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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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.