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It’s been a busy week in the Unicameral. The Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto of the gas tax with no votes to spare. Consequently, the gas tax will increase by six cents over a four-year period beginning in January. We discussed LB 586, which would prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity, for several hours before it was pulled from the agenda at the sponsor’s request.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to LB 623, which authorizes driver’s licenses for certain children of undocumented immigrants, and to LB 643, the bill allowing medical marijuana. We gave second-round approval to the prison reform bills, which took on more significance after the incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI). The budget bills were given final approval this past week by the Legislature. The Governor now has the ability to line-item veto specific appropriations from these bills, after which the Appropriations Committee will meet to decide which vetoes, if any, to recommend be overridden.
LB 623 would make individuals who can demonstrate lawful status for a period of time by the federal government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program eligible for driver’s licenses. Nebraska is the only state that denies driver’s licenses to these children that have been given legal protection by the President. Nebraska’s policy denying the licenses was put in place by former Governor Dave Heineman. A similar law in Arizona was ruled unconstitutional last year and a lawsuit is currently pending in Nebraska. After 8 hours of debate and a successful cloture motion, LB 623 was advanced on a 37-8-4 vote.
LB 643, the Medical Cannabis Act, was amended by Judiciary Committee amendments prior to advancing from the first stage of debate on a 27-12-10 vote. The committee amendments are fashioned after a similar law adopted in Minnesota, which is seen as one of the strictest laws among the 23 states that allow for medical marijuana.
The Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health would create a registry of patients that would be permitted to obtain medical cannabis, if diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition by a health care practitioner. The qualifying medical conditions listed in the bill include cancer, HIV, seizures, multiple sclerosis, and terminal illness. Severe or chronic pain does not qualify on its own, but must be associated with one of the listed conditions. Medical marijuana could be used as a liquid or oil, as a pill, or in a vaporized form of the liquid or oil. Smoking of marijuana would not be permitted under LB 643.
I am concerned for the staff at TSCI. I was aware of the use of mandatory overtime at the institution prior to the incident last week. Mandatory overtime can lead to safety issues, as well as job discontent. High turnover in staff results in less experienced employees. The newly appointed director of the Department of Corrections has indicated that he will conduct a study on staffing this summer and I have asked to be kept updated.
I am also concerned with the costs from the TSCI incident that will fall on Johnson County due to the death of two inmates and the charges that will be filed on other inmates. I introduced a bill earlier this year to transfer the financial responsibility for the costs of an autopsy, grand jury payments and witness compensation from the counties to the State of Nebraska when an incarcerated inmate dies while serving a sentence in a state correctional institution. Although the bill advanced from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, it has stalled on General File. I am hopeful that something can be done to help the county with these “state” expenses.
During the last two weeks of this legislative session, I still encourage your input. 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 has 13 days left in this legislative session, with the 90th legislative day set for June 5. This past week, senators gave the budget bills second-round approval. The budget is now ready for Final Reading.
As I mentioned last week, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board increased their projections for the next biennium by $9.7 million. The Appropriations Committee recommended the dedication of $8 million of the projected increase to the Property Tax Credit program. With the added $4 million each year, bringing the increase in the program to $64 million annually, taxpayers will see a total of $204 million per year in direct property tax relief. This credit is reflected on annual property tax statements. The Legislature approved the committee’s recommendation, prior to advancing the budget bills.
There were several other changes to the budget that were recommended by the Appropriations Committee and approved by the entire Legislature during Select File debate. Appropriations were updated for the multi-year project to replace the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system at the State Capitol, based on continued planning and a better estimate of costs. A geothermal system has been identified as the preferred option, instead of contracting with the University of Nebraska for chilled water. Although it will cost more initially, it is expected to be more energy efficient in future years.
Funding was added to the budget for the Nebraska Developing Youth Talent Initiative. This initiative requires the Department of Economic Development to fund two pilot programs that are targeted to businesses in the manufacturing and technology sectors for two years. Grants would be provided to private sector for-profit entities, one of which must be in a rural area. This initiative will develop an industry-led partnership with schools to assist in specific career learning opportunities in manufacturing and technology sectors.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to a bill that was prioritized by the Revenue Committee. LB 259 would exempt from property tax the first $10,000 of valuation of depreciable tangible personal property in each tax district in which a personal property tax return is required to be filed. Although this wasn’t as comprehensive of a tax relief plan as some senators had hoped, it is estimated that it will provide for an average decrease of $162 in the personal property tax bills for business owners, farmers and other taxpayers.
The Legislature gave LB 610 final approval this past week on a 26-15 vote, with eight senators not voting. LB 610 proposes to increase the gas tax by a total of six cents over a four-year period. Revenue from the gas tax, which has remained flat over the past 20 years, has not kept up with the cost of road construction. The increased revenue is to be divided between the state Department of Roads, counties and cities, to be used for necessary road and bridge projects. Since the Governor has vetoed LB 610, the Legislature will need to override his veto if the tax increase is to take effect. Thirty votes are required on a motion to override, which is four more votes than given on final reading. I voted against LB 610, as I would prefer an increase in the current amount of sales tax dedicated to roads over a gas tax increase.
We have been working through the lunch hour and into the evening in an attempt to debate every priority bill. If you have any comments on the legislation that is still before us, 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Legislature gave initial approval this past week for a proposal to increase the gas tax. LB 610 proposes to increase the fixed portion of the gasoline tax by 1.5 cents per gallon every year for four years. Once the 6 cent increase is 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.
Roads are very important to Nebraska. Beyond everyday transportation, good roads are a means to move produce from farm to market, to transport freight, and to provide incentives for businesses to locate in our state. Last year, I participated in the Transportation and Telecommunication’s Committee interim study that looked at the condition of our rural bridges. We saw that there is a great need for additional funding.
States have recognized that federal funding for roads has been decreasing in recent years. The federal gas tax was designed to be the primary source of funding for the Federal Highway Trust Fund. However, since it has not been increased since 1993, it is no longer meeting its obligations. Likewise, the state gas tax is only one cent higher than it was twenty-two years ago, although the gas tax structure has been modified over this time. Three neighboring states have recently increased their gas tax and a couple dozen states are considering their options.
LB 610 was advanced from the first stage of debate on a 26-10 vote. If it is successful at the next two stages of debate, it is expected that Governor Ricketts will veto the legislation. Thirty votes are required to override a governor’s veto. Although I am concerned with the growing backlog of repair projects for our roads and bridges, I could not support a tax increase, at a time when I feel the Legislature should be focusing on decreasing property taxes. The Legislature has several alternatives before them for additional funding for road and bridge projects, such as reinstating state aid to municipalities and counties or increasing the current amount of sales tax dedicated to roads.
My priority bill for this year, LB 106, was given first-round approval this past week. As a rural state, we must encourage livestock growth. A recent UNL report showed that the industry has not grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to neighboring states. The report cited issues that have constrained potential development, including local permitting processes.
This past year, a group of livestock producers and county officials met to discuss policy issues that could be hindering livestock growth. Concerns focused on the uncertainty of the conditions that might be required in the local conditional use permitting process, as well as lack of uniformity across the state and the subjective nature of regulations, as well as political pressure placed on local officials. The group recommended the development of a matrix, to be used by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation. Two counties in Nebraska are currently using such a matrix.
Under LB 106, the Department of Agriculture is to develop an assessment matrix, in consultation with a committee composed of county board members, county zoning administrators, livestock producers, and University representatives. The matrix could be used to evaluate operations on factors such as odor control practices, manure storage, proximity to neighboring residences, community support, and economic impact to the community.
As introduced, the use of the matrix was mandatory for counties that were zoned and required livestock operations to be permitted. As amended, the matrix will be completely voluntary. Counties may use the state matrix, may use it as a model in creating their own matrix, or may decide not to use it. It will be another tool that is available for counties to use in making local decisions, if they so choose.
If you have any comments on either of these bills or on other legislation before senators, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.
The Legislature is at the half-way mark of this 90-day session. This past week marked the priority bill designation deadline. Senators have the ability to designate one bill as their personal priority bill. Committees can designate two bills as committee priority bills and the Speaker of the Legislature is given the authority to designate up to 25 bills as speaker priority bills. After this point in the legislative session, generally only bills with priority status are debated by the Legislature.
I chose LB 106 as my priority bill. LB 106, the Livestock Operation Siting and Expansion Act, was recently advanced from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. It directs the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, with advice from experts representing the Nebraska Association of County Officials, livestock production agriculture and the University of Nebraska, to develop an assessment matrix for use by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation siting permit. Nebraska’s agricultural industry has not grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to our neighboring states. LB 106 would provide for consistent standards, based on factual, objective criteria to be used by local governing bodies when granting permits, thereby allowing for more predictability and uniformity in the process.
As chair of the Performance Audit Committee, we chose LB 538 and LB 598 as committee priority bills. LB 538, introduced by the Performance Audit Committee, creates a process for ongoing evaluation of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs, in order to give legislators information to draw clear conclusions about whether tax incentives are benefitting Nebraska’s economy and meeting program goals. LB 538 requires the Legislative Audit Office to conduct a performance audit of each tax incentive program at least every three years.
LB 598, introduced by Senator Paul Schumacher, addresses the use of segregation in our prisons. Rules would be developed to guide the level of confinement, conditions, behavior, and mental health status of inmates. The legislation contains recommendations from an interim study conducted by the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee of the Legislature, which incorporated results from an audit conducted by the Performance Audit Committee.
Other bills designated as priority bills by individual senators include:
LB 350, introduced and prioritized by Senator Lydia Brasch, reduces the valuation of agricultural land for purposes of property taxation from 75% to 65%. As of this time, LB 350 has failed to advance from the Revenue Committee.
Another bill that was prioritized but has not advanced from the Revenue Committee was LB 357, introduced by Senator Jim Smith. It proposes to reduce the individual and corporate income tax rates and increase the amount of funding to the Property Tax Credit program. The tax relief would be funded through transfers from the cash reserve and reductions in spending.
LB 586 prohibits discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity. This bill was introduced by Senator Adam Morfeld and designated as a priority by Senator Patty Pansing Brooks.
LB 610 was introduced by Senator Jim Smith and prioritized by Senator Curt Friesen. It would increase the gas tax by 1.5 cents every year for four years, with revenue being used by cities, counties and the state for road and bridge projects.
LB 643 proposes to legalize marijuana for medical use. It was introduced and prioritized by Senator Tommy Garrett.
Among the bills designated as priorities by committees include:
LB 259, which as amended by committee amendments, would exempt the first $15,000 worth of personal property value for each personal property tax return. This bill was designated as a priority by the Revenue Committee. Although this will provide some property tax relief, many senators were disappointed that the committee did not offer a more comprehensive solution.
LB 472 was prioritized by the Health and Human Services Committee. It is Senator Kathy Campbell’s third attempt at Medicaid expansion, which was ruled optional for states after the Affordable Care Act was challenged in court.
If you have any comments on the bills that have been given priority status, 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.
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 email@example.com.