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Legislative Resolution 444 was introduced by the Legislative Performance Audit Committee during the 2014 legislative session. I serve as the vice-chair of this committee.
LR 444 created the Tax Incentive Evaluation Committee, which was tasked with developing recommendations on specific and measurable goals for our tax incentive programs. Furthermore, the committee is to recommend a process for regular evaluation of tax incentives and determine who should conduct the evaluations, what type of metrics should be used, and how often the evaluations should be conducted. The committee is to issue a report to the Executive Board of the Legislature by December 15.
A report issued by the Audit Office in 2013 on Nebraska Tax Incentive Programs found that the program goals expressed by the Legislature were too general to permit a meaningful evaluation of whether the programs were accomplishing what the Legislature intended them to accomplish. The audit focused on the Nebraska Advantage Act, the Nebraska Advantage Rural Development Act, the Nebraska Advantage Microenterprise Act, and the Nebraska Advantage Research and Development Act. Furthermore, for two of the programs, the Legislature set no limit on the program’s costs. In response to the Audit’s findings, the Performance Audit Committee committed to work with the Revenue Committee to initiate a comprehensive review of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs to assess whether the programs are producing the results the Legislature intended and, if so, whether they are doing so at a cost the Legislature can support. As a result, LR 444 was introduced.
The LR 444 Tax Incentive Evaluation Committee met this past week. I was elected vice-chair of the committee, which is chaired by Senator John Harms of Scottsbluff. Robert Zahradnik, from the Pew Center of the States, developed a presentation, which was delivered by Martha Carter, the Legislative Auditor. Mr. Zahradnik will attend the next committee meeting in July.
The six tax incentive programs that LR 444 specifically addresses are:
+Angel Investment Act – provides refundable state income tax credits to qualified
investors that invest in qualified early-stage companies.
+Beginning Farmer Tax Credit Act – rewards agricultural asset owners for their contributions that assist starting farmers and ranchers.
+Nebraska Advantage Act – provides comprehensive economic development incentives for expanding or relocating businesses.
+Nebraska Advantage Rural Development Act – similar to the Advantage Act but aimed at businesses in less populated counties.
+Nebraska Advantage Microenterprise Act – provides persons actively involved in microbusinesses a refundable individual income tax credit based on demonstrated growth of their business over two tax years.
+Nebraska Advantage Research and Development Act – provides tax credits to business firms that incur research and experimental expenditures.
Although this past week’s hearing was limited to invited testimony, the LR 444 Tax Incentive Evaluation Committee plans to hold additional hearings where the public will be allowed to testify. The public hearings will be held in Kearney on August 27 from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. and in Lincoln from 9:00 a.m. to noon on August 28. I encourage those interested in our state’s tax incentive programs to attend.
This past week began with the Legislature being notified of the Governor’s veto of $64 million within the budget bills. The Appropriations Committee met early in the week and developed a package of items that they recommended for override. The Legislature agreed with the Appropriations Committee and voted to override the recommended vetoes.
The Governor had vetoed $7.4 million of the $17.5 million in funding for the Game and Parks Commission. In his veto message, the Governor stressed that the partial funding would still allow for the projects at Ponca State Park and Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. However, the written agreement between the Appropriations Committee and the commission stated that should the committee provide $17.5 million, the commission would be able to further address priority deferred maintenance needs statewide and the undertaking of capital projects at Ponca State Park and priority capital projects at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park to put the existing facilities in a condition that would be conducive to transferring operating and management to a local partner. With the successful override motion, it eliminates any question as to whether the projects will be undertaken.
I joined the Governor at a press conference where he signed legislation offering more than $400 million in tax relief to Nebraskans over the next 5 years. Among the bills the Governor signed was LB 96. This bill will eliminate the sales tax on repair or replacement parts for agricultural machinery and equipment. Nebraska was one of only 8 states that charged sales tax on such items, which created a competitive disadvantage for our farm equipment supply industry, particularly for those located close to the state’s border. LB 905 will increase the Property Tax Credit Program by $25 million, bringing the annual appropriation to $140 million. LB 986 will expand Nebraska’s homestead exemption program so that more Nebraskans qualify, by increasing the limit on household income. LB 850, the bill I introduced to authorize a homestead exemption for individuals with developmental disabilities who meet income and valuation guidelines, was included in LB 986. LB 987 will index Nebraska’s individual income tax brackets for inflation, exempt more social security income from taxation, and provide limited tax exemptions for military retirees. Furthermore, LB 725 contains an additional $33 million in state aid to local school districts.
LB 1098, which would reconstruct the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission, was given first-round approval this past week. The legislation is the result of the work of the Water Funding Task Force during the past interim. The restructured commission would be required to revise their rules and regulations to ensure the funding process follows the ranking and criteria recommendations of the task force.
Several senators are pushing for basin-wide planning to ensure water sustainability and threatened to filibuster LB 1098 if provisions for a state water plan were not included. Others feel that such a proposal favors surface water irrigators at the expense of groundwater irrigators. I feel that statewide water planning is already in place through the work of the Department of Natural Resources and our local NRDs.
The budget bills contain $31 million in funding for water sustainability projects and LB 1098 is the vehicle for the distribution of these funds. Interested parties have pledged to work together on a compromise prior to the second-round of debate. I spoke on the floor of the importance of dealing with water sustainability projects now and not postponing them. The project at Lake McConaughy cost $43.5 million in 1935. Today, that cost would have grown to $695 million.
Although the Legislature has advanced some controversial issues, other legislation hasn’t fared as well. LB 943, which would have increased the minimum wage, failed to receive first-round approval. LB 1058, a bill that would have adopted the Interstate Compact on the Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote, was pulled from the agenda by its introducer. LB 965, which was intended to encourage more renewable energy development but could have resulted in higher electric rates, was bracketed until the end of session.
As we enter the final days of this legislative session, which is scheduled to adjourn on April 17, I still 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 telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.
With less than ten days left in this legislative session, the Legislature is in the midst of many controversial issues. The budget bills were given final approval this past week. If the Governor uses his authority to line-item veto funding from various programs in the budget bills, the Legislature will have the chance to decide whether to override the items vetoed by the Governor.
LB 916, which would eliminate the integrated practice agreements (IPA) for nurse practitioners, was given first-round approval this past week. In its place, a nurse practitioner would submit evidence of completion of 2,000 hours of practice or a “transition-to-practice agreement”, which requires a nurse practitioner and the supervising provider to practice collaboratively within the framework of their respective scopes of practice. I designated LB 916 as my priority bill because it enhances access to care for all Nebraskans.
Current law requires a nurse practitioner to sign an IPA agreement with a collaborating physician. However, the IPA is not working as intended. Oftentimes, nurse practitioners in rural areas of the state have difficulty securing an IPA. In some cases, physicians may charge a fee to sign the agreement, even though the nurse practitioner may never meet or speak to the physician. The difficulty in finding physicians willing to sign an IPA and the desire to practice independently has prompted nurse practitioners to move to other states. Eighteen other states allow nurse practitioners to practice without an IPA.
For over 30 years, nurse practitioners have provided high-quality, cost-effective care. Nurse practitioners currently diagnose, prescribe, and treat without supervision. Removal of the IPA will not change this, as it is currently within the nurse practitioner’s scope of practice. Collaboration is crucial to successful healthcare and it will continue to exist between nurse practitioners and other health care professionals.
Forty-eight states allow bond financing for road construction. LB 1092 would add Nebraska to the list of states allowed to borrow money to build roads. Committee amendments reduced the amount of bonding authority given to the State Highway Commission from $400 million to $200 million and specified that the interest rate could be no greater than 5%.
Proponents stressed the importance of transportation infrastructure to our state and emphasized that the ability to issue bonds will accelerate the construction of our high priority road projects. Opponents argued that it tied the hands of future legislators and pointed out that Nebraska is top-ranked for their management of finances by a well-known financial magazine, primarily due to our practice to “pay as you go” for roads projects. After eight hours of debate, the motion to invoke cloture and allow for a vote on the advancement of a bill was successful and the bill advanced to the second stage of debate on a 32-14-3 vote.
The Legislature also gave first-round approval to two bills that would increase alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders in an effort to relieve prison overcrowding and avoid the necessity of building another prison. The legislation also works towards better preparing inmates for a successful re-entry into society. As amended, LB 907 would provide funding for vocational and life skills programs within prisons, would expand a successful alternative to prison program for drug offenders, and would expand services for mentally ill inmates and those newly released. The bill also creates a prison reform task force to work with the Council of State Governments, who has successfully helped other states with prison reform. Finally, it would appropriate funding to UNO to continue their work with CSG. LB 999 would appropriate funding to study the feasibility of adding more behavioral health treatment beds.
If you would like to inform me of your opinions on legislation during the final two weeks of this legislative session, 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.
The budget bills were discussed during the second stage of debate this past week. Senator Ernie Chambers offered an amendment to strip $5 million in one-time funding for county jails. A number of county jail facilities in the state have available empty beds. The intent was to temporarily ease current state prison overcrowding by contracting with willing counties to house up to 150 inmates in county jails, while a study is taking place on the feasibility of building a new prison and the Legislature is working with a national organization on alternatives to prison. However, the state’s two most populated counties have indicated that they may not be interested in taking state prisoners, since their facilities are not designed for long-term prisoners and due to funding concerns. The amendment offered by Senator Chambers failed on a 16-22-11 vote. Following the adoption of a technical amendment, the budget bills were given second-round approval.
The Legislature debated LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act, this past week. The Affordable Care Act, proposed by President Obama, was passed into law on the federal level in 2010. Due to a Supreme Court ruling, the mandatory provision requiring Medicaid expansion became voluntary for the states. LB 887 proposed to expand Medicaid in Nebraska by increasing eligibility for Medicaid coverage to adults ages 19-64, with incomes at or below 133% of federal poverty level, regardless of whether they have dependent children. Currently eligibility for Medicaid is limited to low-income children, pregnant women, parents with Aid to Dependent Children, and the disabled, blind and elderly. The federal government has pledged to pay 100% of the costs of expansion for the first 3 years, with the federal share dropping to 90% by 2020. However, this does not apply to administrative costs, which are shared by the state and federal government.
Proponents of the bill stressed the importance of providing access to health insurance to all Nebraskans. Currently, those with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level qualify for federal subsidies when purchasing insurance. Nebraskans with incomes below 100% of the federal poverty level do not qualify for any assistance, unless they meet current qualifications. Other senators pointed out that if LB 887 were to pass, 1 in 5 Nebraskans would be on Medicaid. They were also concerned with the future financial burden the expansion could place on the state, as the number of those eligible and the projected cost estimates varied significantly, reiterating the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act.
After 8 hours of debate on LB 887, Senator Kathy Campbell, the sponsor of the legislation and the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, offered a motion for cloture. A successful cloture motion requires 33 votes. It immediately cuts off debate, allowing for a vote on the pending amendment and the advancement of the bill. However, the motion to invoke cloture failed, falling 6 votes short with a 27-21-1 vote. Due to the unsuccessful cloture motion, LB 887 will not be debated again this year.
Senator Jim Scheer of Norfolk prioritized a bill that would require any school district with fewer than 650 students to form an allied system with at least three other school districts. Although the school districts within the allied system would not have had to combine revenue, spending, taxation or state aid, they would have been required to have the same yearly calendar and daily schedule. The intent behind the bill was to enable smaller school districts to use modern technology to expand course offerings and educational opportunities for students. Senator Scheer pulled his bill from consideration after the major education organizations united in their opposition to the mandatory nature of the bill.
In addition to increasing the Property Tax Credit program, expanding the Homestead Exemption program, adjusting income tax brackets for inflation and shielding more social security income from taxes, which I mentioned last week, the Legislature also addressed the taxation of military retirement benefits. A proposal was initially approved this past week that would allow military retirees to elect to either exempt 40% of military retirement benefits for 7 years after the date of separation or to exempt 15% of military retirement beginning at age 67. Nebraska is one of only 8 states that provides no tax exemption for military benefits.
As the Legislature enters the final few weeks of this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the legislation that is before us. 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 Legislature gave first-round approval to the budget bills that make adjustments to the biennial budget passed last year. The Appropriations Committee’s recommendations result in a net increase of $27,739 over the two-year period. However, this does not take into account other legislation with a fiscal impact. If all bills pending on the second and third stage of debate would happen to pass, spending would grow by approximately $44.5 million.
The Appropriations Committee’s budget recommendations included funding for increased costs due to prison overcrowding, funding to serve additional persons with developmental disabilities that are on the waiting list, increased funding for grants for the early childhood education program, and increased funding for our Medicaid match rate, due to a lower federal match rate, which is calculated based on a comparison of our personal per capita income compared with other states. These increased costs were almost entirely offset by reductions in expenses, such as lower costs than projected for the homestead exemption program and the state aid formula for schools.
Bills pending that could increase the spending above the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations include LB 725, which proposes to move the scheduled decrease in the local effort rate (LER) in the school state aid formula up one year. The LER was increased during the budget cutting years of the recession. LB 725 would add approximately $33 million to the budget. LB 986 proposes to increase the number of people that qualify for the homestead exemption by raising the income brackets.
Under the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations, the projected ending balance of the cash reserve fund is $697 million. Committee members made it a priority to leave a sufficient amount in the cash reserve fund, as this is what helped sustain our state during the recent recession, preventing the necessity of raising taxes when revenues fell. Furthermore, the committee emphasized that any use of the cash reserve fund should be for one-time items and not for projects requiring on-going support.
The Appropriations Committee recommended $65 million in transfers from the cash reserve fund. This includes $20 million for water projects, $15 million to state parks, $10 million for job training, $5 million to county jails to ease the burden of prison overcrowding, and $15 million for improvements at the State Capitol, including the replacement of the HVAC system, which is 50 years old and has outlived its predicted lifespan.
During debate on the budget bills, Senator Galen Hadley, chair of the Revenue Committee, offered an amendment to increase funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $20 million, in addition to the $25 million already proposed by the Appropriations Committee. His amendment lost on a 20-18 vote. The Property Tax Credit program was enacted in 2007 and has been funded at $115 million annually since 2008. Currently, a homeowner receives a $60.88 credit per $100,000 of value. The credit will increase to $74.11 under the committee’s proposal, but would have increased to $84.70 per $100,000 of value if the amendment would have been successful.
In addition to the property tax relief offered through the increase in the Property Tax Credit program and an expansion of the Homestead Exemption Program, the Legislature also gave first round approval to LB 987. This bill proposes to adjust individual income tax brackets for inflation and increases the number of persons who won’t be liable for income taxes on their social security income.
With approximately a month left in 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Legislature began meeting in full-day session this past week, following the completion of the public hearing process. The Speaker of the Legislature warned senators of the workload that is ahead of them, with just twenty days left and many priority bills yet to be discussed. Speaker Adams announced that the Legislature will begin working late nights on March 18. Working late is typically around 8:30 p.m., but could be as late as 11:59 p.m.
Legislation requesting funding for water sustainability projects was introduced as a result of work completed by the Nebraska Water Funding Task Force, on which I served this past interim. The Appropriations Committee included $31.4 million for water projects in their recommendations to the Legislature. The proposal includes one-time funding of $20 million from the cash reserve, with $11 million appropriated annually from the general fund. Over the next several years, $10.5 million will be used to complete existing water projects. New water projects will fall under the guidelines proposed as a result of the task force’s work and will require a local match.
LB 1098 reconfigures the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission. The Commission is charged with revising rules and regulations to ensure the funding process establishes and utilizes criteria upon which projects, programs, and activities will be ranked and prioritized according to the water sustainability goals that were recommended by the task force.
LB 1001, which would allow the production, sale, and purchase of industrial hemp in Nebraska, received first-round approval on a 32-1 vote. It would exempt industrial hemp from the Uniform Controlled Substances Act. Hemp is used in materials such as fabric, rope, paper, and construction products. Senators viewed industrial hemp as another crop and source of revenue for farmers and NOT as a gateway to recreational use of marijuana. Hemp contains 1% or less of THC, the mind-altering ingredient found in the cannabis plant. Since cross-pollination would ruin a marijuana crop by lowering the THC levels, it would not be feasible to grow hemp in an effort to hide marijuana plants. The farm bill recently passed by Congress allows state agricultural departments and universities to develop research and evaluate markets in states that have legalized industrial hemp. Therefore, this legislation could open the door for additional research at the university, which could result in economic development opportunities for our state.
I successfully amended LB 850 into LB 986 this past week. LB 850 is the bill that I introduced to allow individuals who have a developmental disability to qualify for the homestead exemption, if they meet certain income and valuation guidelines. LB 986 is a Revenue Committee bill that changes the income guidelines for those qualifying for the homestead exemption, in order to expand eligibility for the program. After the adoption of the amendment, the bill was given first-round approval.
Senators also gave first-round approval to LB 814, which proposes to dedicate the state sales tax revenue derived from the sale or lease of motorboats and personal watercraft for the repair or maintenance of the Game and Parks Commission’s infrastructure. Committee amendments added the provisions of LB 841, which would also dedicate the sales tax revenue on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and utility-type vehicles for Game and Parks projects. This would earmark approximately $2.6 million annually for deferred maintenance projects.
The Game and Parks Commission has a $43 million shortfall in deferred maintenance and ADA compliance projects. The commission has had to reduce maintenance, mowing, and trash removal at some state parks and recreational areas. Furthermore, they have temporarily closed some areas, including the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.
LB 814, as well as the Appropriations Committee’s recommendation for a one-time transfer of $17.5 million for statewide projects (including projects at Ponca State Park and Arbor Lodge), is necessary to help the Game and Parks Commission deal with the serious backlog issue. Our parks are some of the most popular tourist attractions in the state and it is important that they are sufficiently funded and maintained.
As senators work to address priority issues, I welcome your comments. 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.
As vice-chair of the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, I introduced LB 836 this past week before the Revenue Committee. LB 836 proposes to add basic goal language to certain tax incentive programs, such as the Nebraska Advantage Act and the Angel Investment Tax Credit Act, that currently have limited or no goal language.
Of the tax incentive programs, the Nebraska Advantage Act has the largest impact on the state budget. This act provides benefits to companies that invest or create jobs in Nebraska.
Last year, the Performance Audit Committee, working with the Pew Center for the States, issued three reports on tax incentives. The committee found that an absence of clear, measurable goals for each tax incentive program made it difficult to assess whether the program is doing what the Legislature intended it to do.
The Pew Center recommended a process for legislators to follow in improving the evaluation of the state’s tax incentive programs, which included the development of goals, metrics, and benchmarks. LB 836 represents a first step in increasing accountability and improving the state’s evaluation of tax incentive programs. The Performance Audit Committee has designated LB 836 as its committee priority bill, assuring that it will be debated by the Legislature, if it advances from the Revenue Committee.
The Performance Audit Committee also introduced LR 444, which proposes to create a committee to develop an ongoing, regular review of tax incentive programs. The intent is to introduce legislation containing additional recommendations next year.
The Appropriations Committee has made some preliminary recommendations for the mid-biennium budget adjustments that must be presented to the Legislature by the 40th legislative day, which falls on March 10th this year. Included in their preliminary recommendations, is a $15 million transfer from the Cash Reserve Fund and a one-time $2.5 million transfer from the State Recreation Road Fund for State Park deferred maintenance and improvements statewide. The Game and Parks Commission has indicated that this level of funding would allow them to undertake capital projects at Ponca State Park, as identified in LB 874, and allow for priority capital projects at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park, in order to place existing facilities in a condition that would be conducive to transferring operating and management to a local partner, as identified in LB 1033.
I introduced LB 1033 to allow for the transfer of the operation and management of Arbor Lodge State Historical Park from the state to a local partnership. I believe a local partnership will be in a position to promote more utilization and offer greater stability of this important landmark in southeast Nebraska. I am grateful to the Appropriations Committee members for including this provision in their preliminary recommendations.
As the Legislature begins full-day debate, focusing on bills that have been designated as priority bills, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the various issues. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94606, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402 471-2733.
This past week marked the deadline for priority bill designation. Every senator is allowed to designate one bill as a priority bill, every committee can designate two bills, and the speaker is authorized to choose up to twenty-five bills as speaker priority bills. Typically after the deadline date, only bills with priority status are debated by the Legislature.
Topics of bills chosen as priorities include proposals to lower income taxes, reduce the valuation of agricultural land, authorize the issuance of highway construction bonds, restructure the process used when releasing inmates from prison, and to expand Medicaid to newly eligible adults with incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level. A priority designation does not assure that a bill will advance from committee, meaning that some of the bills designated as priority bills may not be debated by the Legislature.
I designated LB 916 as my priority bill. LB 916, which was introduced by Bellevue Senator Sue Crawford, would eliminate the integrated practice agreement (IPA) between a nurse practitioner and a physician. Under the 407 review process, which studies proposals for change in scope of practice for health professionals, both the Technical Review Board and the State Board of Health supported this proposal for nurse practitioners. As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, I heard about the difficulties nurse practitioners face in securing an IPA, particularly in rural communities.
LB 916, as amended by committee amendments, requires that in order to practice as a nurse practitioner, such person shall submit a “transition-to-practice agreement” or evidence of completion of 2,000 hours of practice. Under the “transition-to-practice agreement”, a nurse practitioner and the supervising provider shall practice collaboratively within the framework of their respective scopes of practice. A supervising provider could be a physician or a nurse practitioner with 10,000 hours of practice.
Nurse practitioners have full practice authority in nineteen states, including neighboring Iowa, Colorado, and Wyoming. Kansas currently has a collaborative agreement for the first year of practice, similar to what is proposed in the amended version of LB 916.
I believe that nurse practitioners are providing safe and effective health care and that they will continue to consult with other professionals when needed. I also believe that this change will help alleviate the current health care shortage problem that many rural areas of the state are experiencing.
The public hearings were held before the Appropriations Committee this past week on LB 1046, which would appropriate $50 million annually in general funds for water projects, and LB 940, which proposes a one-time transfer of $50 million from the cash reserve to fund projects this first year. Many testifiers expressed their support for the bills and stressed the importance of achieving water sustainability. Only one person testified against the bills. However, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee made it clear that this proposal would be competing against other requests, including increasing the property tax credit, income tax cuts, state park maintenance, and prison reform.
The public hearing process will be completed by the end of February. Beginning March 4, legislators will meet in full-day session. The Appropriations Committee must present their recommendations for mid-biennium adjustments in the budget to the Legislature by March 10. We have just hit the half-way mark in this legislative session and will have a full agenda for the next thirty days.
If you have any comments on the legislation that has been designated as priority bills, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My e-mail address is email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
Last year, the Legislature passed LB 517, which created the Nebraska Water Funding Task Force. I was appointed to serve on the task force, which met throughout the interim. The task force was to focus on the long-term sustainability of water resources in our state.
The strategic plan established by the task force expresses a vision for funding priorities and financing mechanisms. It identifies options for a significant, stable source of funding, which will be used to help pay for water programs, projects, and activities. It also identifies a system to distribute funds across the state for projects that rank high using a new set of evaluation criteria that emphasizes sustainability.
Three bills were introduced as a result of the task force’s recommendations. LB 940, introduced by task force member Senator Ken Schilz of Ogallala, would create the Water Sustainability Fund. It seeks a one-time $50 million transfer from the Cash Reserve Fund in 2014 to be used to fund programs, projects, and activities identified by the task force. LB 1046, introduced by Holdrege Senator Tom Carlson, the chair of the task force, seeks an annual appropriation of $50 million in general funds, beginning in 2015.
LB 1098, also introduced by Senator Carlson, restructures the Natural Resources Commission. It authorizes the commission to adopt rules and regulations to ensure that the funding process establishes and utilizes criteria upon which projects, programs, and activities will be ranked and prioritized according to the water sustainability goals established by the commission.
Agriculture is the number one industry in Nebraska. Farmers in our state irrigate more acres than any other state in the United States. Although, on average only 1% of groundwater storage has been depleted in Nebraska, models show that groundwater pumping has reduced base flow in the Platte and other rivers by up to 15%. Withdrawing groundwater can have long-term impacts on surface water by reducing discharge to streams, as well as lasting effects on groundwater-dependent users, ecosystems, and surface water and groundwater quality. This reiterates the importance of reaching water sustainability, which means that on average, we don’t use any more water than what our supply gives us.
Furthermore, we must keep in mind that we have to protect the domestic use of water, which is our primary priority. Declining water supplies threaten not only the agriculture industry, but the production of electricity and energy, municipal drinking water and wells, recreation, tourism, and conservation, as well as Nebraska’s ability to comply with compacts, contracts, and agreements.
Currently, the state funds approximately $3 million annually through the Resources Development Fund for water-related projects. However, there are more than $900 million of proposed water sustainability projects that need funding throughout the state. Projects that have committed local and partner resources and funding will be given additional consideration.
The public hearing on LB 940 and LB 1046 will be held before the Appropriations Committee on February 18. The hearing on LB 1098 will be held before the Natural Resources Committee on February 26.
If you have any comments on the water bills or any other legislation before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact my office. 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.
Public hearings were held on five of the bills that I introduced this past week. I also introduced two more bills on behalf of the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, of which I serve as vice-chair.
The public hearing for LB 1033 was held before the Appropriations Committee. The legislation seeks $2.1 million in appropriations for Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. The funding would be used for deferred repairs and maintenance projects, and to bring the facility up to ADA standards. The intent is to transfer the operation and maintenance of the park from the state to a local partnership comprised of state and local entities. The appropriation would cover the projects the local partnership felt was necessary to make the transfer feasible. The current temporary closure of the park reiterated the need for a permanent solution.
Even though the hearing was held in the middle of a snowstorm, numerous supporters from the Nebraska City area made the trip to Lincoln to show their strong support and commitment to this project. The expertise, dedication, and enthusiasm expressed by representatives of the partnership will allow for innovation and greater utilization of the facility. Nebraska is the home of Arbor Day, a holiday now celebrated in every state, as well as many countries throughout the world. Arbor Lodge, the home of J. Sterling Morton who was the founder of Arbor Day, has great historic significance to our local area and beyond. It is our responsibility to make sure this site is preserved, well-maintained, and accessible to the public in future years.
The public hearing for LB 850 was held before the Revenue Committee. It proposes to expand the homestead exemption program to individuals with a developmental disability. Currently, the program is available to persons over 65, persons with certain permanent physical disabilities and disabled veterans. I believe that persons with developmental disabilities, who meet the income and valuation guidelines, are also deserving of and should qualify for this property tax relief program. By living in their own home, rather than a group home, not only does it allow them more independence, it also could reduce expenditures for the state. Two individuals who could qualify under LB 850 for the homestead exemption came to Lincoln to testify in front of the committee and did an excellent job.
Since the Department of Health and Human Services does not keep statistics on the number of individuals with developmental disabilities that own their own home, the executive director of Region V Services conducted a poll among providers across the state. He estimated that approximately 46 people might qualify for the homestead exemption. Of those 46, Region V supports 22 people who own their own homes, many of whom live in the Auburn area. The Department of Revenue, however, estimated that more than 400 persons would qualify under LB 850, greatly increasing the fiscal impact of the bill. The department based their estimate on research done by the University of Colorado.
LB 898, which was introduced by the Performance Audit Committee, and heard before the Health and Human Services Committee, proposes to codify reporting requirements for ACCESSNebraska in statute. In a recent performance audit of ACCESSNebraska, we identified several serious problems reflected in key efficiency measures, including call wait times, busy signals, and the backlog of work duties. The new reporting requirements will allow HHS and the Legislature to better target areas where problems are occurring.
The Legislature gave first-round approval this past week to LB 725, which deals with the state aid formula to K-12 school districts. The local effort rate in the formula was set to decrease for the 2015-16 school year, after it had been increased during the recession years. A reduction in the local effort rate increases the amount of state aid provided to school districts because the formula assumes a district has decreased resources. When next year’s formula was calculated, it ran lower than budgeted, primarily due to increased agricultural land valuations. Therefore, LB 725 proposes to move the decrease in the local effort rate up a year. Since most of the school districts that I represent have a good portion of agricultural land within their boundaries, many are experiencing losses in state aid next year. Without LB 725, the reductions would have been even greater.
If you have any comments on these bills or others before the Legislature, I encourage your input. 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.
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