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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.
I introduced two bills before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee this past week. The first bill deals with unfunded mandates placed on several counties across the state. An interim study was conducted last year looking at the impact of unfunded and underfunded mandates on counties. As a result, a list of possible state action items was identified. One of the items was the basis for LB 105.
Currently, counties are financially responsible for the costs of an autopsy, grand jury payments and witness compensation when there is a death of an incarcerated person. LB 105 seeks to transfer these costs from the county to the state, if the inmate died while serving a sentence in a state correctional institution. I agreed to offer this legislation because I represent Johnson County, where Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI) is located. Since TSCI opened at the end of 2001, Johnson County has incurred more than $150,000 in expenses, consisting of grand jury fees, witness fees, coroner tests, as well as district and county court filing fees. LB 105 would help with approximately half of these expenses, which are difficult for a smaller county to handle.
The Johnson County attorney researched the deaths that have occurred since TSCI opened and none of the inmates who have died at TSCI were sentenced in Johnson County. It seems logical to require a county to pay the expenses if an inmate dies while in a sheriff’s custody, but it does not seem fair to require the county to pay for autopsies and grand jury hearings on state prisoners that die in a state facility that happens to be in a certain county.
Recent research has shown that unfunded mandates from the state account for at least 8% of local government’s budgets. LB 105 is one small step towards resolving the broader property tax problem in Nebraska.
The other bill I introduced, LB 106, creates the Livestock Operation Siting and Expansion Act. The legislation directs the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to develop an assessment matrix, for use by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation siting permit. Such matrices are already being used in two counties in northeast Nebraska. The matrix would be used to evaluate operations on factors such as odor control practices, manure storage and application practices, proximity to neighboring residences, community support, and economic impact to the community. The matrix would be based on scientific information and the department would set a minimum threshold for approval.
A county may enact a requirement that in areas zoned for agricultural use, a person must obtain a permit from the county planning commission or county board for a new livestock operation or for the expansion of an existing livestock operation if over specified size thresholds contained in the legislation. The county may deny a permit if the site is not zoned for agricultural use only, if the operation will exceed the size thresholds but does not meet the minimum score required under the matrix, or if necessary to protect health, safety and welfare. If a permit is denied, the applicant may appeal the decision by requesting a review by the Livestock Operation Siting Review Board, which is created under the legislation. Such board would uphold a county decision unless the board determines the decision by the county was unreasonable, arbitrary or an abuse of discretion.
A recent report from UNL highlighted the important role that the livestock industry plays in our state’s economy. However, the industry has not grown at rates comparable to our neighboring states. The report cited numerous policies and issues that have constrained potential development, such as local permitting processes, nuisance rules and lawsuits, and concerns from interest groups.
LB 106 attempts to address the constraints and to promote the development of the livestock industry in Nebraska by providing for consistent standards, based on factual objective criteria, to be used by local governing bodies when granting permits.
If you have comments on either of these bills or other legislation 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 telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.