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The Legislature gave initial approval this past week for a proposal to increase the gas tax. LB 610 proposes to increase the fixed portion of the gasoline tax by 1.5 cents per gallon every year for four years. Once the 6 cent increase is fully implemented, it would generate approximately $25 million more a year for the Department of Roads and $50 million more annually for cities and counties, to be used for necessary road and bridge projects.
Roads are very important to Nebraska. Beyond everyday transportation, good roads are a means to move produce from farm to market, to transport freight, and to provide incentives for businesses to locate in our state. Last year, I participated in the Transportation and Telecommunication’s Committee interim study that looked at the condition of our rural bridges. We saw that there is a great need for additional funding.
States have recognized that federal funding for roads has been decreasing in recent years. The federal gas tax was designed to be the primary source of funding for the Federal Highway Trust Fund. However, since it has not been increased since 1993, it is no longer meeting its obligations. Likewise, the state gas tax is only one cent higher than it was twenty-two years ago, although the gas tax structure has been modified over this time. Three neighboring states have recently increased their gas tax and a couple dozen states are considering their options.
LB 610 was advanced from the first stage of debate on a 26-10 vote. If it is successful at the next two stages of debate, it is expected that Governor Ricketts will veto the legislation. Thirty votes are required to override a governor’s veto. Although I am concerned with the growing backlog of repair projects for our roads and bridges, I could not support a tax increase, at a time when I feel the Legislature should be focusing on decreasing property taxes. The Legislature has several alternatives before them for additional funding for road and bridge projects, such as reinstating state aid to municipalities and counties or increasing the current amount of sales tax dedicated to roads.
My priority bill for this year, LB 106, was given first-round approval this past week. As a rural state, we must encourage livestock growth. A recent UNL report showed that the industry has not grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to neighboring states. The report cited issues that have constrained potential development, including local permitting processes.
This past year, a group of livestock producers and county officials met to discuss policy issues that could be hindering livestock growth. Concerns focused on the uncertainty of the conditions that might be required in the local conditional use permitting process, as well as lack of uniformity across the state and the subjective nature of regulations, as well as political pressure placed on local officials. The group recommended the development of a matrix, to be used by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation. Two counties in Nebraska are currently using such a matrix.
Under LB 106, the Department of Agriculture is to develop an assessment matrix, in consultation with a committee composed of county board members, county zoning administrators, livestock producers, and University representatives. The matrix could be used to evaluate operations on factors such as odor control practices, manure storage, proximity to neighboring residences, community support, and economic impact to the community.
As introduced, the use of the matrix was mandatory for counties that were zoned and required livestock operations to be permitted. As amended, the matrix will be completely voluntary. Counties may use the state matrix, may use it as a model in creating their own matrix, or may decide not to use it. It will be another tool that is available for counties to use in making local decisions, if they so choose.
If you have any comments on either of these bills or on other legislation before senators, 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.
The Legislature is at the half-way mark of this 90-day session. This past week marked the priority bill designation deadline. Senators have the ability to designate one bill as their personal priority bill. Committees can designate two bills as committee priority bills and the Speaker of the Legislature is given the authority to designate up to 25 bills as speaker priority bills. After this point in the legislative session, generally only bills with priority status are debated by the Legislature.
I chose LB 106 as my priority bill. LB 106, the Livestock Operation Siting and Expansion Act, was recently advanced from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. It directs the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, with advice from experts representing the Nebraska Association of County Officials, livestock production agriculture and the University of Nebraska, to develop an assessment matrix for use by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation siting permit. Nebraska’s agricultural industry has not grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to our neighboring states. LB 106 would provide for consistent standards, based on factual, objective criteria to be used by local governing bodies when granting permits, thereby allowing for more predictability and uniformity in the process.
As chair of the Performance Audit Committee, we chose LB 538 and LB 598 as committee priority bills. LB 538, introduced by the Performance Audit Committee, creates a process for ongoing evaluation of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs, in order to give legislators information to draw clear conclusions about whether tax incentives are benefitting Nebraska’s economy and meeting program goals. LB 538 requires the Legislative Audit Office to conduct a performance audit of each tax incentive program at least every three years.
LB 598, introduced by Senator Paul Schumacher, addresses the use of segregation in our prisons. Rules would be developed to guide the level of confinement, conditions, behavior, and mental health status of inmates. The legislation contains recommendations from an interim study conducted by the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee of the Legislature, which incorporated results from an audit conducted by the Performance Audit Committee.
Other bills designated as priority bills by individual senators include:
LB 350, introduced and prioritized by Senator Lydia Brasch, reduces the valuation of agricultural land for purposes of property taxation from 75% to 65%. As of this time, LB 350 has failed to advance from the Revenue Committee.
Another bill that was prioritized but has not advanced from the Revenue Committee was LB 357, introduced by Senator Jim Smith. It proposes to reduce the individual and corporate income tax rates and increase the amount of funding to the Property Tax Credit program. The tax relief would be funded through transfers from the cash reserve and reductions in spending.
LB 586 prohibits discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity. This bill was introduced by Senator Adam Morfeld and designated as a priority by Senator Patty Pansing Brooks.
LB 610 was introduced by Senator Jim Smith and prioritized by Senator Curt Friesen. It would increase the gas tax by 1.5 cents every year for four years, with revenue being used by cities, counties and the state for road and bridge projects.
LB 643 proposes to legalize marijuana for medical use. It was introduced and prioritized by Senator Tommy Garrett.
Among the bills designated as priorities by committees include:
LB 259, which as amended by committee amendments, would exempt the first $15,000 worth of personal property value for each personal property tax return. This bill was designated as a priority by the Revenue Committee. Although this will provide some property tax relief, many senators were disappointed that the committee did not offer a more comprehensive solution.
LB 472 was prioritized by the Health and Human Services Committee. It is Senator Kathy Campbell’s third attempt at Medicaid expansion, which was ruled optional for states after the Affordable Care Act was challenged in court.
If you have any comments on the bills that have been given priority status, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Bills can be introduced during the first 10 days of the legislative session. The last day for bill introductions is Wednesday, January 21. The following is a brief description of the bills that I have been working on throughout the interim and have introduced so far.
LB 46, introduced on behalf of the statewide Trauma Advisory Board, revises language regarding the accreditation of rehabilitation centers in the state, specifically as it relates to the rehabilitation of trauma patients. The bill redefines the levels of rehabilitation services to reflect current practice and to bring the levels and definitions up-to-date.
LB 47 makes the question mandatory on an application for a driver’s license or identification card regarding whether to be on the Donor Registry. Currently, it is optional for applicants to answer this question. Nearby states that require responses have higher percentages of applicants indicating their wish to become donors.
Under LB 105, the state rather than the county, would have to pay for the costs associated with an autopsy and grand jury when an inmate dies in state custody. This is one of several unfunded mandates that the Legislature will address as we work towards property tax relief. This legislation would help Johnson County, where Tecumseh State Correctional Institution is located.
LB 106, the Livestock Operation Siting & Expansion Act, was introduced to encourage livestock development and expansion, which is extremely important to the economy of our state. The industry in Nebraska hasn’t grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to neighboring states. The legislation would allow counties to use a scoring matrix system for the approval of new or expanding livestock facilities, which would make the process more predictable and consistent throughout the state.
LB 130 would allow projects allocated funding through the Nebraska Resources Development Fund to be eligible for funding from the new Water Sustainability Fund. I will also introduce a bill to appropriate enough funding within the next two years to allow for the completion of these projects. These projects were existing when the new funding system was passed last year. They are important projects that are beneficial for the state and have already been approved through an extensive application process.
LB 145 would eliminate the executive officer licensing requirement, while retaining the ability of the Department of Banking and Finance to suspend the authority of the executive officer or impose fines upon the executive officer for violations of law. Nebraska may be the only state that requires a formal license process.
LB 178 would reduce the valuation of agricultural land by 5% per year for four years, thereby reducing it from 75% to 55% for school district taxation purposes. This is another option that is being presented to look at property tax relief and the high burden placed on agricultural land owners in the support of local schools.
LB 188, which I am introducing again this year, amends our current pursuit law, which was enacted to protect an innocent bystander who gets hurt as a result of a police pursuit. Nebraska is the only state that imposes liability on the law enforcement agency regardless of whether the law enforcement agency was negligent in its pursuit and even when the driver being pursued causes the injury to the “innocent third party”. Under this legislation, a passenger in a fleeing vehicle would not be considered an “innocent third party” if they entered the vehicle knowing that the driver was under the influence, if they are sought to be apprehended by law enforcement or if they are engaged in any illegal activity which would itself result in arrest.
LB 228 would reduce the corporate income tax rate to the level of the top two brackets of the individual income tax. Other types of companies, such as limited liability companies and Subchapter S corporations are considered “pass-through” organizations under state and federal income tax laws. This is a special business structure that is used to reduce the effects of double taxation, meaning that pass-through entities don’t pay income taxes at the corporate level, only at the individual owners’ level. LB 228 is attempting to level the playing field for the different types of business structures.
LB 229 appropriates funding for the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program. There are currently 22 CASA programs serving 38 Nebraska counties, with more than 600 volunteers advocating for more than 1,500 Nebraska children. Statistics have shown that a child with a CASA volunteer is more likely to be adopted and less likely to re-enter foster care. The funding would allow the program to continue and grow to serve more counties.
LB 364 would increase the funding appropriated to the Property Tax Credit program, funding the program at $200 million per year. This would translate into an approximate $100 credit for each $100,000 of valuation.
LB 386 would exempt header trailers and seed tenders from sales tax. Agricultural machinery and equipment was permanently exempted from state sales tax beginning in 1992. In 2012, the Department of Revenue issued a revised “Information Guide” ruling that these implements did not qualify for the sales tax exemption. This legislation would clarify that such trailers are exempt, as was the practice before the ruling.
As the bills are introduced, 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, Nebraska 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.