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The Legislature gave first-round approval to a budget bill adjusting the current year’s budget. During the ninety day session, typically senators work on the next biennial budget. Due to the large projected budget shortfall of approximately $900 million, the Governor submitted two proposals to the Legislature, one to make adjustments to the current year’s budget, with the intent of getting it passed early in the legislative session, and the other for the next biennial budget. The Appropriations Committee began work immediately on LB 22 and advanced the bill to General File on January 27, thereby giving the Legislature a jump start on addressing the shortfall.
LB 22 was introduced by Speaker Scheer, at the request of the Governor. It contained a series of specific and across-the-board cuts for fiscal year 2016-17, as well as capturing some unexpended balances that were re-appropriated to state agencies. It contained $151 million in cuts, for a total of $276 million in budget reductions, when including other items such as a $92 million transfer from the cash reserve fund.
The Appropriations Committee restored some funding for service providers for people with developmental disabilities, the University of Nebraska, and for justice reinvestment within the Supreme Court, thereby lowering the cuts to $137 million. The committee focused on the reduction of appropriations, noting that the transfer from the cash reserve can be deferred until consideration of the biennial budget.
After hours of debate discussing the proposed cuts and whether the governor should have instead called a special session last year to deal with the budget adjustments in the current fiscal year, senators approved the Appropriations Committee amendments and advanced LB 22 on a 46-1 vote. This debate took place in the mornings while the entire Legislature was in session. The Appropriations Committee continues to meet in the afternoons, now working on the budget for the next two years. The Appropriations Committee must report their recommendations for the next biennial budget to the entire Legislature by April 24.
The public hearing was held this past week before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee on Legislative Resolution 6, introduced by Crete Senator Laura Ebke. LR 6 proposes to apply to Congress, as allowed under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, to call a convention of the states. The convention of states would be limited to proposing constitutional amendments to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and members of Congress. Thirty-four states must make application on the same subject before a convention could be held. As I understand, eight states have passed identical resolutions and similar language is pending in at least thirty states. If a convention of states were to be held, three-fourths of the states, or thirty-eight states, would have to ratify the proposals before they could become part of the U.S. Constitution.
A similar proposal introduced two years ago failed to receive approval from the Legislature, after a motion sent it back to committee. I signed on as a co-sponsor two years ago and again this year on LR 6. With the number of new senators elected in November, LR 6 may have a better chance for success.
As the Legislature works on issues related to tax reform, I hear from many constituents on the need for property tax relief. I hear little concern over income tax rates. However, the Governor and the chair of the Revenue Committee, are strongly pushing for income tax relief. I would welcome your comments. 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.
Six hundred sixty-seven bills and 5 proposed constitutional amendments were introduced during the bill introduction period, which is the first 10 days of the legislative session. This is close in number to the 655 bills that were introduced in both 2015 and 2013. I introduced 17 bills, ranging in subject matter from property tax relief to economic development.
The Legislature began discussing permanent rules this week. A rule containing a new technology use policy was approved. Although the Rules Committee did not vote to advance a proposed rule to change the method of selecting committee chairs from secret ballot to voice vote, an individual senator may still make such an attempt when the rules debate continues next week.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mike Heavican, presented his State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature this past week. He touched on some of the challenges before the courts, including the lack of young lawyers in rural areas, which carries over to difficulty in filling judicial vacancies. He applauded the Legislature for the debt forgiveness plan for rural legal services passed in 2014. Chief Justice Heavican also noted the challenge of the increased need for interpreters so that involved parties can understand what is happening in our courtrooms. Much of his speech focused on justice reinvestment. Legislation was recently passed encouraging alternatives to incarceration in an effort to deal with the overcrowding problem in our prisons. However, proposed budget cuts suggested by the governor would reduce the number of probation officers and decrease funding for drug treatment. He warned the Legislature that if judges can’t be assured that probation is able to adequately supervise and rehabilitate offenders, they will choose incarceration. The chief justice pointed out that incarceration costs $35,000 for a prisoner compared with costs ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 to supervise an offender on probation.
The public hearing process began this week. In the Nebraska Legislature, every bill is guaranteed a public hearing, allowing Nebraskans to voice their opinion on the legislation introduced by senators.
I had three bills up for public hearing this past week. The first was LB 45, which would allow non-federalized reservists to be eligible for military honor license plates. I introduced this bill upon request of a constituent who had served in the army reserve for 10 years and had a service-connected injury. He was surprised to find out that he did not qualify for the plates. Under current law, members of the reserve must serve on active duty before they are eligible for a military license plate. Basic training or job training does not make them eligible. With the expanded eligibility proposed under LB 45, a reservist companion plate would be created for the current categories of U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force plates. The National Guard is already a reserve unit, so it doesn’t need a separate reservist plate.
LB 46, also a license plate bill, would provide for “Choose Life” license plates. The design is to reflect support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Such plates would be available as alphanumeric or personalized message plates, with a maximum of 5 characters. A $5 fee would accompany the alphanumeric plates, which would be credited to the Nebraska Child Abuse Prevention Fund. For message plates, 75% of the $40 fee would be credited to the fund. This fund is used to award grants to agencies, organizations, and individuals for community-based child abuse prevention programs. The majority of states offer the option of “Choose Life” license plates, which allow motorists to express their support for pregnant women and the unborn.
LB 47 was introduced as a result of an interim study on unfunded mandates. Currently, counties are financially responsible for the costs of an autopsy, grand jury payments and witness compensation when there is a death of an incarcerated person. LB 47 seeks to transfer these costs from the county to the state for inmates that die while serving a sentence in a state correctional institution. I decided to introduce this bill since the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution is located in Johnson County, and it would help with some of their expenses. Johnson County must cover these expenses, even though the prisoners that have died at TSCI were not from nor arrested in Johnson County.
The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee has already advanced LB 45 and LB 46 from committee, and these bills will be discussed by the entire Legislature in the near future. LB 47 remains in the Judiciary Committee.
As the Legislature continues its work, I encourage you to contact me with your opinions of the legislation that has been introduced. 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.
Governor Ricketts delivered his State of the State Address this past week. It serves as the starting point for the Appropriations committee’s work on the next biennial budget.
In his speech, the Governor recognized our unique, nonpartisan Unicameral, where the Legislature consistently passes a balanced budget on time, every bill gets a hearing, and debate happens in the public, not behind a closed door conference committee. Governor Ricketts also touched on his accomplishments during his first two years in office, including online applications for permits through the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, improving call wait times and application processing for citizens applying for benefits with the Department of Health and Human Services, and the development of a reemployment program under the Department of Labor.
Governor Ricketts outlined the principles that guided his budget recommendations. He stressed that we must reduce government expenditures because he will not support any increase in taxes to deal with the nearly $900 million projected budget gap. In balancing the budget, the governor wants to maintain an approximate $500 million balance in the cash reserve.
If the governor’s proposal for deficits in the current fiscal year is approved, the budget for the next biennium would result in an average 1.7% increase in state spending. Realizing that there are certain priorities that need to be funded, the Governor revealed his intent to increase funding for special education and for TEEOSA aid to K-12 schools, as well as the Department of Corrections, in an attempt to reduce employee vacancy rates, upgrade technology, and improve the Lincoln Correctional Center. He proposed cuts in spending for virtually every other agency and service.
The Governor’s budget proposes both property and income tax reform. Property taxes on agricultural land have risen by 176% in the last decade, and cattle and crop prices have dropped. Consequently, the governor has proposed changing the methodology for assessing property value from a market-based system to an income-potential assessment. The governor believes that income potential is a fairer measure and will slow the growth of agricultural land valuation increases, noting that if the system were in place for 2017, it would have reduced agricultural land valuations by approximately $2.2 billion. Agriculture Chair Lydia Brasch has introduced LB 338, the Agricultural Valuation Fairness Act, at the request of the governor. Several of our neighboring states, including South Dakota, Kansas, and Iowa also use income potential based property tax assessments.
When speaking of income tax reform, the Governor pointed out that only one of our bordering states has a higher income tax rate. He believes that our high tax rate hampers our ability to grow our state’s economy, discourages new investment, and causes people to leave our state. Under legislation introduced by Senator Jim Smith, the chair of the Revenue Committee, the top income tax rate would be reduced approximately one-tenth of 1% per year, beginning in 2020, if the state’s revenue growth is greater than 3.5%. LB 337, when fully implemented, would reduce the top income tax rate from 6.84% to 5.99%. This reduction in income taxes would apply to individuals making $29,831 or married couples making $59,661.
The governor’s proposal also includes several measures aimed at government efficiency. Through the merger of the Division of Veterans Homes, currently under the Department of Health and Human Services, with the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs, services can be streamlined and some red tape eliminated. He also proposes to merge the Department of Roads and the Department of Aeronautics into the Department of Transportation. Furthermore, the governor wants to eliminate unnecessary regulations in occupational licenses, making it easier for people to work and open businesses in Nebraska. He has asked senators to introduce 8 bills, ranging from reducing classroom hours for massage therapists to eliminating a license for auto sellers.
Wednesday, January 18 is the last day for bill introduction. As the Legislature begins the public hearing process, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation that has been introduced. 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 One Hundred Fifth Legislature, First Session, commenced on Wednesday, January 4th with ceremonial procedures. The newly elected senators were sworn in by the Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, Michael Heavican, in front of the chamber filled with family members. Following the ceremonies, senators began the process of voting for committee chairs.
The vote for committee chairs is conducted by secret ballot, a practice that has been in effect for more than 40 years. Proponents claim that it allows the best person for the job to fill the position, while minimizing the ability of the political parties to control the vote. Opponents assert that transparency should be the goal. Although some discussion occurred, no change was made in the election process. However, the discussion may continue when the permanent rules are debated.
The first election was for the Speaker of the Legislature. Norfolk Senator Jim Scheer was elected by the body as Speaker.
After serving as vice chair of the Legislature’s Executive Board, I decided to run for the chair position and was elected to the post. The Executive Board governs the Legislative Council, supervising all legislative services and employees, including the offices of the Clerk of the Legislature, Accounting, Fiscal Analyst, Research, Ombudsman, Performance Audit, and Revisor of Statutes. The Board is also responsible for processing legislation involving subject areas such as constitutional amendments governing the legislative process, legislative candidate eligibility requirements, term limits, and legislative ethics. The Executive Board also serves as the Reference Committee, which refers introduced bills, resolutions, and gubernatorial appointments to the appropriate standing committee according to subject jurisdiction.
I was able to remain on the Appropriations Committee, which develops a recommendation for the biennial budget that is presented to the full Legislature. We will have our work cut out for us, as the state is facing an almost $900 million shortfall at the end of the next biennium.
Speaker Scheer introduced legislation on behalf of Governor Ricketts this week to close the $276 million funding gap in the current biennium ending in June. (The Governor’s proposal for the next biennium will be unveiled on January 12.) The legislation would impose a 4% cut on previous appropriations for most state agencies and a 2.3% cut for the University. State aid to schools, special education funding, the Department of Corrections, and most direct care services and public aid programs within the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services would be exempt from the budget cuts. The Governor’s plan also seeks to transfer $92 million from the cash reserve and another $20 million from other cash funds. His proposal builds on the recent announcement by Amazon that they will begin collecting sales taxes on Internet purchases in our state. I introduced a bill, LB 44, which seeks to get other online companies without a physical presence in our state to collect and remit the sales tax from internet purchases as well.
Bill introductions will continue through January 18. Public hearings, held on every bill introduced, will begin on January 17.
If you are interested in the Legislature and its activities, please visit our website at nebraskalegislature.gov. You can view newly introduced bills, look at the agenda for the day, review the biographies of the new senators, and even watch the Legislature live.
I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation. If I am not available, my staff will be able to assist you. Laura Olson is my administrative assistant, greeting visitors and handling my calendar. She is also serving as the committee clerk for the Executive Board. Kim Davis is my legislative aide, handling legislation and constituent inquiries. Janice Satra serves as the legal counsel for the Executive Board.
If you are in the State Capitol, make sure to drop by my office. I am now in Room 2108, in the southwest corner of the second floor. My mailing address is 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.
After completing their work, the Nebraska Legislature has adjourned sine die. Senators balanced the budget, provided property tax relief to agricultural landowners, tightened limits on school district spending, accelerated road projects, and increased opportunities for wind energy development.
Governor Ricketts vetoed three bills, but the Legislature attempted to override only one. LB 947, introduced by Omaha Senator Heath Mello, allows lawfully present immigrants to apply for professional and commercial licenses. This bill would extend benefits to youth qualifying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Under executive order, President Obama has allowed certain young people that were brought into the country illegally as children to be deemed temporarily lawfully present in our country. Last year, the governor vetoed legislation allowing drivers’ licenses for this group of individuals, but his veto was overridden on a 34-10 vote. Thirty votes are required to override a governor’s veto.
The Governor felt that LB 947 was unfair and was concerned with the scope of the legislation, which would provide business licenses to a much broader group of illegal immigrants than just the young adults under the federal DACA program. Supporters of the legislation viewed it as a workforce development issue. After attending college in Nebraska, they did not want to see these skilled youth leave for another state in order to obtain the license necessary for their job. Senators voted 31-13 to override the governor’s veto of LB 947.
The other two bills vetoed were LB 580 and LB 935. LB 580 proposed to change the redistricting process of drawing maps for governing districts, which is required every 10 years after a new census. The bill proposed to create an Independent Redistricting Citizen’s Advisory Commission in an effort to take some of the politics out of the process. Governor Ricketts believed that LB 580 was constitutionally suspect as the Nebraska Constitution requires the Legislature to conduct legislative redistricting. Senator John Murante, the primary sponsor of LB 580, chose to continue to work on this proposal rather than attempt to override the governor’s veto.
LB 935 proposed several changes in audit procedures and state operations. The Governor will work with the State Auditor on a revised proposal next year, in order to still achieve the policy objectives of the legislation but reduce bureaucratic paperwork.
Term limits affected eleven senators this year. Senators who cannot run again include the Speaker of the Legislature and the chairs of the Appropriations Committee, Education Committee, Health and Human Services Committee, Natural Resources Committee and Revenue Committee. Next year will see many new leaders emerge to carry on their responsibilities.
After senators finished their work on the last day, those outgoing senators were recognized and given the opportunity to give some final remarks. Senators spend a great deal of time together and things can get heated at times. However, we also develop a certain kind of bond that comes from working together for the betterment of the entire state. Consequently, the ceremonies on the last day can be emotional, as outgoing senators say goodbye to their colleagues.
With the session concluding, I will be spending more time at home in the district. I will be in Lincoln on a weekly basis for meetings, public hearings, and office work. My office will still be able to assist you throughout the interim, as my staff will be available if I am not, and we correspond on a daily basis. 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 completed Day 59 of this 60-day legislative session on Wednesday, April 13, when the remainder of the pending bills were read on Final Reading and sent to the governor. The governor has 5 days, excluding Sunday, to decide whether to sign or veto the legislation. Senators won’t meet for the last day until Wednesday, April 20, thereby allowing for the consideration of overriding any veto that might be made by the governor.
The Legislature passed LB 958 and LB 959, bills that were aimed at providing property tax relief. LB 958 increases the annual funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $20 million, with the additional funding distributed to agricultural landowners. This will be accomplished by valuing agricultural land at 90%, rather than 75%, of market value for purposes of calculating the property tax credit program. LB 959 eliminates the minimum levy adjustment which reduces state aid to districts with levies less than $0.95, removes the levy criteria from the averaging adjustment calculation and reduces the special levy school districts can use to address health, safety and accessibility problems in school buildings. This bill is projected to increase state aid to primarily rural school districts by $8.5 million.
Although these bills will provide for some property tax relief, I was disappointed that they didn’t go further. I will continue to work on the proposal to include a foundation aid component in the state aid formula. Foundation aid is a certain amount of funding per student, regardless of whether the school district qualifies for equalization funding. This would reduce the reliance on property taxes in the funding of our schools. An in-depth discussion of how this increase in state aid would be funded needs to take place. Additionally, there are some senators who are advocating for an income tax reduction, to make our state more competitive with surrounding states.
Also passed this past week was LB 960, which creates an infrastructure bank, funded by a $50 million transfer from the cash reserve fund and the commitment of $400 million in additional fuel tax revenue generated by the passage of LB 610 last year. This will allow the Department of Roads to accelerate work done on major highway projects, which could include finishing the expressway system. The funding will also be used for the repair and replacement of county bridges, as well as transportation improvements to attract and support economic development.
My priority bill, LB 744, received final approval from the Legislature. It will allow for the continuation of open adoptions in private and agency adoptions.
LB 886, which I co-sponsored, was also approved by lawmakers. It recognizes the contributions of our rural volunteer firefighters and rescue squad members by authorizing a $250 refundable income tax credit.
One bill that will not become law was LB 10, which proposed to return Nebraska to the winner-take-all system for the distribution of electoral votes in presidential elections. Another filibuster was initiated on Final Reading and this time the cloture motion to cut off debate fell one vote short, meaning that the bill is pulled from the agenda.
I encourage you to contact me as we complete this year’s legislative session. 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.
This past week, the Legislature gave second-round approval to LB 10, which would return Nebraska to a winner-take-all system for the distribution of electoral votes in presidential elections. Our current system awards a presidential electoral vote to the winner in each of the state’s three congressional districts, while giving two votes to the statewide winner. In addition to Nebraska, only Maine does not deliver all of their electoral votes to the statewide presidential winner.
LB 10, introduced in 2015 by Senator Beau McCoy, has been filibustered at every stage of debate, requiring a cloture motion to cut off debate and allow for a vote on the advancement of the bill. Last year, at the first stage of debate, the cloture motion was successful, but it fell two votes short at the second stage of debate. After being prioritized again in 2016, the cloture motion was successful this year at the second stage of debate. Senator Ernie Chambers is very much opposed to this legislation and promised to halt the session if it was advanced. Consequently, the next couple days proceeded at a very slow pace.
Senators debated LB 643, which would allow medical marijuana in Nebraska, for four hours this past week. After a cloture motion failed, the bill was pulled from the agenda for the year.
Supporters of LB 643 argued that almost half of the states have laws permitting medical marijuana. They pointed out that under the provisions contained in LB 643, Nebraska would have had one of the most tightly regulated medical marijuana programs in the nation. Persons seeking medical cannabis would have needed certification from a health care practitioner and must have been suffering from one of the conditions specified in the bill, such as cancer, seizures, terminal illness, or Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, patients would have been limited to taking the drug in the form of pills, liquid, or through a vaporizer. Smoking marijuana was not permitted under the bill.
Opponents included Governor Ricketts, Attorney General Peterson, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Nebraska Medical Association, the County Attorneys Association and the Nebraska Sheriff’s Association. Senators opposing the bill reminded their colleagues that marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I substances are considered to have a high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use, making distribution of marijuana a federal offense. Although the current administration has chosen to be lax in enforcement of marijuana laws, senators pointed out that this could change with the next administration. They were also concerned with the use of marijuana by our youth, as studies have confirmed that casual marijuana use causes structural harm in the brain of young users and has long-term impact on their mental health, making them more susceptible to serious mental health conditions. Opposing senators felt that marijuana should go through the research and testing protocols required by the FDA before it should be used as a medicine.
This was a very emotional issue and the rotunda was full of families who have a loved one with severe health issues. They have tried conventional drugs and they haven’t worked. They were pleading for another option.
As I understand, a decision on whether to reclassify the drug may be made in the near future. If it is reclassified, it will allow for more research on marijuana for medicinal purposes. The pharmaceutical grade marijuana extract of purified cannabidiol is already being tested through FDA authorized trials and it is possible that a FDA approved product could be on the market soon. Furthermore, a ballot initiative to reform marijuana laws has been filed with the Secretary of State.
As we head into our last few days of this legislative session, I still 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 Legislature gave first-round approval to both bills introduced on behalf of Governor Ricketts, containing his plan for property tax relief. However, the bills have been completely rewritten through the amendment process.
LB 959, as amended by committee amendments, eliminates the minimum levy penalty which reduces state aid to districts with levies less than .95 cents, removes the levy criteria from the averaging adjustment calculation, and caps the special levy school districts can use to address health, safety and accessibility problems in school buildings at 3 cents, down from 5.2 cents. LB 959 will allow a number of school districts to reduce their levy and will also provide more state aid to some districts that depend heavily on property taxes to fund their schools.
LB 958, as introduced, would have affected local governments by placing limitations on the budget of restricted funds and reducing the number of exclusions to the property tax levy limit. It also would have limited the state-wide increase in agricultural land valuations to 3 percent. Following the public hearing, when the committee heard significant opposition from representatives of cities and other political subdivisions, LB 958 was advanced from the Revenue Committee with committee amendments that rewrote the bill. Although a portion of the original bill remained in the committee amendments, pertaining to the unused restricted funds authority for community colleges, the sponsor of the bill has filed an amendment to strike this portion during the second round of debate, as he doesn’t want it to hinder the passage of the bill.
Under the committee amendments, LB 958 proposed a $30 million increase in the Property Tax Credit program, targeted for agricultural landowners. This would be accomplished by valuing agricultural land for purposes of the Property Tax Credit program at full market value rather than 75% of market value. With the additional funding, on top of the $204 million already appropriated for the program, the credit for agricultural landowners would result in an approximate 10% reduction in property taxes.
During debate on LB 958, urban senators felt that all taxpayers should receive tax relief, not just rural landowners, and an amendment was offered to strike the provisions of the bill, replacing it with an income tax reduction. Following several hours of contentious debate, a compromise amendment was offered to reduce the additional funding for rural landowners through the Property Tax Credit program to approximately $20 million annually. I was disappointed that we had to compromise in order to get LB 958 advanced. Considering that property taxes collected statewide on agricultural land increased 176% over the last 10 years, compared with a 35% increase in residential property and a 49% increase in commercial property, it was obvious that agricultural landowners deserved some immediate relief. However, the Legislature must continue to work to provide significant relief for all taxpayers.
LB 1032, is Nebraska’s fourth attempt at expanding Medicaid, as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. After about an hour of debate, a motion was offered to bracket the bill until April 20, which is the last day of session. The motion was successful, meaning that the bill is essentially killed for this session.
The Health and Human Services Committee amendments to LB 1032 proposed to add a sunset date in three years. The amendments also proposed to appropriate $63 million from the Health Care Cash Fund to fund the state match for the coverage of the newly eligible.
In addition to the sunset, LB 1032 also states that if the federal share falls below 90%, the coverage for newly eligible individuals shall terminate. Although the intent of the bill is to ensure no appeals to the loss of eligibility if the program terminates, this could be problematic. Federal law classifies the new Medicaid expansion population as a “mandatory population” for states that opt into the expansion.
Furthermore, senators questioned whether the source of funding was sustainable. When federal reimbursement falls to 90% in 2020, the projected cost to the state for the expanded population would be approximately $58 million annually. Although the Health Care Cash fund has a positive balance currently, it only brings in approximately $59 million annually and is used to fund many other programs as well, such as tobacco-cessation programs, biomedical research, and behavior health and substance abuse services. Senators sympathized with those who fall in the gap, making too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to be eligible for subsidies. However, the majority feared that the program could end up costing more than our state could afford, thereby requiring cuts in other essential programs and services.
With just a few days left in this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your opinion on issues 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 budget bills were given second-round and final approval this past week. Governor Ricketts now has 5 days (excluding Sunday) to decide whether he’ll use his line-item veto authority to strike specific budget appropriations from the package. His vetoes are due to the Legislature by midnight on Wednesday, March 30. The budget passed by the Legislature did not differ markedly from what the governor recommended.
My priority bill, LB 744, received first-round approval this past week on a 42-0 vote. Under LB 744, open adoptions would be recognized in state statute, allowing for future communication or contact between birth parents and adoptive parents in private and agency adoptions. However, the law would make it clear that the failure to comply with such an agreement would not affect the validity of the adoption. A recent Nebraska Supreme Court decision stated that until the Legislature acts to approve of these open adoption arrangements in a private adoption context, they will not recognize them and will instead continue to hold that relinquishments signed with the promise of such an open adoption are invalid.
In order to help the birth mother as she makes this important decision, I offered an amendment to require independent legal counsel for the relinquishing parents from that of the adoptive parents, at the adoptive parents’ expense. The amendment also requires that free counseling be offered to the birth parents.
Due to this lawsuit, agencies and private attorneys may have advised against any type of open adoption because even the existence of a communication and contact agreement could prove problematic in the view of the court. LB 744 will allow open adoptions to continue in Nebraska and will assure the permanency of the adoption process.
LB 886, a bill that I co-sponsored with Senator Al Davis of Hyannis, has received initial approval from the Legislature. The legislation would provide a refundable income tax credit of $250 for volunteer emergency responders who meet certain criteria. The intent behind the bill is to recognize volunteers for the important service they provide to their local communities. It stemmed from an interim study that I introduced last year, which among other things, looked at incentives for recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters, emergency responders and rescue squad members in our rural communities.
LB 1038, another bill given first-round approval, contains the language needed to implement the Niobrara River Memorandum of Understanding between the Nebraska Public Power District, the Niobrara NRDs and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. I have been involved in meetings preparing for this important legislation. After many years of legal battles and negotiation, these three political subdivisions reached an agreement on the transfer of the controlling water rights to the Niobrara River. The agreement will allow the NRDs and the Game and Parks Commission to jointly purchase and hold the water rights from the Spencer Hydroelectric generation facility and convert the rights to provide a protected instream flow for the Niobrara River. The agreement protects all existing uses of domestic, livestock, municipal, surface water irrigation and groundwater irrigation.
The Speaker of the Legislature informed senators that 33 priority bills are on General File (first stage of debate) and 15 priority bills are on Select File (second stage of debate), verifying that we have a great deal of work to do in our last 11 days of this session. We will be working into the evening on most days.
As we debate the final priority bills before us, 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 first-round approval to the budget package this past week. Senators also stopped a measure that proposed to repeal the motorcycle helmet law for riders 21 years of age and older.
Progress has been made this past week on property tax relief, although it isn’t as comprehensive as hoped. LB 958, introduced on behalf of the Governor, sought to slow the increase in agricultural land valuation by capping statewide agricultural land valuation growth at 3% per year. It also aimed to slow the growth of property taxes levied by political subdivisions. After significant opposition was encountered from representatives of cities and other political subdivisions, the committee eliminated most of the bill, except for the portion that limits the unused restricted fund authority for community colleges to 3% of their prior year’s restricted funds. In the amendment proposed by the Revenue Committee, instead of the 3% cap on valuation, the committee is proposing an increase in the Property Tax Credit program. This program provides direct property tax relief for property owners through a credit on their property tax statement. Last year, funding for this program was increased by $64 million to $204 million in annual funding. This year, the proposed increase in credits would be directed to agricultural land owners. Since this is a new concept, the Revenue Committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed amendment on Thursday, March 24. After calculations are completed, an amount of funding will be added to the amendment.
A companion bill, LB 959, also introduced on behalf of the Governor, intended to slow the growth of spending and property taxes levied by school districts. It was advanced from the Education Committee, after being substantially amended. The bill now proposes to eliminate the minimum levy adjustment, which takes away state funding from schools with levies below $0.95. Additionally, it would tighten limits on a special project fund that schools use to address safety, environmental hazards, accessibility barriers and mold in existing buildings.
Two other bills promising property tax relief encountered roadblocks this past week. LB 717, introduced by Senator Mike Groene, proposed to use a 5-year history of comparable sales, excluding 20% of sales with the lowest valuation to sale price ratio, in an effort to remove abnormal high priced sales. It also would have frozen 2016 valuations at the 2015 level. An attorney general’s opinion stated that the bill is likely unconstitutional as it would appear to result in property within the same class being assessed at values that are not uniform and proportionate relative to their market value.
LB 883, introduced by Senator Jim Scheer and eleven other senators, including myself, was killed by the Education Committee. This legislation proposed to add a per student foundation aid component to the K-12 school funding formula, in an effort to reduce property taxes by giving every school district some base funding through the state aid formula. Currently, almost two-thirds of our school districts don’t receive equalization aid because their resources from property taxes exceed their needs, which illustrates the high dependence on property taxes in our school funding formula. This concept would require additional revenue to implement and I feel that this is a discussion that needs to take place.
According to calculations made by Senator Scheer’s office, under LB 883, schools in District #1 would have seen substantial increases in state aid. Following is the projected amount of additional state aid that schools would receive over the current amount, with the addition of $3,000 per student in foundation aid. Sterling Public Schools – $587,467; Johnson County Central Public Schools – $1,515,000; Johnson-Brock Public Schools – $389,596; Auburn Public Schools – $198,681; Syracuse-Dunbar-Avoca Schools – $2,123,988; Nebraska City Public Schools – $580,394; Palmyra District OR 1 – $1,135,510; Pawnee City Public Schools – $306,458; Lewiston Consolidated Schools – $37,773; Falls City Public Schools – $2,455,119; and HTRS Public Schools – $1,029,000.
Property taxes bear a disproportionate burden in support of our school districts, especially in our rural areas. I believe the concept of foundation aid has merit and I am hopeful that it plays a major role in the Legislature’s continued discussion of property tax relief this year and in following years.
As we begin late night sessions, I encourage your input on legislation of interest to you. 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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