Two bills introduced at the request of the Governor were heard before the Revenue Committee in a lengthy hearing this past week. LB 337 was introduced by Senator Jim Smith, who serves as the Revenue Committee chair. It would phase in an income tax reduction for those in the top income bracket. The top bracket would be lowered from 6.84 percent to 5.99 percent over an eight-year period, or by approximately 0.11 percent a year. However, the decrease would only be triggered if the expected rate of growth in net General Fund receipts, as determined by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board’s October forecast, is 3.5 percent or greater. When fully implemented, LB 337 would reduce state revenue by $288 million.
Testifiers representing the business community offered support for the legislation, claiming that LB 337 will help grow the state. Opponents wanted the Legislature to focus on property tax relief and others expressed concern that LB 337 could have a negative impact on funding for local schools and other governmental services.
In October 2015, the Forecasting Advisory Board projected a 3.6 percent growth in revenue, which would have triggered a tax cut in 2016, if LB 337 would have been in effect. However, projections quickly dropped, as the state is now facing a projected $900 million shortfall.
LB 338 was introduced by Senator Lydia Brasch, the Agriculture Committee chair, at the request of the Governor. It creates the Agricultural Valuation Fairness Act. Rather than valuating agricultural land according to sales, which can be influenced by other uses for the land, the bill proposes to assess agricultural land based on its capacity to produce income. LB 338 also places a 3.5 percent cap on increases in valuation of such land from year to year. Under the bill, county assessors are to use a range of incomes for land capability groups and capitalization rates, as determined by the Property Tax Administrator, in calculating the agricultural use value. The income ranges are to be based on the average yield information for the ten prior years published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although most testifiers were in support of LB 338 and felt that it was a step in the right direction, concern was expressed that it didn’t go far enough in efforts to provide property tax relief. According to an analysis by Nebraska Farm Bureau, if LB 338 would have been in place in 2017, taxable values for agricultural land would have been $2.2 billion lower statewide. This equates to an approximate 2 percent reduction in agricultural land values or about a $20 million reduction out of $3.8 billion in property taxes levied statewide. Agricultural land values statewide increased more than 6 percent from 2015 to 2016 and more than 263 percent over the last decade.
LB 661, introduced by Heartwell Senator John Kuehn, was heard by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. This legislation seeks to amend public records laws by providing confidentiality of information relating to the drugs used in carrying out the death penalty. Following the November vote to reinstate the death penalty, the Department of Corrections recently revised the lethal injection protocol in an effort to add flexibility so that the death penalty can be carried out. Originally, the revised protocol authorized the supplier of lethal injection drugs to remain confidential, but this portion was removed after the public hearing where testifiers criticized the secrecy and lack of transparency in the process. This bill seeks to reinstate the confidentiality provision. When introducing the bill, Senator Kuehn mentioned that some of the same drugs used in lethal injections are used in operating rooms, causing him concern about their availability if this bill is not passed. Fifteen of the thirty-one states that have the death penalty withhold information on the identities of those supplying the lethal injection drugs.
This past week before the Revenue Committee, I introduced LB 546 at the request of the Nebraska Department of Revenue and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. The intent of the bill is to simplify the application and administrative aspects of the Nebraska Advantage Act by amending several areas of the current law that has caused delays in approval of applications and benefits earned under this tax incentive program.
Rob Clements, a banker from Elmwood, was selected by Governor Ricketts this past week to fill the vacancy of Senator Bill Kintner. His district covers all of Cass County, a portion of Sarpy County, and the northeast corner of Otoe County. I look forward to working with him on state issues, as well as issues concerning Otoe County.
As legislative committees continue with public hearings on bills, I encourage you to contact me with your comments and opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The One Hundred Fourth Legislature, First Session, has adjourned. I would describe this session as “different”. Although the Legislature is officially non-partisan, typically senators of one party are somewhat aligned. In the past, rural senators tend to stick together on issues. This year saw division within groups that historically band together. Because of this, there were many surprises. Conservative senators supported a gas tax increase and the repeal of the death penalty. Several issues supported by major farm organizations were either blocked or weakened.
The biennial budget, which is the primary task of the Legislature, did see unified support. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I was happy to see funding for faculty salary enhancements at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. I have previously mentioned the budget limited the growth in spending to a historical low increase and contains an additional $64 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program.
LB 643 proposed to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since this was the first time such legislation has been introduced in Nebraska, I was surprised that it was advanced from the Judiciary Committee and given first-round approval by the Legislature. Earlier this week, the sponsor of LB 643, Senator Tommy Garrett, asked to bracket the bill after realizing he didn’t have sufficient support for passage. There were many unanswered questions on this issue, such as how the manufacturer would obtain the medical cannabis and how the Department of Health and Human Services would determine a range of recommended dosages for each qualifying medical condition. Senator Garrett referred to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic on recommended dosages for certain conditions, however their website states that there is no proven safe or effective dose for marijuana in children under 18 years of age. Senator Garrett had made it known that he introduced this bill due to the pleas from mothers of children with epilepsy. A more limited version was passed in LB 390, which created a pilot study at UNMC to allow access to low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil for patients who suffer from intractable epilepsy.
Prison reform legislation was passed in an effort to reduce overcrowding and limit recidivism within the correctional system. The legislation gives preference to alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, requires post-release supervision plans for offenders released on probation, establishes the Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System in order to improve oversight of the department, requires a plan to reduce the use of segregation, and seeks to ensure adequate mental health care is provided to mentally ill inmates.
The death penalty has been repealed. Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill to repeal the death penalty but senators overrode his veto with just the required number of votes. I was saddened to see this happen, as I feel that the death penalty serves as a necessary tool in protecting the safety of the citizens of Nebraska. The very day the death penalty was repealed, an organization called Nebraskans for Justice was formed. This organization will explore the possibility of a citizen-driven ballot initiative to give Nebraska citizens the option of reinstating the death penalty.
Other legislation that passed will give nurse practitioners more independence, strengthen the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act, grant personal property tax relief, allow young immigrants participating in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to qualify for driver’s licenses, and adopt the Nebraska Agritourism Promotion Act, which encourages landowners to grant access to their farm and ranch land for recreation and tourism activities by reducing the risk of liability. Some major issues that failed to gain passage included legislation to expand Medicaid, repeal the motorcycle helmet law, lower the valuation of agricultural land, allow for a lower minimum wage for students, change habitual criminal provisions, and prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.
This past week, I met with the executive director of the Nebraska Community College Association regarding the need for Southeast Community College to provide additional services to students living in the far southeast corner of our state. I also met with the Ombudsman and several employees about staffing issues at TSCI.
I introduced a legislative resolution recognizing the contributions and service of Rodney Vandeberg and extending sympathy to his family. Rod was a tireless promoter of the Falls City area, serving as mayor and on numerous boards. He also represented District #1 on the Nebraska Highway Commission and was a key player in the launching of the Rulo bridge project.
With the completion of the legislative session, I will no longer be at the State Capitol daily and will spend most of my time back at my farm near Syracuse. However, I will be at the capitol on a weekly basis and if you cannot reach me, my staff will be able to assist you. I will be available to attend local events and encourage your invitations.
If you need information on legislation passed or on any issue pertaining to state government, I encourage you to contact my office. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.
The 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.
This past week, senators gave first-round approval to LB 268, which would change the maximum penalty for first-degree murder in Nebraska from death to life imprisonment. This year, a dozen senators have signed on as co-sponsors to the bill annually introduced by Senator Ernie Chambers. Senators voted 30-13 to advance LB 268, which is the number of votes necessary to override the Governor’s promised veto. I voted against the advancement of the bill because I am still in favor of the death penalty.
The Legislature gave LB 610 second-round approval this past week. LB 610 proposes to increase the gas tax by six cents over a four-year period. Twenty-seven senators voted in support of the advancement of the bill to Final Reading, fourteen senators voted against its advancement, while eight senators did not vote. Although the bill had sufficient votes to advance, it may not have enough votes if a filibuster is attempted on final reading or to override an expected veto by the Governor.
Three bills dealing with prison reform were given first-round approval this past week, but not without a pledge to work with state and county prosecutors. Concerns from prosecutors focus on such issues as indeterminate sentencing, minimum sentences, habitual criminal statutes, and presumption of probation.
LB 605, the principal bill in the prison reform package, seeks to ease prison overcrowding and to hold offenders accountable with supervision and treatment. Our state’s prisons are currently at 159% of their design capacity. The legislation would use probation to hold people convicted of low-level offenses accountable, require misdemeanor sentences to be served in jail rather than prison, and update Nebraska’s property offense penalties to account for inflation. If the policy framework contained in LB 605 that structures certain felony sentences to be followed by post-release supervision is implemented effectively, it is projected to substantially reduce the number of inmates that jam-out of prison (released without any supervision). LB 605 also seeks to improve parole supervision through the adoption of a risk assessment tool and other evidence-based practices and would respond to major parole violations with short periods of incarceration followed by supervision.
The policy framework contained in LB 605 resulted from the work of the Nebraska’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which included the leaders of the three branches of government, district court judges, county and defense attorneys, and law enforcement executives. The group worked closely with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has helped a number of states reduce spending on corrections through lower-cost alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, such as probation, drug courts and parole, and greater focus on rehabilitation and mental health treatment for violent offenders.
LB 598 is aimed at reducing the use of segregation and improving treatment for mentally ill inmates. It would also create an Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System. This bill was prioritized by the Performance Audit Committee, which I chair.
The last bill in the prison reform package, LB 173, dealt with habitual criminals and mandatory minimum sentences. This bill proposes to remove mandatory minimum sentences for several felonies and restricts the use of enhanced penalties for being a habitual criminal to violent crimes only. Currently, any three felonies, either violent or not, can be used in determining longer sentencing. Proponents of the bill state that mandatory sentences have failed to deter crime and can act as a disincentive for inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs. Opponents pointed out that this bill went further than what was recommended by the CSG Justice Center. The Nebraska Attorney General held a press conference to voice his concern that the legislation ignores the seriousness of several violent crimes, which could jeopardize public safety.
The prison reform bills have been introduced in an effort to relieve the overcrowding at our state prisons without having to spend millions of dollars on a new prison facility. Before the second round of debate, senators will work with the state attorney general’s office and county attorneys in an effort to reach a compromise on measures to reduce overcrowding without jeopardizing the safety of Nebraska’s residents.
If you have any comments on the prison reform measures or other issues before the Legislature, 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.
Things are heating up in the Legislature. The Speaker cancelled debate on the floor of the Legislature for two mornings, allowing the committees that meet in the afternoons for public hearings to hold executive sessions. The deadline for the designation of priority bills is next week and senators like to know if a bill has a chance of advancing from committee prior to designating it as a priority bill.
Public hearings were held on several controversial issues this past week. The annual attempt by Senator Ernie Chambers to repeal the death penalty was heard before the Judiciary Committee. I believe this is his 38th attempt. Since LB 268 was introduced, eight senators have added their names as co-sponsors, including four members of the Judiciary Committee. With Senator Chambers’ vote, it is virtually assured that the bill will be advanced from committee. Senator Chambers has already designated it as his priority bill.
Proponents of LB 268 note that since 1973, 150 individuals in the U.S. have been wrongfully sentenced to death. They also point out that the death penalty is arbitrarily applied, that it is emotionally hard on the victim’s families and that it is very expensive due to the cost of appeals. Opponents argue that the death penalty serves as a deterrent and that it is a necessary tool in securing convictions.
Currently, we have 11 men on death row. However, we do not have a means of carrying out the death penalty, as one of the three drugs required by the Department of Correction’s protocol has expired and is extremely difficult to legally obtain. The last execution in Nebraska took place in 1997.
The Judiciary Committee also heard testimony on LB 643, introduced by Bellevue Senator Tommy Garrett. LB 643 would adopt the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act. It would allow for and regulate the use of marijuana for medical treatment. This is the first time that such legislation has been introduced in Nebraska.
Senator Sue Crawford, also of Bellevue, introduced LB 390. It creates the Medical Cannabidiol Pilot Study within the University of Nebraska Medical Center for patients who suffer from severe and untreatable epileptic seizures. It allows access to low-THC cannabidiol for patients under the supervision of a neurologist at UNMC. Since low-THC cannabidiol has no psychoactive effects on the user, it would have no recreational use. I have signed on to LB 390 as a co-sponsor, after visiting with parents that have exhausted traditional means of treatment for their children and have nowhere else to turn.
LB 610, introduced by Papillion Senator Jim Smith, was heard before the Revenue Committee. It proposes to increase the fixed portion of the gasoline tax by 1.5 cents every year for four years. Once fully implemented, it would generate approximately $25 million more a year for the Department of Roads and $50 million more annually for cities and counties, to be used for necessary road and bridge projects.
Omaha Senator Jeremy Nordquist introduced LB 623 that was heard before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. It would grant a driver’s license to those demonstrating lawful status by the federal government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It is estimated that approximately 2,300 individuals would be eligible under the bill. Nebraska is the only state that does not allow such individuals to obtain a driver’s license.
I welcome your comments and opinions on these issues, as well as others that are before the Legislature. 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.
A good portion of this past week was spent debating the death penalty. LB 543 would change the maximum penalty for first degree murder in Nebraska from death to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Senator Ernie Chambers introduced similar legislation for more than 30 years until he left the Legislature in 2008. Back after a four-year break due to term limits, he again took up his fight to repeal the death penalty.
After eight hours of debate, Senator Chambers made a motion to invoke cloture, which immediately shuts off debate and allows a vote to be taken on the advancement of the bill. A cloture motion requires 33 votes. The motion fell short on a vote of 28-21. After an unsuccessful cloture motion, the bill is pulled from the agenda. It will not be debated again this year.
There are currently 11 people on Nebraska’s death row, including two who were sentenced to death for murders committed in Richardson County. The last execution in Nebraska was in 1997. In 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair as the sole means of imposing the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Legislature passed legislation in 2009 to change the method of executing the death penalty to lethal injection. The state has experienced difficulty in obtaining the lethal drugs, as pharmaceutical companies don’t want their products associated with executions. Thirty-two states, the U.S. Government, and the U.S. Military impose the death penalty.
Those opposing the death penalty emphasize the high cost, citing statistics that show the average number of appeals filed by someone on death row is 7.76 compared to 1.64 by those sentenced to life, with the average length of an appeal lasting more than 13 years for those on death row compared with almost 6 years for those sentenced to life in prison. Furthermore, the cost of a death penalty case is approximately $3 million compared to the cost of a life without parole case of just over $1 million. Opponents also emphasize the arbitrary nature of administering the death penalty.
Although no longer in the majority in the Legislature, but of sufficient number to block a vote on the advancement of the bill, senators supporting the death penalty argue that cost estimates are overstated and that the death penalty is an important and necessary factor in the sentencing process. They believe that it serves as a deterrent, especially for those already serving a life sentence. Proponents point out that the death penalty is reserved for those committing the most heinous of crimes. Statistics show that it is only sought in approximately 7% of all murders and actually imposed in less than 1%.
The Governor handed down his first veto of this session, returning LB 553 without his signature and with his objections. This legislation sought to address the shortfall in the school retirement plan. The Governor objected to the increase in the state contribution rate and felt that the long-term revisions should be studied further before implementing the changes. After some senators criticized the Governor for his absence when the Retirement Committee was studying this issue, the Legislature voted to override his veto on a 32-1 vote.
During these last several weeks of the legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the issues before us. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.