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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.
Legislation increasing the annual cost of a park permit from $20 to $25 was passed two years ago. This year, LB 362 was introduced by Lincoln Senator Bill Avery. It proposes to eliminate the park entry permit for residents and replace it with a $7 registration fee on most motor vehicles. Non-residents would still be required to purchase a park entry permit. As introduced, it would result in increased revenue for state parks of approximately $7 million a year, which would be used help offset the $43 million in backlogged deferred maintenance projects and ADA-compliance requirements at the more than 80 state parks and recreation areas in Nebraska. Proponents stressed that state support for parks has been flat for a number of years and that the current permit process can’t sustain the needs of the parks in the future.
Opponents to the measure emphasized that Nebraska already has one of the highest registration fees among the states. Senators stressed that motor vehicle fees should be dedicated to roads and should not be diverted for other purposes. Additionally, some senators felt it was unfair that all motorists would have to pay for state parks, regardless of whether they visit one.
Senators debated LB 362 for several hours, but came to no consensus, nor took any vote on pending amendments. Based on the number of senators having concerns, the introducer pledged to work on alternatives prior to further debate on the bill.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the sentencing of juveniles to a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The court ruled that a life sentence could not be the only option for a judge when sentencing a juvenile charged with first-degree murder, as is the current law in more than two dozen states, including Nebraska and Iowa. The majority opinion noted that mandatory life without parole precludes consideration of such factors as the juvenile’s age, immaturity, impulsiveness, failure to appreciate risks and consequences, as well as the juvenile’s family and home environment. Twenty-seven inmates in Nebraska are currently serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.
The ruling recognizes scientific research that shows brains of juveniles are still developing, making them more prone to rash decisions and risk-taking, but giving them more opportunity for rehabilitation. Furthermore, researchers believe that many young offenders may suffer from mental illness, making them not fully capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.
As introduced, LB 44 did not list a minimum number of years as an alternative sentence to life without parole. As advanced from the Judiciary Committee, committee amendments proposed a possible sentence of 30 years to life for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Under our good time laws, a 30-year sentence would allow a juvenile to be eligible for parole after serving 15 years. Amendments were offered to increase the 30-year minimum sentence to 60 years, making the inmate eligible for parole after 30 years, and to provide for a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. Neither amendment was successful. A compromise amendment providing for a 40-year minimum sentence (parole eligible after 20 years) was adopted.
The Legislature discussed LB 44 for more than 8 hours this past week before voting to advance the bill to the second stage of debate. Senators did not attempt a cloture vote due to the importance of the subject and the need to reach a compromise to assure that legislation is passed this year.
LB 589, a bill I introduced to clarify exemptions from the requirements of the One-Call Notifications System Act in the event of emergency conditions involving a natural gas pipeline leak, was given first-round approval this past week. LB 589 was designated as a speaker priority bill earlier this session.
As the Legislature begins the final 30 days of this legislative session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on pending legislation. 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 e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.