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

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.

Legislative Update

February 13th, 2015

I introduced two bills before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee this past week. The first bill deals with unfunded mandates placed on several counties across the state. An interim study was conducted last year looking at the impact of unfunded and underfunded mandates on counties. As a result, a list of possible state action items was identified. One of the items was the basis for LB 105.

Currently, counties are financially responsible for the costs of an autopsy, grand jury payments and witness compensation when there is a death of an incarcerated person. LB 105 seeks to transfer these costs from the county to the state, if the inmate died while serving a sentence in a state correctional institution. I agreed to offer this legislation because I represent Johnson County, where Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI) is located. Since TSCI opened at the end of 2001, Johnson County has incurred more than $150,000 in expenses, consisting of grand jury fees, witness fees, coroner tests, as well as district and county court filing fees. LB 105 would help with approximately half of these expenses, which are difficult for a smaller county to handle.

The Johnson County attorney researched the deaths that have occurred since TSCI opened and none of the inmates who have died at TSCI were sentenced in Johnson County. It seems logical to require a county to pay the expenses if an inmate dies while in a sheriff’s custody, but it does not seem fair to require the county to pay for autopsies and grand jury hearings on state prisoners that die in a state facility that happens to be in a certain county.

Recent research has shown that unfunded mandates from the state account for at least 8% of local government’s budgets. LB 105 is one small step towards resolving the broader property tax problem in Nebraska.

The other bill I introduced, LB 106, creates the Livestock Operation Siting and Expansion Act. The legislation directs the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to develop an assessment matrix, for use by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation siting permit. Such matrices are already being used in two counties in northeast Nebraska. The matrix would be used to evaluate operations on factors such as odor control practices, manure storage and application practices, proximity to neighboring residences, community support, and economic impact to the community. The matrix would be based on scientific information and the department would set a minimum threshold for approval.

A county may enact a requirement that in areas zoned for agricultural use, a person must obtain a permit from the county planning commission or county board for a new livestock operation or for the expansion of an existing livestock operation if over specified size thresholds contained in the legislation. The county may deny a permit if the site is not zoned for agricultural use only, if the operation will exceed the size thresholds but does not meet the minimum score required under the matrix, or if necessary to protect health, safety and welfare. If a permit is denied, the applicant may appeal the decision by requesting a review by the Livestock Operation Siting Review Board, which is created under the legislation. Such board would uphold a county decision unless the board determines the decision by the county was unreasonable, arbitrary or an abuse of discretion.

A recent report from UNL highlighted the important role that the livestock industry plays in our state’s economy. However, the industry has not grown at rates comparable to our neighboring states. The report cited numerous policies and issues that have constrained potential development, such as local permitting processes, nuisance rules and lawsuits, and concerns from interest groups.

LB 106 attempts to address the constraints and to promote the development of the livestock industry in Nebraska by providing for consistent standards, based on factual objective criteria, to be used by local governing bodies when granting permits.

If you have comments on either of these bills or other legislation 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

February 6th, 2015

The Platte Institute, initiated in 2008, was Nebraska’s first free market think tank. It is a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational institute. It was founded on the belief that protection of the freedoms and quality of life that Nebraskans enjoy is best served by encouraging free enterprise initiatives and promoting individual responsibility and dialogue. The institute’s staff and scholars study public policy issues and develop proposals to increase economic opportunity, while protecting the individual rights of Nebraskans.

The OpenSky Policy Institute is also deemed a non-partisan think tank, focusing on tax and budget issues. OpenSky began its work in 2011, after three years of organizational planning. OpenSky’s mission is to improve opportunities for every Nebraskan by providing impartial and precise research, analysis, education and leadership.

Both the Platte Institute and the OpenSky Policy Institute have worked on proposals for tax relief. Senator Jim Smith of Papillion introduced LB 357, on behalf of the Platte Institute. Senator Al Davis of Hyannis introduced LB 280 for OpenSky.

LB 357 proposes to invest $40 million a year over the next two years from the Cash Reserve Fund to provide immediate income tax relief to families and businesses. The proposal would gradually reform Nebraska’s income tax system with a goal of reducing the top rate to 5%, down from the current rate of 6.84%, and replacing the bottom rate of 2.46% with a 0% tax bracket. It also lowers the top corporate income tax rate from 7.81% to 5%. The proposal would freeze property tax rates while relieving local governments of unfunded state mandates. It is envisioned that income tax relief would be achieved entirely with state spending restraint, primarily by reducing the rate of growth in state spending. Since the cash reserve will be used for the first two years of the proposal, spending reductions are delayed until 2017.

The Platte Institute developed their long-term tax plan to provide more opportunities for Nebraska families and to create a business environment that is more competitive with other states. They believe that more savings for families and businesses will ultimately result in accelerated business creation, greater job growth and a vibrant, expanding state economy.

LB 280 aims to better balance the three major sources of taxes in our state – property, sales and income taxes. OpenSky recognized that the agriculture community is picking up a larger portion of funding for schools, without a corresponding growth in population or income, as agricultural income hasn’t risen as fast as land values. Their proposal would allow for the reduction of property taxes statewide, placing an emphasis on agricultural land owners.

As proposed in LB 280, agricultural land valuation would be reduced for purposes of calculating the school state aid formula from 75% to 65% of actual value. Furthermore, the bill would reduce the property tax levy cap on local school districts from $1.05 to 80.5 cents. To compensate for the lower property tax revenue, the proposal would impose a local income tax of at least 19.4% of a person’s state income tax liability. This revenue would be included as part of the resources calculation in the state aid formula, thereby assessing a community’s ability to pay. Finally, the bill establishes a foundation aid component for the state aid formula, which is a per-pupil amount that would go to every district, to guarantee a minimum level of support.

The public hearing on LB 280 and LB 357 has been scheduled for February 18 before the Revenue Committee. These are just two of the many bills that have been introduced by senators regarding tax relief. During the next several weeks, the Revenue Committee, the Education Committee, and the Appropriations Committee will be working on which proposals to advance to the floor of the Legislature. If you would like to voice your opinion on either of these two proposals or other legislation, 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

January 30th, 2015

This past week, the Legislature debated whether the fees for issuing a marriage license and providing certified copies of marriage records should be increased. The marriage license fee hasn’t been increased since 1995. The proposed increase, from $15 to $50, would cover the counties’ administrative costs for issuance. Currently taxpayers are subsidizing a good portion of the cost. Amendments are pending to lower the proposed increase to $30 or $35. Under LB 88, the cost of providing a certified copy of a marriage record would increase from $5 to $16, which would align the fee charged by counties with what is charged by the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Chief Justice Michael Heavican delivered his State of the Judiciary this past week. In his speech, he mentioned that the Judicial Branch participated in the Council of State Government’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group, along with the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch. The analysis from the CSG group found that people sentenced to probation have lower recidivism rates than people sentenced to prison and emphasized the value of increasing the use of sentencing alternatives.

Chief Justice Heavican reported on two effective sentencing alternatives available for our courts, instead of more costly incarceration sentences. Nebraska’s 16 problem-solving courts served more than 1,000 people last year, resulting in an estimated $15 million cost savings. Drug courts emphasize education and employment and results have shown that 95% of active participants are gainfully employed or attending school full-time. Furthermore, an evaluation of the drug courts portrayed that 95% of those who successfully complete the program remain crime-free one year afterwards. The second alternative is the Specialized Substance Abuse Supervision (SSAS) program, which provides an opportunity for otherwise prison-bound substance abusers to be intensively supervised by probation while receiving treatment. This program has seen 91% of participants remaining crime-free one year after being successfully discharged from the program. Additionally, an average of 94% of graduates were gainfully employed.

Several bills were heard before the Revenue Committee this past week that attempt to deal with the issue of high property taxes. Senator Kate Bolz of Lincoln introduced LB 186, which would establish a refundable income tax credit program. At a projected cost of over $200 million annually, this “circuit breaker” legislation aims to provide income tax credits to people whose property taxes or monthly rents are high compared with their incomes.

I introduced LB 178, which would lower the valuation on agricultural land from 75% to 55% for school district taxation purposes. Nebraska farmers and ranchers today represent less than 3% of the state’s population but pay more than 30% of the total property taxes collected statewide. Furthermore, in the last decade, property taxes on agricultural land has increased 162%, compared with the 40% increase in residential property over the same time period. Although I realize this legislation isn’t the end solution to the property tax problem, I feel that it is a first step, in that it helps address the disproportionate burden placed on rural land owners in the support of their school districts. The increased state aid which would be generated by this bill would be approximately $55 million, after the reduction in valuation is phased in over a four-year period.

Grand Island Senator Mike Gloor introduced LB 259, which proposes to exempt the first $25,000 in value of personal property. The fiscal impact on this bill is approximately $40 million per year.

More bills have been introduced with the goal of lowering property taxes in our state, which I will report on in coming weeks. If you have any questions or comments on legislation proposing property tax relief or on 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

January 23rd, 2015

The 10-day bill introductory period is complete, resulting in the introduction of 663 bills and 4 constitutional amendments. Last week, I summarized most of the bills that I had introduced to date.

This past week, I introduced several more, including LB 490, which would adopt the Provider Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) Act. A POLST is a medical order, completed and signed by a medical provider, resulting from a detailed conversation between the patient and physician or other health care provider. A POLST is intended towards individuals with advanced illness or frailty. The purpose of a POLST is to improve end-of-life care by converting a patient’s treatment preferences into medical orders that are transferable amongst home and health care settings. The use of a POLST form is not mandatory. It is voluntary, meaning that it is used only if a patient chooses to complete one. It can be reviewed and revised as needed. It is limited to one page, is printed on bright colored paper, and is commonly kept on the refrigerator for easy recognition by paramedics.

POLST legislation has been approved in 19 states. Additional states are in the process of developing programs. Several communities in Nebraska are already using a POLST form. A primary goal of LB 490 is to have a standard form, for use throughout the state, in order to avoid confusion among health care providers in emergency situations.

Newly elected Governor Pete Ricketts delivered his first State of the State Address this past week. The Governor outlined the following objectives: controlling spending to keep it under the growth in revenue; property tax relief; cultural change and operational excellence in state agencies (through the creation of two new positions in the Governor’s cabinet – a chief operating officer and a human resources director); comprehensive reform in the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Human Services; regulatory process review; building on a military friendly culture; and improving educational outcomes, by creating a public-private partnership to create a career and vocational training program.

The Governor’s budget proposal would limit the two-year average growth in general fund spending to 3.1%, which is significantly less than the approximate 6.5% per year budget growth during the last biennium. He also stressed that he would not support any tax increases. To deal with what he termed as the #1 priority, he would add an additional $60 million per year to the Property Tax Credit Relief Fund. This is the concept that is contained in LB 364, a bill that I introduced last week. The Governor also indicated his support for reducing the value of agricultural land from 75% to 65% of actual value, along with an additional $9.5 million to the state aid formula, to make up for the loss in property tax revenue for school districts. I have introduced legislation similar to this concept, in 2013 and again this year, with LB 178.

The cash reserve fund was not touched by the Governor’s plan. However, he hinted that he believes the balance is too high and a portion should be returned to taxpayers. Although the Governor has indicated that he is supportive of income tax reductions, his proposal focused on property tax relief and only contained income tax relief for retired military veterans.

The public hearing process has started with committees meeting every afternoon. In the mornings, senators have begun debating legislation that has been advanced from the various committees.

If you would like to voice your opinion on legislation that has been introduced, 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.