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The One Hundred Third Legislature, First Session has adjourned sine die. We passed approximately 200 bills. Three-fifths of the bills that were designated as individual senator priority bills were passed, along with 26 of the 30 committee priority bills and 20 of the 25 speaker priority bills. Of the six bills that I introduced, four were passed, along with my individual priority bill.
Some of the priority bills that did not become law include the expansion of Medicaid as envisioned in the federal health care reform law, including state park entry fees in motor vehicle registration fees, repealing the motorcycle helmet law for riders 21 years of age and older, repealing the death penalty, requiring health insurance plans sold in the state to provide coverage for the treatment of autism spectrum disorders, compensating surface water users when irrigation is limited in order to comply with an interstate compact or decree, increasing the tax on cigarettes and tobacco products, changing the Corn Checkoff program, exempting military retirement benefits from the income tax, and exempting repair or replacement parts for agricultural machinery and equipment from the sales tax. All bills pending at the end of the 2013 legislative session are automatically carried over to the 2014 session.
Legislation of importance that was passed during this session included LB 561, which revises the juvenile justice system, focusing on treatment for young offenders rather than incarceration; LR 155, creating the Tax Modernization Committee to study the equity of our current tax structure; LB 216, creating a program of extended support services for young adults as they age out of the foster care system; LB 44, replacing mandatory life without parole with a 40-year minimum sentence for those younger than 18 years, in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling; LB 530, increasing the reimbursement rate for foster children based on the recommendations of the Foster Care Reimbursement Rate Committee; LB 507, which seeks to bring accountability for the public funds invested in child care and early childhood education, by the development of a 5-step quality rating and improvement system; and LB 553, which attempts to address both long- and short-term funding issues associated with the school employees retirement system.
The Legislature successfully passed a balanced budget that increases spending by an average of approximately 5% each year of the biennium. It includes increased funding for higher education, in order to allow for a tuition freeze for the next two years. It also includes provider rate increases, more funding for persons with intellectual disabilities that are on the state waiting list, and funding to meet the requirements of the federal health care reform law. Furthermore, the budget builds up the cash reserve, in anticipation of the next recession. By having a healthy cash reserve, Nebraska was able to weather the recent recession better than most states and did not have to resort to a tax increase.
I was appointed to the Water Funding Task Force, which was created through the passage of LB 517. The task force will focus on the long-term sustainability of water resources in our state. We will meet this summer and fall, with the task of recommending a strategic plan which prioritizes programs, projects, and activities in need of funding and recommends a permanent funding structure. We are to submit a report to the Legislature by the end of the year.
With the adjournment of the Legislature, I will be spending more time back on my farm near Syracuse. I will be at the State Capitol for office work and meetings throughout the interim. However, if I am not in the office, my staff will be able to assist you. If you have any questions pertaining to state government or on legislation passed or pending, or if you need assistance with an issue, I encourage you to contact my office at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My e-mail address is email@example.com and my office 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
Two weeks of public hearings have been completed. All 655 bills that were introduced will be scheduled for a public hearing by March 21. This past week, senators began meeting as a body in the mornings to discuss the legislation that has already advanced from the various committees. The first few days were spent giving first round approval to primarily noncontroversial bills, including two bills that I introduced. The first bill that encountered some extended debate was LB 125, which proposes to reduce the Omaha School Board from 12 to 9 members.
Every senator spends their afternoons in the various committees to which they are assigned. On Monday and Tuesday, I sit on the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee and on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, on the Health and Human Services Committee.
Last week, HHS Committee members listened to lengthy testimony on both sides of LB 132, the Skin Cancer Prevention Act. This legislation proposes to ban those under 18 years of age from using tanning equipment at a tanning facility. Any operator of a tanning facility who allows a person under the age of 18 to use tanning equipment would be guilty of a Class V misdemeanor. For several days this past week, I received at least 50 e-mails a day in support of this bill.
Proponents of LB 132 quoted from a National Cancer Institute report that showed the number of melanoma cases for young women between the ages of 15 and 39 increased as much as 50% from 1980 to 2004. It is believed that the spike in malignant melanoma in young women is due in part to their rising use as adolescents of commercial indoor tanning facilities. Ultraviolet radiation is categorized by the World Health Organization, FDA, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the highest risk category, calling the practice “carcinogenic to humans”, a distinction shared with asbestos and arsenic. The American Medical Association recommends that no one under the age of 18 expose their skin to artificially generated ultraviolet radiation. Supporters reminded committee members that tobacco use, which is also associated with cancer, is illegal for persons under 18 years of age.
If LB 132 were to pass, opponents pointed out that the law would be the most extreme law in the country regulating indoor tanning. Currently only two states ban indoor tanning for persons under 18 and the penalties are less severe in those two states than under LB 132. Opponents countered that no experimental data exists to show a causative connection between indoor tanning and melanoma. They feel that it is more of a competitive issue with dermatologists than a public health issue. Opponents responded that young people would instead tan more aggressively outdoors or use home tanning devices with no supervision if the ban were in place. They also questioned whether the government should get involved in such issues.
This past week, a public hearing was held on LB 216 by the HHS Committee. The purpose of this legislation is to support former state wards in transitioning to adulthood. Testifiers related their personal experiences of trying to make it on their own without adult support or guidance. Under the bill, a program would be created for young adults in foster care when they reach the age of 19 to provide for extended support services, such as medical care, housing support and case management services, until they reach 21 years of age. To qualify for the program, young adults would have to be attending school or be employed. It is estimated that the program could cost more than $3 million per year, although beginning in 2014, Medicaid expenses of former foster care children up to 26 years of age will be covered under the federal health care reform law.
Although the public hearing has been held on both of these bills, the HHS Committee has taken no action on either of them at this time. I predict that there will be more work done on both issues, prior to committee members discussing their advancement.
Again, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the issues before the Legislature. 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.