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Sen. John Kuehn

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38

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Since 1790 the Federal Government has conducted the decennial census every ten years. Originally established as a mere head count of residents of each of the states for the purpose of apportioning members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the census has grown into a comprehensive effort that collects data on a number of characteristics of Americans. That information influences distribution of federal funds based on population as well as serves as the major federal data set for policy analysis during the next ten years.


In the year following each decennial census, states use the population information collected to evaluate the population residing in different electoral districts to determine if they contain relatively equal numbers. These include not only Nebraska’s three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, but more significantly legislative districts for representation in state government, as well as districts for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, Public Service Commission, and State Board of Education. As shifts in population occur, apportioning equal numbers of voters into each district may require redrawing district boundaries. This process is known as “redistricting”.


Residents of District 38 are quite familiar with the consequences of redistricting. In 2011, LB 703 created new boundaries for the district following the 2010 census. Kearney County was moved into the district, and Harlan County was moved into District 44. Clay County has also moved among different Legislative Districts through different iterations of legislative redistricting.  


With the shift in population to Douglas, Sarpy, and Lancaster counties, the redistricting process will continue to have significant implications for representation of rural Nebraska in the Legislature. In 2011, the movement of District 49 from western Nebraska to Gretna created an important change in the Legislature. Of the 49 seats, 25 are now held by representatives of the Omaha and Lincoln urban areas. Current population projections would indicate two additional seats will be shifted away from rural Nebraska to the Omaha/Lincoln area. That magnifies the urban dominance in the Nebraska Legislature from a simple majority to a 27/22 split.


While most rural states also face this population shift, the impact on the representation of rural areas in state government is not as extreme. In a two-house state legislature, the population shifts impact rural representation in the state House of Representatives, while geographic representation remains in the Senate. As the only unicameral in the nation, the loss of legislative seats in the single legislative chamber means a direct loss of representation in state government.


The consequences of this political shift can be enormous for rural Nebraskans. There is no better example than the dysfunctional school funding system that has left rural districts paying for public education almost exclusively with local property taxes, while urban districts consume almost a billion dollars of state equalization aid. Appeals to fairness by rural senators and rural citizen groups have fallen on deaf ears of urban senators, whose support is required to restore equity to the system. The problem has been recognized for almost a decade, with little action to resolve it.


The Nebraska Constitution specifically assigns the responsibility for apportionment and redistricting with the Nebraska Legislature. In advance of the anticipated redistricting process in 2021, several legislative proposals have emerged that attempt to divert the redistricting process to unelected commissions based on party registration. I opposed the first redistricting bill to come to the floor for a vote, LB 580 in 2016. Two additional bills, LB 216 and LB 653, were introduced in this past session and remain in Executive Committee, of which I am Vice Chair. I oppose the creation of any unelected advisory committee for redistricting on a partisan basis, and thus will not support either current bill for advancement to General File.


My experience in the Nebraska Legislature has reinforced the common expression that Nebraska’s greatest divides are not by party, but rather rural versus urban. Low commodity prices have had a direct and significant impact on state revenues, demonstrating that rural Nebraska remains the economic engine of our state and state government. Even with this reality, critical rural needs, such as school funding reform, remain unaddressed despite years of focus and discussion.


Rural Nebraskans should carefully watch and evaluate the redistricting process that will be taking shape in the coming years. To date the focus has been on concerns of political parties, not on the impact of the accelerating shift of representation to urban areas. Voters of District 38 should get engaged: the very nature of your representation in state government rests with the outcome.

The Nebraska Department of Corrections recently notified convicted death row killer Jose Sandoval of the four drugs that will be used as a lethal injection protocol to carry out his execution. This notification is in accordance with state regulations, which is required at least 60 days before the Attorney General can request an execution warrant from the Nebraska Supreme Court.

The four drugs that will be used by the state have been used medically for decades. Their mode of action, onset of activity, and clinical effects are well known and documented. Each is currently used in a wide variety of medical applications in practices across the state. It is highly likely you or a family member have been administered one or more of the compounds during routine anesthesia. Nevertheless, death penalty opponents have mischaracterized the combination as “untested” and “unproven” in an attempt to create doubt about their use. Regardless of one’s opinion about the death penalty, distorting the pharmacological facts about approved, widely used anesthetics to achieve a political end is unethical.

The four drugs in the protocol are diazepam, fentanyl, cisatracurium besilate, and potassium chloride.  Diazepam is a sedative medication that is commonly known by its trade name, Valium. It has a wide variety of clinical uses, including for anxiety, seizure control, resolution of muscle spasms, and as a sedative before administration of general anesthesia. It is included on the “List of Essential Medicines” compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is considered the standard of care for safe and effective medicines in a healthcare facility. Approved in 1960, an article in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience on diazepam states it “set the standard for pharmacotherapy in terms of potency, onset of action, and safety”.

Fentanyl is also a widely used and well known opioid. Also introduced in 1960, fentanyl is available in a wide variety of formulations for uses as a potent pain medication. In addition to its use as an injection and tablet, fentanyl is available in patches, which administer the drug through the skin. Fentanyl patches are also included on the WHO List of Essential Medicines. Fentanyl lollipops are used by the US military as an effective way of delivering pain relief to injured troops in the field. Its onset of action is within five minutes, and a single therapeutic dose provides over 30 minutes of effect. The effects of fentanyl overdose are well documented. Illegal use of fentanyl as a street drug by opioid addicts has led to the deaths of tens of thousands in the U.S. since 2000.

Cisatracurium is a paralytic agent used by anesthesiologists in addition to general anesthesia during routine surgery. Paralytics are required when using a mechanical ventilator, such as heart surgery. Some anesthesia protocols also routinely use cisatracurium to relax the muscles of the head and neck to allow placement of an endotracheal tube in the airway. Atracurium is its parent compound, and has been in use since 1974. A 2014 study published in the Journal of International Medical Research details a double-blind randomized trial that demonstrated cisatracurium effectively prevented pain associated with the injection of propofol, a common  injectable anesthetic agent. The pain prevention was as effective as administering lidocaine, the commonly used local anesthetic.

Potassium chloride is a salt that is added to intravenous fluids to treat low blood potassium.  At high doses the potassium causes paralysis of the heart muscle and cardiac failure. Potassium chloride has been used as the third drug in lethal injection protocols that have satisfied judicial review. Accidental overdose of undiluted or improperly calculated potassium chloride via intravenous fluids is a well-documented medical error leading to sudden death in hospitalized patients. The journal Pharmacy and Therapeutics published an article in 2011 titled “Potassium Chloride Injection Still Poses Threats to Patients”, documenting steps health care facilities needed to adopt to address “lingering problems associated with concentrated KCl”.

It is true that the combination of these four drugs has not been used in an execution. That does not mean their clinical effects, when used alone or in combination, are unknown. Their use at therapeutic levels is common and well-studied. The fatal effects of overdose of each of these compounds, either accidental or intentional, has been documented.

Misrepresenting the science of the drugs for a political end has far reaching implications. Both diazepam and fentanyl are WHO Essential Drugs, as is another anesthetic, sodium thiopental. Activism and misrepresentation of sodium thiopental has virtually eliminated the drug from the global market, at the cost of untold lives. Accurate, evidence based information and reporting will hopefully prevent a similar fate for these medications.   


As Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday season, families across the nation gather to give thanks and celebrate. These end-of-year holiday gatherings give us an opportunity to reflect on the year that has passed, as well as focus on our goals and priorities for the year ahead with family and friends.  


We have much to be thankful for across District 38 and throughout Nebraska. A survey of local newspapers from across the district demonstrates many of the great things happening every day in our local communities. Student success in a wide variety of school activities, including academic, co-curricular, and athletic, have great support from parents and residents. Our churches, civic organization, and local business groups are engaging citizens and responding to local needs as is the rich tradition of our rural communities.


Although this fall’s harvest encountered many challenges posed by Nebraska’s ever changing and unpredictable weather, for the most part yields were good. Current drought monitor indexes show normal moisture conditions across the district going into winter. Although commodity prices remain low, significant economic distress as has been seen in prior decades has not developed.


It is easy to fall into a pattern of only seeing the challenges that lie before us. With my focus on policy solutions, I personally do not always take the time to step back and fully recognize the successes happening every day and the opportunities before us. The upcoming holiday season provides an important reminder of the value of pausing, taking stock, and being thankful.


The coming year, as the years before it, will present a new slate of political challenges, policy choices, and opportunities to address them. As we focus in state government on addressing issues from appropriations to property taxes, the families who will be gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas must remain at the forefront of our minds.


The values we share around the holiday dinner table should be reflected in the values we embrace in our policy. It is easy to assume government is a force unto itself. We see neighbors help each other harvest in a time of need, communities line main street to cheer the arrival of newly crowned state champion teams, and community groups hosting benefit suppers to help a family in need. We must celebrate and build upon the strengths that make our rural communities such a great place to live, work, and raise a family.


This Thanksgiving I will personally give thanks for many things. I am thankful for the opportunity to represent my home community in the Nebraska Legislature. I appreciate and value all of the conversations, letters, and calls from constituents who provide valuable feedback and information to inform my decisions. I cannot sufficiently express the full depth of my gratitude to my family, friends, and neighbors who pitch in and help with my responsibilities at home, especially around the farm, that enable me to serve.


Over the course of the coming months there will be ample time and opportunity for discussion about politics, policy, and politicians. It is my prayer that this holiday season finds all Nebraskans in the company of family and loved ones. May we all take stock of the rich blessings that are afforded us by virtue of living in strong communities that value our liberty and our freedom. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

During the last legislative session I was clear with my concerns about spending levels in our state budget. In the face of lagging revenue receipts and decreased revenue forecasts, the Appropriations Committee and Nebraska Legislature balanced the state budget by transferring $173 million from the state Cash Reserve and sweeping almost $194 million from various Cash Funds to pay for ongoing expenses.


I did not vote for those transfers or to advance that budget from committee, nor did I vote for the budget on the floor. As I stated repeatedly, the next budget cycle would require $367 million in revenue growth just to cover ongoing expenses paid for with one time transfers. That is a pretty deep hole to “grow” out of in the midst of a struggling agricultural economy. At the conclusion of the legislative session in May, a group of my fellow senators and I continued to publicly state our concerns, predicting that a sluggish farm economy and its financial impact on our communities would continue to weigh down state tax receipts.


On October 27, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board (NEFAB) met to update the revenue forecast for the current fiscal year and the 2018-2019 fiscal year. Tax receipts, specifically personal income and sales taxes, have not met the forecast levels in any month since the board last met in April and lowered the revenue projections. Thus, it was no surprise that the NEFAB again reduced the projection for tax receipts to the state General Fund, this time by a total of $224 million over the current budget biennium.


A deeper examination of the details behind the declining numbers presents greater concern. For the current fiscal year, FY18, the NEFAB reduced revenue by $100.4 Million. In the second year of the budget cycle, FY19, the revenue level was reduced by $123.5 million. The revenue declines in sales and income taxes are greater in the second year than the first. The economic models used by the NEFAB to project revenue indicated the need for a steeper reduction with the passage of time. There is no objective evidence to support the claim we will “grow” out of the spending hole the Legislature has created any time soon. On a positive note, corporate income tax receipts were revised upward by $50 million over the biennium.


Here is the scorecard: the budget passed last session plugs a $367 million hole with one time money.  If spending restraint is not exercised to accommodate the $224 million revenue downgrade, it will need to be covered by the transfer of more one time money, primarily the Cash Reserve.  The next budget cycle would begin with a $591 million gap to fund ongoing expenses.


If the entire $224 million from the current revenue decrease is taken from the Cash Reserve rather than in spending reductions, it would leave $155 million in the state’s “rainy day” fund. Current revenue models have a greater negative impact with time, and the potential exists for an ongoing revenue deficit almost 4 times the size of the Cash Reserve.


The very fact that personal income tax revenues continue to come in below economic projections indicates Nebraska families and small businesses are not earning as much as expected. Lagging sales tax revenues reflect the decreased spending by Nebraska consumers that accompanies those reduced incomes. Any strategy that increases state revenue by taking it from already strapped Nebraska taxpayers, rather than reducing state spending, is illogical.


I believe in the resilience of Nebraskans. Inherent in that belief is the faith that we can strategically set priorities and responsibly address funding needs using evidence and cost/benefit analysis. A quick recovery of Nebraska’s fiscal health depends on it.


Financial decisions for yourself and your family are a personal choice. How you spend your money is unique to your situation, depending on your priorities and values. You decide your comfort level with risk, personal savings, and future goals. If you make a poor decision, it does not impact the livelihood of your friends and neighbors. Even when we try our best to be rational, it is a natural tendency to let emotion influence our personal decisions. When the consequences are our own, that is acceptable.  


Public policy decisions are very different. When legislators make decisions about spending tax dollars, making tax policy, or creating regulations, those choices impact everyone. Far too often policy decisions are “eminence based” rather than “evidence based”. The most coordinated media campaigns or most popular catch phrases become accepted as true, whether or not evidence to support the claim exists. Unfortunately, ideas can become popular and gain support even when evidence contradicts the premise.  


My recent columns on tax incentives exemplify the need for good evidence to support policy decisions. The original legislation that created the Nebraska Advantage Act did not require reporting of the many metrics that would allow evaluation of the intended impact of the programs. Supporters and opponents alike make claims about the value of the Nebraska’s tax incentives. In the absence of evidence, it is not credible to say the programs are successful economic tools, just as it is not credible to say they have not been.


Despite common political strategies that use fear, anecdote, and false dichotomies to promote a particular policy, sound governance should use evidence to support decisions that impact the daily lives of Nebraskans. Many popular policies sound reasonable, yet the evidence does not support the claims made. One of the most common arguments in support of expanding Medicaid eligibility is to reduce the use of expensive emergency room services for non-emergency care. The state of Oregon used a lottery system to expand Medicaid to a randomized group of working adults. Use of Emergency Room services increased in those newly covered, versus the same population without Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid had the opposite effect on costs. Nevertheless, the claim continues in spite of the evidence.


Studies examining the long term impact of early childhood education programs have provided evidence that contradicts the popular claims.  Research at Vanderbilt University examining Tennessee’s universal public early childhood program and data from Head Start have shown the impact of early childhood education programs, when applied broadly, vanishes in early elementary school. Nevertheless, data from boutique programs are used to advocate for additional investments, while ignoring the more comprehensive evidence.  


Cost and benefit analysis of government programs is essential for judicious use of tax dollars. All too often it is assumed that more money spent equates to equal or greater outcomes. There is a basic economic principle that states “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. There is a cost associated with every dollar spent, including trade-offs to other programs. When making decisions to spend taxpayer money, lawmakers have a responsibility to make decisions based on data that supports their decision.


There is no evidence that supports the claim that more dollars spent on education equates to better learning outcomes.  The rate of return diminishes with additional investment. Beyond a basic level of funding, there is not compelling evidence to support the claim that students perform better when more money is spent. However, education spending is frequently used as a metric to reflect educational quality.


Using evidence and data to make good policy decision does not mean they are devoid of compassion. Emotional stories and anecdotes are powerful, but they are not evidence. Public decision making is distinct from private choices. The careful balance between the individual needs and public good can be easily influenced by cognitive biases.  Good data and careful standards of evidence provide the foundation for sound public policy.


NRD Tax Map

Map of Nebraska’s natural resources districts along with their inflation-adjusted property tax increases from 2005 to 2015.

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38
Room #2000
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2732
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