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.
Sen. Dan Watermeier
The Legislature debated a number of important issues this past week. LB 640 was up first. This bill proposed to cap the property tax portion of total general fund revenue supporting K-12 school districts at 60%. It also sought to lower the maximum levy for school districts from $1.05 to $1.00 per one hundred dollars of taxable valuation. Although LB 640 would have resulted in property tax relief, the revenue needed to fund the legislation would have been transferred from the Property Tax Credit Fund. This fund currently disperses $224 million in dollar for dollar property tax relief annually. Senators generally saw it as robbing one pot and putting it in another, making it doubtful that the bill will be on the agenda again.
LB 409 seeks to revise the state school aid formula (TEEOSA) by reducing the base limitation rate from 2.5% to 1.5%, which would reduce the amount of increase in TEEOSA aid provided to school districts for the next two school years. It changes the local effort rate from $1.00 to $1.02, which also reduces the amount of state aid provided to school districts because the formula assumes a district has increased resources. Furthermore, LB 409 reduces net option funding by 4.5%. This legislation was necessary due to the significant revenue shortfall that the state is facing. Since TEEOSA school aid represents 69% of total general fund aid to local governments, it was not feasible to leave it off the table when considering budget cuts. Even with LB 409, the amount appropriated to TEEOSA represented the largest increase in the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations for the next biennial budget.
The Legislature also discussed LB 622, which would legalize marijuana for certain medical conditions, and LB 661, which would provide for confidentiality of lethal injection drug sources. Both bills were given a couple hours of debate and now the bill’s sponsor must show the Speaker of the Legislature that he/she has the 33 votes to overcome a filibuster in order for the bill to be placed on the agenda again.
Senators also discussed numerous bills on consent calendar this past week. Consent calendar is limited to non-controversial bills that don’t contain a lot of changes and do not have a general fund impact. This procedure gives bills that don’t warrant a priority designation the chance of passage. An example of this is LB 463, the bill I introduced that would allow a village chairperson to appoint cemetery board members from the county, as well as the village. I introduced this legislation because some villages were having difficulty finding people to serve on the board.
The week ended with discussion on LB 461, the governor’s proposal for tax relief. LB 461 would change the way agricultural land is valued from the current market based approach to an income-producing approach. Capitalization rates would be derived using estimated net income divided by the market value of land as determined using comparable sales. Capitalization rates would be adjusted to assure that aggregate taxable values fall between 55% and 65% of market value. The percentage growth in aggregate taxable value statewide for agricultural land would be limited to 3.5%.
LB 461 also decreases the top individual and corporate income tax rate to 5.99% over a number of years when the expected rate of growth in general fund receipts is at least 3.5% and 4% respectively. The Earned Income Tax Credit would be increased from 10% to 12% of the federal credit. The personal exemption would be reduced for the higher income and a new credit would be created for the lower income. However, calculations reflect that when fully implemented, wealthier Nebraskans are the biggest beneficiaries of this tax relief plan, which offers approximately $10 in income tax relief for every $1 in property tax relief.
I am working on an amendment that alters the trigger mechanism for income tax reductions by increasing the percentage and requiring that it be based on actual rather than expected growth rates. It also would require any increased revenue above the trigger level to be distributed to the Property Tax Credit Fund, with a smaller portion directed towards lowering the top income tax rate. I spoke on the floor that I am opposed to LB 461 as it currently stands because my constituents overwhelmingly favor property tax relief over income tax relief. Although some senators questioned why we were even discussing tax decreases when facing an approximate $1 billion shortfall in revenue projections, many senators support the governor’s efforts. It will be an uphill battle to substantially change this legislation.
Next week will be devoted to budget deliberations. By legislative rule, the 2017-18/2018-19 biennial budget has to be passed by the 80th day, which falls on May 10 this year.
Again, I encourage you to notify me of your thoughts on legislation that senators are discussing. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
My priority bill, LB 44, received initial approval from the Legislature this past week. LB 44 seeks to collect sales tax on Nebraska purchases from out-state online retailers. This is not a new tax, as Nebraska law requires that if sales tax is not collected by the seller on any taxable sale, the purchaser must remit the use tax directly to the state. There is a line on the Nebraska Individual Income Tax Return for individuals to report their use tax due on Internet purchases. However, few Nebraskans comply.
Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not require that sales tax be collected on mail-order sales shipped into a state because the diverse state and local sales tax systems among the states would make collecting sales taxes an undue burden on out-of-state retailers. This decision was upheld in 1992, 25 years ago, when the internet was in its infancy. Times have significantly changed since then. States have responded by adopting a comprehensive interstate system to streamline and harmonize their maze of sales tax rules and requirements. This tax loophole, which places main street businesses at a distinct disadvantage, is now costing states $17.2 billion in lost sales tax annually. The injustice prompted a United States Supreme Court Judge to note that these rulings have resulted in a startling revenue shortfall in many states, creating unfairness to local retailers. State’s education systems, healthcare services and infrastructure are weakened as a result. Justice Kennedy concluded that it was unwise to delay any longer a reconsideration of the court’s ruling.
Under LB 44, online retailers meeting a certain threshold for sales volume will either have to collect the sales tax or abide by the reporting requirements, including notifying purchasers that the sales tax is due and submitting information to the Nebraska Department of Revenue showing the total amount paid in the previous year by each purchaser. LB 44 combines the “collecting” law from South Dakota, which was introduced as a means to get the U.S. Supreme Court to reexamine their earlier ruling, and the “reporting” law from Colorado, which was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
I believe that LB 44 avoids the constitutionality issue, as it does not require remote sellers to collect the sales tax, instead giving them a choice of following the reporting requirements. However, the Governor believes otherwise and is actively working against the bill, indicating that he will veto it if passed. I want to stand in support of all businesses in Nebraska. LB 44 needs to pass to create a fair environment for our small businesses.
LB 68 proposes to give the Nebraska Legislature the sole authority to regulate the ownership, possession, transportation, carrying, registration, transfer, and storage of firearms, ammunition, and firearms accessories. Local authorities would retain the authority to regulate the discharge of firearms and to provide for appropriate zoning designations. LB 68 would ensure consistent, statewide uniformity of laws for firearm owners. Currently, there is a patchwork of laws in our state, making it confusing for law-abiding gun owners as they travel across the state. Although LB 68 was filibustered by opponents, a motion for cloture to cut off debate and allow for a vote on the advancement of the bill was successful, receiving the necessary 33 votes. After the cloture vote, LB 68 received first-round approval from the Legislature on a 32-12 vote. I am a co-sponsor of LB 68.
LR 6 is a legislative resolution that applies to Congress, under the provisions of Article V of the U.S. Constitution, to call a convention of the states limited to proposing amendments to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress. So far, 10 of the necessary 34 states have endorsed similar resolutions. Any amendments proposed by such a convention would need to be ratified by at least three-fourths of the states.
LR 6 was debated by the Legislature for 3 hours. Proponents feel that it is necessary to limit the power of the federal government. Opponents note that the convention would not be limited to the items listed. It appears that Senator Ebke, the sponsor of the bill, will have to prove that she has the necessary 33 votes for cloture before the resolution is placed on the agenda again. I have signed on as a co-sponsor of this resolution.
During the remaining 25 days 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 email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Revenue Committee advanced a package of tax cuts to the full Legislature on a 6-2 vote after several months of work. However, LB 461 contains approximately $10 in income tax relief for every $1 in property tax relief. Earlier, I had stated that I could only support income tax relief if it provided $1 in income tax relief for every $10 in property tax relief.
The total annual cost for this package in ten years would be approximately $450 million. During the upcoming two years, when the state is facing a significant budget shortfall, any loss in revenue would be countered with the suspension of two tax credits – the New Markets Job Growth Investment Act and the Nebraska Historic Tax Credit.
Beginning next year, agricultural land would no longer be valued using market value based on comparable sales. Instead, valuation would be based on the income-capacity of the land. The legislation would ensure that the capitalization rate established resulted in an aggregate agricultural use value that is between 55% and 65% of its actual value. The state average agricultural use value would be capped at 3.5% over the previous year.
In 2019, the top corporate income tax rate would be reduced from 7.81% to 7.59%. The two lowest individual income tax rates of 2.46% and 3.51% would be combined at a rate of 3.25%. In an effort to help low-income workers, the Earned Income Tax Credit would be increased from 10% to 11% of the federal earned income tax credits, further increasing to 12% in 2020.
Beginning in 2020, LB 461 proposes to reduce the top individual income tax rate of 6.84% and the top corporate income tax rate of 7.59% to 5.99%. This would occur over a number of years if the projected growth in state revenue is at least 3.5% for the individual income tax rate reduction and 4.0% for the corporate income tax rate reduction.
Although not part of the package, the Revenue Committee advanced another bill that deals with property taxes. As amended, LB 640 proposes to cap property taxes at 55% of a school’s general fund revenue. However, the funding for this would come from the Property Tax Credit Fund, which now provides $224 million annually in property tax relief to taxpayers. Although I believe that there is a disproportionate burden on property taxes to fund our schools, particularly in rural areas, I also believe that the Property Tax Credit Fund is a good way to provide dollar for dollar relief to property taxpayers.
I am disappointed with the options that have been placed before the Legislature dealing with tax relief. I will work with other senators to determine if alternative measures can garner sufficient support.
The Governor signed LB 46 this past week, the bill I introduced authorizing “Choose Life” license plates. He emphasized that this is the first pro-life legislation passed in the last 6 years.
The Appropriations Committee is finishing its work on the next biennial budget. This has been a very difficult task due to the significant shortfall facing the state.
As we begin to discuss tax relief measures and budgetary issues, I encourage your input. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Legislature began full-day sessions this past week, debating and advancing numerous bills. Among them was LB 137, which would adopt the Unclaimed Life Insurance Benefits Act. The act requires life insurance companies to compare its insureds with the Death Master File of the U.S. Social Security Administration to identify possible matches and determine whether benefits are due. The insurance companies would be required to try to locate the beneficiary and provide them with instructions on how to make a claim.
People usually purchase a life insurance policy as a means to provide money to family members when they die. However, the family members aren’t always aware of the existence of the policy. Sometimes companies can’t locate the beneficiaries but this isn’t always the case. Insurance officials estimate at least $1 billion in life insurance benefits are unclaimed nationally. More than twenty states have enacted similar legislation to LB 137. I believe it is time that Nebraska joined the ranks, so I signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill. LB 137 received first-round approval on a 31-0 vote.
LB 487 was given initial approval by the Legislature on a 35-4 vote. It proposes to change penalties for persons experiencing or witnessing a drug overdose if they request emergency medical assistance for themselves or another person. For the exemption from charges for possession of a controlled substance to apply, the person must be the first to request assistance, must remain on the scene until help arrives and must cooperate with emergency personnel. LB 487 is similar to legislation passed a couple of years ago that protected minors who called for help for friends experiencing alcohol poisoning.
A bill that was amended into LB 487 through the Judiciary Committee amendments was LB 167. This bill proposes to reschedule cannabidiol in a drug product approved by the FDA into Schedule V of the Nebraska Controlled Substances Act. Currently, cannabidiol (known as CBD) in any form is a Schedule I Controlled Substance with a high potential for abuse and no approved medical use. CBD can be referred to as the “medical part” of the marijuana plant, which is different from THC, the “recreational part” of the plant that gets a person high.
Later this year, CBD in a pharmaceutical formulation will be submitted to the FDA for approval. The drug, called Epidiolex, is an investigational product being studied as a potential anti-convulsive treatment for children with certain types of epilepsy. LB 167 allows Nebraska to proactively reschedule CBD in an FDA approved product, ensuring it will be available to patients in Nebraska as soon as rescheduling by the DEA on the federal level is complete.
The Revenue Committee is continuing to work on a package for tax relief that will be sent to the full Legislature for debate. It appears that it may include an income tax relief provision, which would commit future revenue for this purpose. Therefore, senators who believe that property tax relief needs to be the priority may not be able to support the package. I am disappointed in the direction this legislation is going.
Again, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation that is being discussed by senators. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, Nebraska 68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 21, 2017
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Unicameral Information Office
Sen. Watermeier invites students to youth legislature
High school students are invited to take on the role of state senators at the Unicameral Youth Legislature June 11-14. At the State Capitol, student senators will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and discover the unique process of the nation’s only unicameral.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature gives behind-the-scenes access to students who have an interest in public office, government, politics, law, public policy, debate or public speaking. Students will learn about the inner workings of the Legislature directly from senators and staff.
Registrants are encouraged to apply for a Greg Adams Civic Scholarship award, which covers the full cost of admission. Applicants must submit a short essay. Other $100 scholarships are also available.
The Office of the Clerk of the Nebraska Legislature coordinates the Unicameral Youth Legislature. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Extension 4-H Youth Development Office coordinates housing and recreational activities as part of the Big Red Summer Camps program.
To learn more about the program, go to www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl or call (402) 471-2788. The deadline for registration is May 15.
I have been appointed to chair a Special Committee of the Legislature to hear a challenge to Senator Ernie Chambers’ qualifications to represent his legislative district. The challenger unsuccessfully ran against Senator Chambers in the general election. He then filed a qualification challenge, as allowed by state law and legislative rules, questioning whether Senator Chambers has satisfied the Nebraska Constitution’s residency requirement.
The Special Committee is made up of seven legislators, including myself. The committee hired outside legal counsel, former Supreme Court Judge William Connolly. At our first meeting, the Special Committee discussed jurisdictional issues and determined that the challenger had met all statutory requirements for filing his challenge. A second meeting was held to approve an order regarding procedures for the hearing on the merits of the challenge and to set the hearing date. The hearing is scheduled for April 7th in the State Capitol.
I introduced LB 46 to authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to design “Choose Life” license plates. The design is to reflect support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Choose Life license plates, which allow motorists to show support for pregnant mothers and the unborn, are available in 29 states. The additional revenue brought in through the sale of the plates would be used to supplement federal funds available for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF provides cash assistance to low-income families with minor children and is used to pay for family living expenses, such as rent, utilities, food, clothing and other necessities. LB 46 was given second-round approval this week and is now ready for final reading.
The Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, has completed the public hearing process on all bills referred to the committee, and has heard from state agencies. We will now begin post-hearing budget reviews. Our final recommendations are due to the entire Legislature by the 70th legislative day, which falls on April 24 of this year.
Farm profits in Nebraska were expected to fall to just over $4 billion in 2016, down from a high of approximately $7.5 billion in 2013. The valuation of agricultural land is beginning to decrease but not to the extent that farm income has fallen. A local economist recently noted that local taxing authorities have continued to increase property taxes on farmland, even with sharply lower farm income. Between 2013 and 2014, assessed values of farmland for a 10-state rural region increased by 11.4%, while farm earnings fell by 18%. During this time, local governments increased K-12 school spending per student by a median 3.3%, with Nebraska showing a 7.3% increase, the highest among the 10 states.
This illustrates the critical need to decrease property taxes, yet some senators in the Legislature and the Governor are still focusing on income tax relief, as well as property tax relief. The only way I could support any income tax relief is if we offered $10 of property tax relief for every $1 of income tax relief. However, the feasibility of offering any tax relief will depend on budget negotiations, as the state is facing a $1 billion shortfall. The Appropriations Committee is in the process of cutting spending significantly, something that also must be done on the local level. These cuts are difficult to make but the alternative is an increase in taxes.
As the public hearing process nears completion and the Legislature discusses bills with priority status, I encourage you to inform me of your opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
This past week was overshadowed by an incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. Unfortunately, two inmates lost their lives. Two years ago, an incident escalated into a riot on Mother’s Day. On Thursday, staff were able to quickly bring the situation under control and no staff were hurt. Although we still have a long road ahead, I see the procedural improvements that staff have implemented. I commend the employees at TSCI and other state institutions for their commitment to work in our correctional system, as their job is dangerous, but very important. I also want to recognize the Johnson County Sheriff, the fire and rescue squad, and the county attorney who are also highly involved during these situations. I was able to visit with some employees the night of the incident and saw first-hand their determination in keeping the public safe.
LB 45 authorizes military honor plates for reservists. I introduced this bill at the request of a constituent who served for 10 years as an army reservist and had a service-connected injury. He was surprised to find out that he did not qualify for the military honor plates. LB 45 was passed by the Legislature on Friday on a vote of 46-1.
LB 46, authorizing the creation of Choose Life license plates, received first-round approval this past week from the Legislature. The Department of Motor Vehicles would create a design reflecting support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Twenty-nine other states allow motorists to show their support for pregnant women and the unborn through the purchase of such plates.
I introduced LB 545 before the Appropriations Committee this past week. This bill would increase the appropriation to the Property Tax Credit program by $200 million per year in each of the next three years. The property tax relief offered through this program appears on every taxpayer’s property tax statement. LB 545 would increase the current annual appropriation of $224 million to $824 million.
Of the combined revenue used for governmental services, property taxes currently account for approximately 48%, income taxes 33%, and sales taxes 19%. In 2000, property taxes accounted for 42%, income taxes 35%, and sales tax 23% of total revenue for government services. Since that time, the share of revenue from the sales tax has decreased, the share of revenue from the income tax has decreased, but the share of revenue from the property tax has increased significantly. LB 545 is projected to lower the share of the tax burden from property taxes to approximately 40%, more evenly balancing the revenue streams.
Our last major tax reform 25 years ago increased state aid to schools significantly in an effort to decrease our reliance on property taxes to fund our public schools. One problem associated with this type of property tax relief is whether it results in dollar for dollar tax relief or if it allows for increased spending. By increasing the funding to the Property Tax Credit program, it truly does provide dollar for dollar property tax relief.
Nebraskans pay the 7th highest property taxes in the country. Over the last 10 years, the valuation of agricultural land has increased 176%, compared to a 35% increase in residential valuation. Nebraska farmers and ranchers represent less than 3% of the state’s population but pay more than 30% of the total property taxes collected statewide. In the majority of the state, agricultural land comprises more than 60% of a school district’s total valuation base. Rural landowners are disproportionately funding our rural school districts, even though all residents of the school district benefit equally from having their children educated in our public schools. Even though valuation of agricultural land has increased substantially more than other classifications of land, all property taxes are too high.
The Legislature is also facing a significant shortfall in the budget for the next two years. We are in the midst of cutting funding for government agencies and services. Although it will be difficult, I think we must also address property taxes. Legislation has been introduced to broaden the base of the sales tax. I am opposed to a tax increase, but am open to a redistribution of funding in order to offer property tax relief.
As senators and committees finish up the process of selecting their priority bills for this session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on this legislation. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.
I introduced LB 547 before the Natural Resources Committee this past week. This bill is an extension of legislation that was passed last year, in which we removed a public power district’s authority to use eminent domain to take over renewable electricity generation projects. LB 547 would remove a public power district’s authority to use eminent domain over all types of privately owned and operated electricity generation and transmission projects. The legislation does not alter a public power district’s current authority to build its own generation and transmission.
I introduced this bill for economic development reasons. I believe economic development is very important in our state’s welfare. It seems counter-productive that private capital must look outside our state for electricity generation projects, thereby preventing our state from benefitting from the increased jobs, increased property tax revenue, and increased income taxes.
The argument is that Nebraska already has an excess of electricity. However, since our state has joined the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), it is now the SPP that collects all the generation in its 14-state territory, deciding how much generation its transmission system can handle and dispatching the lowest-priced energy first. The SPP has 45,000 megawatts of pending generation interconnection requests – which is about 6 times more than the 7,000 megawatts of generation that our entire state has right now. If other states don’t have eminent domain authority, those states will appear more business-friendly to private companies. Since SPP operates an integrated market, any new generation will compete with Nebraska’s public power system – whether it is within or outside of our state. If the new generation is going to happen anyway, I feel that it is in Nebraska’s best interest to promote economic development within our state.
My intent is not to harm our current public power system, as it has worked well in the past, but to plan for the future. The environment has changed since Nebraska joined the SPP. Consequently, we must work together on what is best for Nebraska ratepayers. I am looking forward to working with the industry in the partnership of the Legislature and public power.
The public hearings were held on LB 312 and LB 313 this week before the Revenue Committee. These bills were backed by the Nebraska Ag Leaders Working Group, which is composed of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Pork Producers Association, Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Soybean Association, and Nebraska State Dairy Association.
These organizations look at the bills as a way to better balance the three-legged stool, symbolizing the three sources of revenue to fund government services, by increasing revenue from the sales tax and using it to decrease the reliance on property taxes.
LB 312 would impose sales tax on additional services, such as the repair or maintenance of motor vehicles, pet related services, lawn care, and personal care services (hair care, massage, nail and spa services). The legislation would also remove the sales tax exemption on such things as school lunches, admissions to school events, soda pop, candy, and lottery tickets. LB 313 would increase the state sales tax rate from 5.5% to 6.5%. In an effort to reduce the impact of the sales tax increase on the lower income, both bills would increase the earned income tax credit to 17% of the federal credit, with the remainder of the increased revenue dedicated for property tax relief. It is projected that both of the bills combined would generate more than $500 million annually for property tax relief.
Senators and committees have begun to select their priority bills, which will now be debated ahead of bills without priority status. I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation. 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 email@example.com.
This past week the Legislature passed and the Governor signed the budget adjustment bill for the current year. Governor Ricketts noted his appreciation of the Legislature’s swift action and that LB 22 is an important first step toward addressing the gap between appropriations and revenues. LB 22 contained $137 million in budget cuts, thereby lowering the $900 million budget gap projected for the end of the next biennium. The Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, is currently working on the budget for the next two years.
A controversial bill to allow school vouchers was heard before the Education Committee this past week. LB 608 would allow K-12 students to qualify for a scholarship to enroll in a private school if the student resides in a public school district which is at the lowest performance level established by the Nebraska State Board of Education’s accountability system. There are currently 86 school districts in the “needs improvement” category. The scholarship amount would equal 75% of the anticipated revenue per student the resident school district would receive. The resident school district would also be responsible for transportation. Resident school districts are to establish property tax relief funds with the other 25% of the anticipated revenue per student. If 10% of students participated in the scholarship program, approximately $23.5 million would be transferred annually from public schools to private schools for the education of these students.
Proponents of LB 608 testified at the public hearing that the bill would give students from lower income families the same opportunities that exist for wealthier families. Although students already have the option to attend a different public school than their resident school district under the option enrollment program, examples were given of school districts that were at capacity and wouldn’t accept additional students. Opponents warned that the program would harm our public school system, questioning whether school expenses would drop proportionately with the lower enrollment. They also questioned the constitutionality of the proposal, as it relates to using public funds for private schools, as well as the use of public money in private schools without the same accountability requirements. Furthermore, opponents pointed out that the bill would allow any student, regardless of their family’s income level or whether they were already attending a private school, to qualify for the scholarship.
Craft breweries are gaining popularity across the country, as well as in Nebraska. They produce their product locally and offer great potential for economic development across the state. Last year, a compromise was reached, allowing a licensee to operate up to five retail locations (or taprooms). Among other things, LB 632 would require that there be production at each of those five locations. The legislation also requires craft breweries to transport their beer to a distributor’s warehouse before delivery, as is the requirement for other types of beer such as Budweiser and Coors. This causes a hardship for locally produced beer. Craft brewery owners and supporters appeared in full force at the public hearing and are working to overcome the influence of the beer distributers. Senator Tyson Larson, the sponsor of LB 632 and the chair of the General Affairs Committee, stated that this change was necessary in order to avoid a lawsuit from out-of-state beer companies for unequal treatment.
I introduced a bill before the Judiciary Committee this past week, on behalf of Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, Mike Heavican. LB 544 would provide for a local option for consolidation of administrative duties when a vacancy occurs in the Office of the Clerk of the District Court or when an incumbent Clerk of the District Court decides not to seek re-election. Instead of requiring a general election vote of the people to eliminate this office, which doesn’t work well logistically with the election process, LB 544 would allow the county board to make this decision. If the county board would decide to eliminate this elected position, the county board would enter into an agreement with the State Court Administrator to allow the Clerk Magistrate to fulfill the duties of the Clerk of the District Court. The employees of the Clerk of the District Court would become state employees. Nebraska was awarded a State Justice Institute Technical Assistance grant, allowing the National Center for State Courts to conduct an evaluation of county and district clerk’s offices. This report was the basis for LB 544.
Corey Steel, the Nebraska State Court Administrator, testified that Nebraska currently has a two-tiered clerk system. The majority of the court operations have been moved from the county to the state, with only the Clerk of the District Court’s office remaining as county employees. He testified that several counties have asked for the ability to consolidate, in an effort to operate more efficiently and effectively. Although this consolidation would remain a county decision and no person currently serving as Clerk of the District Court would lose their job, many Clerks of the District Court testified in opposition to LB 544.
The Legislature has passed the one-third mark of this legislative session. As we begin the next two-thirds, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation before us. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two bills introduced at the request of the Governor were heard before the Revenue Committee in a lengthy hearing this past week. LB 337 was introduced by Senator Jim Smith, who serves as the Revenue Committee chair. It would phase in an income tax reduction for those in the top income bracket. The top bracket would be lowered from 6.84 percent to 5.99 percent over an eight-year period, or by approximately 0.11 percent a year. However, the decrease would only be triggered if the expected rate of growth in net General Fund receipts, as determined by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board’s October forecast, is 3.5 percent or greater. When fully implemented, LB 337 would reduce state revenue by $288 million.
Testifiers representing the business community offered support for the legislation, claiming that LB 337 will help grow the state. Opponents wanted the Legislature to focus on property tax relief and others expressed concern that LB 337 could have a negative impact on funding for local schools and other governmental services.
In October 2015, the Forecasting Advisory Board projected a 3.6 percent growth in revenue, which would have triggered a tax cut in 2016, if LB 337 would have been in effect. However, projections quickly dropped, as the state is now facing a projected $900 million shortfall.
LB 338 was introduced by Senator Lydia Brasch, the Agriculture Committee chair, at the request of the Governor. It creates the Agricultural Valuation Fairness Act. Rather than valuating agricultural land according to sales, which can be influenced by other uses for the land, the bill proposes to assess agricultural land based on its capacity to produce income. LB 338 also places a 3.5 percent cap on increases in valuation of such land from year to year. Under the bill, county assessors are to use a range of incomes for land capability groups and capitalization rates, as determined by the Property Tax Administrator, in calculating the agricultural use value. The income ranges are to be based on the average yield information for the ten prior years published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although most testifiers were in support of LB 338 and felt that it was a step in the right direction, concern was expressed that it didn’t go far enough in efforts to provide property tax relief. According to an analysis by Nebraska Farm Bureau, if LB 338 would have been in place in 2017, taxable values for agricultural land would have been $2.2 billion lower statewide. This equates to an approximate 2 percent reduction in agricultural land values or about a $20 million reduction out of $3.8 billion in property taxes levied statewide. Agricultural land values statewide increased more than 6 percent from 2015 to 2016 and more than 263 percent over the last decade.
LB 661, introduced by Heartwell Senator John Kuehn, was heard by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. This legislation seeks to amend public records laws by providing confidentiality of information relating to the drugs used in carrying out the death penalty. Following the November vote to reinstate the death penalty, the Department of Corrections recently revised the lethal injection protocol in an effort to add flexibility so that the death penalty can be carried out. Originally, the revised protocol authorized the supplier of lethal injection drugs to remain confidential, but this portion was removed after the public hearing where testifiers criticized the secrecy and lack of transparency in the process. This bill seeks to reinstate the confidentiality provision. When introducing the bill, Senator Kuehn mentioned that some of the same drugs used in lethal injections are used in operating rooms, causing him concern about their availability if this bill is not passed. Fifteen of the thirty-one states that have the death penalty withhold information on the identities of those supplying the lethal injection drugs.
This past week before the Revenue Committee, I introduced LB 546 at the request of the Nebraska Department of Revenue and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. The intent of the bill is to simplify the application and administrative aspects of the Nebraska Advantage Act by amending several areas of the current law that has caused delays in approval of applications and benefits earned under this tax incentive program.
Rob Clements, a banker from Elmwood, was selected by Governor Ricketts this past week to fill the vacancy of Senator Bill Kintner. His district covers all of Cass County, a portion of Sarpy County, and the northeast corner of Otoe County. I look forward to working with him on state issues, as well as issues concerning Otoe County.
As legislative committees continue with public hearings on bills, I encourage you to contact me with your comments and opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.