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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 One Hundred Third Legislature, First Session has adjourned sine die. We passed approximately 200 bills. Three-fifths of the bills that were designated as individual senator priority bills were passed, along with 26 of the 30 committee priority bills and 20 of the 25 speaker priority bills. Of the six bills that I introduced, four were passed, along with my individual priority bill.
Some of the priority bills that did not become law include the expansion of Medicaid as envisioned in the federal health care reform law, including state park entry fees in motor vehicle registration fees, repealing the motorcycle helmet law for riders 21 years of age and older, repealing the death penalty, requiring health insurance plans sold in the state to provide coverage for the treatment of autism spectrum disorders, compensating surface water users when irrigation is limited in order to comply with an interstate compact or decree, increasing the tax on cigarettes and tobacco products, changing the Corn Checkoff program, exempting military retirement benefits from the income tax, and exempting repair or replacement parts for agricultural machinery and equipment from the sales tax. All bills pending at the end of the 2013 legislative session are automatically carried over to the 2014 session.
Legislation of importance that was passed during this session included LB 561, which revises the juvenile justice system, focusing on treatment for young offenders rather than incarceration; LR 155, creating the Tax Modernization Committee to study the equity of our current tax structure; LB 216, creating a program of extended support services for young adults as they age out of the foster care system; LB 44, replacing mandatory life without parole with a 40-year minimum sentence for those younger than 18 years, in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling; LB 530, increasing the reimbursement rate for foster children based on the recommendations of the Foster Care Reimbursement Rate Committee; LB 507, which seeks to bring accountability for the public funds invested in child care and early childhood education, by the development of a 5-step quality rating and improvement system; and LB 553, which attempts to address both long- and short-term funding issues associated with the school employees retirement system.
The Legislature successfully passed a balanced budget that increases spending by an average of approximately 5% each year of the biennium. It includes increased funding for higher education, in order to allow for a tuition freeze for the next two years. It also includes provider rate increases, more funding for persons with intellectual disabilities that are on the state waiting list, and funding to meet the requirements of the federal health care reform law. Furthermore, the budget builds up the cash reserve, in anticipation of the next recession. By having a healthy cash reserve, Nebraska was able to weather the recent recession better than most states and did not have to resort to a tax increase.
I was appointed to the Water Funding Task Force, which was created through the passage of LB 517. The task force will focus on the long-term sustainability of water resources in our state. We will meet this summer and fall, with the task of recommending a strategic plan which prioritizes programs, projects, and activities in need of funding and recommends a permanent funding structure. We are to submit a report to the Legislature by the end of the year.
With the adjournment of the Legislature, I will be spending more time back on my farm near Syracuse. I will be at the State Capitol for office work and meetings throughout the interim. However, if I am not in the office, my staff will be able to assist you. If you have any questions pertaining to state government or on legislation passed or pending, or if you need assistance with an issue, I encourage you to contact my office at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.