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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.
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 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.