I have been appointed to chair a Special Committee of the Legislature to hear a challenge to Senator Ernie Chambers’ qualifications to represent his legislative district. The challenger unsuccessfully ran against Senator Chambers in the general election. He then filed a qualification challenge, as allowed by state law and legislative rules, questioning whether Senator Chambers has satisfied the Nebraska Constitution’s residency requirement.
The Special Committee is made up of seven legislators, including myself. The committee hired outside legal counsel, former Supreme Court Judge William Connolly. At our first meeting, the Special Committee discussed jurisdictional issues and determined that the challenger had met all statutory requirements for filing his challenge. A second meeting was held to approve an order regarding procedures for the hearing on the merits of the challenge and to set the hearing date. The hearing is scheduled for April 7th in the State Capitol.
I introduced LB 46 to authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to design “Choose Life” license plates. The design is to reflect support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Choose Life license plates, which allow motorists to show support for pregnant mothers and the unborn, are available in 29 states. The additional revenue brought in through the sale of the plates would be used to supplement federal funds available for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF provides cash assistance to low-income families with minor children and is used to pay for family living expenses, such as rent, utilities, food, clothing and other necessities. LB 46 was given second-round approval this week and is now ready for final reading.
The Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, has completed the public hearing process on all bills referred to the committee, and has heard from state agencies. We will now begin post-hearing budget reviews. Our final recommendations are due to the entire Legislature by the 70th legislative day, which falls on April 24 of this year.
Farm profits in Nebraska were expected to fall to just over $4 billion in 2016, down from a high of approximately $7.5 billion in 2013. The valuation of agricultural land is beginning to decrease but not to the extent that farm income has fallen. A local economist recently noted that local taxing authorities have continued to increase property taxes on farmland, even with sharply lower farm income. Between 2013 and 2014, assessed values of farmland for a 10-state rural region increased by 11.4%, while farm earnings fell by 18%. During this time, local governments increased K-12 school spending per student by a median 3.3%, with Nebraska showing a 7.3% increase, the highest among the 10 states.
This illustrates the critical need to decrease property taxes, yet some senators in the Legislature and the Governor are still focusing on income tax relief, as well as property tax relief. The only way I could support any income tax relief is if we offered $10 of property tax relief for every $1 of income tax relief. However, the feasibility of offering any tax relief will depend on budget negotiations, as the state is facing a $1 billion shortfall. The Appropriations Committee is in the process of cutting spending significantly, something that also must be done on the local level. These cuts are difficult to make but the alternative is an increase in taxes.
As the public hearing process nears completion and the Legislature discusses bills with priority status, I encourage you to inform me of your 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 question of whether term limits should be extended was debated by lawmakers this past week. As introduced, Legislative Resolution 7 is a proposal for a constitutional amendment to increase term limit provisions, so that a state senator could serve two consecutive six-year terms, rather than two consecutive four-year terms. LR 7 CA was prioritized and advanced by the Executive Board with committee amendments. The committee amendments would instead allow a state senator to serve three consecutive four-year terms. After the committee amendments were filed, Senator Paul Schumacher, the sponsor of LR 7 CA, offered an amendment to change the resolution back to the introduced version.
Term limits were adopted through the initiative petition process in 2000, after three previous attempts were struck down by the courts. Since that time, measures to repeal term limits or to lengthen them have not been successful in the Legislature in 2003, 2005 and 2009. In 2012, a proposed constitutional amendment to increase term limit provisions to three consecutive four-year terms was passed by the Legislature, but was not approved by voters.
Proponents of the measure stress the importance of experience and institutional knowledge. They bring up the difficult learning curve faced by new senators, who are inundated with an abundance of information. With term limits, it has become more common for committee chairs to be selected after just two years of service, not giving much time to fully understand the issues associated with their committee subject matter. Opponents point out that the people have already spoken on this issue. They oppose trying again so soon after a similar attempt was defeated. They also welcome the more frequent turnover in service, saying that it is an opportunity to bring in new ideas.
Some senators supported the two consecutive six-year option because running twice instead of three times would lower the amount spent on campaigns. It also would allow senators to focus on their service rather than raising money for their campaign. Opponents feared that the second six-year term is too long without being accountable to voters. The Legislature adjourned for the week prior to taking a vote on the amendments or the advancement of the resolution.
LB 47, a bill that I introduced that was chosen as a speaker priority bill, was debated by the Legislature this week. It would make the question mandatory, rather than optional, asking applicants for driver’s licenses whether they wanted to place their name on the Donor Registry. The purpose is to increase the numbers of donors in Nebraska, which will in turn save more lives. Senator Ernie Chambers led the filibuster arguing that free-speech rights should not require a person to answer this question. I offered an amendment for a third choice, allowing applicants to answer “yes”, “no”, or “elect not to answer”. I felt this was a suitable compromise and would still keep the intent of the bill intact. Many senators spoke in support of the bill, mentioning how the transplant program has saved or bettered the lives of people they know. However, a small number of senators still remained opposed, signaling many more hours of debate. It is unknown at this time if the bill will be up again. Since it is a speaker priority bill, the speaker has the discretion to make this decision.
LB 538, which requires performance audits of tax incentive programs, received first-round approval this past week on a 37-0 vote. LB 538 was introduced by the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, of which I chair. The primary goal of the legislation is to produce information that will allow lawmakers to draw clear conclusions about how well tax incentives are benefiting Nebraska’s economy and meeting program goals.
If you have any opinions on these issues 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.