By Nicholas Sauma, Reporter
It isn’t every day you hear the the words planning and politics used together seriously. However, after 40 years devoted to community engagement, the College of Public Affairs and Community Service (CPACS) is now researching policy for the Nebraska state legislature to help address the future and plan for it.
This event was the beginning of a series seeking to highlight CPACS involvement in the community while celebrating faculty, students, alumni, and its 40 year history. A memorial to Robert Spire was also celebrated. Spire helped create CPACS and was instrumental in establishing UNO’s collegiate status. A portrait of Spire was donated to the college by his wife. The portrait will be hung in the dean’s office as a reminder and inspiration for the college’s mission.
“Planning is a foreign word in government,” said state senator John Harms of Scottsbluff. “All we do is spend your money now.”
Three years ago, Harms introduced a planning committee to the legislature, but faced initial hardships. Budget, of course, became the primary one.
“I told [Mike Flood] that without this committee we would fail,” Harms said. “And he looked surprised, and then said he would take care of it.”
Harms said he wasn’t convinced at the moment, but heard that University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken agreed to allow the universities to assist in research for the state. Development meant the committee could afford to exist, and the proceedings continued to establish its formation.
Harms came up with the idea after working at Western Nebraska Community College. While there, the school was in poor shape, but he formed and executed plans that looked to the future and addressed key problems. He ended up turning the school around. When he was elected to the legislature in 2006, he wanted to see more forward planning occur.
“I think it is important to look for emerging trends, things in say five years, and ask ‘What should we be looking at now?'” Harms said.
This year, members of the legislature are already asking to see new policy briefs and statistics compiled by CPACS, Harms said. After finishing his presentation, he turned the floor over to the John Bartle, interim dean of CPACS, and Jerry Deichert, director of the Center of Public Affairs Research, who completed most of the research for the report together.
The CPACS report centered its research on nine policy issues important to Nebraska’s future. They are agriculture, economy, education, health and human services, natural resources, public safety, state and local government, telecommunications, and transportation. Bartle and Deichert highlighted a few of the issues in more depth.
Deichert covered health and human services. Nebraska has a large elderly population that will continue to grow and need care throughout the next five to 10 years.
“If we don’t start planning for these costs now, we won’t be able to address them in a crisis,” he said.
Another facet of the discussion was that the problem isn’t just an urban or rural issue, but coverage and care are inadequate all over Nebraska. Knowing the weakness allows ample time for a solution to be decided in the state legislature.
Bartle talked about state and local government issues, which had an interesting subtopic sure to make the news in the next few years. Nebraska has a lot of local governments, and the policy brief considered merging counties and cities in some cases. While it has been discussed before, it didn’t go anywhere. With all of the data in one place, the state senate may be able to have a highly informed, homogenized debate over what to make of the research.
A third issue was education. While Nebraska performs well in terms of sending students to higher education and keeping costs low, there is a deficiency in technical fields, science and engineering.
“Now, this may not be as surprising as it seems, because our students also score lower in math while young,” Deichert said. “This is what’s nice about this research, there are so many aspects to an issue that you can look at.”
He explained that while these degrees aren’t required for the state to continue, Nebraska has to work to bring in engineers, scientists and the like in order to address any state needs. That can cost more than having them locally.
Overall, the presentation was focused on business, but the evidence for celebration was obvious. After 40 years of serving the community on smaller scales, CPACS now does research that directly impacts the community through their lawmakers. As Harms, Bartle and Deichert stressed, the university and CPACS aren’t making the policies, but are remaining neutral instead, compiling the data and explaining the trends.