Welcome

January 7th, 2015

Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 1st legislative district in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature.

You’ll find my contact information on the right side of this page, as well as a list of the bills I’ve introduced this session and the committees on which I serve. Please feel free to contact me and my staff about proposed legislation or any other issues you would like to address.

Sincerely,
Sen. Dan Watermeier

Legislative Update

April 23rd, 2015

The Appropriations Committee completed its work on their budget recommendations for the next biennium, voting 9-0 to advance the recommendations to the full Legislature. The budget bills will be placed on General File by April 28, the 70th legislative day. The Legislature will take up the budget package on General File beginning April 30. According to the Legislature’s rules, the appropriations bills must be passed no later than the 80th legislative day, which falls on May 14 this year.

The budget, amounting to $8.7 billion, increases state spending by an average of 3.1% over the two-year period. The increase in spending is noticeably lower than the average 4.3% increase over that past 20 years. The budget package does include the concept contained in LB 364, the bill that I introduced to add an additional $60 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program, which provides direct property tax relief to property owners.

A bill to strengthen the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act was given first-round approval this past week. The legislation adds a definition of significant threat to the health or safety of dogs and cats. Due to recent concern regarding the inspection and enforcement procedures for licensed facilities by the Department of Agriculture, the department has updated their rules and regulations. The statutory definition mirrors the department’s regulations, clarifying that the department’s inspectors may impound animals or ask law enforcement to impound animals, if conditions pose a significant threat to the health or safety of dogs or cats. The legislation also provides for non-lapsing licenses, eliminating the difficulty the department had in taking enforcement actions against licensees whose license had expired. Furthermore, the bill removes obstacles for unannounced inspections and authorizes the department to charge a reinspection fee and mileage for reinspection trips to determine if correction of defects found in previous inspections have been completed.

As amended, LB 360 increases the annual license fee for breeders by $25 for each license fee category and imposes a new annual fee in commercial license fee categories of $2.00, times the daily average, for dogs or cats numbering more than ten. The legislation would increase the annual dog and cat license fee in cities, counties and villages from $1 to $1.25. These fee increases are necessary to adequately fund the program.

The Legislature also gave first-round approval to a bill containing many of the recommendations submitted by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. The legislation seeks to define hard cider as beer instead of wine, allows retirement homes to apply for liquor licenses, applies the keg laws to all kegs containing alcohol liquor, allows retail licensees to bottle and sell growlers, and offers tax credits for beer manufacturers to utilize local barley and hops. As introduced, LB 330 repealed the mandatory closing time for bars. This provision was stripped from the bill by the committee amendments.

LB 330 gave the Liquor Control Commission the authority to regulate powdered alcohol. This powder produces an alcoholic beverage when mixed with water.  A successful amendment struck this authority by banning powdered alcohol in the state, except for research purposes. Senators were concerned that this new product would appeal to underage drinkers and would be hard to control.

A Unicameral Youth Legislature will be held on June 7-10, 2015 and I encourage high school students who have an interest in law, government, leadership or public speaking to register for the event. Students will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and learn more about our nation’s only Unicameral. Scholarships are available. More information and registration forms can be obtained at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.

If you have any comments on legislation currently before the Legislature, I urge you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov.

Legislative Update

April 16th, 2015

This past week, senators gave first-round approval to LB 268, which would change the maximum penalty for first-degree murder in Nebraska from death to life imprisonment. This year, a dozen senators have signed on as co-sponsors to the bill annually introduced by Senator Ernie Chambers. Senators voted 30-13 to advance LB 268, which is the number of votes necessary to override the Governor’s promised veto. I voted against the advancement of the bill because I am still in favor of the death penalty.

The Legislature gave LB 610 second-round approval this past week. LB 610 proposes to increase the gas tax by six cents over a four-year period. Twenty-seven senators voted in support of the advancement of the bill to Final Reading, fourteen senators voted against its advancement, while eight senators did not vote. Although the bill had sufficient votes to advance, it may not have enough votes if a filibuster is attempted on final reading or to override an expected veto by the Governor.

Three bills dealing with prison reform were given first-round approval this past week, but not without a pledge to work with state and county prosecutors. Concerns from prosecutors focus on such issues as indeterminate sentencing, minimum sentences, habitual criminal statutes, and presumption of probation.

LB 605, the principal bill in the prison reform package, seeks to ease prison overcrowding and to hold offenders accountable with supervision and treatment. Our state’s prisons are currently at 159% of their design capacity. The legislation would use probation to hold people convicted of low-level offenses accountable, require misdemeanor sentences to be served in jail rather than prison, and update Nebraska’s property offense penalties to account for inflation. If the policy framework contained in LB 605 that structures certain felony sentences to be followed by post-release supervision is implemented effectively, it is projected to substantially reduce the number of inmates that jam-out of prison (released without any supervision). LB 605 also seeks to improve parole supervision through the adoption of a risk assessment tool and other evidence-based practices and would respond to major parole violations with short periods of incarceration followed by supervision.

The policy framework contained in LB 605 resulted from the work of the Nebraska’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which included the leaders of the three branches of government, district court judges, county and defense attorneys, and law enforcement executives. The group worked closely with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has helped a number of states reduce spending on corrections through lower-cost alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, such as probation, drug courts and parole, and greater focus on rehabilitation and mental health treatment for violent offenders.

LB 598 is aimed at reducing the use of segregation and improving treatment for mentally ill inmates. It would also create an Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System. This bill was prioritized by the Performance Audit Committee, which I chair.

The last bill in the prison reform package, LB 173, dealt with habitual criminals and mandatory minimum sentences. This bill proposes to remove mandatory minimum sentences for several felonies and restricts the use of enhanced penalties for being a habitual criminal to violent crimes only. Currently, any three felonies, either violent or not, can be used in determining longer sentencing. Proponents of the bill state that mandatory sentences have failed to deter crime and can act as a disincentive for inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs. Opponents pointed out that this bill went further than what was recommended by the CSG Justice Center. The Nebraska Attorney General held a press conference to voice his concern that the legislation ignores the seriousness of several violent crimes, which could jeopardize public safety.

The prison reform bills have been introduced in an effort to relieve the overcrowding at our state prisons without having to spend millions of dollars on a new prison facility. Before the second round of debate, senators will work with the state attorney general’s office and county attorneys in an effort to reach a compromise on measures to reduce overcrowding without jeopardizing the safety of Nebraska’s residents.

If you have any comments on the prison reform measures or other issues before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.

Legislative Update

April 10th, 2015

For the third year in a row, the Legislature debated a bill that proposed to expand Medicaid. Initiated by President Obama, the Affordable Care Act was signed into law on the federal level in 2010. Medicaid expansion was mandatory in the original legislation, but due to a Supreme Court ruling it became voluntary for states. LB 472 would authorize eligibility for Medicaid coverage for adults ages 19-65 with incomes at or below 133% of federal poverty level. This year’s version of the legislation also proposed to create the Medicaid Redesign task force to review health care policy.

Supporters of the legislation referred to a recent report by two business professors at UNK, which found that our state would receive more than $2 billion in federal funds during the first five years of expansion. It was estimated that this would increase our state’s economic activity by more than $5 billion. The professors projected that the increased economic activity would generate more than enough tax revenue to pay for the state’s portion of the increased costs of expansion. However, Governor Ricketts warned against using subjective measures in determining the justification for entitlement expansions.

Although the federal government pledged to pay at least 90% of the cost, many senators were still concerned with the financial burden that would be placed on our state. They also questioned whether the federal government would keep their commitment. Supporters pointed out that LB 472 contained language that if the federal share falls below 90%, the coverage for the newly eligible would terminate. Opponents argued that once a program is expanded, it is very difficult to reverse direction. Senators were sympathetic to those that can’t afford health insurance and were concerned for hospitals that have experienced hardships as a result of the Affordable Care Act. However, Medicaid is intended to cover the most vulnerable. Under current guidelines, spending on Medicaid accounts for approximately 20% of our total state budget. An increase in the state’s portion to cover more than 75,000 new enrollees could jeopardize the funding for other state programs.

Unlike the two previous years, lawmakers spent just over 3 hours debating the issue before a motion was made to bracket LB 472 until the end of the legislative session. The motion to bracket was successful on a 28-16 vote, which means that LB 472 will not be debated again this year.

This past week, senators gave first-round approval to LB 519, which reflects the recommendations from a study by the Education Committee on the educational uses of lottery funds. The Nebraska Constitution specifies that forty-four and one-half percent of the money remaining after the payment of prizes and operating expenses shall be used for education as the Legislature may direct. Approximately $16 million is allocated per year for education projects.

Revenue from the lottery will continue to fund the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program and Nebraska Opportunity Grants for higher education. New uses for the lottery funds will be for Competitive Innovative Grants and Expanded Learning Opportunity Grants for K-12 schools and for a Gap Tuition Assistance Program to provide funding to community colleges to assist eligible students in pursuing certification programs or licensure in high-demand occupations.

Programs currently funded by lottery proceeds that have been preliminarily recommended for funding through the General Fund include High Ability Learner Aid, Early Childhood Education Grants, Early Childhood Endowment Grants, and operating funds for the Military Child Compact. Decreased funding for Distance Education, which is currently funded by lottery proceeds, is contained in LB 343. The ACT Pilot Project and Career Education programs will not be funded.

The Speaker announced this past week that the Legislature will begin working into the evening beginning April 28. Although we have already met for more than 60 days, we still have many major issues before us, including the budget, repeal of the death penalty, prison reform, and workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

As we begin the last third of this legislative session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.

Legislative Update

April 2nd, 2015

The Legislature gave initial approval this past week for a proposal to increase the gas tax. LB 610 proposes to increase the fixed portion of the gasoline tax by 1.5 cents per gallon every year for four years. Once the 6 cent increase is fully implemented, it would generate approximately $25 million more a year for the Department of Roads and $50 million more annually for cities and counties, to be used for necessary road and bridge projects.

Roads are very important to Nebraska. Beyond everyday transportation, good roads are a means to move produce from farm to market, to transport freight, and to provide incentives for businesses to locate in our state. Last year, I participated in the Transportation and Telecommunication’s Committee interim study that looked at the condition of our rural bridges. We saw that there is a great need for additional funding.

States have recognized that federal funding for roads has been decreasing in recent years. The federal gas tax was designed to be the primary source of funding for the Federal Highway Trust Fund. However, since it has not been increased since 1993, it is no longer meeting its obligations. Likewise, the state gas tax is only one cent higher than it was twenty-two years ago, although the gas tax structure has been modified over this time. Three neighboring states have recently increased their gas tax and a couple dozen states are considering their options.

LB 610 was advanced from the first stage of debate on a 26-10 vote. If it is successful at the next two stages of debate, it is expected that Governor Ricketts will veto the legislation. Thirty votes are required to override a governor’s veto. Although I am concerned with the growing backlog of repair projects for our roads and bridges, I could not support a tax increase, at a time when I feel the Legislature should be focusing on decreasing property taxes. The Legislature has several alternatives before them for additional funding for road and bridge projects, such as reinstating state aid to municipalities and counties or increasing the current amount of sales tax dedicated to roads.

My priority bill for this year, LB 106, was given first-round approval this past week. As a rural state, we must encourage livestock growth. A recent UNL report showed that the industry has not grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to neighboring states. The report cited issues that have constrained potential development, including local permitting processes.

This past year, a group of livestock producers and county officials met to discuss policy issues that could be hindering livestock growth. Concerns focused on the uncertainty of the conditions that might be required in the local conditional use permitting process, as well as lack of uniformity across the state and the subjective nature of regulations, as well as political pressure placed on local officials. The group recommended the development of a matrix, to be used by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation. Two counties in Nebraska are currently using such a matrix.

Under LB 106, the Department of Agriculture is to develop an assessment matrix, in consultation with a committee composed of county board members, county zoning administrators, livestock producers, and University representatives. The matrix could be used to evaluate operations on factors such as odor control practices, manure storage, proximity to neighboring residences, community support, and economic impact to the community.

As introduced, the use of the matrix was mandatory for counties that were zoned and required livestock operations to be permitted. As amended, the matrix will be completely voluntary. Counties may use the state matrix, may use it as a model in creating their own matrix, or may decide not to use it. It will be another tool that is available for counties to use in making local decisions, if they so choose.

If you have any comments on either of these bills or on other legislation before senators, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov.

Legislative Update

March 26th, 2015

The question of whether term limits should be extended was debated by lawmakers this past week. As introduced, Legislative Resolution 7 is a proposal for a constitutional amendment to increase term limit provisions, so that a state senator could serve two consecutive six-year terms, rather than two consecutive four-year terms. LR 7 CA was prioritized and advanced by the Executive Board with committee amendments. The committee amendments would instead allow a state senator to serve three consecutive four-year terms. After the committee amendments were filed, Senator Paul Schumacher, the sponsor of LR 7 CA, offered an amendment to change the resolution back to the introduced version.

Term limits were adopted through the initiative petition process in 2000, after three previous attempts were struck down by the courts. Since that time, measures to repeal term limits or to lengthen them have not been successful in the Legislature in 2003, 2005 and 2009. In 2012, a proposed constitutional amendment to increase term limit provisions to three consecutive four-year terms was passed by the Legislature, but was not approved by voters.

Proponents of the measure stress the importance of experience and institutional knowledge. They bring up the difficult learning curve faced by new senators, who are inundated with an abundance of information. With term limits, it has become more common for committee chairs to be selected after just two years of service, not giving much time to fully understand the issues associated with their committee subject matter. Opponents point out that the people have already spoken on this issue. They oppose trying again so soon after a similar attempt was defeated. They also welcome the more frequent turnover in service, saying that it is an opportunity to bring in new ideas.

Some senators supported the two consecutive six-year option because running twice instead of three times would lower the amount spent on campaigns. It also would allow senators to focus on their service rather than raising money for their campaign. Opponents feared that the second six-year term is too long without being accountable to voters. The Legislature adjourned for the week prior to taking a vote on the amendments or the advancement of the resolution.

LB 47, a bill that I introduced that was chosen as a speaker priority bill, was debated by the Legislature this week. It would make the question mandatory, rather than optional, asking applicants for driver’s licenses whether they wanted to place their name on the Donor Registry. The purpose is to increase the numbers of donors in Nebraska, which will in turn save more lives. Senator Ernie Chambers led the filibuster arguing that free-speech rights should not require a person to answer this question. I offered an amendment for a third choice, allowing applicants to answer “yes”, “no”, or “elect not to answer”. I felt this was a suitable compromise and would still keep the intent of the bill intact. Many senators spoke in support of the bill, mentioning how the transplant program has saved or bettered the lives of people they know. However, a small number of senators still remained opposed, signaling many more hours of debate. It is unknown at this time if the bill will be up again. Since it is a speaker priority bill, the speaker has the discretion to make this decision.

LB 538, which requires performance audits of tax incentive programs, received first-round approval this past week on a 37-0 vote. LB 538 was introduced by the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, of which I chair. The primary goal of the legislation is to produce information that will allow lawmakers to draw clear conclusions about how well tax incentives are benefiting Nebraska’s economy and meeting program goals.

If you have any opinions on these issues or other issues before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.

Legislative Update

March 20th, 2015

This past week, the Speaker of the Legislature announced the 25 bills that he selected as speaker priority bills. I was fortunate that two bills that I introduced were on his list.

LB 47, chosen as a speaker priority bill, requires applicants for drivers’ licenses to answer the question regarding whether to place their name on the Donor Registry and donate their organs and tissues. Currently this question on the application is optional. I introduced this bill in an attempt to increase the number of donors in Nebraska, by joining the 25 states and the District of Columbia that already have a mandatory question on their license application. Nearby states, where the question is mandatory, have experienced higher participation rates than in Nebraska. At any given time, there are approximately 500 Nebraskans waiting for an organ or tissue transplant. This legislation does not require an applicant for a license to become a donor, but only requires them to answer yes or no to the question.

My second bill selected as a speaker priority was LB 539. This bill seeks to provide necessary tools to the two separate auditing arms of state government – the Auditor of Public Accounts and the Legislative Audit Office. The legislation establishes deadlines that agencies must meet in responding to requests for information. It also prohibits and penalizes retaliatory personnel action against employees who cooperate with auditors.

This past week marked the end of the public hearing process. Legislators will now meet in full day sessions to discuss bills that have been given priority status. The Appropriations Committee, of which I am a member, will continue to meet after the Legislature adjourns each day. We are working to finalize the budget bills that must be presented to the Legislature by the 70th legislative day, which falls on April 28th this year.

The Legislature started out this past week discussing LB 10, which would return Nebraska to a winner-take-all presidential electoral vote system. Currently, we are one of only two states that have a system in which one presidential elector is chosen from each congressional district and two are chosen at large.

If a bill is filibustered, a motion to invoke cloture can be made after sufficient debate, which is generally considered 8 hours at the first stage of debate and 4 hours at the second stage of debate. This immediately ends debate and allows for a vote on the advancement of the bill. During the first round of debate on LB 10, the cloture motion was successful, garnering 33 votes. However, during the second round of debate earlier this week, the cloture motion only received 31 votes, 2 votes shy of the required number. An unsuccessful cloture motion generally means that the issue will not be taken up again.

In the 24 years since the current system was adopted, a dozen attempts have been made to reinstate the winner-take-all system. Two times, in the 1990s, legislation was passed, only to be vetoed by Governor Ben Nelson, who signed the law creating our current system in 1991. During this time, only once has the presidential electoral votes been divided, with one vote in 2008 going to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama from the 2nd congressional district.

The Legislature gave first-round approval to LB 367, introduced by North Platte Senator Mike Groene, on a 38-0 vote. This legislation would once again allow circulators of petitions to be paid based on the number of signatures they collect. In 2008, after reports of problems with petition drives, lawmakers passed the pay-per-signature ban, along with other restrictions on petition circulators. Supporters of the bill cited a study showing the prohibition reduced the number of petitions in affected states by 45%. Furthermore, they say it makes petition drives more expensive, as the productivity of circulators is reduced when they are paid by the hour rather than by the signature.

The Legislature is in the process of discussing LB 31, which as introduced, would repeal the motorcycle helmet requirement. The Transportation and Telecommunications committee amendments to LB 31 exempt only persons who are 21 years of age or older. The committee amendments also require the motorcycle operator to wear eye protection. Our current motorcycle helmet law was passed in 1988. There are 19 states and the District of Columbia that still require all riders to wear helmets. Another 28 states require helmet use for certain groups, typically those under age 21 or age 18.

If you would like to voice your opinion on these or other issues before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov.

Legislative Update

March 12th, 2015

The Legislature is at the half-way mark of this 90-day session. This past week marked the priority bill designation deadline. Senators have the ability to designate one bill as their personal priority bill. Committees can designate two bills as committee priority bills and the Speaker of the Legislature is given the authority to designate up to 25 bills as speaker priority bills. After this point in the legislative session, generally only bills with priority status are debated by the Legislature.

I chose LB 106 as my priority bill. LB 106, the Livestock Operation Siting and Expansion Act, was recently advanced from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. It directs the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, with advice from experts representing the Nebraska Association of County Officials, livestock production agriculture and the University of Nebraska, to develop an assessment matrix for use by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation siting permit. Nebraska’s agricultural industry has not grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to our neighboring states. LB 106 would provide for consistent standards, based on factual, objective criteria to be used by local governing bodies when granting permits, thereby allowing for more predictability and uniformity in the process.

As chair of the Performance Audit Committee, we chose LB 538 and LB 598 as committee priority bills. LB 538, introduced by the Performance Audit Committee, creates a process for ongoing evaluation of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs, in order to give legislators information to draw clear conclusions about whether tax incentives are benefitting Nebraska’s economy and meeting program goals. LB 538 requires the Legislative Audit Office to conduct a performance audit of each tax incentive program at least every three years.

LB 598, introduced by Senator Paul Schumacher, addresses the use of segregation in our prisons. Rules would be developed to guide the level of confinement, conditions, behavior, and mental health status of inmates. The legislation contains recommendations from an interim study conducted by the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee of the Legislature, which incorporated results from an audit conducted by the Performance Audit Committee.

Other bills designated as priority bills by individual senators include:

LB 350, introduced and prioritized by Senator Lydia Brasch, reduces the valuation of agricultural land for purposes of property taxation from 75% to 65%. As of this time, LB 350 has failed to advance from the Revenue Committee.

Another bill that was prioritized but has not advanced from the Revenue Committee was LB 357, introduced by Senator Jim Smith. It proposes to reduce the individual and corporate income tax rates and increase the amount of funding to the Property Tax Credit program. The tax relief would be funded through transfers from the cash reserve and reductions in spending.

LB 586 prohibits discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity. This bill was introduced by Senator Adam Morfeld and designated as a priority by Senator Patty Pansing Brooks.

LB 610 was introduced by Senator Jim Smith and prioritized by Senator Curt Friesen. It would increase the gas tax by 1.5 cents every year for four years, with revenue being used by cities, counties and the state for road and bridge projects.

LB 643 proposes to legalize marijuana for medical use. It was introduced and prioritized by Senator Tommy Garrett.

Among the bills designated as priorities by committees include:

LB 259, which as amended by committee amendments, would exempt the first $15,000 worth of personal property value for each personal property tax return. This bill was designated as a priority by the Revenue Committee. Although this will provide some property tax relief, many senators were disappointed that the committee did not offer a more comprehensive solution.

LB 472 was prioritized by the Health and Human Services Committee. It is Senator Kathy Campbell’s third attempt at Medicaid expansion, which was ruled optional for states after the Affordable Care Act was challenged in court.

If you have any comments on the bills that have been given priority status, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov.

Legislative Update

March 6th, 2015

Things are heating up in the Legislature. The Speaker cancelled debate on the floor of the Legislature for two mornings, allowing the committees that meet in the afternoons for public hearings to hold executive sessions. The deadline for the designation of priority bills is next week and senators like to know if a bill has a chance of advancing from committee prior to designating it as a priority bill.

Public hearings were held on several controversial issues this past week. The annual attempt by Senator Ernie Chambers to repeal the death penalty was heard before the Judiciary Committee. I believe this is his 38th attempt. Since LB 268 was introduced, eight senators have added their names as co-sponsors, including four members of the Judiciary Committee. With Senator Chambers’ vote, it is virtually assured that the bill will be advanced from committee. Senator Chambers has already designated it as his priority bill.

Proponents of LB 268 note that since 1973, 150 individuals in the U.S. have been wrongfully sentenced to death. They also point out that the death penalty is arbitrarily applied, that it is emotionally hard on the victim’s families and that it is very expensive due to the cost of appeals. Opponents argue that the death penalty serves as a deterrent and that it is a necessary tool in securing convictions.

Currently, we have 11 men on death row. However, we do not have a means of carrying out the death penalty, as one of the three drugs required by the Department of Correction’s protocol has expired and is extremely difficult to legally obtain. The last execution in Nebraska took place in 1997.

The Judiciary Committee also heard testimony on LB 643, introduced by Bellevue Senator Tommy Garrett. LB 643 would adopt the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act. It would allow for and regulate the use of marijuana for medical treatment. This is the first time that such legislation has been introduced in Nebraska.

Senator Sue Crawford, also of Bellevue, introduced LB 390. It creates the Medical Cannabidiol Pilot Study within the University of Nebraska Medical Center for patients who suffer from severe and untreatable epileptic seizures. It allows access to low-THC cannabidiol for patients under the supervision of a neurologist at UNMC. Since low-THC cannabidiol has no psychoactive effects on the user, it would have no recreational use. I have signed on to LB 390 as a co-sponsor, after visiting with parents that have exhausted traditional means of treatment for their children and have nowhere else to turn.

LB 610, introduced by Papillion Senator Jim Smith, was heard before the Revenue Committee. It proposes to increase the fixed portion of the gasoline tax by 1.5 cents every year for four years. Once fully implemented, it would generate approximately $25 million more a year for the Department of Roads and $50 million more annually for cities and counties, to be used for necessary road and bridge projects.

Omaha Senator Jeremy Nordquist introduced LB 623 that was heard before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. It would grant a driver’s license to those demonstrating lawful status by the federal government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It is estimated that approximately 2,300 individuals would be eligible under the bill. Nebraska is the only state that does not allow such individuals to obtain a driver’s license.

I welcome your comments and opinions on these issues, as well as others that are before the Legislature. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov.

Legislative Update

February 27th, 2015

The Legislative Performance Audit Act was established in statute by LB 607 in 2003. It replaced the Legislative Program Evaluation Act. A performance audit is an objective and systematic examination of evidence for the purpose of providing an independent assessment of the performance of a government program. These audits assess how well a state program is functioning and provide answers to the following questions. Is the program doing what the Legislature intended it to do? Is the agency administering the program meeting statutory and regulatory requirements? Is the agency running the program effectively and efficiently?

The purpose of the Act is to provide for a system of performance audits to be conducted by the Legislative Audit Office, under the direction of the Legislative Auditor. The Legislative Performance Audit Committee is responsible for overseeing the state’s performance audit process. The committee is made up of seven senators. In January, I was selected to serve as chair of the committee.

This year, the committee adopted three new areas to work on. The first concerns issues relating to the current functioning of the behavioral health system in Nebraska. Committee members are interested in where there may be gaps in behavioral health services across the state. The second is an audit of agency regulations that may be adopted outside of the Administrative Procedure Act, which means the public and other stakeholders do not have the opportunity to comment on the proposed regulations. The final area is the utilization of the long-term care insurance and tax credit to find out if these tools are increasing the number of people who set money aside for long-term care.

The Performance Audit Committee is authorized to introduce legislation. By rule, the committee is granted the authority to designate two priority bills, resulting from a performance audit or involving the performance audit process.

LB 538 was introduced by the Performance Audit Committee this year. The public hearing was held earlier this week before the Revenue Committee.

LB 538 seeks to implement the recommendations of the Tax Incentive Evaluation Committee adopted during the 2014 LR 444 interim study. The interim study was introduced in response to a 2013 performance audit that found the goals of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs were too broad to permit meaningful program evaluation. The Tax Incentive Evaluation Committee was made up of the Performance Audit Committee, as well as the chairman and vice-chairman of the Revenue Committee, and one senator appointed by the Executive Board. Evaluation experts from the Pew Charitable Trusts worked with the committee to help craft recommendations for a tax incentive performance audit process tailored to Nebraska’s needs.

LB 538 creates a process for ongoing evaluation of Nebraska’s existing and future tax incentive programs enacted for the purpose of recruitment or retention of businesses in Nebraska. The bill creates an evaluation structure that will produce information needed for lawmakers to draw clear conclusions about whether tax incentives are benefitting Nebraska’s economy and meeting program goals. LB 538 requires the Legislative Audit Office to conduct a performance audit of each tax incentive program at least every three years, to evaluate whether the goals established by the Legislature are being met.

Additionally, legislative performance auditors will analyze the economic and fiscal impacts of the tax incentive programs taking into account effects on businesses and state and local governments, economic development strategies, and the specific emphasis of individual programs.

Over the years, there has been much discussion as to whether our tax incentives serve as a good investment for our state. One of the missing factors in the discussion is a means to evaluate our tax incentives. LB 538 seeks to provide the necessary information.

If you have any questions on LB 538, the Performance Audit Committee, or on any other issues before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.

Legislative Update

February 20th, 2015

The issues surrounding the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services is a top priority for the Legislature this year. Nebraska’s prison system is at 159% of capacity. State law allows the governor to declare an overcrowding emergency when a prison’s population goes over 140% of capacity. This level can also be a benchmark federal judges use to order new construction. The first-phase of a Nebraska Department of Correctional Services 2014 Master Plan report called for $261 million in construction costs to renovate and expand correctional facilities.

The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center came to Nebraska and worked over the interim with a group including the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Their efforts focused on the development of justice reinvestment programs in an effort to avoid the need for new construction. They presented recommendations to reduce prison overcrowding and recidivism, by increasing the use of probation and drug courts for nonviolent offenders, as well as increased supervision of inmates after their release. It is estimated that their plan would cost approximately $33 million over the next several years but could avoid new construction costs.

An interim study (LR 424) was introduced during the 2014 legislative session in response to the 2013 murders committed by former inmate Nikko Jenkins. The committee was to examine the circumstances surrounding Jenkins’ incarceration and release, looking specifically at the use of segregation and the availability of mental health treatment.

The LR 424 committee’s work was broadened as it was revealed that the department had miscalculated sentences regarding mandatory minimums for hundreds of inmates and disregarded state Supreme Court rulings. Further scandals were revealed relating to a Re-entry Furlough Program, the release of prisoners before they were eligible for parole, a questionable Temporary Alternative Placement program, and the misuse of good time credits.

Multiple bills have been introduced in an effort to reduce prison overcrowding and in response to the problems that surfaced at the Department of Correctional Services. Four of them were heard before the Judiciary Committee on Friday of this past week.

LB 605 contains most of the recommendations from the CSG Justice Center. This legislation is designed to slow Nebraska’s prison population growth, ease prison overcrowding, contain corrections spending and reinvest a portion of savings into strategies that can reduce recidivism and increase public safety. The bill would ensure post-release supervision and update felony theft thresholds to reflect inflation for property crimes. LB 605 proposes to divert low-level offenders to probation rather than prison and expands access to probation’s Specialized Substance Abuse Supervision program.

LB 606 creates the position of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System to oversee corrections. It also would require, not simply authorize, that a Governor declare a correctional system overcrowding emergency whenever the director certifies that the population is over 140% of design capacity. LB 592 seeks to improve access to mental health treatment for prisoners. LB 598 carries out a recommendation from the LR 424 committee, by requiring the department to institute a plan for the proper use of segregation.

Two bills were recently advanced from the Judiciary Committee. LB 172 would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for a list of midlevel felonies. LB 173 would restrict habitual criminal status to those who committed two prior violent felonies. Currently habitual criminal status applies to both violent and nonviolent felonies.

The focus of other bills range from requiring electronic monitoring when violent offenders are released, to increasing access for participation in rehabilitation programs, to adjusting the good time policy. Legislation has also been introduced to appropriate $261 million to build a 1,100 bed prison.

This past week, the Appropriations Committee, of which I am a member, met with the newly appointed director of the Corrections Department. Director Frakes expressed a willingness to work with the legislative branch to fix the problems in his agency. Committee members stressed the need to be upfront with the Legislature on funding needs, in order to avoid situations like what we are currently experiencing.

Along with tax relief, issues stemming from prison overcrowding are sure to occupy much of the Legislature’s time this session. If you have any comments on legislation pertaining to correctional issues or on other topics before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my mailing address is District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.