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Nebraska is the only state in the country which imposes strict liability for law enforcement motor vehicle pursuits on a law enforcement agency even when it is the driver of the vehicle being pursued that causes injury to an “innocent third party”. This means that this liability is imposed even if the law enforcement agency is not in any way negligent in its pursuit and follows to the letter the motor vehicle pursuit policy that all law enforcement agencies in Nebraska are required by statute to have in place.
This law, written by Senator Ernie Chambers, was passed some 30 years ago, in an effort to protect an “innocent third party” who is injured due to a police pursuit. In the debate at that time, Senator Chambers spoke of compensation for parties who were not involved in the chase, such as innocent bystanders and persons in other vehicles that might be hit by the fleeing vehicle. I don’t believe that anyone would have envisioned how the law has evolved over time.
Since the Legislature did not define “innocent third party” for purposes of the strict liability pursuit law, the courts have judicially constructed a definition. However, in a recent lawsuit, the Nebraska Supreme Court held that a passenger in a fleeing vehicle, who was drinking from an open container of beer and was in possession of methamphetamine, was nonetheless still an innocent party. As a result, the self-insurance pool for the counties had to pay $1 million in damages. This holding caused one Supreme Court judge to issue a separate opinion, where he stated that he doubted that most members of the Legislature would characterize such a passenger in a vehicle fleeing from law enforcement as an innocent third party. However he concurred with the final result of the court because the Legislature had not replaced the court’s definition with one of its own. He went on to emphasize that the Legislature has the power to change the result in a future case by narrowing the definition of “innocent third party”.
After this lawsuit, a local county commissioner and deputy sheriff contacted me and asked if the law could be changed. As a result, I introduced legislation. LB 188, which defines “innocent third party”, was debated for six hours over the last two weeks. I offered a motion to invoke cloture, which received 37 votes, 4 more than required. This cut off debate, allowing for a vote to be taken on the advancement of the bill, which was also successful.
LB 188 does not change the law relating to bystanders or for persons in other vehicles. It only affects passengers in the fleeing vehicle and only under certain circumstances such as if they are sought to be apprehended by law enforcement or if they have engaged in conduct chargeable as a felony, which for the most part have been spelled out through case law.
Over the years, the number of police pursuits has decreased significantly, which is good. However, law enforcement still need this option in certain circumstances. LB 188 will give the court some standards to consider in determining whether a passenger in a fleeing vehicle is really an “innocent third party” and therefore eligible for automatic recovery of up to $1 million in taxpayer money.
LB 188 was not designated as a priority bill and may be the last bill that is debated this year without priority status. Next week is the deadline for designation of priority bills. After that date, typically only bills with priority status or bills that are non-controversial and eligible for consent calendar, are placed on the agenda.
I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation being debated by senators or if you have questions on any bills. 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 chairman of the Revenue Committee, Senator Mike Gloor, introduced LB 958 at the request of the governor. LB 958 is part of a property tax relief proposal offered by Governor Pete Ricketts. The public hearing on LB 958 was held this past week before the Revenue Committee, lasting 6 ½ hours. The governor was the first proponent testifying after Senator Gloor.
The intent of the Governor’s proposal is to slow the increase in state-wide agricultural land valuation and to slow the growth of spending and therefore, property taxes levied by political subdivisions. The legislation limits the budgeted growth of restricted funds, eliminates exclusions to the levy limit, and limits the state-wide increase in agricultural land valuation to 3%.
Under LB 958, if the increase in agricultural land in any year exceeds 3% on a statewide aggregated basis, the Property Tax Administrator will determine the factor needed to uniformly and proportionately reduce the value of every parcel of agricultural land so that the statewide aggregate increase on agricultural land does not exceed 3%. The adjusted valuation used for the calculation of the school finance formula would also be adjusted by this factor.
Governor Ricketts said that the legislation introduced this year is a step toward his broader goal of tax relief in Nebraska. He pledged to continue to work to reduce property and income taxes during his time as governor. He mentioned that he has heard from Nebraskans that say his proposal doesn’t go far enough and from others, primarily local governments, that felt it goes too far, leading him to conclude that it strikes the right balance.
Earlier this week, the Nebraska Farm Bureau, the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Pork Producers all indicated their support for LB 958. The three major agricultural groups believe that the governor’s proposal is a step in the right direction and will help remedy the disproportionate property tax burden placed on agricultural landowners when supporting school districts.
Open Sky Policy Institute testified in opposition to LB 958. The Institute released a policy brief stating that if an assessment growth cap on agricultural land had been in effect for this year, it would have resulted in shortfalls for schools and other localities, tax shifts and disparate impacts on agricultural landowners. They cited another study which stated that such unintended consequences are why assessment caps are among the least effective, least equitable, and least efficient strategies available for property tax relief. While the intent of the cap is to help the agricultural community, the Institute believes that the largest benefits will go to farmers and ranchers near urban areas, not to the most rural parts of Nebraska.
Others testifying in opposition to LB 958 stated that the bill would shift taxes to residential and commercial property owners. Others feared the potential loss in revenue for school districts and other political subdivisions. City representatives stated that it would hinder their ability to save money for major projects, as well as provide for services such as public health and 911 coverage, because the bill would put capital improvements and expenditures for interlocal agreements under the overall budget limit.
As the Legislature continues to discuss various bills pertaining to tax relief, I encourage your comment. 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 at the capitol is (402) 471-2733.
The legislative session is well underway, having passed the one-fourth mark of this 60-day session. Senators have been debating controversial issues, with several bills encountering a filibuster and requiring a cloture motion before the vote to advance can be taken.
LB 471 is an important bill that didn’t require much debate and was easily advanced by senators this past week. This bill, introduced by Omaha Senator Sara Howard, will strengthen the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program in Nebraska. Currently, dispensers of prescription drugs are not required to report prescription information and patients can opt out of having their information reported. LB 471 would prohibit patients from opting out of the system and would require all dispensed prescriptions to be entered into the system, including those with cash payments. Prescribers and dispensers of prescription drugs would be able to access the system at no cost to the provider.
Narcotic overdose deaths are a significant problem. Persons addicted to prescription drugs will go from doctor to doctor to obtain prescription painkillers. Nebraska and Missouri are the only states that have not implemented an operational prescription drug monitoring program. Senator Howard disclosed documentation showing that people from 38 states have come to Nebraska to fill prescriptions for narcotic pain medications. LB 471 would close loopholes in our current program in an effort to prevent the misuse of prescription drugs.
When our current school finance formula was first developed 25 years ago, one of the goals was to have no more than 45% of the revenue financing our K-12 school districts coming from property taxes. Today, property taxes make up approximately 50% of the funding for our local school districts. Our current state aid formula is too dependent on property taxes and needs to be revised. However, as I have mentioned earlier, the Legislature is facing a $140 million shortfall. Analysts have estimated that reducing school district’s reliance on property taxes to the 45% level would require $176 million in additional state aid.
Our current state aid formula calculates the needs of a district, which are what it costs to run the school. Subtracted from this figure are the resources of the district, which is made up of primarily property tax revenue, as well as state sources, such as special education reimbursement. The difference is paid to school districts through the state aid formula as equalization aid. The number of districts that receive equalization aid has steadily decreased over the years, primarily due to the significant increase in the valuation of agricultural land. Currently, only 87 of our 245 school districts receive equalization aid. That is why I am supporting LB 883, introduced by Norfolk Senator Jim Scheer and 11 other senators. It would provide a base amount of aid to all school districts, regardless of whether they qualify for equalization aid. LB 882, a companion bill, deals with school budgeting. It limits a school district’s ability to exceed its allowable growth percentage, limits cash reserve growth and removes the ability of schools to carry forward their unused budget authority.
When looking at the revenue that funds our state government, property taxes make up about 42% of total taxes paid in Nebraska, with sales tax revenue comprising 28% and the income tax contributing 27%. I believe that the Legislature should strive to more evenly balance the revenue from our three major tax sources. Last year, we increased the funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $64 million annually. This year, there are several proposals (including LB 883) that would increase state aid to school districts, thereby lowering the burden on the property tax to fund our schools. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I am hopeful we can continue to make progress on property tax relief, while balancing the budget.
As the Legislature debates issues of interest to Nebraskans, 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 telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.
January 20 was the 10th day of the legislative session, which was the final day for bill introduction. In total, 446 bills and 8 constitutional amendments were introduced by senators and committees.
Supreme Court Chief Justice, Mike Heavican, presented his State of the Judiciary address to state senators this past week. He reviewed the work of the Office of Public Guardian, which was created by the Legislature in 2014 to improve the services provided to vulnerable adults in need of guardianships or conservatorships. He touched on the Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative, which focuses on education for judges, guardians ad litem, lawyers, HHS employees and community volunteers. The Chief Justice gave an overview of juvenile justice reform efforts, explaining that with the passage of legislation two years ago, children no longer have to become state wards to access services. He noted a significant increase in the number of children placed on probation and receiving services to reduce recidivism and likewise, a 7.6% decline in out-of-home placements in the past 6 months.
Last year, the Legislature passed LB 605, which created significant criminal justice reform. The court system is working towards implementation of the Justice Reinvestment goals outlined in the legislation. The court rules on post-release probation supervision have been adopted and locations were selected for new day and evening reporting centers. These centers average 6,000 visits from probation clients each month and provide services in every major community across the state. Every reporting center has a supervised substance abuse supervision program and Chief Justice Heavican noted that 89% of the clients released from the program in 2015 have been drug-free for at least one year and 91% are gainfully employed. The Chief Justice confirmed that they have now achieved their goal of developing problem-solving courts in each judicial district. Finally, he noted that total eFilings have increased, with the volume of electronically-filed documents in the trial courts up 30%, saving the court staff time and greatly increasing the accuracy of data entry.
Public hearings were held on three bills that I introduced this past week. The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard LB 732, which would allow reservists to qualify for Military Honor license plates. The way the law is currently written, only federalized reservists are eligible, which means that they had to serve on active duty that is not considered training. I believe that these soldiers served their country, although in a time of peace, and should be eligible for the plates.
The public hearing for LB 734 was held before the Education Committee. LB 734 would allow non-resident members of the Nebraska National Guard to receive in-state tuition rates at state educational institutions. Although this proposal would only apply to a small number of student soldiers, it would make a significant difference in their cost of schooling.
LB 744 was heard before the Judiciary Committee. It deals with open adoptions. LB 744 recognizes that biological parents and adoptive parents can agree to communication and contact after the adoption of a child in private and agency adoptions, but makes it clear that the failure to comply with such agreement does not affect the legality of the adoption. The goal behind the legislation is to ensure permanency in adoptions.
Several of the bills that I introduced this year are the direct result of a constituent contact. I encourage you to continue to inform me of your opinions on legislation and suggestions for change. I can be reached at District #1, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Governor Ricketts presented his State of the State Address to the Legislature this past week. He said he looks forward to working with us to bring relief to taxpayers. He urged us to prioritize property tax relief, as it is his number one priority this year. He touched on economic development and the need to grow Nebraska. He expressed his support for a proposed $26 million investment in the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, as part of his broader efforts to help reduce recidivism. The governor reiterated his opposition to Medicaid expansion, referring to it as one of the biggest long-term risks to the budget.
Following his speech, several bills were introduced by senators, at the request of the governor. Two bills, introduced by the chair of the Revenue Committee and the chair of the Education Committee, make structural changes to how property taxes are levied on residential, commercial and agricultural property. These bills tighten current spending limits on all local governments. They also propose to tighten levy limits by removing exceptions that don’t require voter approval. Furthermore, the proposed legislation will limit the statewide aggregate increase in the class of agricultural property to 3% per year by adjusting the value of agricultural land.
As I mentioned last week, I worked with other senators on legislation that alters the school finance formula to provide property tax relief. Senator Jim Scheer of Norfolk is the primary sponsor of LB 883 and 11 senators have signed on as co-sponsors. LB 883 proposes to provide a base amount of state aid per student to school districts to offset property taxes. This aid would be phased in over four years, until it reaches $3,000 per student, regardless of whether the school qualifies for equalization aid. The bill also makes some adjustments in the state aid formula to help subsidize the cost of the base aid. Under the current formula, almost two-thirds of the school districts receive no equalization aid. The increase in the valuation of agricultural land has contributed to the disproportionate burden placed on property taxes in supporting school districts. I don’t believe that the founders of the current state aid formula envisioned this would happen and consequently, I feel that it is time to revamp the system.
Last year, I introduced LB 47, which proposes to make the question mandatory rather than optional, on the driver’s license application regarding whether to place your name on the Donor Registry. LB 47 was selected as a Speaker priority bill last year, but was not fully debated. The purpose of the bill is to increase the number of donors in Nebraska. More than 98% of Nebraskans registered as donors became registered through the application process for a driver’s license. With the question currently optional, only 55% of applicants are registered as donors. This percentage is higher in states where the question is mandatory.
LB 47 does not require applicants to become donors, but merely requires that they answer the question with “yes”, “no” or “elect not to answer”. At the public hearing, an organ recipient testified that he can accept if applicants choose not to register. However, it’s harder to accept apathy, when applicants skip over the answer. After several hours of debate, LB 47 received initial approval earlier this week.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature will be held on June 5-8, 2016 at the State Capitol. It gives students an opportunity to learn what it’s like to serve as a state senator. High School students will learn about the unique process of our unicameral system by sponsoring bills, conducting committee hearings, and debating legislation. Students learn directly from senators, staff and lobbyists, working on legislation from the previous session. All high school students are eligible and the deadline is May 15. The fee is $350, which includes lodging, meals and transportation. Scholarships are available. For more information visit NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.
The hearing process will begin on January 19. Senators will meet as a body in the morning and divide into committees in the afternoon. All bills are referenced to a standing committee and a hearing is held before this committee. This gives the public the opportunity to make their viewpoints known before the committee takes action on the bill. If you are interested in any of the bills that have been introduced, I encourage you to attend a public hearing. I also encourage you to contact me with your opinions on legislation that has been introduced or with any question you may have. 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 at the capitol is (402) 471-2733.
On Wednesday, January 6, state senators convened for the short session of the Nebraska Legislature. Legislative sessions in even-numbered years last for only 60 days because it is the second year of the biennium and deals with budget adjustments. In the odd-numbered years, the Legislature meets for 90 days and sets the budget for the two-year period.
This year, however, the budget adjustments will take more time, as the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board in late October lowered revenue projections, creating a $110 million deficit. This deficit may grow depending on the final certification of state aid to schools and adjustments in the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Due to the resignation of Senator Jeremy Nordquist, senators welcomed recently appointed Nicole Fox to the Legislature, representing District #7 in Omaha. Since Senator Nordquist was the chair of the Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee, Seward Senator Mark Kolterman was elected as the new chair.
Senators began introducing legislation on the first day of session and by the third day almost 200 bills were introduced. The last day for bill introduction is January 20. I have introduced six bills so far, as well as one from the Performance Audit Committee, of which I chair. Among the bills that I have introduced, is LB 733. It requests additional funding for employees of the Department of Corrections. With the recent riot at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, it reiterated the staff recruitment and retention problem that the state faces in some correctional facilities.
I also introduced legislation (LB 755) that seeks capital construction funds for projects at our state colleges, including the Theatre and Community Center at Peru State College. The renovation project will address needed facility improvements, in an effort to maintain PSC’s role of providing quality academic, cultural, and civic opportunities to its students and our region.
The Governor has announced one of his priorities for this year – the creation of a transportation infrastructure bank. The proposal would be funded through a cash reserve transfer and would be used to accelerate roads construction, provide matching funding to counties to expedite bridge repair, and to fund transportation projects that support industry expansion as well as attract businesses to Nebraska.
At a recent meeting with Governor Ricketts, he informed me that his number one priority is property taxes. Several senators and I have been working on legislation pertaining to the school finance system and property tax reduction. I will provide more details after the bill has been introduced.
If you are not aware of the Legislature’s website, I encourage you to check it out at NebraskaLegislature.gov. It has recently been revamped, to make it more user-friendly. It contains a wealth of information. Viewers can read the text of bills introduced, search state statutes, e-mail state senators, see the agenda for the day, read the online version of the Unicameral Update, and watch the Legislature live.
With session starting, I will be at the State Capitol daily. If you are in the Capitol, please feel free to stop by my office. My office number is Room 2000, which is located on the second floor, north side. If calling my office, I am happy to visit with you if I’m available. If I am in a meeting, my staff will be able to assist you. Tim Freburg is my administrative assistant. He answers the telephone, greets visitors, and handles my calendar. Kim Davis is my legislative aide, who works on constituent issues and legislation.
In order to effectively represent my legislative district, I welcome your input. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. My address is Senator Dan Watermeier, District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
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