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This past week began with the Legislature being notified of the Governor’s veto of $64 million within the budget bills. The Appropriations Committee met early in the week and developed a package of items that they recommended for override. The Legislature agreed with the Appropriations Committee and voted to override the recommended vetoes.
The Governor had vetoed $7.4 million of the $17.5 million in funding for the Game and Parks Commission. In his veto message, the Governor stressed that the partial funding would still allow for the projects at Ponca State Park and Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. However, the written agreement between the Appropriations Committee and the commission stated that should the committee provide $17.5 million, the commission would be able to further address priority deferred maintenance needs statewide and the undertaking of capital projects at Ponca State Park and priority capital projects at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park to put the existing facilities in a condition that would be conducive to transferring operating and management to a local partner. With the successful override motion, it eliminates any question as to whether the projects will be undertaken.
I joined the Governor at a press conference where he signed legislation offering more than $400 million in tax relief to Nebraskans over the next 5 years. Among the bills the Governor signed was LB 96. This bill will eliminate the sales tax on repair or replacement parts for agricultural machinery and equipment. Nebraska was one of only 8 states that charged sales tax on such items, which created a competitive disadvantage for our farm equipment supply industry, particularly for those located close to the state’s border. LB 905 will increase the Property Tax Credit Program by $25 million, bringing the annual appropriation to $140 million. LB 986 will expand Nebraska’s homestead exemption program so that more Nebraskans qualify, by increasing the limit on household income. LB 850, the bill I introduced to authorize a homestead exemption for individuals with developmental disabilities who meet income and valuation guidelines, was included in LB 986. LB 987 will index Nebraska’s individual income tax brackets for inflation, exempt more social security income from taxation, and provide limited tax exemptions for military retirees. Furthermore, LB 725 contains an additional $33 million in state aid to local school districts.
LB 1098, which would reconstruct the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission, was given first-round approval this past week. The legislation is the result of the work of the Water Funding Task Force during the past interim. The restructured commission would be required to revise their rules and regulations to ensure the funding process follows the ranking and criteria recommendations of the task force.
Several senators are pushing for basin-wide planning to ensure water sustainability and threatened to filibuster LB 1098 if provisions for a state water plan were not included. Others feel that such a proposal favors surface water irrigators at the expense of groundwater irrigators. I feel that statewide water planning is already in place through the work of the Department of Natural Resources and our local NRDs.
The budget bills contain $31 million in funding for water sustainability projects and LB 1098 is the vehicle for the distribution of these funds. Interested parties have pledged to work together on a compromise prior to the second-round of debate. I spoke on the floor of the importance of dealing with water sustainability projects now and not postponing them. The project at Lake McConaughy cost $43.5 million in 1935. Today, that cost would have grown to $695 million.
Although the Legislature has advanced some controversial issues, other legislation hasn’t fared as well. LB 943, which would have increased the minimum wage, failed to receive first-round approval. LB 1058, a bill that would have adopted the Interstate Compact on the Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote, was pulled from the agenda by its introducer. LB 965, which was intended to encourage more renewable energy development but could have resulted in higher electric rates, was bracketed until the end of session.
As we enter the final days of this legislative session, which is scheduled to adjourn on April 17, I still 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 telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
Last year, the Legislature passed LB 517, which created the Nebraska Water Funding Task Force. I was appointed to serve on the task force, which met throughout the interim. The task force was to focus on the long-term sustainability of water resources in our state.
The strategic plan established by the task force expresses a vision for funding priorities and financing mechanisms. It identifies options for a significant, stable source of funding, which will be used to help pay for water programs, projects, and activities. It also identifies a system to distribute funds across the state for projects that rank high using a new set of evaluation criteria that emphasizes sustainability.
Three bills were introduced as a result of the task force’s recommendations. LB 940, introduced by task force member Senator Ken Schilz of Ogallala, would create the Water Sustainability Fund. It seeks a one-time $50 million transfer from the Cash Reserve Fund in 2014 to be used to fund programs, projects, and activities identified by the task force. LB 1046, introduced by Holdrege Senator Tom Carlson, the chair of the task force, seeks an annual appropriation of $50 million in general funds, beginning in 2015.
LB 1098, also introduced by Senator Carlson, restructures the Natural Resources Commission. It authorizes the commission to adopt rules and regulations to ensure that the funding process establishes and utilizes criteria upon which projects, programs, and activities will be ranked and prioritized according to the water sustainability goals established by the commission.
Agriculture is the number one industry in Nebraska. Farmers in our state irrigate more acres than any other state in the United States. Although, on average only 1% of groundwater storage has been depleted in Nebraska, models show that groundwater pumping has reduced base flow in the Platte and other rivers by up to 15%. Withdrawing groundwater can have long-term impacts on surface water by reducing discharge to streams, as well as lasting effects on groundwater-dependent users, ecosystems, and surface water and groundwater quality. This reiterates the importance of reaching water sustainability, which means that on average, we don’t use any more water than what our supply gives us.
Furthermore, we must keep in mind that we have to protect the domestic use of water, which is our primary priority. Declining water supplies threaten not only the agriculture industry, but the production of electricity and energy, municipal drinking water and wells, recreation, tourism, and conservation, as well as Nebraska’s ability to comply with compacts, contracts, and agreements.
Currently, the state funds approximately $3 million annually through the Resources Development Fund for water-related projects. However, there are more than $900 million of proposed water sustainability projects that need funding throughout the state. Projects that have committed local and partner resources and funding will be given additional consideration.
The public hearing on LB 940 and LB 1046 will be held before the Appropriations Committee on February 18. The hearing on LB 1098 will be held before the Natural Resources Committee on February 26.
If you have any comments on the water bills or any other legislation before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact my office. 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.