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 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 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 10-day bill introductory period is complete, resulting in the introduction of 663 bills and 4 constitutional amendments. Last week, I summarized most of the bills that I had introduced to date.
This past week, I introduced several more, including LB 490, which would adopt the Provider Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) Act. A POLST is a medical order, completed and signed by a medical provider, resulting from a detailed conversation between the patient and physician or other health care provider. A POLST is intended towards individuals with advanced illness or frailty. The purpose of a POLST is to improve end-of-life care by converting a patient’s treatment preferences into medical orders that are transferable amongst home and health care settings. The use of a POLST form is not mandatory. It is voluntary, meaning that it is used only if a patient chooses to complete one. It can be reviewed and revised as needed. It is limited to one page, is printed on bright colored paper, and is commonly kept on the refrigerator for easy recognition by paramedics.
POLST legislation has been approved in 19 states. Additional states are in the process of developing programs. Several communities in Nebraska are already using a POLST form. A primary goal of LB 490 is to have a standard form, for use throughout the state, in order to avoid confusion among health care providers in emergency situations.
Newly elected Governor Pete Ricketts delivered his first State of the State Address this past week. The Governor outlined the following objectives: controlling spending to keep it under the growth in revenue; property tax relief; cultural change and operational excellence in state agencies (through the creation of two new positions in the Governor’s cabinet – a chief operating officer and a human resources director); comprehensive reform in the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Human Services; regulatory process review; building on a military friendly culture; and improving educational outcomes, by creating a public-private partnership to create a career and vocational training program.
The Governor’s budget proposal would limit the two-year average growth in general fund spending to 3.1%, which is significantly less than the approximate 6.5% per year budget growth during the last biennium. He also stressed that he would not support any tax increases. To deal with what he termed as the #1 priority, he would add an additional $60 million per year to the Property Tax Credit Relief Fund. This is the concept that is contained in LB 364, a bill that I introduced last week. The Governor also indicated his support for reducing the value of agricultural land from 75% to 65% of actual value, along with an additional $9.5 million to the state aid formula, to make up for the loss in property tax revenue for school districts. I have introduced legislation similar to this concept, in 2013 and again this year, with LB 178.
The cash reserve fund was not touched by the Governor’s plan. However, he hinted that he believes the balance is too high and a portion should be returned to taxpayers. Although the Governor has indicated that he is supportive of income tax reductions, his proposal focused on property tax relief and only contained income tax relief for retired military veterans.
The public hearing process has started with committees meeting every afternoon. In the mornings, senators have begun debating legislation that has been advanced from the various committees.
If you would like to voice your opinion on legislation that has been introduced, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The budget bills were discussed during the second stage of debate this past week. Senator Ernie Chambers offered an amendment to strip $5 million in one-time funding for county jails. A number of county jail facilities in the state have available empty beds. The intent was to temporarily ease current state prison overcrowding by contracting with willing counties to house up to 150 inmates in county jails, while a study is taking place on the feasibility of building a new prison and the Legislature is working with a national organization on alternatives to prison. However, the state’s two most populated counties have indicated that they may not be interested in taking state prisoners, since their facilities are not designed for long-term prisoners and due to funding concerns. The amendment offered by Senator Chambers failed on a 16-22-11 vote. Following the adoption of a technical amendment, the budget bills were given second-round approval.
The Legislature debated LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act, this past week. The Affordable Care Act, proposed by President Obama, was passed into law on the federal level in 2010. Due to a Supreme Court ruling, the mandatory provision requiring Medicaid expansion became voluntary for the states. LB 887 proposed to expand Medicaid in Nebraska by increasing eligibility for Medicaid coverage to adults ages 19-64, with incomes at or below 133% of federal poverty level, regardless of whether they have dependent children. Currently eligibility for Medicaid is limited to low-income children, pregnant women, parents with Aid to Dependent Children, and the disabled, blind and elderly. The federal government has pledged to pay 100% of the costs of expansion for the first 3 years, with the federal share dropping to 90% by 2020. However, this does not apply to administrative costs, which are shared by the state and federal government.
Proponents of the bill stressed the importance of providing access to health insurance to all Nebraskans. Currently, those with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level qualify for federal subsidies when purchasing insurance. Nebraskans with incomes below 100% of the federal poverty level do not qualify for any assistance, unless they meet current qualifications. Other senators pointed out that if LB 887 were to pass, 1 in 5 Nebraskans would be on Medicaid. They were also concerned with the future financial burden the expansion could place on the state, as the number of those eligible and the projected cost estimates varied significantly, reiterating the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act.
After 8 hours of debate on LB 887, Senator Kathy Campbell, the sponsor of the legislation and the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, offered a motion for cloture. A successful cloture motion requires 33 votes. It immediately cuts off debate, allowing for a vote on the pending amendment and the advancement of the bill. However, the motion to invoke cloture failed, falling 6 votes short with a 27-21-1 vote. Due to the unsuccessful cloture motion, LB 887 will not be debated again this year.
Senator Jim Scheer of Norfolk prioritized a bill that would require any school district with fewer than 650 students to form an allied system with at least three other school districts. Although the school districts within the allied system would not have had to combine revenue, spending, taxation or state aid, they would have been required to have the same yearly calendar and daily schedule. The intent behind the bill was to enable smaller school districts to use modern technology to expand course offerings and educational opportunities for students. Senator Scheer pulled his bill from consideration after the major education organizations united in their opposition to the mandatory nature of the bill.
In addition to increasing the Property Tax Credit program, expanding the Homestead Exemption program, adjusting income tax brackets for inflation and shielding more social security income from taxes, which I mentioned last week, the Legislature also addressed the taxation of military retirement benefits. A proposal was initially approved this past week that would allow military retirees to elect to either exempt 40% of military retirement benefits for 7 years after the date of separation or to exempt 15% of military retirement beginning at age 67. Nebraska is one of only 8 states that provides no tax exemption for military benefits.
As the Legislature enters the final few weeks of this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the legislation that is 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 Legislature gave first-round approval to the budget bills that make adjustments to the biennial budget passed last year. The Appropriations Committee’s recommendations result in a net increase of $27,739 over the two-year period. However, this does not take into account other legislation with a fiscal impact. If all bills pending on the second and third stage of debate would happen to pass, spending would grow by approximately $44.5 million.
The Appropriations Committee’s budget recommendations included funding for increased costs due to prison overcrowding, funding to serve additional persons with developmental disabilities that are on the waiting list, increased funding for grants for the early childhood education program, and increased funding for our Medicaid match rate, due to a lower federal match rate, which is calculated based on a comparison of our personal per capita income compared with other states. These increased costs were almost entirely offset by reductions in expenses, such as lower costs than projected for the homestead exemption program and the state aid formula for schools.
Bills pending that could increase the spending above the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations include LB 725, which proposes to move the scheduled decrease in the local effort rate (LER) in the school state aid formula up one year. The LER was increased during the budget cutting years of the recession. LB 725 would add approximately $33 million to the budget. LB 986 proposes to increase the number of people that qualify for the homestead exemption by raising the income brackets.
Under the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations, the projected ending balance of the cash reserve fund is $697 million. Committee members made it a priority to leave a sufficient amount in the cash reserve fund, as this is what helped sustain our state during the recent recession, preventing the necessity of raising taxes when revenues fell. Furthermore, the committee emphasized that any use of the cash reserve fund should be for one-time items and not for projects requiring on-going support.
The Appropriations Committee recommended $65 million in transfers from the cash reserve fund. This includes $20 million for water projects, $15 million to state parks, $10 million for job training, $5 million to county jails to ease the burden of prison overcrowding, and $15 million for improvements at the State Capitol, including the replacement of the HVAC system, which is 50 years old and has outlived its predicted lifespan.
During debate on the budget bills, Senator Galen Hadley, chair of the Revenue Committee, offered an amendment to increase funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $20 million, in addition to the $25 million already proposed by the Appropriations Committee. His amendment lost on a 20-18 vote. The Property Tax Credit program was enacted in 2007 and has been funded at $115 million annually since 2008. Currently, a homeowner receives a $60.88 credit per $100,000 of value. The credit will increase to $74.11 under the committee’s proposal, but would have increased to $84.70 per $100,000 of value if the amendment would have been successful.
In addition to the property tax relief offered through the increase in the Property Tax Credit program and an expansion of the Homestead Exemption Program, the Legislature also gave first round approval to LB 987. This bill proposes to adjust individual income tax brackets for inflation and increases the number of persons who won’t be liable for income taxes on their social security income.
With approximately a month left in 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.
Debate on the budget bills consumed most of this past week for the Legislature. The mainline budget bill, which contains the appropriations for the expenses of the Nebraska State Government over the next biennium, warranted the most discussion. A dozen amendments were offered to LB 195, but only the Appropriations Committee amendments, which became the bill, and two amendments offered by the Appropriations Committee chair were adopted. These amendments revised the amount appropriated to the state aid formula for K-12 school districts, based on the latest compromise on the state aid bill, and increased the revolving funds for the Nebraska Statewide Radio System, to allow for three additional towers to address necessary improvements and enhanced coverage. Unsuccessful amendments included efforts to reduce funding for the learning communities, for climate change studies, for the nurse visitation services program and for a railroad track inspector position, as well as attempting to increase funding for the property tax credit program. I was supportive of efforts to reduce the funding contained in the budget bill because if all bills pending are passed, it will result in a 5.5% increase in spending. The historical growth in revenue over the last 30 years is 5%. I do not think it is wise to increase spending by a greater percentage than the average increase in revenue.
In addition to advancing the budget bills to the second stage of debate, senators gave final approval to LB 553. This bill deals with the retirement system for school employees. Due to the recent recession, the plan has experienced a significant pension shortfall. Under LB 553, a new benefits tier is created for school employees hired on or after July 1, 2013, which averages the final salary over 5 years rather than 3 years and reduces the maximum cost-of-living adjustment from 2.5% to 1%. The sunset date on the increased employee contribution rate of 9.78% is eliminated and the state’s contribution rate is increased from 1% to 2% of total compensation. I support these efforts whereby the schools, teachers and the state share in resolving the shortfall. Furthermore, the legislation takes the initiative to adjust the current retirement system for future employees. However, I still have concerns about the sustainability of a defined benefit program.
Two years ago, legislation was passed to encourage companies to establish internships in an effort to retain our graduates in Nebraska, as research showed that interns tend to stay in the region after graduation. Under the Intern Nebraska program, grants are available to companies creating qualified new internships to help offset some of the cost and risk businesses incur when hiring interns. By the end of 2012, 229 companies had taken advantage of the program and had filled 361 positions. Of the interns who graduated and provided information about their future plans, over 50% were offered a full-time position with the company where they interned. An additional 25% were hired on full-time with another company.
LB 476, introduced this year by Senator Tom Carlson of Holdrege, amends the Intern Nebraska program. It opens eligibility up to any college student instead of just those in the upper classes. Grant amounts are increased to the lesser of 75% of the cost of the internship or $5,000, and can go up to $7,500, if the intern is a Federal Pell Grant recipient. The Department is to develop an action plan that will be marketed to high schools and higher education institutions, encouraging students to pursue internships. LB 476 was passed by the Legislature this past week.
We got our first taste of a late night session, adjourning at 11:05 p.m. on Thursday night. As we continue to work long hours, I encourage you to inform me of 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 e-mail address is email@example.com.
According to the legislative rules, the Appropriations Committee must place appropriations bills on General File by the 70th day in a 90-day session or the Legislature reverts to the Governor’s budget proposal. The budget bills were reported to the floor on May 1, which was the 70th day, and must be passed by the 80th legislative day, which falls on May 20.
The Appropriations Committee has proposed a budget of $3.8 billion the first year and $4 billion the second year of the biennium. This represents a 5.5% growth in the first year and a 4.8% growth in the second year, for an average of 5.2%. The primary differences between the Governor’s budget proposal, with an average increase of 4.9%, was that the committee recommended a higher level of state aid funding for K-12 schools and appropriated additional contributions to the defined benefit retirement plans for school employees, due to a projected actuarial shortfall.
At the end of the 2012 legislative session, a $619.4 million shortfall from the required minimum 3% reserve was projected for the 2013-2015 biennium. Since that time, the projected shortfall has switched to a positive $50 million, due to higher revenue forecasts by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board and lower spending projections, including proposed alterations to the state aid formula for K-12 schools. This means that approximately $50 million is available for new legislative proposals.
The cash reserve fund is projected to have a balance of $625 million at the end of the next biennium. This is the fund that allowed the state to recover from the recent recession without major damage to programs and services or the necessity of a tax increase.
The budget is broken up into 3 major parts. Approximately 34% of the budget is dedicated to the funding of agency operations. This includes funding for the University, State Colleges, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Corrections, the State Patrol, the court system, and dozens of other agencies. Another 32% is for state aid to individuals, which includes funding for persons qualifying for Medicaid, child welfare, public assistance, and those with developmental disabilities. The last 34% of the budget is devoted to state aid to local governments, which includes school districts, special education, community colleges, and funding for the homestead exemption.
The Legislature gave first-round approval this past week to LB 93, which allows for the notation of the word “veteran” on a driver’s license or a state identification card. In order to implement this voluntary privilege, the Department of Veterans Affairs would create a registry to determine eligibility for use by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The intent is to make it more convenient for persons to identify themselves as veterans, as they must now show their discharge papers, which are cumbersome to carry and contain confidential information.
As advanced from the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, LB 93 also proposed to create the Military Honor license plate. Unfortunately, Senator Ernie Chambers pledged to fight this provision, so due to time constraints in the remaining days of this legislative session, the proposal was amended out of the bill and will be taken up next year.
Senators gave second-round approval to LB 517, which would create a Water Funding Task Force. The task force would be charged with the development of a 20-year strategic plan for water sustainability. They are to present the recommended plan, along with a funding proposal, in time for the Legislature to discuss it during the 2014 legislative session.
As the Legislature discusses the budget and other bills of interest, I welcome your input. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number at the Capitol is (402) 471-2733.
It’s almost crunch time. Senators have begun meeting in full-day session. We’ve passed the 50-day mark of the 90-day legislative session. We’ve discussed only a handful of priority bills and we still have the budget to deal with in May. Furthermore, the Appropriations Committee has estimated that the budget will only allow for $16 million to $19 million in new spending. This figure sounded sufficient, until the sum was calculated for the fiscal impact of the priority bills and came to more than $150 million for the two-year budget period. Consequently, some senator’s priority bills will not pass or they will have to be amended to reduce the fiscal impact. Senators will have to decide which priority bills are the most important for the state, as the Nebraska Legislature is required to pass a balanced budget.
Senators learned of the fiscal imbalance while debating a bill that would adopt the Wildfire Control Act of 2013. The legislation would direct the Nebraska Forest Service to contract for two air tankers for fighting fires, to thin forests to reduce risk, to provide expanded training, to expand the federal excess property programs and to oversee forest rehabilitation. Based on predictions that the drought will be even worse this summer, it was easy to argue the need for the bill. However, the legislation has an annual $1.7 million fiscal impact. Despite the warning, senators gave LB 634 first-round approval.
The following are two more examples of bills with significant fiscal impacts. Both have been designated as priority bills but neither have advanced from committee at this time.
LB 553 amends the School Employee Retirement Plan to address both short-term and long-term funding obligations. The bill creates a new tier of reduced benefits for new employees, reducing the cost-of-living adjustment from 2.5% to 1% and increasing from 3 to 5 the number of years used to determine final average salary for purposes of calculating a member’s retirement benefit. Preliminary discussions by Retirement Committee members would keep the contribution rates required of teachers at the increased level rather than allowing them to sunset. Additionally, the bill proposes to increase the state’s contribution rate from 1% to 2% of compensation, creating a fiscal impact of approximately $17 million per year. In an effort to retain costs, committee members have proposed to delay the increase in the state’s contribution rate to the second year of the biennium. Due to the recession, the pension fund is currently facing a $108 million actuarial shortfall and LB 553 helps to ensure the sustainability of the School Employees Retirement System.
LB 625 would increase the maximum income level for families qualifying for the Child Care Subsidy Program from 120% to 185% of the federal poverty level. In 2011, 13 states set eligibility for child care assistance above 200% and an additional 22 states set eligibility above 150% of federal poverty level. Prior to 2002, the income limit for the child care subsidy was 185% of federal poverty guidelines, but this income level was never authorized in statute. Supporters testified that child care subsidies are critical to ensuring that children are safe and parents can work. Studies have shown that child care represents the largest portion of a family’s income. The fiscal note estimates that the cost to the state would be approximately $11 million per year. As I understand, negotiations are taking place on the percentage of increase in the income level.
The Legislature will have a tough job ahead. All of the bills that have been designated as priority bills have merit and are important to certain groups of Nebraskans. If you have any comments on the bills that have been prioritized, I value your input and 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 e-mail address is email@example.com.
The Governor presented his State of the State address to the Legislature this past week, in which he outlined what he thought should be the state’s priorities during his final two years in office. Governor Heineman noted how he and the Legislature had worked together to make a positive difference for Nebraskans.
Governor Heineman spoke of the importance of education and noted that his budget proposal contains a 5% increase in each of the next two years for state aid to K-12 school districts, as well as a 5% increase in special education funding. In respect to postsecondary education, the Governor has been working on an agreement with the University of Nebraska and the Nebraska State College System to help ensure continued affordable access to higher education. The Governor’s proposed budget includes an approximate 4% increase for these institutions. In exchange, the university and state colleges have agreed that they will freeze tuition for the next two years at UNL, UNK, UNO, UNMC, Chadron State, Wayne State and Peru State College. The Governor’s budget also includes a similar increase in funding for community colleges.
The majority of the Governor’s address focused on taxes. He believes taxes are too high and that they impede economic growth. He quoted that a high personal income tax rate raises the costs of working, saving, investing and risk-taking. The Governor also noted that 23 states exempt a portion of or all retired military pay and 43 states exempt a portion of or all social security income from taxation. Furthermore, 42 states don’t have an inheritance tax.
The Nebraska income tax generates approximately $2.4 billion annually. The sales tax brings in an additional $1.5 billion. However, the Governor disclosed that the state allows approximately $5 billion in sales tax exemptions. He envisioned that if half of the current exemptions were eliminated, Nebraska wouldn’t need an individual or corporate income tax, meaning that there would be no individual income tax on working Nebraskans; no taxing of small business income; and no taxation of social security or military retirement income. There would be no taxation of any retirement income. The Governor’s address did not give specifics on his tax proposal, but he hinted that he may support lowering the rates for individual and corporate income taxes as an alternative.
Later in the week, the Governor offered two proposals as his recommendations for changes in our tax structure. Omaha Senators Brad Ashford and Beau McCoy will introduce the legislation on behalf of the Governor. The first proposal would repeal $2.34 billion in sales tax exemptions, which would allow for the total elimination of both the individual income tax and the corporate income tax. The second proposal would do away with approximately $395 million in sales tax exemptions, allowing for the elimination of the corporate income tax and the exemption of the first $12,000 of retirement income for married couples and $6,000 for single individuals. Both bills retain the sales tax exemption for food.
Every tax exemption that exists was fought for and is supported by different sectors of our society. Under the Governor’s broad proposal, sales tax would be collected on medical equipment and medicine; hospital and college rooms; agricultural machinery, fertilizer and chemicals, energy used in agriculture, and seeds for commercial use; business repair parts and services; manufacturing machinery and energy used in industry; and from exempt organizations.
The governor has proposed a substantial change for our tax system. In offering two alternatives, he is giving the citizens of Nebraska the chance to offer their input. I think it is important to have the discussion, as our tax system hasn’t faced a major overhaul in almost five decades. It will be interesting to hear from the public as to whether they agree that the income tax is too high, whether they support the elimination of sales tax exemptions or if they are more concerned with other taxes.
I would be interested in your thoughts and opinions on the Governor’s proposals, as well as other issues that are before the Legislature. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.