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For the third year in a row, the Legislature debated a bill that proposed to expand Medicaid. Initiated by President Obama, the Affordable Care Act was signed into law on the federal level in 2010. Medicaid expansion was mandatory in the original legislation, but due to a Supreme Court ruling it became voluntary for states. LB 472 would authorize eligibility for Medicaid coverage for adults ages 19-65 with incomes at or below 133% of federal poverty level. This year’s version of the legislation also proposed to create the Medicaid Redesign task force to review health care policy.
Supporters of the legislation referred to a recent report by two business professors at UNK, which found that our state would receive more than $2 billion in federal funds during the first five years of expansion. It was estimated that this would increase our state’s economic activity by more than $5 billion. The professors projected that the increased economic activity would generate more than enough tax revenue to pay for the state’s portion of the increased costs of expansion. However, Governor Ricketts warned against using subjective measures in determining the justification for entitlement expansions.
Although the federal government pledged to pay at least 90% of the cost, many senators were still concerned with the financial burden that would be placed on our state. They also questioned whether the federal government would keep their commitment. Supporters pointed out that LB 472 contained language that if the federal share falls below 90%, the coverage for the newly eligible would terminate. Opponents argued that once a program is expanded, it is very difficult to reverse direction. Senators were sympathetic to those that can’t afford health insurance and were concerned for hospitals that have experienced hardships as a result of the Affordable Care Act. However, Medicaid is intended to cover the most vulnerable. Under current guidelines, spending on Medicaid accounts for approximately 20% of our total state budget. An increase in the state’s portion to cover more than 75,000 new enrollees could jeopardize the funding for other state programs.
Unlike the two previous years, lawmakers spent just over 3 hours debating the issue before a motion was made to bracket LB 472 until the end of the legislative session. The motion to bracket was successful on a 28-16 vote, which means that LB 472 will not be debated again this year.
This past week, senators gave first-round approval to LB 519, which reflects the recommendations from a study by the Education Committee on the educational uses of lottery funds. The Nebraska Constitution specifies that forty-four and one-half percent of the money remaining after the payment of prizes and operating expenses shall be used for education as the Legislature may direct. Approximately $16 million is allocated per year for education projects.
Revenue from the lottery will continue to fund the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program and Nebraska Opportunity Grants for higher education. New uses for the lottery funds will be for Competitive Innovative Grants and Expanded Learning Opportunity Grants for K-12 schools and for a Gap Tuition Assistance Program to provide funding to community colleges to assist eligible students in pursuing certification programs or licensure in high-demand occupations.
Programs currently funded by lottery proceeds that have been preliminarily recommended for funding through the General Fund include High Ability Learner Aid, Early Childhood Education Grants, Early Childhood Endowment Grants, and operating funds for the Military Child Compact. Decreased funding for Distance Education, which is currently funded by lottery proceeds, is contained in LB 343. The ACT Pilot Project and Career Education programs will not be funded.
The Speaker announced this past week that the Legislature will begin working into the evening beginning April 28. Although we have already met for more than 60 days, we still have many major issues before us, including the budget, repeal of the death penalty, prison reform, and workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
As we begin the last third of this legislative session, 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 email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
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 email@example.com.