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The Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty this past week. LB 268 was passed by the Legislature on a 32-15 vote.
Governor Ricketts issued a statement prior to the final vote, urging senators to listen to their constituents and keep Nebraska among the 32 states that have a death penalty. In his extensive travels across the state, the governor said he found overwhelming support for keeping the death penalty in Nebraska. He said that a vote to repeal the death penalty will give our state’s most heinous criminals more lenient sentences.
The governor has indicated that he will veto LB 268. If so, I would predict that Senator Chambers will file a motion to override his veto, which will likely be taken up by the Legislature next week. Thirty votes are necessary to override a veto.
The recent incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution emphasizes the need for the death penalty. If the death penalty is repealed, it can no longer be used as a deterrent for inmates serving life sentences, which could impact the safety of staff.
Opponents of the death penalty pointed to the high costs associated with carrying it out. They also cited religious reasons for not taking a life, the possibility of wrongful convictions, and the emotional turmoil it places on the victim’s family.
The State of Nebraska has officially administered the death penalty since 1901, when executions were moved from individual counties to the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The method of execution at that time was hanging. In 1913, Nebraska’s execution method changed to the electric chair. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman V. Georgia that the arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violated the U.S. Constitution and constituted cruel and unusual punishment, resulting in a national moratorium. Nebraska and other states enacted new legislation seeking to overcome the constitutional defects and in 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the revised death penalty statutes. In 2009, the Legislature changed the method of execution to lethal injection, after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the sole use of the electric chair violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The State of Nebraska has carried out 23 executions, 8 by hanging and 15 by means of the electric chair, with the last occurring in 1997. Eleven men are currently on death row.
Senator Chambers has been attempting to repeal the death penalty for forty years. In 1979, the Legislature passed such legislation, but former Governor Charles Thone vetoed the bill.
The Governor signed the budget bills without a single line-item veto. Governor Ricketts said that he did not veto anything from the budget as it slowed the growth in government spending and it offered property tax relief, which were his two top priorities.
Within the budget are several items that I instigated and am appreciative of the approval from my fellow senators and the governor. Several water projects, initiated through the Nebraska Resources Development Fund (RDF) to help protect our state’s natural resources, while also producing notable recreation and economic benefits for the state, were never fully funded. The RDF was phased out with the passage of legislation in 2014 that created the Water Sustainability Fund. In fulfilling the state’s obligation, these projects will now be fully funded through a combination of General Funds and funding from the new Water Sustainability Fund.
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers are trained citizens who are appointed by a judge to speak in court for the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children. There are 22 CASA programs serving 38 counties in Nebraska. It has been shown that children with a CASA volunteer are more likely to find safe, permanent homes, are more likely to be adopted, are half as likely to re-enter foster care and are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care. I was able to obtain a stable source of state funding for this program.
I introduced legislation to increase the funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $60 million annually. The Governor also included this increase in his budget proposal. The final biennial budget contains an additional $64 million annually in direct property tax relief for taxpayers, which is shown as a credit on annual tax statements.
Along with a dozen other senators, I visited the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution this past Sunday. We wanted to show our support for the staff at TSCI and commend them for their dedicated service during the recent riot at the facility. I also joined Governor Ricketts and Scott Frakes, the director of the Department of Corrections, as they toured the facility mid-week. The Governor has pledged to seek solutions to staffing problems at TSCI, including high turnover and job vacancy rates, stagnant salaries and mandatory overtime.
As we enter our last days of this legislative session, I encourage you to continue 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.
Bills can be introduced during the first 10 days of the legislative session. The last day for bill introductions is Wednesday, January 21. The following is a brief description of the bills that I have been working on throughout the interim and have introduced so far.
LB 46, introduced on behalf of the statewide Trauma Advisory Board, revises language regarding the accreditation of rehabilitation centers in the state, specifically as it relates to the rehabilitation of trauma patients. The bill redefines the levels of rehabilitation services to reflect current practice and to bring the levels and definitions up-to-date.
LB 47 makes the question mandatory on an application for a driver’s license or identification card regarding whether to be on the Donor Registry. Currently, it is optional for applicants to answer this question. Nearby states that require responses have higher percentages of applicants indicating their wish to become donors.
Under LB 105, the state rather than the county, would have to pay for the costs associated with an autopsy and grand jury when an inmate dies in state custody. This is one of several unfunded mandates that the Legislature will address as we work towards property tax relief. This legislation would help Johnson County, where Tecumseh State Correctional Institution is located.
LB 106, the Livestock Operation Siting & Expansion Act, was introduced to encourage livestock development and expansion, which is extremely important to the economy of our state. The industry in Nebraska hasn’t grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to neighboring states. The legislation would allow counties to use a scoring matrix system for the approval of new or expanding livestock facilities, which would make the process more predictable and consistent throughout the state.
LB 130 would allow projects allocated funding through the Nebraska Resources Development Fund to be eligible for funding from the new Water Sustainability Fund. I will also introduce a bill to appropriate enough funding within the next two years to allow for the completion of these projects. These projects were existing when the new funding system was passed last year. They are important projects that are beneficial for the state and have already been approved through an extensive application process.
LB 145 would eliminate the executive officer licensing requirement, while retaining the ability of the Department of Banking and Finance to suspend the authority of the executive officer or impose fines upon the executive officer for violations of law. Nebraska may be the only state that requires a formal license process.
LB 178 would reduce the valuation of agricultural land by 5% per year for four years, thereby reducing it from 75% to 55% for school district taxation purposes. This is another option that is being presented to look at property tax relief and the high burden placed on agricultural land owners in the support of local schools.
LB 188, which I am introducing again this year, amends our current pursuit law, which was enacted to protect an innocent bystander who gets hurt as a result of a police pursuit. Nebraska is the only state that imposes liability on the law enforcement agency regardless of whether the law enforcement agency was negligent in its pursuit and even when the driver being pursued causes the injury to the “innocent third party”. Under this legislation, a passenger in a fleeing vehicle would not be considered an “innocent third party” if they entered the vehicle knowing that the driver was under the influence, if they are sought to be apprehended by law enforcement or if they are engaged in any illegal activity which would itself result in arrest.
LB 228 would reduce the corporate income tax rate to the level of the top two brackets of the individual income tax. Other types of companies, such as limited liability companies and Subchapter S corporations are considered “pass-through” organizations under state and federal income tax laws. This is a special business structure that is used to reduce the effects of double taxation, meaning that pass-through entities don’t pay income taxes at the corporate level, only at the individual owners’ level. LB 228 is attempting to level the playing field for the different types of business structures.
LB 229 appropriates funding for the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program. There are currently 22 CASA programs serving 38 Nebraska counties, with more than 600 volunteers advocating for more than 1,500 Nebraska children. Statistics have shown that a child with a CASA volunteer is more likely to be adopted and less likely to re-enter foster care. The funding would allow the program to continue and grow to serve more counties.
LB 364 would increase the funding appropriated to the Property Tax Credit program, funding the program at $200 million per year. This would translate into an approximate $100 credit for each $100,000 of valuation.
LB 386 would exempt header trailers and seed tenders from sales tax. Agricultural machinery and equipment was permanently exempted from state sales tax beginning in 1992. In 2012, the Department of Revenue issued a revised “Information Guide” ruling that these implements did not qualify for the sales tax exemption. This legislation would clarify that such trailers are exempt, as was the practice before the ruling.
As the bills are introduced, 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, Nebraska 68509. My email address is email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
This past week, the Legislature discussed the line-item vetoes made by the Governor on the budget bills. His vetoes amounted to approximately $44 million in federal, state, and cash funds over the next two years. The Appropriations Committee recommended that approximately $14 million in line-item vetoes be overridden, representing approximately 85% of the general fund vetoes, 70% of the vetoes in cash funds, but allowing the vetoes of federal funds to stand. The Legislature voted in support of the committee’s recommendations.
The Legislature voted to override line-item vetoes of state funding for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) grants, increased salaries for county court employees, additional aid for the Learning Community in Douglas and Sarpy counties, and funding for a Dental Health Director within the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been vacant since 2009 and has resulted in the loss of federal funding. The Governor’s veto of funding for the UNMC College of Nursing Lincoln facility, renovation of the Museum of Nebraska History and improvements in the State Capitol were also overridden. The College of Nursing facility in Lincoln will be partially funded with savings from a University capital project previously undertaken. The renovation of the Nebraska History Museum is intended to keep it in compliance with mechanical and electrical codes and ADA regulations.
Individual senators attempted to override additional line-item vetoes, including increased funding for the State Auditor’s office, the Supreme Court, and the railroad track inspection program. However, only the motions to override offered by the Appropriations Committee were successful.
Although LB 613, which proposed to create the Tax Modernization Commission, was introduced earlier this year, it gained momentum after public hearings were held on the Governor’s proposals to eliminate or reduce the income tax. Taxpayers from across the state objected to the proposal which would have eliminated popular sales tax exemptions to compensate for the reduction in income tax revenue. Many citizens voiced their opinion that high property taxes are a more prevalent problem.
During debate on LB 613, Senator Ernie Chambers suggested that the tax study could be accomplished through a resolution rather than by statute. He proceeded to introduce LR 155, which was adopted by the Legislature this past week. LR 155 creates the Tax Modernization Committee comprised of the members of the Revenue Committee, the chair of the Appropriations, Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture, and the Legislature’s Planning Committee. In addition, the Executive Board will select two other senators to serve on the committee. The purpose of the study is to review and evaluate the state’s tax laws regarding the sales, income, and property taxes, as well as other miscellaneous taxes, credits, and incentives. The resolution states that community involvement is essential to the success of the study and encourages the participation of the public. The committee is to issue a report to the Executive Board by December 15, containing any recommendations to update state, county and local tax policies.
In discussing LR 155, Senator Galen Hadley, who will serve as the chair of the Tax Modernization Committee, emphasized that the study will not result in sweeping tax reductions. He stressed that the mission of the committee is to determine if there is equity in our current tax system. I thought it was important that he mentioned our state’s high property taxes when he spoke of the challenges before the committee.
The Legislature is finishing up this year’s business and is scheduled to adjourn on June 5. Again, I encourage your input. 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.