Higher broadband speeds, unemployment fraud discussed in Legislature

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 31, 2021 - 5:55pm

Requiring higher broadband speeds, and investigating fraudulent unemployment payments, were among topics discussed in the Nebraska Legislature Wednesday.

As the state and federal governments devote more money to expanding high speed broadband, lawmakers are considering what kinds of speeds to require. Under an amendment offered by Sen. Bruce Bostelman, construction subsidized by the state’s Universal Service Fund would have to provide speeds of 100 megabits per second for both uploads and downloads. Bostelman said it is needed to assure good service.

“This will ensure state money is not spent on inferior technology that will age poorly,” Bostelman said.

Sen. Curt Friesen said the requirement might mean some areas that have slow service would be upgraded before some hard-to-reach areas that don’t have broadband. Friesen said it shows the challenges of installing high speed broadband everywhere.

“We need to realize that we cannot provide high speed broadband to all areas of the state in the short amount of time. This is an expensive proposal. Some of the estimates we’ve seen is $3-5 billion,” Friesen said.

Senators voted 40-0 for the proposal.

Meanwhile, Sens. Carol Blood and Jen Day have written to Labor  Commissioner John Albin asking about what they call an “apparent wave of fraudulent claims” for unemployment payments. Blood said she was alerted to the issue by constituents her office has been trying to help during the pandemic.

“We have been helping people from across the state of Nebraska since all of this started and we kept stumbling across people who were saying that… they hadn’t been paid, but yet the state had said they indeed had been paid. So when we started intervening and stepping up to the plate to help them out, we found out the state was admitting to us that there had been fraudulent claims,” Blood said.

Blood said the fraudulent claims were coming in from around the world, and scammers have “cheat sheets” that identify Nebraska as a vulnerable state. And Day said it’s important to deal with the issue right now.

“I received some constituent emails about the exact same issue, and there’s lots of issues going on with unemployment claims right now. And so this was just kind of one of the pieces of that that we both agreed that something needed to be done about it, obviously after the fact, but also preemptively because we have a whole ‘nother new wave of unemployment funds coming in,” Day said.

In their letter, the senators ask Albin how much fraud there is, and what he may be doing with the attorney general’s office to combat it.  And they ask for a response within 14 days.

Asked for an initial comment, Department of Labor spokesperson Grace Johnson said “Every state has faced unprecedented efforts to defraud the unemployment system during the pandemic. Nebraska is no exception, but based upon what we have seen, Nebraska’s fraud rate is significantly lower than those of most states.” She added the department is happy to meet with senators to discuss efforts to combat fraud.

Also Wednesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts held a news conference at which he highlighted two bills he’s signed. One would give military spouses licensed as teachers in other states three-year licenses to teach in Nebraska. Another would let financial advisers delay transactions for up to 30 days if they suspect someone is trying to exploit an elderly or vulnerable client.

Ricketts was also asked about the Judiciary Committee’s advancing a bill Tuesday to legalize medical cannabis. The governor has previously argued, on another subject, that the Legislature should pass a bill to control local property taxes to head off an initiative petition drive that might take even more drastic measures.

That was the same argument Sen. Steve Lathrop, chair of the Judiciary Committee, made on behalf of the medical cannabis bill: that if the Legislature did not act to regulate the drug, an initiative petition drive could legalize it with essentially no regulation.

Ricketts was asked what the difference is in the two situations.

“The difference is that marijuana is illegal. It’s a drug that is illegal by the federal government,” Ricketts said.

That’s true, although according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states have so far legalized medical cannabis. Asked about that, Ricketts repeated his argument that medical cannabis is simply a foot in the door to recreational legalization, which he said has drastic negative consequences, especially for young people.

And, lawmakers spent several hours Wednesday debating Ricketts’ appointment of Bud Synhorst to the state Board of Health. Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, a registered Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, pointed out that Synhorst had been executive director of the state Republican party, and as president of the Lincoln Independent Business Association, had expressed concern about the effect of mask mandates on businesses. She also objected that Synhorst was one of seven nominees to the board, none of whom were women, people of color, or residents of eastern Omaha.

“I didn’t vote for any of the confirmations today, because they didn’t meet any of those criteria. This specific one, in addition to not meeting any of those criteria, is also the epitome of a political appointment,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Suzanne Geist, a registered Republican who said Synhorst managed her campaign, said the criticism was unfair.

“Simply because he’s a Republican or carries any kind of opinion about anything -- about whether you need a mask or not -- I don’t even know that Mr. Synhorst cares, nor supports or does not support. And I’m a friend of his. I do know every time I’ve seen him in the Capitol, he wore a mask,” Geist said.

Senators voted 37-7 to confirm Synhorst’s appointment.

Correction: The audio version of this story, and an earlier text version, contained an incorrect day for the Judiciary Committee's advancement of the medical cannabis bill. The correct day is Tuesday.



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