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Governor Pete Ricketts gave his annual State of the State address this past week. His recommendations, along with the agency requests, will become the starting point as the Appropriations Committee, and then the entire Legislature, determines what mid-biennium budget adjustments need to be made.
To address the lowered revenue forecast projected by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board this past October, the Governor is proposing across-the-board cuts of 2% this fiscal year and 4% next year, as well as specific reductions. He has also recommended transfers of excess fund balances to the General Fund and a $108 million transfer from the cash reserve fund. These budget reductions come on top of significant cuts made last year when the state experienced a budget shortfall in excess of $1 billion. The Governor stressed that the budget was balanced last year without any tax increases, and his recommendations propose to do the same this year.
The Governor stated that the priorities in his budget include funding for K-12 education, Corrections, and services for those with developmental disabilities. He proposed to maintain funding for state school aid and included an additional $35 million to Child Welfare and Public Assistance for this year and next, after noting the 9% increase in the number of children in our child welfare system. He also mentioned the formation of a new child welfare task force to determine the root causes for this increase, such as the high number of parents using methamphetamine. The Governor recommended expanding the number of corrections officers and reinvesting $6 million to expand bed capacity in our prisons.
Growing Nebraska has always been one of the Governor’s top goals, and he emphasized that cutting and reforming taxes is a key factor in meeting this goal. Although the state has provided $840 million in property tax relief over the past four years, the Tax Foundation ranks Nebraska’s property taxes as 11th highest in the nation. Therefore, the Governor stressed that property tax relief was a top priority. To that end, he announced that Revenue Committee chair, Senator Jim Smith, will introduce the Nebraska Property Tax Cuts and Opportunity Act.
LB 947 contains three major components. First, it would eliminate the current Property Tax Credit Program which provides property owners a tax credit based on the valuation of their property and is shown on tax statements as a credit after full taxes are levied. It also proposes to eliminate the recently passed Personal Property Exemption Program. The legislation would use the funding from these two programs for a refundable credit on state income taxes for property taxes paid, which would ensure that Nebraskans, not absentee landowners, receive the credit. It also includes a trigger mechanism to provide for additional property tax relief in future years when actual tax receipts are higher than forecast projections. Next, the legislation permanently reduces the top individual and corporate income tax rate from 6.84% and 7.81%, respectively, to 6.69%. As I understand, the funding from the elimination of the Property Tax Credit Program and the Personal Property Exemption Program would also be used to fund the income tax rate decreases. Finally, the legislation provides an additional $10 million for workforce development.
Senators have been meeting in full day debate this past week, but will begin meeting only in the mornings starting January 16, as public hearings on every bill introduced will be held in the afternoons. January 18, the 10th day of the legislative session, is the last day that bills can be introduced.
I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the legislation that has been introduced. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My mailing address is District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 and my telephone number is (402)471-2733.
LB 461, the Governor’s plan for tax relief, failed to receive the necessary votes to end the filibuster and allow a vote on the advancement of the bill. A motion to invoke cloture requires 33 votes, but it only received 27, with 9 senators voting no and 13 senators choosing not to vote.
LB 461 proposed to change the way agricultural land is valued from the current market based approach to a new income-producing approach. The statewide aggregate agricultural property valuation could not have increase more than 3.5% from the previous year. The legislation proposed to lower the top brackets of the individual income tax and the corporate income tax to 5.99% in increments over multiple years, when the expected rate of growth in General Fund receipts grew at least 3.5% and 4.0% respectively. Although there were positive features in this legislation, the bottom line was that it provided approximately $10 in income tax relief for every $1 in property tax relief.
Since I hear overwhelmingly from my constituents that their property taxes are too high, I offered an amendment that would have provided for property tax relief first, before income tax relief would be triggered. My amendment proposed to add $75 million to the Property Tax Credit fund when the expected rate of growth is at least 3.5%. The amount of income tax relief each year was lowered and the triggers increased. This property tax relief would have been in addition to the annual $224 million currently appropriated to the Property Tax Credit Cash fund, offering dollar for dollar tax relief to property owners.
After offering my amendment, I began negotiating with Senator Jim Smith, the chair of the Revenue committee and sponsor of LB 461, and the governor’s office. We came up with a compromise amendment that would have offered a higher ratio of property tax relief than income tax relief.
Although the compromise wasn’t everything that I wanted, I voted in support of the cloture motion because it would have made property tax relief a priority. However, when the cloture motion failed, LB 461 was pulled from the agenda and will not reappear this session. I will continue to work on property tax relief, with the hope that we can still get something accomplished this year.
The Legislature gave the budget bills second round approval this past week. To address the latest decrease in projected revenue of $55 million, the Appropriations Committee recommended approximately $10 million in additional cuts and transfers, as well as lowering the minimum reserve requirement from 3% to 2.5% for this biennium only.
Since the legislative session began, the budget gap grew to about $1.1 billion, as the Economic Forecasting Advisory Board twice lowered revenue projections. The budget was balanced through cuts in spending or cuts in the growth of spending of approximately $700 million, transfers from cash funds of $230 million, and withdrawing $173 million from the cash reserve fund.
My priority bill, LB 44, was discussed during the second round of debate this past week. LB 44 required out-state internet retailers to either collect the sales tax or follow reporting requirements spelled out in the legislation. In 1992, the Supreme Court upheld its 1967 ruling that prohibited states from requiring remote sellers to collect sales tax on sales shipped into their state, as it would place an undue burden on out-of-state retailers. States responded by adopting a comprehensive interstate system to streamline their sales tax rules, called the Interstate Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement. Legislation has been introduced on the federal level for years, to grant states that have complied with this agreement the authority to require remote sellers to collect sales and use tax, but has yet to pass.
In frustration over inaction on the federal level, at least 28 states have introduced over 50 bills in an attempt to recover this sales tax revenue which is owed, but few pay. LB 44 combined the South Dakota collecting law, which was introduced as a vehicle to challenge the outdated Supreme Court ruling, and the Colorado reporting law, which has been upheld in court.
An Attorney General’s opinion was sought on LB 44, which stated that it was likely unconstitutional unless amended. I offered an amendment that satisfied the concerns stated in the opinion and clarified the intent of the bill.
I introduced LB 44 as a matter of fairness for our main street businesses, as it would help level the playing field with online retailers. After several hours of discussion, I did not call for a cloture vote, as I realized that I did not have the necessary 33 votes. The governor had indicated that he would veto the bill, which hindered my chances of success. I will try to work with the governor over the interim and bring this bill back next year.
As we enter the final weeks of this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your 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.
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.
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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com and my telephone number at the Capitol is (402) 471-2733.