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.
Earlier this month, the Appropriations Committee heard testimony on a bill that would transfer $40 million from the Cash Reserve Fund to Natural Resource Districts with integrated management plans that have entered into contracts to construct or implement streamflow enhancement projects. Under LB 185, the loan would be repaid by June 30, 2018 with proceeds of the occupation tax. The authority to levy an occupation tax was granted by the Legislature to NRDs several years ago.
Four NRDs (the Upper Republican in Imperial, the Middle Republican in Curtis, the Lower Republican in Alma, and the Twin Platte in North Platte) worked together and purchased 19,500 acres of land. The plan was to take some farmland out of irrigation and to pump water into the Platte and Republican Rivers, in order to remain in compliance with the Republican River Compact (a 1943 three-state compact with Colorado and Kansas) and the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program. The initial financing of the project was planned to be through the issuance of bonds with repayment being the proceeds of the occupation tax on irrigated lands collected by the four NRDs. However, a lawsuit was filed late last year by individual irrigators and two irrigation districts. Since the NRDs are unable to proceed with bonding authority while a lawsuit is pending, legislation was introduced to request a loan from the state.
After overwhelming opposition to the Governor’s proposal to fund the elimination of the individual income tax and the corporate income tax by repealing certain sales tax exemptions, Governor Heineman has asked the Revenue Committee to kill his proposal. This is a good example of the importance of input from the citizens of our state, showing that your opinions do have an impact on state government.
Amid all the opposition, the Governor did bring to light a topic that needs to be addressed. Since our tax code has not changed significantly in approximately 45 years, now is the time to have that discussion. LB 613, introduced by Senator Paul Schumacher of Columbus, was heard before the Executive Board this past week. It proposes to create a Tax Modernization Commission. The intent is to not only look at the income tax, but also study the sales tax, the property tax and other issues affecting state revenue, such as tax incentives. Under the proposal, a preliminary report is to be issued to the Legislature by December 15 of this year, in time for the introduction of legislation in the 2014 session. The legislation envisions an open process for the study, requiring the Commission to hold a tax summit, develop online questionnaires, and conduct public hearings across the state.
One of the bills that the Health and Human Services Committee heard this past week was LB 507, introduced by Senator Kathy Campbell, the chair of the committee. Under LB 507, the Step Up to Quality Child Care Act, the Nebraska Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services would be required to develop a quality rating and improvement system for child care and early childhood education programs. The purpose of the legislation is to bring accountability for the public funds invested in such programs. Under the proposal, the system would be available to all child care and early childhood education programs, but participation would be required for programs that receive significant amounts of public funds. In 2012, 43,000 children qualified for publicly-subsidized child care and licensed providers were paid more than $94 million in child care subsidy payments. It is imperative to ensure that the care the state supports is of high quality.
I encourage you to contact me with your opinions on legislation of interest. 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 e-mail address is email@example.com.
Over 12 hours of testimony was presented at the public hearings this past week before the Revenue Committee on the two bills introduced at the request of the Governor to eliminate or reduce the individual and corporate income taxes. Governor Heineman proposed the bills as a way to create higher-paying jobs and keep our young people, retirees and veterans in the state. The loss in income tax revenue would be replaced with increased revenue from the sales tax, through the elimination of certain sales tax exemptions.
There were only a few testifiers in support of LB 405 and LB 406, in addition to the sponsors of the bills, Senators Beau McCoy and Brad Ashford of Omaha, the Governor himself, and the Tax Commissioner, Doug Ewald. However, there was no short supply of opponents. They filled the committee hearing room and spilled into an overflow room nearby. Opponents included the state chamber of commerce, agricultural organizations, health care providers, nonprofit groups, college students, as well as low-income Nebraskans. Furthermore, several businesses have threatened to leave the state if certain sales tax exemptions are repealed.
The hearing on LB 405 lasted until after 11 p.m. on Wednesday evening. Although I am not a member of the Revenue Committee, I did sit in on the hearing for several hours, after finishing up with my committee work. The hearing on LB 406 was held the following afternoon.
Information provided on the projected fiscal impact of LB 405, which eliminates both the income tax on individuals and the corporate income tax, showed a loss in revenue ranging from $171 million to $340 million by fiscal year 2016-17. The intent of LB 405 was to be revenue neutral. The fiscal uncertainty caused testifiers to stress the need for caution when discussing major tax reform.
I have heard from many constituents on the Governor’s proposals and the response has overwhelmingly been in opposition to LB 405 and LB 406. The Revenue Committee has not taken any action on LB 405 or LB 406, but it is doubtful that either bill will advance from committee, as introduced.
As a state senator, I receive information on programs and services offered by various organizations and agencies. From time to time, I will share some of this information with you. One service that I recently became aware of is the Nebraska Senior Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP), which is a division of the Nebraska Department of Insurance. This program offers free, unbiased counseling and education to older Nebraskans and persons with disabilities regarding Medicare and health insurance. The role of SHIIP is to help people understand their options so they can make informed choices. If you have Medicare questions or would like to arrange a meeting with a SHIIP counselor, I encourage you to call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-234-7119.
I appreciate the input I have received from the constituents of the 1st legislative district. In order to have the opportunity to hear from more of you, I have set up several open houses on Saturday, February 23. At 8:00 a.m., I will hold an open house at Janie’s Confections, 618 Central Avenue in Nebraska City; at 10:00 a.m. at Family Connections, 901 Central Avenue in Auburn; at noon at Schulenberg Bakery, 1713 Stone Street in Falls City; and at 2:30 p.m. at The Gathering Place, 718 3rd Street in Humboldt. I encourage you to stop by on February 23 so that I can get the chance to meet you and to hear your thoughts on issues that are before the Legislature.
My contact information is District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln NE 68509. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Governor presented his State of the State address to the Legislature this past week, in which he outlined what he thought should be the state’s priorities during his final two years in office. Governor Heineman noted how he and the Legislature had worked together to make a positive difference for Nebraskans.
Governor Heineman spoke of the importance of education and noted that his budget proposal contains a 5% increase in each of the next two years for state aid to K-12 school districts, as well as a 5% increase in special education funding. In respect to postsecondary education, the Governor has been working on an agreement with the University of Nebraska and the Nebraska State College System to help ensure continued affordable access to higher education. The Governor’s proposed budget includes an approximate 4% increase for these institutions. In exchange, the university and state colleges have agreed that they will freeze tuition for the next two years at UNL, UNK, UNO, UNMC, Chadron State, Wayne State and Peru State College. The Governor’s budget also includes a similar increase in funding for community colleges.
The majority of the Governor’s address focused on taxes. He believes taxes are too high and that they impede economic growth. He quoted that a high personal income tax rate raises the costs of working, saving, investing and risk-taking. The Governor also noted that 23 states exempt a portion of or all retired military pay and 43 states exempt a portion of or all social security income from taxation. Furthermore, 42 states don’t have an inheritance tax.
The Nebraska income tax generates approximately $2.4 billion annually. The sales tax brings in an additional $1.5 billion. However, the Governor disclosed that the state allows approximately $5 billion in sales tax exemptions. He envisioned that if half of the current exemptions were eliminated, Nebraska wouldn’t need an individual or corporate income tax, meaning that there would be no individual income tax on working Nebraskans; no taxing of small business income; and no taxation of social security or military retirement income. There would be no taxation of any retirement income. The Governor’s address did not give specifics on his tax proposal, but he hinted that he may support lowering the rates for individual and corporate income taxes as an alternative.
Later in the week, the Governor offered two proposals as his recommendations for changes in our tax structure. Omaha Senators Brad Ashford and Beau McCoy will introduce the legislation on behalf of the Governor. The first proposal would repeal $2.34 billion in sales tax exemptions, which would allow for the total elimination of both the individual income tax and the corporate income tax. The second proposal would do away with approximately $395 million in sales tax exemptions, allowing for the elimination of the corporate income tax and the exemption of the first $12,000 of retirement income for married couples and $6,000 for single individuals. Both bills retain the sales tax exemption for food.
Every tax exemption that exists was fought for and is supported by different sectors of our society. Under the Governor’s broad proposal, sales tax would be collected on medical equipment and medicine; hospital and college rooms; agricultural machinery, fertilizer and chemicals, energy used in agriculture, and seeds for commercial use; business repair parts and services; manufacturing machinery and energy used in industry; and from exempt organizations.
The governor has proposed a substantial change for our tax system. In offering two alternatives, he is giving the citizens of Nebraska the chance to offer their input. I think it is important to have the discussion, as our tax system hasn’t faced a major overhaul in almost five decades. It will be interesting to hear from the public as to whether they agree that the income tax is too high, whether they support the elimination of sales tax exemptions or if they are more concerned with other taxes.
I would be interested in your thoughts and opinions on the Governor’s proposals, as well as other issues that are before the Legislature. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My e-mail address is email@example.com and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.