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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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
According to the legislative rules, the Appropriations Committee must place appropriations bills on General File by the 70th day in a 90-day session or the Legislature reverts to the Governor’s budget proposal. The budget bills were reported to the floor on May 1, which was the 70th day, and must be passed by the 80th legislative day, which falls on May 20.
The Appropriations Committee has proposed a budget of $3.8 billion the first year and $4 billion the second year of the biennium. This represents a 5.5% growth in the first year and a 4.8% growth in the second year, for an average of 5.2%. The primary differences between the Governor’s budget proposal, with an average increase of 4.9%, was that the committee recommended a higher level of state aid funding for K-12 schools and appropriated additional contributions to the defined benefit retirement plans for school employees, due to a projected actuarial shortfall.
At the end of the 2012 legislative session, a $619.4 million shortfall from the required minimum 3% reserve was projected for the 2013-2015 biennium. Since that time, the projected shortfall has switched to a positive $50 million, due to higher revenue forecasts by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board and lower spending projections, including proposed alterations to the state aid formula for K-12 schools. This means that approximately $50 million is available for new legislative proposals.
The cash reserve fund is projected to have a balance of $625 million at the end of the next biennium. This is the fund that allowed the state to recover from the recent recession without major damage to programs and services or the necessity of a tax increase.
The budget is broken up into 3 major parts. Approximately 34% of the budget is dedicated to the funding of agency operations. This includes funding for the University, State Colleges, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Corrections, the State Patrol, the court system, and dozens of other agencies. Another 32% is for state aid to individuals, which includes funding for persons qualifying for Medicaid, child welfare, public assistance, and those with developmental disabilities. The last 34% of the budget is devoted to state aid to local governments, which includes school districts, special education, community colleges, and funding for the homestead exemption.
The Legislature gave first-round approval this past week to LB 93, which allows for the notation of the word “veteran” on a driver’s license or a state identification card. In order to implement this voluntary privilege, the Department of Veterans Affairs would create a registry to determine eligibility for use by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The intent is to make it more convenient for persons to identify themselves as veterans, as they must now show their discharge papers, which are cumbersome to carry and contain confidential information.
As advanced from the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, LB 93 also proposed to create the Military Honor license plate. Unfortunately, Senator Ernie Chambers pledged to fight this provision, so due to time constraints in the remaining days of this legislative session, the proposal was amended out of the bill and will be taken up next year.
Senators gave second-round approval to LB 517, which would create a Water Funding Task Force. The task force would be charged with the development of a 20-year strategic plan for water sustainability. They are to present the recommended plan, along with a funding proposal, in time for the Legislature to discuss it during the 2014 legislative session.
As the Legislature discusses the budget and other bills of interest, I welcome your input. 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 at the Capitol is (402) 471-2733.
Should police be able to stop a motorist for not wearing a seat belt or for texting? As a member of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, one afternoon this past week was spent discussing these issues. The current law requires all front seat motorists to wear seat belts. However, police can only ticket violators if they are stopped for some other reason. Both LB 10 and LB 189 would make a seat belt violation a primary offense and would require all passengers to be buckled up, not just front seat passengers. LB 189, introduced by Senator John Harms of Scottsbluff, also proposes to increase the fine for a seat belt violation from $25 to $100 and to assess 1 point to the driving record. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have primary seat belt laws. New Hampshire is the only state with no seat belt law for adults. Seat belt laws in the remainder of the states (including Nebraska) are secondarily enforced.
Currently, seat belt usage is approximately 79%. Based on experience in other states, testifiers projected that this statistic would increase to 90% if either LB 10 or LB 189 were passed into law. Proponents testified that primary seat belt laws save lives, reduce injuries, and lower crash costs to society.
Opponents feared that making a seat belt violation a primary offense could lead to racial profiling by police. Others questioned how far the government should intrude into personal decision-making.
Senator Harms also introduced LB 118, which would make texting a primary offense. Currently, reading, typing or sending a text message is against the law while operating a motor vehicle that is in motion, but a driver can only be charged if pulled over for a different traffic violation.
For years, Nebraskans have discussed the need for a comprehensive statewide plan to deal with water challenges facing the state, from severe drought to flooding, interstate compacts, and management of our underground water supplies. There have been studies and discussions, but no widespread solutions or agreement on funding sources.
This past week, the Natural Resources Committee held a public hearing on LB 517, which proposes to establish a Water Sustainability Project Task Force to work with the Department of Natural Resources. The task force would be charged with identifying water resources programs, projects and activities in need of funding in order to meet the long-term statewide goals of water sustainability, increased water use productivity, and maximizing the beneficial use of water resources. Experts would be hired to accomplish the objectives in LB 517, analyzing data gathered from past studies. The funding for the study would be sought from the oil and gas severance taxes the state collects, which currently are transferred to the permanent school fund. A report is to be submitted to the Legislature by January 31, 2014. LB 517 was introduced by Senator Tom Carlson, the chair of the Natural Resources Committee.
Senator Carlson also introduced another bill which will have a public hearing before the Revenue Committee on March 15. LB 516 would establish the Nebraska Water Legacy Commission and proposes to earmark one-fourth of one percent of sales tax revenue as a dedicated source of funding for new water projects, management and research, as identified by the recommendations for a comprehensive, multi-year plan developed as a result of the LB 517 study. With the passage of LB 84 last year to divert one-fourth of one percent of sales tax revenue for road projects, supporters claim that water is just as important as roads to our state. This bill will be held over until next year, giving senators and the public time to discuss whether this is an appropriate source of funds.
Again, I encourage your comments on the issues that are before the Legislature. 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 office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.