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NEWS 1.4.23: Nebraska Legislature Underway, New Iowa AG Makes Changes, COVID Update, and More

The Nebraska Legislature started its new session Wednesday with several new members, a new incoming Republican governor and nearly $1 billion in cash. But it faces some of the same perpetual issues over the next five months, including a likely fight over proposed abortion restrictions and what to do with that surplus money.

The officially nonpartisan Legislature is made up of 32 senators registered as Republicans and 17 registered as Democrats. That split looms large over the issue of a possible abortion ban, which failed last year and needs 33 votes to overcome a filibuster.

Gov.-elect Jim Pillen will be sworn in on Thursday. He says his priorities include cutting taxes and changing Nebraska’s school funding formula to a per-student basis.

State Senator John Arch of La Vista is the new Speaker of the Legislature. Arch is a native of Sioux City and graduated from North High School in 1973.

Iowa lawmakers get back to work on Monday, with Republicans heading into the session with a bigger majority in both chambers. Some want major changes to education by allowing vouchers for private schools and property tax cuts.

The South Dakota Legislature reconvenes on Tuesday with Governor Kristi Noem's "State of the State" address as she starts a second term in office.

The incoming recently elected Iowa attorney general has asked for the resignations of 19 current staffers, including many in leadership positions but also some longtime staff attorneys, according to Lynn Hicks, a spokesperson for the office who was among those asked to resign.

Brenna Bird, a Republican county attorney who defeated longtime Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, in the November election, requested the resignations on Dec. 22, according to letters obtained by Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Bird pledged during her election campaign to more vigorously defend laws enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and to challenge policies enacted by President Joe Biden, a Democrat.

The employees represent less than 10% of the total staff of more than 200. Find out more by clicking this link.

Newly appointed Chair of the Woodbury County Supervisors Matthew Ung says the board hopes to close a $6.3 million gap to keep the property tax levy rate unchanged. The Sioux City Journal reports historically, $2 million has been the gap the supervisors needed to fill to keep the property tax levy the same. Ung said the board has been able to avoid tax rate increases for eight years. Ung made his comments during last night’s supervisor's meeting.

Meanwhile, outgoing Woodbury County Supervisor Rocky De Witt may be reappointed to the Woodbury County Law Enforcement Center Authority, the joint city-county board overseeing the new jail. Check out the story from the Sioux City Journal. De Witt had to resign from the board of supervisors due to his election as the Iowa Senate District 1 representative.

Officials say COVID-19 hospitalizations and reported positive tests in Iowa have ticked up slightly in the past week.

According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, 248 Iowans hospitalized have tested positive for the virus as of today.

That’s as state health officials say more than 3 thousand positive tests were reported in the past seven days.

State officials also added 40 Iowans to the state’s COVID death count. 10,463 Iowans have died from the virus so far.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 64% have completed their primary COVID vaccine series. While 18 percent have received the most recent bivalent booster.

The Sioux City Journal reports transmission rates in Woodbury County fell from “medium” to “low”, but the number of positive tests did increase from 74 to 84 last week.

2022 was a deadly year for drivers in Iowa and Nebraska. The Iowa State Patrol reports more than 300 people lost their lives on roads in the state.

State leaders had hoped to keep fatalities under 300 last year, but 338 people died. That is down slightly from 2021.

Officials say the crashes happened for a variety of reasons, including wrong-way drivers, distracted driving with cell phones, and drunk driving. Forty-five percent of people killed were not wearing a seatbelt.

Most of the crashes are preventable. Eleven people died in ATV crashes, a big jump from 2021, after a new law that allows ATVs on roads.

The Nebraska State Patrol says it has been 15 years since more than 250 people died on the state’s interstates, highways, and local roads. As of December 30th, 254 were killed. That’s more than 10% more than the 10-year average. Authorities say speed is a big factor, with troopers writing more than 4,000 citations for people going 90 miles per hour or more.

News release from the Nebraska Department of Transportation:

(Lincoln, Neb.) – The NDOT Highway Safety Office used new digital technology to measure the number of distracted drivers in Nebraska. Results showed that 1 in 10 drivers you meet on the road are not looking where they are driving, but instead are focusing on a cell phone or other device! With fatalities in Nebraska at a 15-year high, all drivers need to do everything possible to avoid crashes. This includes wearing seat belts, putting phones down, and dedicating 100% of your attention to driving. Driving is a full-time task, so save the distractions for when you arrive safely at your destination. According to NHTSA, 3,142 lives were lost in 2020 due to distracted driving. Texting is the most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that's like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed. A 2021 NHTSA study shows only about 3% of drivers using cell phones, but with funding assistance from the Governors Highway Safety Association and General Motors, NDOT’s Highway Safety Office was able to use new digital equipment from Acusensus that shows about 10% of drivers using cell phones or other devices. The data also showed that 15% of drivers were not wearing seat belts. The Acusensus representative stated “that is the highest non-use rate we have seen in the U.S.” Seat belts save lives, and every driver and passenger in every vehicle needs to wear a seat belt at all times. This number was not as alarming since current crash data already shows that over 70% of people killed in crashes in Nebraska are not wearing a seat belt. Drivers need to put the phones down, make sure everyone is wearing a seat belt, and just drive!

December is traditionally a very busy, profitable month for retailers, but the latest economic survey for Iowa and eight other Midwestern states shows another dip in the business barometer for the final month of 2022.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss tells Radio Iowa the state and regional economies fell further below growth neutral, or 50 on the 0-to-100 scale, during December, pointing to higher recession risk for 2023. These are the lowest readings we’ve recorded since the pandemic. Goss went on to say things are not looking good. The economy is very likely to slow down this year.

The Mega Millions jackpot increased to an estimated $940 million after another drawing resulted in plenty of losers but not a single grand prize winner. The next drawing is scheduled to be held Friday night. The new $940 million jackpot is for a winner who chooses to be paid through an annuity over 29 years. The lack of a winner Tuesday means there have been 23 straight drawings without anyone taking the top prize. The new jackpot will remain the sixth-largest jackpot in U.S. history.

An Iowan who was thought to be the oldest living person in the United States died Tuesday.

Bessie Hendricks of Lake City died Tuesday at the Shady Oaks Care Center in Lake City. Hendricks celebrated her 115th birthday on November 7th and lived 57 more days. A funeral for Hendricks is scheduled for this Saturday in Lake City.

She was reportedly the 10th oldest person in the world, according to Radio Iowa.