Omaha World-Herald. October 16, 2020

Initiative 428, imposing a key restriction on payday lenders, deserves passage

Many Nebraskans are financially secure, and if they need credit for a major expense, they can go to a bank or credit union for a loan. Many other Nebraskans don’t have that option. They have modest incomes and sometimes turn to a payday lender for a cash advance. Last year, about 50,000 Nebraskans did so, with an average loan of $362. The average person took out 10 loans over the course of the year.

In some cases, individuals found themselves in a terrible debt spiral. World-Herald news coverage recently cited the example of a Gretna man who borrowed $500, paying an initial $75 fee for a two-week loan. But he ran into a string of financial complications, and by the time he finally met his obligation to the lender, he had paid more than $5,800 in fees.

Concern over such disturbing instances of heavy indebtedness has spurred 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, to cap the annual interest at 36% or less on payday lending or prohibit payday lending entirely. Congress in 2006 set a 36% cap on such borrowing by military personnel.

Initiative 428, on the November ballot in Nebraska, would set a 36% cap, and the measure deserves passage. It’s understandable that our society seeks to protect vulnerable individuals from financial catastrophe. Voters in South Dakota, Colorado and Montana have passed ballot measures to require a 36% cap.

For the long term, Nebraska’s best solution is to promote economic strategies that boost the state’s number of good-paying jobs providing financial security. In the present day, it’s important to understand that the demand for cash advances by a considerable number of low-income Nebraskans is a market reality. Lenders of some kind will meet that need, and the public interest is best served if such lenders are institutions within the regulatory reach of Nebraska state government. In some cases, the troubling alternative has been online lenders posing a high predatory risk. This has been a particular concern for residents of some Native American reservations.

Nebraska imposes a range of regulations on payday lenders. The state requires that the lender verify the borrower’s income and provide financial literacy information. The borrower must have a job and a bank account and reach a particular income level. The state sets a limit of $500 on a single payday loan. State regulators carry out financial examinations of these lending businesses.

For many borrowers, these arrangements meet their needs. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 69% of payday loans are taken out to meet recurring expenses. At the same time, as many states have concluded, it’s appropriate to provide a backstop through an interest cap.

The Pew study concluded that “in states with lower rate limits, payday credit is not significantly constrained; instead, fewer stores simply serve more customers each. For example, in the three years after Colorado lowered permissible interest rates for payday loans, half of stores closed, but each remaining store served 80% more customers. Borrowers’ access to credit in the state was virtually unchanged.”

Those findings offer reassurance as Nebraskans ponder this issue. The demand for these loans is a reality, and it’s important that our state approaches this issue with a proper combination of moral awareness and economic realism. A proper tool for that goal is on the November ballot. Nebraskans would do well by voting FOR Initiative 428.

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Lincoln Journal Star. October 17, 2020

HHS shifts come at the worst time for the state

Triggered by pandemic fatigue, a relaxation in restrictions on businesses and social gatherings and, in Lincoln, the return of thousands of college students to the city, coronavirus cases in Nebraska have hit record levels

On Oct. 9, the state reported 1,085 confirmed COVID-19 cases, eclipsing the spring peak of 677 set on May 7. The seven-day rolling average of daily cases has risen from about 426 on Sept. 28 to 654 as of Monday, an increase of more than 50%, giving Nebraska the seventh-highest rate of new cases.

The rise in cases corresponds to Gov. Pete Ricketts decision to remove most restrictions Sept. 14.

The spike in cases caused the Harvard Global Health Institute to list Nebraska among the 14 states where case rates are so high, it recommends stay-at-home orders be put in place.

That won’t happen. Ricketts won’t mandate the wearing of face coverings, the best tool to combat the virus, much less require Nebraskans to stay at home.

Instead, the state continues to rely on a coronavirus-mitigation strategy based on the availability of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. But that plan is coming under pressure from the unrelenting virus.

Coronavirus-linked hospitalizations statewide hit a record last weekend and declined only slightly since, causing hospitals in Omaha to sound the alarm, even as Ricketts and Nebraska chief medical officer Dr. Gary Anthone continue to maintain that the state has plenty of beds.

The resurgence of the virus makes it doubly strange that the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is operating without a state epidemiologist in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century.

Tom Safranek, Nebraska’s version of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who had been state epidemiologist for 30 years, last month was removed from that position and given a new role -- special assistant to DHHS CEO Dannette Smith.

Department officials insist that he is still essentially operating as epidemiologist. But his new duties and a possible reclassification to discretionary employee, working at the pleasure of the department, appear to diminish that role and perhaps be aimed at silencing any opposition he might have to the state plan.

“It appears they have taken him out of the data management and out of the direction of the disease in the state, which is truly his role and his expertise,” Sen. Sara Howard told the Journal Star. “This is not the time for the state to not have an epidemiologist.”

The Journal Star editorial board agrees. The state epidemiologist position has been vacant since Sept. 8, coincidentally timed with the rise in cases. Safranek should be returned to the position, with the same operating responsibilities as he had before HHS began its reorganization.

Administratively revamping the troubled department can wait; addressing the pandemic with Safranek, the most experienced and knowledgeable person in the lead, cannot.

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Kearney Hub. October 17, 2020

October eases us into chilly months

It takes October nine months to get here, but there are reasons Nebraskans love it so much. It brings an end to yard work, and there’s a bit of a rest before the blizzards blow in and it’s time to break out the snow shovels.

It’s a restful month, and it’s a bit sad because gardens freeze. There are no more fresh tomatoes off the vine, and gone are the bright and delicate flowers that decorate the warm summer months. But just as she erases the lively colors of summer, Mother Nature draws out her magical paintbrush and splashes her canvas with blazing golds, oranges and reds.

October is as fair as it can be. It takes away summer, but it gives us autumn.

Weary from the heat of June, July, August and September, we pause in October to relish the coolness and colors, and prepare physically and spiritually for the long trudge through winter. In October, the days are clear, bright and quiet, except in the fields, where farmers are gathering the fruits of their labor. Each year at this time, the tall cornstalks disappear from the fields, and then golden pyramids of corn appear in rural towns that proudly tie their fortune to agriculture.

On the old Roman calendar, October was the eighth month. That’s how it got its name, from the Latin word “octo,” meaning “eight.” January and February were added with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, pushing October to No. 10. The change improved the calendar’s accuracy, but improvements were not really needed for October, which remains one of our favorites.

Ducks, geese and sandhill cranes must love October, too. As the birds arrive here each fall they’re honking and trumpeting with delight — and why not? They’re in full plumage, and they’ve gathered with thousands of their friends. Nature’s celebration has carried over with humans. We celebrate October with beer and harvest festivals, at least that’s what we do when a pandemic hasn’t tossed a wet blanket on our fun.

October is a month for anyone who seeks inspiration. The countryside is aflame with color, the skies are crowded with birds, and our inner clocks tell us we had better enjoy October while it lasts.

There’s a message of inevitability in the crisp breezes that chill our cheeks and noses. We’re not so cold in October as we know we’ll be come November, December and January, so we make the most of it.

October always gets here at the right time, when we need a jump-start to re-energize for the home stretch. Now that it has arrived, we’re fools if we don’t take advantage.

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