The One Hundred Fourth Legislature, First Session, has adjourned. I would describe this session as “different”. Although the Legislature is officially non-partisan, typically senators of one party are somewhat aligned. In the past, rural senators tend to stick together on issues. This year saw division within groups that historically band together. Because of this, there were many surprises. Conservative senators supported a gas tax increase and the repeal of the death penalty. Several issues supported by major farm organizations were either blocked or weakened.
The biennial budget, which is the primary task of the Legislature, did see unified support. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I was happy to see funding for faculty salary enhancements at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. I have previously mentioned the budget limited the growth in spending to a historical low increase and contains an additional $64 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program.
LB 643 proposed to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since this was the first time such legislation has been introduced in Nebraska, I was surprised that it was advanced from the Judiciary Committee and given first-round approval by the Legislature. Earlier this week, the sponsor of LB 643, Senator Tommy Garrett, asked to bracket the bill after realizing he didn’t have sufficient support for passage. There were many unanswered questions on this issue, such as how the manufacturer would obtain the medical cannabis and how the Department of Health and Human Services would determine a range of recommended dosages for each qualifying medical condition. Senator Garrett referred to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic on recommended dosages for certain conditions, however their website states that there is no proven safe or effective dose for marijuana in children under 18 years of age. Senator Garrett had made it known that he introduced this bill due to the pleas from mothers of children with epilepsy. A more limited version was passed in LB 390, which created a pilot study at UNMC to allow access to low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil for patients who suffer from intractable epilepsy.
Prison reform legislation was passed in an effort to reduce overcrowding and limit recidivism within the correctional system. The legislation gives preference to alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, requires post-release supervision plans for offenders released on probation, establishes the Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System in order to improve oversight of the department, requires a plan to reduce the use of segregation, and seeks to ensure adequate mental health care is provided to mentally ill inmates.
The death penalty has been repealed. Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill to repeal the death penalty but senators overrode his veto with just the required number of votes. I was saddened to see this happen, as I feel that the death penalty serves as a necessary tool in protecting the safety of the citizens of Nebraska. The very day the death penalty was repealed, an organization called Nebraskans for Justice was formed. This organization will explore the possibility of a citizen-driven ballot initiative to give Nebraska citizens the option of reinstating the death penalty.
Other legislation that passed will give nurse practitioners more independence, strengthen the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act, grant personal property tax relief, allow young immigrants participating in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to qualify for driver’s licenses, and adopt the Nebraska Agritourism Promotion Act, which encourages landowners to grant access to their farm and ranch land for recreation and tourism activities by reducing the risk of liability. Some major issues that failed to gain passage included legislation to expand Medicaid, repeal the motorcycle helmet law, lower the valuation of agricultural land, allow for a lower minimum wage for students, change habitual criminal provisions, and prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.
This past week, I met with the executive director of the Nebraska Community College Association regarding the need for Southeast Community College to provide additional services to students living in the far southeast corner of our state. I also met with the Ombudsman and several employees about staffing issues at TSCI.
I introduced a legislative resolution recognizing the contributions and service of Rodney Vandeberg and extending sympathy to his family. Rod was a tireless promoter of the Falls City area, serving as mayor and on numerous boards. He also represented District #1 on the Nebraska Highway Commission and was a key player in the launching of the Rulo bridge project.
With the completion of the legislative session, I will no longer be at the State Capitol daily and will spend most of my time back at my farm near Syracuse. However, I will be at the capitol on a weekly basis and if you cannot reach me, my staff will be able to assist you. I will be available to attend local events and encourage your invitations.
If you need information on legislation passed or on any issue pertaining to state government, 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 email@example.com.
The Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty this past week. LB 268 was passed by the Legislature on a 32-15 vote.
Governor Ricketts issued a statement prior to the final vote, urging senators to listen to their constituents and keep Nebraska among the 32 states that have a death penalty. In his extensive travels across the state, the governor said he found overwhelming support for keeping the death penalty in Nebraska. He said that a vote to repeal the death penalty will give our state’s most heinous criminals more lenient sentences.
The governor has indicated that he will veto LB 268. If so, I would predict that Senator Chambers will file a motion to override his veto, which will likely be taken up by the Legislature next week. Thirty votes are necessary to override a veto.
The recent incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution emphasizes the need for the death penalty. If the death penalty is repealed, it can no longer be used as a deterrent for inmates serving life sentences, which could impact the safety of staff.
Opponents of the death penalty pointed to the high costs associated with carrying it out. They also cited religious reasons for not taking a life, the possibility of wrongful convictions, and the emotional turmoil it places on the victim’s family.
The State of Nebraska has officially administered the death penalty since 1901, when executions were moved from individual counties to the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The method of execution at that time was hanging. In 1913, Nebraska’s execution method changed to the electric chair. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman V. Georgia that the arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violated the U.S. Constitution and constituted cruel and unusual punishment, resulting in a national moratorium. Nebraska and other states enacted new legislation seeking to overcome the constitutional defects and in 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the revised death penalty statutes. In 2009, the Legislature changed the method of execution to lethal injection, after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the sole use of the electric chair violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The State of Nebraska has carried out 23 executions, 8 by hanging and 15 by means of the electric chair, with the last occurring in 1997. Eleven men are currently on death row.
Senator Chambers has been attempting to repeal the death penalty for forty years. In 1979, the Legislature passed such legislation, but former Governor Charles Thone vetoed the bill.
The Governor signed the budget bills without a single line-item veto. Governor Ricketts said that he did not veto anything from the budget as it slowed the growth in government spending and it offered property tax relief, which were his two top priorities.
Within the budget are several items that I instigated and am appreciative of the approval from my fellow senators and the governor. Several water projects, initiated through the Nebraska Resources Development Fund (RDF) to help protect our state’s natural resources, while also producing notable recreation and economic benefits for the state, were never fully funded. The RDF was phased out with the passage of legislation in 2014 that created the Water Sustainability Fund. In fulfilling the state’s obligation, these projects will now be fully funded through a combination of General Funds and funding from the new Water Sustainability Fund.
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers are trained citizens who are appointed by a judge to speak in court for the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children. There are 22 CASA programs serving 38 counties in Nebraska. It has been shown that children with a CASA volunteer are more likely to find safe, permanent homes, are more likely to be adopted, are half as likely to re-enter foster care and are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care. I was able to obtain a stable source of state funding for this program.
I introduced legislation to increase the funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $60 million annually. The Governor also included this increase in his budget proposal. The final biennial budget contains an additional $64 million annually in direct property tax relief for taxpayers, which is shown as a credit on annual tax statements.
Along with a dozen other senators, I visited the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution this past Sunday. We wanted to show our support for the staff at TSCI and commend them for their dedicated service during the recent riot at the facility. I also joined Governor Ricketts and Scott Frakes, the director of the Department of Corrections, as they toured the facility mid-week. The Governor has pledged to seek solutions to staffing problems at TSCI, including high turnover and job vacancy rates, stagnant salaries and mandatory overtime.
As we enter our last days of this legislative session, I encourage you to continue 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.
It’s been a busy week in the Unicameral. The Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto of the gas tax with no votes to spare. Consequently, the gas tax will increase by six cents over a four-year period beginning in January. We discussed LB 586, which would prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity, for several hours before it was pulled from the agenda at the sponsor’s request.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to LB 623, which authorizes driver’s licenses for certain children of undocumented immigrants, and to LB 643, the bill allowing medical marijuana. We gave second-round approval to the prison reform bills, which took on more significance after the incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI). The budget bills were given final approval this past week by the Legislature. The Governor now has the ability to line-item veto specific appropriations from these bills, after which the Appropriations Committee will meet to decide which vetoes, if any, to recommend be overridden.
LB 623 would make individuals who can demonstrate lawful status for a period of time by the federal government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program eligible for driver’s licenses. Nebraska is the only state that denies driver’s licenses to these children that have been given legal protection by the President. Nebraska’s policy denying the licenses was put in place by former Governor Dave Heineman. A similar law in Arizona was ruled unconstitutional last year and a lawsuit is currently pending in Nebraska. After 8 hours of debate and a successful cloture motion, LB 623 was advanced on a 37-8-4 vote.
LB 643, the Medical Cannabis Act, was amended by Judiciary Committee amendments prior to advancing from the first stage of debate on a 27-12-10 vote. The committee amendments are fashioned after a similar law adopted in Minnesota, which is seen as one of the strictest laws among the 23 states that allow for medical marijuana.
The Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health would create a registry of patients that would be permitted to obtain medical cannabis, if diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition by a health care practitioner. The qualifying medical conditions listed in the bill include cancer, HIV, seizures, multiple sclerosis, and terminal illness. Severe or chronic pain does not qualify on its own, but must be associated with one of the listed conditions. Medical marijuana could be used as a liquid or oil, as a pill, or in a vaporized form of the liquid or oil. Smoking of marijuana would not be permitted under LB 643.
I am concerned for the staff at TSCI. I was aware of the use of mandatory overtime at the institution prior to the incident last week. Mandatory overtime can lead to safety issues, as well as job discontent. High turnover in staff results in less experienced employees. The newly appointed director of the Department of Corrections has indicated that he will conduct a study on staffing this summer and I have asked to be kept updated.
I am also concerned with the costs from the TSCI incident that will fall on Johnson County due to the death of two inmates and the charges that will be filed on other inmates. I introduced a bill earlier this year to transfer the financial responsibility for the costs of an autopsy, grand jury payments and witness compensation from the counties to the State of Nebraska when an incarcerated inmate dies while serving a sentence in a state correctional institution. Although the bill advanced from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, it has stalled on General File. I am hopeful that something can be done to help the county with these “state” expenses.
During the last two weeks of this legislative session, I still 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.
The Legislature has 13 days left in this legislative session, with the 90th legislative day set for June 5. This past week, senators gave the budget bills second-round approval. The budget is now ready for Final Reading.
As I mentioned last week, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board increased their projections for the next biennium by $9.7 million. The Appropriations Committee recommended the dedication of $8 million of the projected increase to the Property Tax Credit program. With the added $4 million each year, bringing the increase in the program to $64 million annually, taxpayers will see a total of $204 million per year in direct property tax relief. This credit is reflected on annual property tax statements. The Legislature approved the committee’s recommendation, prior to advancing the budget bills.
There were several other changes to the budget that were recommended by the Appropriations Committee and approved by the entire Legislature during Select File debate. Appropriations were updated for the multi-year project to replace the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system at the State Capitol, based on continued planning and a better estimate of costs. A geothermal system has been identified as the preferred option, instead of contracting with the University of Nebraska for chilled water. Although it will cost more initially, it is expected to be more energy efficient in future years.
Funding was added to the budget for the Nebraska Developing Youth Talent Initiative. This initiative requires the Department of Economic Development to fund two pilot programs that are targeted to businesses in the manufacturing and technology sectors for two years. Grants would be provided to private sector for-profit entities, one of which must be in a rural area. This initiative will develop an industry-led partnership with schools to assist in specific career learning opportunities in manufacturing and technology sectors.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to a bill that was prioritized by the Revenue Committee. LB 259 would exempt from property tax the first $10,000 of valuation of depreciable tangible personal property in each tax district in which a personal property tax return is required to be filed. Although this wasn’t as comprehensive of a tax relief plan as some senators had hoped, it is estimated that it will provide for an average decrease of $162 in the personal property tax bills for business owners, farmers and other taxpayers.
The Legislature gave LB 610 final approval this past week on a 26-15 vote, with eight senators not voting. LB 610 proposes to increase the gas tax by a total of six cents over a four-year period. Revenue from the gas tax, which has remained flat over the past 20 years, has not kept up with the cost of road construction. The increased revenue is to be divided between the state Department of Roads, counties and cities, to be used for necessary road and bridge projects. Since the Governor has vetoed LB 610, the Legislature will need to override his veto if the tax increase is to take effect. Thirty votes are required on a motion to override, which is four more votes than given on final reading. I voted against LB 610, as I would prefer an increase in the current amount of sales tax dedicated to roads over a gas tax increase.
We have been working through the lunch hour and into the evening in an attempt to debate every priority bill. If you have any comments on the legislation that is still before us, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The budget bills, as proposed by the Appropriations Committee, were debated by the Legislature this past week and were given first-round approval. The budget bills consist of 8 bills, including the mainline budget bill that appropriates funds for state government expenses, legislation to appropriate funds for capital construction, to provide for fund transfers, including those from the Cash Reserve, to provide for deficit appropriations, and legislation to appropriate funds for the salaries of the Legislature, constitutional officers and the Supreme Court judges.
General Fund appropriations total $4.26 billion in fiscal year 2015-16 and $4.37 billion in fiscal year 2016-17. This translates to a 3.8% spending increase in the first year of the biennium and a 2.4% increase in the second year, for an average 3.1% increase over the two-year period. This represents the third lowest spending growth in the last 30 years, with the lowest spending increases occurring during the recession.
Almost $49 million is available, above the required minimum 3% reserve, after funding the budget bills. This amount will be used to fund bills that are currently going through the legislative process.
The General Fund appropriations are divided into four categories. Agency Operations, which includes the University of Nebraska and State Colleges, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Correctional Services, and the courts, as well as more than 40 other state agencies, represents 35.5% of the budget. State Aid to Individuals, amounts to 31.6% of the budget, and includes funding for Medicaid and other public assistance, Developmental Disabilities aid, and Behavior Health aid. State Aid to Local Governments, amounting to 32.3%, includes funding for state aid to school districts, special education, aid to community colleges and homestead exemptions. The final category, Capitol Construction, makes up just 0.6% of the budget.
Appropriations Committee members made a conscious decision to keep the Cash Reserve Fund balance at approximately 16% of General Fund expenditures. The Cash Reserve Fund is used to provide protection against forecast errors and to provide for supplemental funds during a recessionary period, which proved necessary during recent years. The Appropriations Committee did approve transfers from the cash reserve fund for four “one-time” projects, including funding for a child welfare system fine from the federal government, a court ordered settlement to Kansas relating to the Nebraska Republican River Compact, $25 million for the construction of the Global Center for Advanced Interprofessional Learning at UNMC, and $8 million for a grant program to contract for reduced-fee and charitable oral health services and for oral health workforce development with the Creighton University School of Dentistry. After senators questioned the funding that was directed at Creighton University, the language was amended so that the funding could also be utilized by the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry.
The $60 million in increased annual funding to the Property Tax Credit program remained intact in the budget. This allows for a credit equal to $93.33 per $100,000 of valuation for property owners, up from $65.33 in the current year.
The Nebraska Economic Forecast Advisory Board also met this past week. Because it was predicted that board members might reduce their revenue projections for the next biennium, the Appropriations Committee was prepared to begin meeting immediately to discuss potential reductions in our budget recommendations. However, the Board did not alter the forecast significantly and actually increased it by approximately $9.7 million over the next biennium.
If you have any comments on the budget bills that are going through the legislative process, 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 email@example.com.
The Appropriations Committee completed its work on their budget recommendations for the next biennium, voting 9-0 to advance the recommendations to the full Legislature. The budget bills will be placed on General File by April 28, the 70th legislative day. The Legislature will take up the budget package on General File beginning April 30. According to the Legislature’s rules, the appropriations bills must be passed no later than the 80th legislative day, which falls on May 14 this year.
The budget, amounting to $8.7 billion, increases state spending by an average of 3.1% over the two-year period. The increase in spending is noticeably lower than the average 4.3% increase over that past 20 years. The budget package does include the concept contained in LB 364, the bill that I introduced to add an additional $60 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program, which provides direct property tax relief to property owners.
A bill to strengthen the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act was given first-round approval this past week. The legislation adds a definition of significant threat to the health or safety of dogs and cats. Due to recent concern regarding the inspection and enforcement procedures for licensed facilities by the Department of Agriculture, the department has updated their rules and regulations. The statutory definition mirrors the department’s regulations, clarifying that the department’s inspectors may impound animals or ask law enforcement to impound animals, if conditions pose a significant threat to the health or safety of dogs or cats. The legislation also provides for non-lapsing licenses, eliminating the difficulty the department had in taking enforcement actions against licensees whose license had expired. Furthermore, the bill removes obstacles for unannounced inspections and authorizes the department to charge a reinspection fee and mileage for reinspection trips to determine if correction of defects found in previous inspections have been completed.
As amended, LB 360 increases the annual license fee for breeders by $25 for each license fee category and imposes a new annual fee in commercial license fee categories of $2.00, times the daily average, for dogs or cats numbering more than ten. The legislation would increase the annual dog and cat license fee in cities, counties and villages from $1 to $1.25. These fee increases are necessary to adequately fund the program.
The Legislature also gave first-round approval to a bill containing many of the recommendations submitted by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. The legislation seeks to define hard cider as beer instead of wine, allows retirement homes to apply for liquor licenses, applies the keg laws to all kegs containing alcohol liquor, allows retail licensees to bottle and sell growlers, and offers tax credits for beer manufacturers to utilize local barley and hops. As introduced, LB 330 repealed the mandatory closing time for bars. This provision was stripped from the bill by the committee amendments.
LB 330 gave the Liquor Control Commission the authority to regulate powdered alcohol. This powder produces an alcoholic beverage when mixed with water. A successful amendment struck this authority by banning powdered alcohol in the state, except for research purposes. Senators were concerned that this new product would appeal to underage drinkers and would be hard to control.
A Unicameral Youth Legislature will be held on June 7-10, 2015 and I encourage high school students who have an interest in law, government, leadership or public speaking to register for the event. Students will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and learn more about our nation’s only Unicameral. Scholarships are available. More information and registration forms can be obtained at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.
If you have any comments on legislation currently before the Legislature, I urge 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This past week, senators gave first-round approval to LB 268, which would change the maximum penalty for first-degree murder in Nebraska from death to life imprisonment. This year, a dozen senators have signed on as co-sponsors to the bill annually introduced by Senator Ernie Chambers. Senators voted 30-13 to advance LB 268, which is the number of votes necessary to override the Governor’s promised veto. I voted against the advancement of the bill because I am still in favor of the death penalty.
The Legislature gave LB 610 second-round approval this past week. LB 610 proposes to increase the gas tax by six cents over a four-year period. Twenty-seven senators voted in support of the advancement of the bill to Final Reading, fourteen senators voted against its advancement, while eight senators did not vote. Although the bill had sufficient votes to advance, it may not have enough votes if a filibuster is attempted on final reading or to override an expected veto by the Governor.
Three bills dealing with prison reform were given first-round approval this past week, but not without a pledge to work with state and county prosecutors. Concerns from prosecutors focus on such issues as indeterminate sentencing, minimum sentences, habitual criminal statutes, and presumption of probation.
LB 605, the principal bill in the prison reform package, seeks to ease prison overcrowding and to hold offenders accountable with supervision and treatment. Our state’s prisons are currently at 159% of their design capacity. The legislation would use probation to hold people convicted of low-level offenses accountable, require misdemeanor sentences to be served in jail rather than prison, and update Nebraska’s property offense penalties to account for inflation. If the policy framework contained in LB 605 that structures certain felony sentences to be followed by post-release supervision is implemented effectively, it is projected to substantially reduce the number of inmates that jam-out of prison (released without any supervision). LB 605 also seeks to improve parole supervision through the adoption of a risk assessment tool and other evidence-based practices and would respond to major parole violations with short periods of incarceration followed by supervision.
The policy framework contained in LB 605 resulted from the work of the Nebraska’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which included the leaders of the three branches of government, district court judges, county and defense attorneys, and law enforcement executives. The group worked closely with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has helped a number of states reduce spending on corrections through lower-cost alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, such as probation, drug courts and parole, and greater focus on rehabilitation and mental health treatment for violent offenders.
LB 598 is aimed at reducing the use of segregation and improving treatment for mentally ill inmates. It would also create an Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System. This bill was prioritized by the Performance Audit Committee, which I chair.
The last bill in the prison reform package, LB 173, dealt with habitual criminals and mandatory minimum sentences. This bill proposes to remove mandatory minimum sentences for several felonies and restricts the use of enhanced penalties for being a habitual criminal to violent crimes only. Currently, any three felonies, either violent or not, can be used in determining longer sentencing. Proponents of the bill state that mandatory sentences have failed to deter crime and can act as a disincentive for inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs. Opponents pointed out that this bill went further than what was recommended by the CSG Justice Center. The Nebraska Attorney General held a press conference to voice his concern that the legislation ignores the seriousness of several violent crimes, which could jeopardize public safety.
The prison reform bills have been introduced in an effort to relieve the overcrowding at our state prisons without having to spend millions of dollars on a new prison facility. Before the second round of debate, senators will work with the state attorney general’s office and county attorneys in an effort to reach a compromise on measures to reduce overcrowding without jeopardizing the safety of Nebraska’s residents.
If you have any comments on the prison reform measures 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 email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
For the third year in a row, the Legislature debated a bill that proposed to expand Medicaid. Initiated by President Obama, the Affordable Care Act was signed into law on the federal level in 2010. Medicaid expansion was mandatory in the original legislation, but due to a Supreme Court ruling it became voluntary for states. LB 472 would authorize eligibility for Medicaid coverage for adults ages 19-65 with incomes at or below 133% of federal poverty level. This year’s version of the legislation also proposed to create the Medicaid Redesign task force to review health care policy.
Supporters of the legislation referred to a recent report by two business professors at UNK, which found that our state would receive more than $2 billion in federal funds during the first five years of expansion. It was estimated that this would increase our state’s economic activity by more than $5 billion. The professors projected that the increased economic activity would generate more than enough tax revenue to pay for the state’s portion of the increased costs of expansion. However, Governor Ricketts warned against using subjective measures in determining the justification for entitlement expansions.
Although the federal government pledged to pay at least 90% of the cost, many senators were still concerned with the financial burden that would be placed on our state. They also questioned whether the federal government would keep their commitment. Supporters pointed out that LB 472 contained language that if the federal share falls below 90%, the coverage for the newly eligible would terminate. Opponents argued that once a program is expanded, it is very difficult to reverse direction. Senators were sympathetic to those that can’t afford health insurance and were concerned for hospitals that have experienced hardships as a result of the Affordable Care Act. However, Medicaid is intended to cover the most vulnerable. Under current guidelines, spending on Medicaid accounts for approximately 20% of our total state budget. An increase in the state’s portion to cover more than 75,000 new enrollees could jeopardize the funding for other state programs.
Unlike the two previous years, lawmakers spent just over 3 hours debating the issue before a motion was made to bracket LB 472 until the end of the legislative session. The motion to bracket was successful on a 28-16 vote, which means that LB 472 will not be debated again this year.
This past week, senators gave first-round approval to LB 519, which reflects the recommendations from a study by the Education Committee on the educational uses of lottery funds. The Nebraska Constitution specifies that forty-four and one-half percent of the money remaining after the payment of prizes and operating expenses shall be used for education as the Legislature may direct. Approximately $16 million is allocated per year for education projects.
Revenue from the lottery will continue to fund the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program and Nebraska Opportunity Grants for higher education. New uses for the lottery funds will be for Competitive Innovative Grants and Expanded Learning Opportunity Grants for K-12 schools and for a Gap Tuition Assistance Program to provide funding to community colleges to assist eligible students in pursuing certification programs or licensure in high-demand occupations.
Programs currently funded by lottery proceeds that have been preliminarily recommended for funding through the General Fund include High Ability Learner Aid, Early Childhood Education Grants, Early Childhood Endowment Grants, and operating funds for the Military Child Compact. Decreased funding for Distance Education, which is currently funded by lottery proceeds, is contained in LB 343. The ACT Pilot Project and Career Education programs will not be funded.
The Speaker announced this past week that the Legislature will begin working into the evening beginning April 28. Although we have already met for more than 60 days, we still have many major issues before us, including the budget, repeal of the death penalty, prison reform, and workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
As we begin the last third of this legislative session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Legislature gave initial approval this past week for a proposal to increase the gas tax. LB 610 proposes to increase the fixed portion of the gasoline tax by 1.5 cents per gallon every year for four years. Once the 6 cent increase is 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.
Roads are very important to Nebraska. Beyond everyday transportation, good roads are a means to move produce from farm to market, to transport freight, and to provide incentives for businesses to locate in our state. Last year, I participated in the Transportation and Telecommunication’s Committee interim study that looked at the condition of our rural bridges. We saw that there is a great need for additional funding.
States have recognized that federal funding for roads has been decreasing in recent years. The federal gas tax was designed to be the primary source of funding for the Federal Highway Trust Fund. However, since it has not been increased since 1993, it is no longer meeting its obligations. Likewise, the state gas tax is only one cent higher than it was twenty-two years ago, although the gas tax structure has been modified over this time. Three neighboring states have recently increased their gas tax and a couple dozen states are considering their options.
LB 610 was advanced from the first stage of debate on a 26-10 vote. If it is successful at the next two stages of debate, it is expected that Governor Ricketts will veto the legislation. Thirty votes are required to override a governor’s veto. Although I am concerned with the growing backlog of repair projects for our roads and bridges, I could not support a tax increase, at a time when I feel the Legislature should be focusing on decreasing property taxes. The Legislature has several alternatives before them for additional funding for road and bridge projects, such as reinstating state aid to municipalities and counties or increasing the current amount of sales tax dedicated to roads.
My priority bill for this year, LB 106, was given first-round approval this past week. As a rural state, we must encourage livestock growth. A recent UNL report showed that the industry has not grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to neighboring states. The report cited issues that have constrained potential development, including local permitting processes.
This past year, a group of livestock producers and county officials met to discuss policy issues that could be hindering livestock growth. Concerns focused on the uncertainty of the conditions that might be required in the local conditional use permitting process, as well as lack of uniformity across the state and the subjective nature of regulations, as well as political pressure placed on local officials. The group recommended the development of a matrix, to be used by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation. Two counties in Nebraska are currently using such a matrix.
Under LB 106, the Department of Agriculture is to develop an assessment matrix, in consultation with a committee composed of county board members, county zoning administrators, livestock producers, and University representatives. The matrix could be used to evaluate operations on factors such as odor control practices, manure storage, proximity to neighboring residences, community support, and economic impact to the community.
As introduced, the use of the matrix was mandatory for counties that were zoned and required livestock operations to be permitted. As amended, the matrix will be completely voluntary. Counties may use the state matrix, may use it as a model in creating their own matrix, or may decide not to use it. It will be another tool that is available for counties to use in making local decisions, if they so choose.
If you have any comments on either of these bills or on other legislation before senators, 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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
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