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The Legislature completed Day 59 of this 60-day legislative session on Wednesday, April 13, when the remainder of the pending bills were read on Final Reading and sent to the governor. The governor has 5 days, excluding Sunday, to decide whether to sign or veto the legislation. Senators won’t meet for the last day until Wednesday, April 20, thereby allowing for the consideration of overriding any veto that might be made by the governor.
The Legislature passed LB 958 and LB 959, bills that were aimed at providing property tax relief. LB 958 increases the annual funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $20 million, with the additional funding distributed to agricultural landowners. This will be accomplished by valuing agricultural land at 90%, rather than 75%, of market value for purposes of calculating the property tax credit program. LB 959 eliminates the minimum levy adjustment which reduces state aid to districts with levies less than $0.95, removes the levy criteria from the averaging adjustment calculation and reduces the special levy school districts can use to address health, safety and accessibility problems in school buildings. This bill is projected to increase state aid to primarily rural school districts by $8.5 million.
Although these bills will provide for some property tax relief, I was disappointed that they didn’t go further. I will continue to work on the proposal to include a foundation aid component in the state aid formula. Foundation aid is a certain amount of funding per student, regardless of whether the school district qualifies for equalization funding. This would reduce the reliance on property taxes in the funding of our schools. An in-depth discussion of how this increase in state aid would be funded needs to take place. Additionally, there are some senators who are advocating for an income tax reduction, to make our state more competitive with surrounding states.
Also passed this past week was LB 960, which creates an infrastructure bank, funded by a $50 million transfer from the cash reserve fund and the commitment of $400 million in additional fuel tax revenue generated by the passage of LB 610 last year. This will allow the Department of Roads to accelerate work done on major highway projects, which could include finishing the expressway system. The funding will also be used for the repair and replacement of county bridges, as well as transportation improvements to attract and support economic development.
My priority bill, LB 744, received final approval from the Legislature. It will allow for the continuation of open adoptions in private and agency adoptions.
LB 886, which I co-sponsored, was also approved by lawmakers. It recognizes the contributions of our rural volunteer firefighters and rescue squad members by authorizing a $250 refundable income tax credit.
One bill that will not become law was LB 10, which proposed to return Nebraska to the winner-take-all system for the distribution of electoral votes in presidential elections. Another filibuster was initiated on Final Reading and this time the cloture motion to cut off debate fell one vote short, meaning that the bill is pulled from the agenda.
I encourage you to contact me as we complete this year’s legislative session. 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.
This past week, the Legislature gave second-round approval to LB 10, which would return Nebraska to a winner-take-all system for the distribution of electoral votes in presidential elections. Our current system awards a presidential electoral vote to the winner in each of the state’s three congressional districts, while giving two votes to the statewide winner. In addition to Nebraska, only Maine does not deliver all of their electoral votes to the statewide presidential winner.
LB 10, introduced in 2015 by Senator Beau McCoy, has been filibustered at every stage of debate, requiring a cloture motion to cut off debate and allow for a vote on the advancement of the bill. Last year, at the first stage of debate, the cloture motion was successful, but it fell two votes short at the second stage of debate. After being prioritized again in 2016, the cloture motion was successful this year at the second stage of debate. Senator Ernie Chambers is very much opposed to this legislation and promised to halt the session if it was advanced. Consequently, the next couple days proceeded at a very slow pace.
Senators debated LB 643, which would allow medical marijuana in Nebraska, for four hours this past week. After a cloture motion failed, the bill was pulled from the agenda for the year.
Supporters of LB 643 argued that almost half of the states have laws permitting medical marijuana. They pointed out that under the provisions contained in LB 643, Nebraska would have had one of the most tightly regulated medical marijuana programs in the nation. Persons seeking medical cannabis would have needed certification from a health care practitioner and must have been suffering from one of the conditions specified in the bill, such as cancer, seizures, terminal illness, or Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, patients would have been limited to taking the drug in the form of pills, liquid, or through a vaporizer. Smoking marijuana was not permitted under the bill.
Opponents included Governor Ricketts, Attorney General Peterson, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Nebraska Medical Association, the County Attorneys Association and the Nebraska Sheriff’s Association. Senators opposing the bill reminded their colleagues that marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I substances are considered to have a high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use, making distribution of marijuana a federal offense. Although the current administration has chosen to be lax in enforcement of marijuana laws, senators pointed out that this could change with the next administration. They were also concerned with the use of marijuana by our youth, as studies have confirmed that casual marijuana use causes structural harm in the brain of young users and has long-term impact on their mental health, making them more susceptible to serious mental health conditions. Opposing senators felt that marijuana should go through the research and testing protocols required by the FDA before it should be used as a medicine.
This was a very emotional issue and the rotunda was full of families who have a loved one with severe health issues. They have tried conventional drugs and they haven’t worked. They were pleading for another option.
As I understand, a decision on whether to reclassify the drug may be made in the near future. If it is reclassified, it will allow for more research on marijuana for medicinal purposes. The pharmaceutical grade marijuana extract of purified cannabidiol is already being tested through FDA authorized trials and it is possible that a FDA approved product could be on the market soon. Furthermore, a ballot initiative to reform marijuana laws has been filed with the Secretary of State.
As we head into our last few days of this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me. 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.
This past week, the Speaker of the Legislature announced the 25 bills that he selected as speaker priority bills. I was fortunate that two bills that I introduced were on his list.
LB 47, chosen as a speaker priority bill, requires applicants for drivers’ licenses to answer the question regarding whether to place their name on the Donor Registry and donate their organs and tissues. Currently this question on the application is optional. I introduced this bill in an attempt to increase the number of donors in Nebraska, by joining the 25 states and the District of Columbia that already have a mandatory question on their license application. Nearby states, where the question is mandatory, have experienced higher participation rates than in Nebraska. At any given time, there are approximately 500 Nebraskans waiting for an organ or tissue transplant. This legislation does not require an applicant for a license to become a donor, but only requires them to answer yes or no to the question.
My second bill selected as a speaker priority was LB 539. This bill seeks to provide necessary tools to the two separate auditing arms of state government – the Auditor of Public Accounts and the Legislative Audit Office. The legislation establishes deadlines that agencies must meet in responding to requests for information. It also prohibits and penalizes retaliatory personnel action against employees who cooperate with auditors.
This past week marked the end of the public hearing process. Legislators will now meet in full day sessions to discuss bills that have been given priority status. The Appropriations Committee, of which I am a member, will continue to meet after the Legislature adjourns each day. We are working to finalize the budget bills that must be presented to the Legislature by the 70th legislative day, which falls on April 28th this year.
The Legislature started out this past week discussing LB 10, which would return Nebraska to a winner-take-all presidential electoral vote system. Currently, we are one of only two states that have a system in which one presidential elector is chosen from each congressional district and two are chosen at large.
If a bill is filibustered, a motion to invoke cloture can be made after sufficient debate, which is generally considered 8 hours at the first stage of debate and 4 hours at the second stage of debate. This immediately ends debate and allows for a vote on the advancement of the bill. During the first round of debate on LB 10, the cloture motion was successful, garnering 33 votes. However, during the second round of debate earlier this week, the cloture motion only received 31 votes, 2 votes shy of the required number. An unsuccessful cloture motion generally means that the issue will not be taken up again.
In the 24 years since the current system was adopted, a dozen attempts have been made to reinstate the winner-take-all system. Two times, in the 1990s, legislation was passed, only to be vetoed by Governor Ben Nelson, who signed the law creating our current system in 1991. During this time, only once has the presidential electoral votes been divided, with one vote in 2008 going to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama from the 2nd congressional district.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to LB 367, introduced by North Platte Senator Mike Groene, on a 38-0 vote. This legislation would once again allow circulators of petitions to be paid based on the number of signatures they collect. In 2008, after reports of problems with petition drives, lawmakers passed the pay-per-signature ban, along with other restrictions on petition circulators. Supporters of the bill cited a study showing the prohibition reduced the number of petitions in affected states by 45%. Furthermore, they say it makes petition drives more expensive, as the productivity of circulators is reduced when they are paid by the hour rather than by the signature.
The Legislature is in the process of discussing LB 31, which as introduced, would repeal the motorcycle helmet requirement. The Transportation and Telecommunications committee amendments to LB 31 exempt only persons who are 21 years of age or older. The committee amendments also require the motorcycle operator to wear eye protection. Our current motorcycle helmet law was passed in 1988. There are 19 states and the District of Columbia that still require all riders to wear helmets. Another 28 states require helmet use for certain groups, typically those under age 21 or age 18.
If you would like to voice your opinion on these or other issues 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.
Should police be able to stop a motorist for not wearing a seat belt or for texting? As a member of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, one afternoon this past week was spent discussing these issues. The current law requires all front seat motorists to wear seat belts. However, police can only ticket violators if they are stopped for some other reason. Both LB 10 and LB 189 would make a seat belt violation a primary offense and would require all passengers to be buckled up, not just front seat passengers. LB 189, introduced by Senator John Harms of Scottsbluff, also proposes to increase the fine for a seat belt violation from $25 to $100 and to assess 1 point to the driving record. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have primary seat belt laws. New Hampshire is the only state with no seat belt law for adults. Seat belt laws in the remainder of the states (including Nebraska) are secondarily enforced.
Currently, seat belt usage is approximately 79%. Based on experience in other states, testifiers projected that this statistic would increase to 90% if either LB 10 or LB 189 were passed into law. Proponents testified that primary seat belt laws save lives, reduce injuries, and lower crash costs to society.
Opponents feared that making a seat belt violation a primary offense could lead to racial profiling by police. Others questioned how far the government should intrude into personal decision-making.
Senator Harms also introduced LB 118, which would make texting a primary offense. Currently, reading, typing or sending a text message is against the law while operating a motor vehicle that is in motion, but a driver can only be charged if pulled over for a different traffic violation.
For years, Nebraskans have discussed the need for a comprehensive statewide plan to deal with water challenges facing the state, from severe drought to flooding, interstate compacts, and management of our underground water supplies. There have been studies and discussions, but no widespread solutions or agreement on funding sources.
This past week, the Natural Resources Committee held a public hearing on LB 517, which proposes to establish a Water Sustainability Project Task Force to work with the Department of Natural Resources. The task force would be charged with identifying water resources programs, projects and activities in need of funding in order to meet the long-term statewide goals of water sustainability, increased water use productivity, and maximizing the beneficial use of water resources. Experts would be hired to accomplish the objectives in LB 517, analyzing data gathered from past studies. The funding for the study would be sought from the oil and gas severance taxes the state collects, which currently are transferred to the permanent school fund. A report is to be submitted to the Legislature by January 31, 2014. LB 517 was introduced by Senator Tom Carlson, the chair of the Natural Resources Committee.
Senator Carlson also introduced another bill which will have a public hearing before the Revenue Committee on March 15. LB 516 would establish the Nebraska Water Legacy Commission and proposes to earmark one-fourth of one percent of sales tax revenue as a dedicated source of funding for new water projects, management and research, as identified by the recommendations for a comprehensive, multi-year plan developed as a result of the LB 517 study. With the passage of LB 84 last year to divert one-fourth of one percent of sales tax revenue for road projects, supporters claim that water is just as important as roads to our state. This bill will be held over until next year, giving senators and the public time to discuss whether this is an appropriate source of funds.
Again, I encourage your comments on the 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.