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Seat belts, texting, and Medicaid expansion were the topics of bills heard this past week by the committees on which I serve. LB 807, the Nebraska Roadway Safety Act, was heard before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee on Tuesday, January 28. LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act, was heard by the Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday, January 29.
Currently, the laws pertaining to safety belts and texting are secondary enforcement laws. This means that motorists may only be ticketed if they have been stopped for another offense. LB 807 would place Nebraska among 33 other states that have primary seat belt enforcement laws and at least 36 states with a primary texting enforcement law. Enforcement of provisions applying to the Graduated Driver’s License law for young drivers would also change from secondary to primary. LB 807 would require back seat passengers to use seat belts and ban the use of cell phones and other wireless devices by school bus drivers.
In 2013, of the 207 people that died on Nebraska roadways, 179 were killed in passenger vehicle crashes. Of these 179 deaths, 146 were not wearing seat belts. Half of those not wearing seat belts were ejected from their vehicle. The National Safety Council estimated that 50-60 deaths could have been prevented if Nebraska had a primary seat belt enforcement law last year.
Research has shown that distracted driving is just as deadly as drunk driving. As many as 27% of all crashes each year are caused by drivers using cell phones.
At the public hearing, several senators questioned how law enforcement would be able to differentiate between drivers illegally texting or legally making a telephone call. They also wondered whether allegations of racial profiling might increase. Although it is apparent that the Transportation Committee is divided on this issue, we have not yet taken a vote on the advancement of LB 807.
LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act, is this year’s attempt to expand Medicaid in Nebraska. The expansion of Medicaid, as a part of the federal Affordable Care Act, is voluntary for states.
The legislation would allow adults age 19-64 with incomes between 0 and 133% of the federal poverty level to qualify for Medicaid. The federal government would pick up 100% of the aid costs through 2016, decreasing to 90% in 2020 and thereafter. Administrative costs are split 50/50 between the state and the federal government.
The bill proposes to provide coverage through the marketplace with health insurance premiums paid by Medicaid funds for those with incomes from 100-133% of the federal poverty level or for payment of the employee portion of employer sponsored insurance, if the state determines it is cost effective. Medicaid coverage would be provided for those with incomes up to 100% of the federal poverty level through Medicaid managed care or for those classified as medically frail or with exceptional medical conditions.
The hearing room was filled with persons interested in LB 887, including two department heads. Both the CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Director of the Department of Insurance testified in opposition to LB 887. The CEO of HHS stated that if LB 887 passed, nearly one in five Nebraskans would be on Medicaid.
Projections of the fiscal impact to the state differed from the department to the Legislature’s fiscal office. Furthermore, the estimated number of newly eligible Medicaid recipients that would apply for the benefits varies dramatically. This reiterates the uncertainty surrounding Medicaid expansion and is why the Governor has expressed his strong opposition to LB 887.
I encourage you to inform me of your opinion on bills 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Four hundred and sixty bills and six constitutional amendments were introduced during the 10-day introduction period for this legislative session. I introduced seven bills, some on behalf of constituents and some at the request of various organizations.
I introduced LB 711 at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services. When meth labs are discovered by law enforcement, the owner of the property cannot permit someone to live there until rehabilitation has been completed. An owner that violates this prohibition may be subject to a civil penalty up to $1,000. Legal advice suggested the need for due process prior to assessing the fine. LB 711 would allow an owner to request an administrative hearing to dispute a mistake in ownership or errors in the determination that the property was the site of a meth lab or that the property needs rehabilitation. The public hearing was held on LB 711 this past week. Dr. Joe Acierno, the Chief Medical Officer for DHHS, and Kay Oestmann, the director at Southeast District Health Department, testified in support of the bill.
LB 810 would prohibit local ordinances that interfere with the rights of lenders with respect to real estate loans and servicing rights. Such laws could still be imposed by the state or federal government.
Under LB 850, persons with developmental disabilities would be eligible for a homestead exemption, if they meet specified income limits and homestead value requirements. Currently, only persons over age 65, disabled veterans and their widow(er), and persons with certain permanent physical disabilities qualify for the property tax relief program.
LB 881 would amend our current pursuit law, which was enacted to protect an innocent bystander who gets hurt as a result of a police pursuit. Nebraska is the only state that imposes liability on the law enforcement agency regardless of whether the law enforcement agency was negligent in its pursuit and even when the driver being pursued causes the injury to the “innocent third party”. Although attempts to repeal this strict liability law have not been successful, the Legislature has never defined “innocent third party”, which would help limit liability in certain situations. Following a recent Nebraska Supreme Court case which found a passenger in a fleeing vehicle, who was violating the open container law and was found with meth on him, to be an “innocent third party”, one of the justices issued a separate opinion containing suggestions for the Legislature. Under LB 881, a passenger in a fleeing vehicle would not be considered an “innocent third party” for such things as entering the vehicle knowing that the driver is under the influence, if they are sought to be apprehended by law enforcement or if they are engaged in any illegal activity which would itself result in arrest.
LB 930 deals with the One-Call Notification System Act. It would require a representative of the operator to be present whenever an excavation is performed within 25 feet of an underground natural gas transmission line or other critical facility, unless otherwise agreed upon by both the operator and the excavator.
The Game and Parks Commission currently has a significant backlog of deferred maintenance projects and consequently decided to temporarily close some facilities in order to reassign staff to work on projects. Arbor Lodge State Historical Park in Nebraska City was on the list for temporary closure. In order to prevent this from happening again in future years, the Friends of Arbor Lodge Foundation, along with the City of Nebraska City, Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce, the Arbor Day Foundation and the Nebraska State Historical Society have worked on a plan to transfer operating responsibility from the state to the community partnership. In order to make the transfer feasible, $2.1 million of deferred maintenance projects at Arbor Lodge need to be completed first. I introduced LB 1033 to appropriate the money necessary for the maintenance projects at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.
I introduced LB 1104 to allow a facility with a Y liquor license, which is granted to farm wineries, to also attain a retail liquor license. The development of farm wineries in the state have been important for economic development and the promotion of Nebraska products.
If you have any comments on the bills that I introduced or were introduced by other senators, I welcome 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.
The Governor gave his final State of the State address to the Legislature this past week. He began his speech on the topic of health care, referring to the many problems with the federal Affordable Care Act. The Governor said that the new federal health care law will cost the State of Nebraska more than $200 million in state general funds over the next six years. He is still strongly against the expansion of Medicaid, which was originally part of the federal plan, but due to a lawsuit became voluntary for states.
Senator Kathy Campbell, the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, introduced LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act. It is her second attempt to expand Medicaid in Nebraska, proposing to offer Medicaid coverage to adults age 19-64 with incomes up to 100% of the federal poverty level, while those with incomes above 50% of the federal poverty level would have to contribute 2% of their income. For these newly eligible with incomes between 100% and 138% of the federal poverty level, insurance would be purchased through the marketplace, with the enrollees paying 2% of their income and Medicaid paying the remainder. The plan would have to be approved by the federal government.
Although the federal government has agreed to pay 100% of the costs for the first three years of the expansion, dropping to 90% after that, the Governor fears that the state’s share could jeopardize funding for other important programs in Nebraska, such as K-12 education and higher education. He also questioned whether the federal government will keep their promised commitment.
The Governor also addressed crime and punishment. He recommended legislation that will make violent criminals earn their “good time”, instead of automatically receiving it. Currently, Nebraska’s prisons are at approximately 150% of capacity. Some senators expressed concern that this change could enhance the overcrowding problem, while not addressing the underlying problem, of lack of services to prepare the inmate to live in the community. The Governor offered some suggestions for short-term prison capacity issues, but recommended further study for long-term changes.
Senator Brad Ashford, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, introduced LB 907. This bill incorporates the concept of “supervised release”, which has been shown to result in lower rates of recidivism than if inmates are released without supervision. The use of structured monitoring is intended to help inmates adjust to life outside of prison. Each inmate would undergo a comprehensive risk and needs assessment prior to release.
The Governor stressed that the biggest and most important issue facing the state is high taxes. He indicated his support for the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s proposal to lower agricultural land valuations from 75% to 65%. Last year, I introduced LB 101 which proposed this same concept for school taxation purposes. The Governor also recommended a decrease in the top individual income tax rate.
Governor Heineman suggested that the state could offer up to $500 million in tax relief over the next three years, considering our strong cash reserve and our growing economy – if we strictly limit spending. Senators, remembering how a strong cash reserve helped carry our state through the last recession, may be reluctant to spend down the cash reserve too far.
If you have any comments on the Governor’s speech or on other 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 e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The One Hundred Third Legislature, Second Session, began on Wednesday, January 8 and got right down to work. This is considered the short session of the Legislature, lasting 60 days, and is tentatively scheduled to adjourn on April 17. During the 90-day legislative session in even-numbered years, the biennial budget is the Legislature’s primary responsibility. Only minor budget adjustments and deficit requests will be dealt with during this session.
Senators began introducing legislation on the first day of session and can introduce bills through the tenth day, which falls on January 22 this year. We will meet in full day session, discussing carry-over bills beginning on Monday, January 13. The public hearing process will start on January 21, lasting through the end of February. Every bill that is introduced is guaranteed a public hearing, allowing for the input of the residents of Nebraska.
Although it is just a short session, we will have many important issues before us this year. Tax reform is foremost on most senator’s mind, following the interim study on taxes, which was the direct result of the Governor’s proposal last year to eliminate the income tax, making up the lost revenue by repealing several important sales tax exemptions. Public hearings were held throughout the state and the senators on the Tax Modernization Committee heard repeatedly of frustrations with high property taxes. Two senators, who are also gubernatorial candidates, have already introduced several bills on tax relief.
I served on the Water Funding Task Force, attending a couple dozen meetings across the state over the interim. A package of bills will be introduced as a result of our efforts to recommend a permanent, stable source of funding to ensure that Nebraska’s water resources are managed effectively and efficiently.
Also this year, the Legislature will deal with prison reform, juvenile justice reform, funding for our K-12 schools and early education, seat belt and texting laws, taxing of retirement income, and whether to expand Medicaid as part of the federal Affordable Care Act.
I want to remind you of the Legislature’s website at NebraskaLegislature.gov. Viewers can read the text of bills introduced, search state statutes and past and current legislation, e-mail state senators, view the agenda for the day, read the online version of the Unicameral Update and watch the Unicameral live.
If you call my State Capitol office, I will be happy to visit with you if I am available. If not, my staff will be able to assist you. Tim Freburg is my Administrative Assistant. He answers the phone and handles my calendar. Kim Davis is my Legislative Aide. She works on constituent issues and legislation.
I encourage you to contact my office with your views and opinions on the legislation that is introduced by senators during this session. Only with your input, can I effectively represent the residents of the 1st district. My email address is email@example.com. My telephone number at the State Capitol is (402) 471-2733 and my mailing address is Senator Dan Watermeier, District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.
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