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For the third year in a row, the Legislature debated a bill that proposed to expand Medicaid. Initiated by President Obama, the Affordable Care Act was signed into law on the federal level in 2010. Medicaid expansion was mandatory in the original legislation, but due to a Supreme Court ruling it became voluntary for states. LB 472 would authorize eligibility for Medicaid coverage for adults ages 19-65 with incomes at or below 133% of federal poverty level. This year’s version of the legislation also proposed to create the Medicaid Redesign task force to review health care policy.
Supporters of the legislation referred to a recent report by two business professors at UNK, which found that our state would receive more than $2 billion in federal funds during the first five years of expansion. It was estimated that this would increase our state’s economic activity by more than $5 billion. The professors projected that the increased economic activity would generate more than enough tax revenue to pay for the state’s portion of the increased costs of expansion. However, Governor Ricketts warned against using subjective measures in determining the justification for entitlement expansions.
Although the federal government pledged to pay at least 90% of the cost, many senators were still concerned with the financial burden that would be placed on our state. They also questioned whether the federal government would keep their commitment. Supporters pointed out that LB 472 contained language that if the federal share falls below 90%, the coverage for the newly eligible would terminate. Opponents argued that once a program is expanded, it is very difficult to reverse direction. Senators were sympathetic to those that can’t afford health insurance and were concerned for hospitals that have experienced hardships as a result of the Affordable Care Act. However, Medicaid is intended to cover the most vulnerable. Under current guidelines, spending on Medicaid accounts for approximately 20% of our total state budget. An increase in the state’s portion to cover more than 75,000 new enrollees could jeopardize the funding for other state programs.
Unlike the two previous years, lawmakers spent just over 3 hours debating the issue before a motion was made to bracket LB 472 until the end of the legislative session. The motion to bracket was successful on a 28-16 vote, which means that LB 472 will not be debated again this year.
This past week, senators gave first-round approval to LB 519, which reflects the recommendations from a study by the Education Committee on the educational uses of lottery funds. The Nebraska Constitution specifies that forty-four and one-half percent of the money remaining after the payment of prizes and operating expenses shall be used for education as the Legislature may direct. Approximately $16 million is allocated per year for education projects.
Revenue from the lottery will continue to fund the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program and Nebraska Opportunity Grants for higher education. New uses for the lottery funds will be for Competitive Innovative Grants and Expanded Learning Opportunity Grants for K-12 schools and for a Gap Tuition Assistance Program to provide funding to community colleges to assist eligible students in pursuing certification programs or licensure in high-demand occupations.
Programs currently funded by lottery proceeds that have been preliminarily recommended for funding through the General Fund include High Ability Learner Aid, Early Childhood Education Grants, Early Childhood Endowment Grants, and operating funds for the Military Child Compact. Decreased funding for Distance Education, which is currently funded by lottery proceeds, is contained in LB 343. The ACT Pilot Project and Career Education programs will not be funded.
The Speaker announced this past week that the Legislature will begin working into the evening beginning April 28. Although we have already met for more than 60 days, we still have many major issues before us, including the budget, repeal of the death penalty, prison reform, and workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
As we begin the last third of this legislative session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts 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.
The Legislature began meeting in full-day session this past week, following the completion of the public hearing process. The Speaker of the Legislature warned senators of the workload that is ahead of them, with just twenty days left and many priority bills yet to be discussed. Speaker Adams announced that the Legislature will begin working late nights on March 18. Working late is typically around 8:30 p.m., but could be as late as 11:59 p.m.
Legislation requesting funding for water sustainability projects was introduced as a result of work completed by the Nebraska Water Funding Task Force, on which I served this past interim. The Appropriations Committee included $31.4 million for water projects in their recommendations to the Legislature. The proposal includes one-time funding of $20 million from the cash reserve, with $11 million appropriated annually from the general fund. Over the next several years, $10.5 million will be used to complete existing water projects. New water projects will fall under the guidelines proposed as a result of the task force’s work and will require a local match.
LB 1098 reconfigures the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission. The Commission is charged with revising rules and regulations to ensure the funding process establishes and utilizes criteria upon which projects, programs, and activities will be ranked and prioritized according to the water sustainability goals that were recommended by the task force.
LB 1001, which would allow the production, sale, and purchase of industrial hemp in Nebraska, received first-round approval on a 32-1 vote. It would exempt industrial hemp from the Uniform Controlled Substances Act. Hemp is used in materials such as fabric, rope, paper, and construction products. Senators viewed industrial hemp as another crop and source of revenue for farmers and NOT as a gateway to recreational use of marijuana. Hemp contains 1% or less of THC, the mind-altering ingredient found in the cannabis plant. Since cross-pollination would ruin a marijuana crop by lowering the THC levels, it would not be feasible to grow hemp in an effort to hide marijuana plants. The farm bill recently passed by Congress allows state agricultural departments and universities to develop research and evaluate markets in states that have legalized industrial hemp. Therefore, this legislation could open the door for additional research at the university, which could result in economic development opportunities for our state.
I successfully amended LB 850 into LB 986 this past week. LB 850 is the bill that I introduced to allow individuals who have a developmental disability to qualify for the homestead exemption, if they meet certain income and valuation guidelines. LB 986 is a Revenue Committee bill that changes the income guidelines for those qualifying for the homestead exemption, in order to expand eligibility for the program. After the adoption of the amendment, the bill was given first-round approval.
Senators also gave first-round approval to LB 814, which proposes to dedicate the state sales tax revenue derived from the sale or lease of motorboats and personal watercraft for the repair or maintenance of the Game and Parks Commission’s infrastructure. Committee amendments added the provisions of LB 841, which would also dedicate the sales tax revenue on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and utility-type vehicles for Game and Parks projects. This would earmark approximately $2.6 million annually for deferred maintenance projects.
The Game and Parks Commission has a $43 million shortfall in deferred maintenance and ADA compliance projects. The commission has had to reduce maintenance, mowing, and trash removal at some state parks and recreational areas. Furthermore, they have temporarily closed some areas, including the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.
LB 814, as well as the Appropriations Committee’s recommendation for a one-time transfer of $17.5 million for statewide projects (including projects at Ponca State Park and Arbor Lodge), is necessary to help the Game and Parks Commission deal with the serious backlog issue. Our parks are some of the most popular tourist attractions in the state and it is important that they are sufficiently funded and maintained.
As senators work to address priority issues, I welcome your comments. 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.
Cities are allowed to impose a local option sales tax on their communities. As of last year, approximately 200 communities had authorized a local option sales tax rate of up to 1.5 percent. This is on top of the state sales tax rate of 5.5 percent. Last year, legislation was passed, in spite of a Governor’s veto, to allow cities to increase their local option sales tax to a maximum of 2 percent. Three communities have voted to take advantage of this increase in local tax revenue – Alma, Sidney and Waterloo. Voters in Nebraska City and Bellevue rejected the proposed increase.
This year, Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha introduced LB 266, which would repeal the increased tax authority for communities. The bill had a public hearing before the Revenue Committee in February but was not advanced to the floor of the Legislature. Late last month, Senator Chambers filed a motion to place LB 266 on General File. When discussing the motion this past week, the allotted time on the agenda expired before a vote was taken on the motion. Senators did mention that an amendment is pending on LB 613, the comprehensive tax study, that would place a moratorium on this increased taxing authority pending the outcome of the study.
Lawmakers voted to advance LB 216, a bill introduced and prioritized by Senator Amanda McGill of Lincoln. This bill proposes to establish the Young Adult Voluntary Services Act. Former state wards between the ages of 19 and 21 could voluntarily request continued services from the state. The primary costs associated with the bill would be for housing assistance and case management. In an effort to reduce the estimated $3.3 million dollar fiscal impact in each of the next two years to less than $1 million per year, an amendment was adopted to limit the program to foster children that were abused and neglected. Federal funds are available in addition to the state general funds. The bill aims to replace a current program that was not well-utilized for state wards that “age-out” of the system. To be eligible, youth would have to be enrolled in post-secondary education or working 80 hours per month. LB 216 provides a support system for vulnerable youth, in an effort to improve long-term outcomes in education, employment and housing stability.
This past week, the Legislature also discussed LB 637, which was introduced and prioritized by Senator Norm Wallman of Cortland. If the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality intends to adopt a rule or regulation that would impose requirements different than federal regulations or increase costs on regulated persons or entities, the department would have to prepare a statement that describes the annual economic impact of the rule. I spoke on the floor regarding the significant effect more stringent state regulations can have on local entities, thus showing why I am supportive of the proposed additional requirements placed on DEQ.
Senators gave first-round approval to LB 57, introduced and prioritized by Senator Tyson Larson. Under LB 57, an applicant who uses grant funding from the Environmental Trust Fund to purchase real property, and subsequently seeks to transfer such property to a federal land management agency, which transfer would result in the removal of the property from the tax rolls, shall have such transfer approved by the Environmental Trust Board. The contract would also have to provide information on how the taxes to the county would be replaced.
The Clerk of the Legislature’s office coordinates an annual Unicameral Youth Legislature, which will be held June 9-12, 2013. The four-day camp is a legislative simulation for students, ages 14-17, in which they take on the role of lawmakers. Student senators sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and discover the unique process of the nation’s only unicameral. The Unicameral Youth Legislature is jointly sponsored by 4-H and the University of Nebraska Big Red Summer Camps program. More information on the details can be found at www.nebraskalegislature.gov/education/unicamyouth.php.
The Speaker of the Legislature announced this past week that we will start working into the evening most nights in April, with even later nights expected in May, prior to adjournment in June. As we debate bills that have been prioritized, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. 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 telephone number is (402) 471-2733.