NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
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Sen. Dan Watermeier

Sen. Dan Watermeier

District 1

I have been appointed to chair a Special Committee of the Legislature to hear a challenge to Senator Ernie Chambers’ qualifications to represent his legislative district. The challenger unsuccessfully ran against Senator Chambers in the general election. He then filed a qualification challenge, as allowed by state law and legislative rules, questioning whether Senator Chambers has satisfied the Nebraska Constitution’s residency requirement.

The Special Committee is made up of seven legislators, including myself. The committee hired outside legal counsel, former Supreme Court Judge William Connolly. At our first meeting, the Special Committee discussed jurisdictional issues and determined that the challenger had met all statutory requirements for filing his challenge. A second meeting was held to approve an order regarding procedures for the hearing on the merits of the challenge and to set the hearing date. The hearing is scheduled for April 7th in the State Capitol.

I introduced LB 46 to authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to design “Choose Life” license plates. The design is to reflect support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Choose Life license plates, which allow motorists to show support for pregnant mothers and the unborn, are available in 29 states. The additional revenue brought in through the sale of the plates would be used to supplement federal funds available for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF provides cash assistance to low-income families with minor children and is used to pay for family living expenses, such as rent, utilities, food, clothing and other necessities. LB 46 was given second-round approval this week and is now ready for final reading.

The Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, has completed the public hearing process on all bills referred to the committee, and has heard from state agencies. We will now begin post-hearing budget reviews. Our final recommendations are due to the entire Legislature by the 70th legislative day, which falls on April 24 of this year.

Farm profits in Nebraska were expected to fall to just over $4 billion in 2016, down from a high of approximately $7.5 billion in 2013. The valuation of agricultural land is beginning to decrease but not to the extent that farm income has fallen. A local economist recently noted that local taxing authorities have continued to increase property taxes on farmland, even with sharply lower farm income. Between 2013 and 2014, assessed values of farmland for a 10-state rural region increased by 11.4%, while farm earnings fell by 18%. During this time, local governments increased K-12 school spending per student by a median 3.3%, with Nebraska showing a 7.3% increase, the highest among the 10 states.

This illustrates the critical need to decrease property taxes, yet some senators in the Legislature and the Governor are still focusing on income tax relief, as well as property tax relief. The only way I could support any income tax relief is if we offered $10 of property tax relief for every $1 of income tax relief. However, the feasibility of offering any tax relief will depend on budget negotiations, as the state is facing a $1 billion shortfall. The Appropriations Committee is in the process of cutting spending significantly, something that also must be done on the local level. These cuts are difficult to make but the alternative is an increase in taxes.

As the public hearing process nears completion and the Legislature discusses bills with priority status, I encourage you to inform me of your opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.

This past week was overshadowed by an incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. Unfortunately, two inmates lost their lives. Two years ago, an incident escalated into a riot on Mother’s Day. On Thursday, staff were able to quickly bring the situation under control and no staff were hurt. Although we still have a long road ahead, I see the procedural improvements that staff have implemented. I commend the employees at TSCI and other state institutions for their commitment to work in our correctional system, as their job is dangerous, but very important. I also want to recognize the Johnson County Sheriff, the fire and rescue squad, and the county attorney who are also highly involved during these situations. I was able to visit with some employees the night of the incident and saw first-hand their determination in keeping the public safe.

LB 45 authorizes military honor plates for reservists. I introduced this bill at the request of a constituent who served for 10 years as an army reservist and had a service-connected injury. He was surprised to find out that he did not qualify for the military honor plates. LB 45 was passed by the Legislature on Friday on a vote of 46-1.

LB 46, authorizing the creation of Choose Life license plates, received first-round approval this past week from the Legislature. The Department of Motor Vehicles would create a design reflecting support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Twenty-nine other states allow motorists to show their support for pregnant women and the unborn through the purchase of such plates.
I introduced LB 545 before the Appropriations Committee this past week. This bill would increase the appropriation to the Property Tax Credit program by $200 million per year in each of the next three years. The property tax relief offered through this program appears on every taxpayer’s property tax statement. LB 545 would increase the current annual appropriation of $224 million to $824 million.

Of the combined revenue used for governmental services, property taxes currently account for approximately 48%, income taxes 33%, and sales taxes 19%. In 2000, property taxes accounted for 42%, income taxes 35%, and sales tax 23% of total revenue for government services. Since that time, the share of revenue from the sales tax has decreased, the share of revenue from the income tax has decreased, but the share of revenue from the property tax has increased significantly. LB 545 is projected to lower the share of the tax burden from property taxes to approximately 40%, more evenly balancing the revenue streams.

Our last major tax reform 25 years ago increased state aid to schools significantly in an effort to decrease our reliance on property taxes to fund our public schools. One problem associated with this type of property tax relief is whether it results in dollar for dollar tax relief or if it allows for increased spending. By increasing the funding to the Property Tax Credit program, it truly does provide dollar for dollar property tax relief.

Nebraskans pay the 7th highest property taxes in the country. Over the last 10 years, the valuation of agricultural land has increased 176%, compared to a 35% increase in residential valuation. Nebraska farmers and ranchers represent less than 3% of the state’s population but pay more than 30% of the total property taxes collected statewide. In the majority of the state, agricultural land comprises more than 60% of a school district’s total valuation base. Rural landowners are disproportionately funding our rural school districts, even though all residents of the school district benefit equally from having their children educated in our public schools. Even though valuation of agricultural land has increased substantially more than other classifications of land, all property taxes are too high.

The Legislature is also facing a significant shortfall in the budget for the next two years. We are in the midst of cutting funding for government agencies and services. Although it will be difficult, I think we must also address property taxes. Legislation has been introduced to broaden the base of the sales tax. I am opposed to a tax increase, but am open to a redistribution of funding in order to offer property tax relief.

As senators and committees finish up the process of selecting their priority bills for this session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on this legislation. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.

Six hundred sixty-seven bills and 5 proposed constitutional amendments were introduced during the bill introduction period, which is the first 10 days of the legislative session. This is close in number to the 655 bills that were introduced in both 2015 and 2013. I introduced 17 bills, ranging in subject matter from property tax relief to economic development.

The Legislature began discussing permanent rules this week. A rule containing a new technology use policy was approved. Although the Rules Committee did not vote to advance a proposed rule to change the method of selecting committee chairs from secret ballot to voice vote, an individual senator may still make such an attempt when the rules debate continues next week.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mike Heavican, presented his State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature this past week. He touched on some of the challenges before the courts, including the lack of young lawyers in rural areas, which carries over to difficulty in filling judicial vacancies. He applauded the Legislature for the debt forgiveness plan for rural legal services passed in 2014. Chief Justice Heavican also noted the challenge of the increased need for interpreters so that involved parties can understand what is happening in our courtrooms. Much of his speech focused on justice reinvestment. Legislation was recently passed encouraging alternatives to incarceration in an effort to deal with the overcrowding problem in our prisons. However, proposed budget cuts suggested by the governor would reduce the number of probation officers and decrease funding for drug treatment. He warned the Legislature that if judges can’t be assured that probation is able to adequately supervise and rehabilitate offenders, they will choose incarceration. The chief justice pointed out that incarceration costs $35,000 for a prisoner compared with costs ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 to supervise an offender on probation.

The public hearing process began this week. In the Nebraska Legislature, every bill is guaranteed a public hearing, allowing Nebraskans to voice their opinion on the legislation introduced by senators.

I had three bills up for public hearing this past week. The first was LB 45, which would allow non-federalized reservists to be eligible for military honor license plates. I introduced this bill upon request of a constituent who had served in the army reserve for 10 years and had a service-connected injury. He was surprised to find out that he did not qualify for the plates. Under current law, members of the reserve must serve on active duty before they are eligible for a military license plate. Basic training or job training does not make them eligible. With the expanded eligibility proposed under LB 45, a reservist companion plate would be created for the current categories of U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force plates. The National Guard is already a reserve unit, so it doesn’t need a separate reservist plate.

LB 46, also a license plate bill, would provide for “Choose Life” license plates. The design is to reflect support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Such plates would be available as alphanumeric or personalized message plates, with a maximum of 5 characters. A $5 fee would accompany the alphanumeric plates, which would be credited to the Nebraska Child Abuse Prevention Fund. For message plates, 75% of the $40 fee would be credited to the fund. This fund is used to award grants to agencies, organizations, and individuals for community-based child abuse prevention programs. The majority of states offer the option of “Choose Life” license plates, which allow motorists to express their support for pregnant women and the unborn.

LB 47 was introduced as a result of an interim study on unfunded mandates. 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 47 seeks to transfer these costs from the county to the state for inmates that die while serving a sentence in a state correctional institution. I decided to introduce this bill since the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution is located in Johnson County, and it would help with some of their expenses. Johnson County must cover these expenses, even though the prisoners that have died at TSCI were not from nor arrested in Johnson County.

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee has already advanced LB 45 and LB 46 from committee, and these bills will be discussed by the entire Legislature in the near future. LB 47 remains in the Judiciary Committee.

As the Legislature continues its work, I encourage you to contact me with your opinions of the 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 dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.

Sen. Dan Watermeier

District 1
Room #2108
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2733
Email: dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov
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