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Governor Ricketts presented his State of the State Address to the Legislature this past week. He said he looks forward to working with us to bring relief to taxpayers. He urged us to prioritize property tax relief, as it is his number one priority this year. He touched on economic development and the need to grow Nebraska. He expressed his support for a proposed $26 million investment in the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, as part of his broader efforts to help reduce recidivism. The governor reiterated his opposition to Medicaid expansion, referring to it as one of the biggest long-term risks to the budget.
Following his speech, several bills were introduced by senators, at the request of the governor. Two bills, introduced by the chair of the Revenue Committee and the chair of the Education Committee, make structural changes to how property taxes are levied on residential, commercial and agricultural property. These bills tighten current spending limits on all local governments. They also propose to tighten levy limits by removing exceptions that don’t require voter approval. Furthermore, the proposed legislation will limit the statewide aggregate increase in the class of agricultural property to 3% per year by adjusting the value of agricultural land.
As I mentioned last week, I worked with other senators on legislation that alters the school finance formula to provide property tax relief. Senator Jim Scheer of Norfolk is the primary sponsor of LB 883 and 11 senators have signed on as co-sponsors. LB 883 proposes to provide a base amount of state aid per student to school districts to offset property taxes. This aid would be phased in over four years, until it reaches $3,000 per student, regardless of whether the school qualifies for equalization aid. The bill also makes some adjustments in the state aid formula to help subsidize the cost of the base aid. Under the current formula, almost two-thirds of the school districts receive no equalization aid. The increase in the valuation of agricultural land has contributed to the disproportionate burden placed on property taxes in supporting school districts. I don’t believe that the founders of the current state aid formula envisioned this would happen and consequently, I feel that it is time to revamp the system.
Last year, I introduced LB 47, which proposes to make the question mandatory rather than optional, on the driver’s license application regarding whether to place your name on the Donor Registry. LB 47 was selected as a Speaker priority bill last year, but was not fully debated. The purpose of the bill is to increase the number of donors in Nebraska. More than 98% of Nebraskans registered as donors became registered through the application process for a driver’s license. With the question currently optional, only 55% of applicants are registered as donors. This percentage is higher in states where the question is mandatory.
LB 47 does not require applicants to become donors, but merely requires that they answer the question with “yes”, “no” or “elect not to answer”. At the public hearing, an organ recipient testified that he can accept if applicants choose not to register. However, it’s harder to accept apathy, when applicants skip over the answer. After several hours of debate, LB 47 received initial approval earlier this week.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature will be held on June 5-8, 2016 at the State Capitol. It gives students an opportunity to learn what it’s like to serve as a state senator. High School students will learn about the unique process of our unicameral system by sponsoring bills, conducting committee hearings, and debating legislation. Students learn directly from senators, staff and lobbyists, working on legislation from the previous session. All high school students are eligible and the deadline is May 15. The fee is $350, which includes lodging, meals and transportation. Scholarships are available. For more information visit NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.
The hearing process will begin on January 19. Senators will meet as a body in the morning and divide into committees in the afternoon. All bills are referenced to a standing committee and a hearing is held before this committee. This gives the public the opportunity to make their viewpoints known before the committee takes action on the bill. If you are interested in any of the bills that have been introduced, I encourage you to attend a public hearing. I also encourage you to contact me with your opinions on legislation that has been introduced or with any question you may have. 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 at the capitol is (402) 471-2733.
The question of whether term limits should be extended was debated by lawmakers this past week. As introduced, Legislative Resolution 7 is a proposal for a constitutional amendment to increase term limit provisions, so that a state senator could serve two consecutive six-year terms, rather than two consecutive four-year terms. LR 7 CA was prioritized and advanced by the Executive Board with committee amendments. The committee amendments would instead allow a state senator to serve three consecutive four-year terms. After the committee amendments were filed, Senator Paul Schumacher, the sponsor of LR 7 CA, offered an amendment to change the resolution back to the introduced version.
Term limits were adopted through the initiative petition process in 2000, after three previous attempts were struck down by the courts. Since that time, measures to repeal term limits or to lengthen them have not been successful in the Legislature in 2003, 2005 and 2009. In 2012, a proposed constitutional amendment to increase term limit provisions to three consecutive four-year terms was passed by the Legislature, but was not approved by voters.
Proponents of the measure stress the importance of experience and institutional knowledge. They bring up the difficult learning curve faced by new senators, who are inundated with an abundance of information. With term limits, it has become more common for committee chairs to be selected after just two years of service, not giving much time to fully understand the issues associated with their committee subject matter. Opponents point out that the people have already spoken on this issue. They oppose trying again so soon after a similar attempt was defeated. They also welcome the more frequent turnover in service, saying that it is an opportunity to bring in new ideas.
Some senators supported the two consecutive six-year option because running twice instead of three times would lower the amount spent on campaigns. It also would allow senators to focus on their service rather than raising money for their campaign. Opponents feared that the second six-year term is too long without being accountable to voters. The Legislature adjourned for the week prior to taking a vote on the amendments or the advancement of the resolution.
LB 47, a bill that I introduced that was chosen as a speaker priority bill, was debated by the Legislature this week. It would make the question mandatory, rather than optional, asking applicants for driver’s licenses whether they wanted to place their name on the Donor Registry. The purpose is to increase the numbers of donors in Nebraska, which will in turn save more lives. Senator Ernie Chambers led the filibuster arguing that free-speech rights should not require a person to answer this question. I offered an amendment for a third choice, allowing applicants to answer “yes”, “no”, or “elect not to answer”. I felt this was a suitable compromise and would still keep the intent of the bill intact. Many senators spoke in support of the bill, mentioning how the transplant program has saved or bettered the lives of people they know. However, a small number of senators still remained opposed, signaling many more hours of debate. It is unknown at this time if the bill will be up again. Since it is a speaker priority bill, the speaker has the discretion to make this decision.
LB 538, which requires performance audits of tax incentive programs, received first-round approval this past week on a 37-0 vote. LB 538 was introduced by the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, of which I chair. The primary goal of the legislation is to produce information that will allow lawmakers to draw clear conclusions about how well tax incentives are benefiting Nebraska’s economy and meeting program goals.
If you have any opinions on these issues 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 email address is email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.