legislative session with backing from his boss, Gov. Pete Ricketts. State officials have tried for years to ease crowding in Nebraska’s prisons by expanding parole, changing some sentencing laws and creating new diversion programs.

KWWL

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst is urging everyone to get their COVID-19 vaccine when it's available to them, after receiving her first dose over the weekend. The senator posted a series of tweets showing her getting vaccinated and saying that with the vaccine, we are one step closer to defeating the virus. She added that everyone should continue wearing masks, practice social distancing and continue to follow other protocols put in place to protect one another.

A 36-year-old Omaha man has been sentenced in federal court for distributing drugs out of a bar. Federal officials said Thursday that Brett Feder was sentenced to 10 years in prison on drug distribution charges, money laundering and being a felon in possession of a firearm. The U.S. Justice Department said in a news release the bar Feder managed, J.D.’s Circle In, was a front for illegal drug trafficking and illegal sports betting. Investigators used controlled buys and wiretaps to show Feder distributed methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and THC cartridges used in vaping devices. 

Saint Francis Ministries

A whistleblower says a cash-strapped Kansas foster care contractor spent $80,000 on tickets to see the Chicago Cubs, a club owned by the Nebraska governor's family, as it sought new business in that state. St. Francis Ministries bought the tickets in 2019. That same year, the agency was awarded a $197 million, five-year contract from the state of Nebraska to oversee the care of abused and neglected children in the Omaha area. The Omaha World-Herald reports that Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services says St. Francis won the contract because it presented the best bid. 

4 Lanes 4 Nebraska

A coalition of Nebraska mayors is calling on state officials to finish a series of highway upgrades that were unveiled in 1988 but never completed because of a lack of funding. The mayors sent a letter to state lawmakers, urging them to make roads a top priority in the 2021 legislative session, and asking why Nebraska is one of two states that don't use bonding to finance highway projects. The mayors are pushing for the completion of the Nebraska Expressway System, which was designed to connect the state’s larger cities to one another and the interstate system with four-lane highways.

KOLN

The economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska has created a new gaming division to manage the three casinos it hopes to open starting next year. Ho-Chunk, Inc., says it has launched WarHorse Gaming, LLC, to develop the casinos at three state-licensed horse-racing tracks in Omaha, Lincoln and South Sioux City. The corporation has partnered with the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a horse racing industry group.

Omaha World Herald

Douglas County plans to spend $10 million in federal coronavirus aid on its new justice center complex. The county's board approved the expenditure Tuesday after hearing hours of debate. The $10 million will pay for additional costs for the center, which has an estimated $120 million price tag. Opponents say the federal funds should be used to to fight the coronavirus pandemic, not on the justice center project. Douglas County received $166 million in CARES Act money for certain COVID-19 relief expenses.

Investor Warren Buffett says he would gladly trade places with any of today’s college graduates even with the uncertain times because of the opportunity they have ahead of them. Buffett recently recorded a graduation speech that will be aired this weekend at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In the talk, Buffett said graduates should feel lucky to get the education they did and to have the chance to start their careers in the United States today.

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