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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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
A good portion of this past week was spent debating the death penalty. LB 543 would change the maximum penalty for first degree murder in Nebraska from death to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Senator Ernie Chambers introduced similar legislation for more than 30 years until he left the Legislature in 2008. Back after a four-year break due to term limits, he again took up his fight to repeal the death penalty.
After eight hours of debate, Senator Chambers made a motion to invoke cloture, which immediately shuts off debate and allows a vote to be taken on the advancement of the bill. A cloture motion requires 33 votes. The motion fell short on a vote of 28-21. After an unsuccessful cloture motion, the bill is pulled from the agenda. It will not be debated again this year.
There are currently 11 people on Nebraska’s death row, including two who were sentenced to death for murders committed in Richardson County. The last execution in Nebraska was in 1997. In 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair as the sole means of imposing the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Legislature passed legislation in 2009 to change the method of executing the death penalty to lethal injection. The state has experienced difficulty in obtaining the lethal drugs, as pharmaceutical companies don’t want their products associated with executions. Thirty-two states, the U.S. Government, and the U.S. Military impose the death penalty.
Those opposing the death penalty emphasize the high cost, citing statistics that show the average number of appeals filed by someone on death row is 7.76 compared to 1.64 by those sentenced to life, with the average length of an appeal lasting more than 13 years for those on death row compared with almost 6 years for those sentenced to life in prison. Furthermore, the cost of a death penalty case is approximately $3 million compared to the cost of a life without parole case of just over $1 million. Opponents also emphasize the arbitrary nature of administering the death penalty.
Although no longer in the majority in the Legislature, but of sufficient number to block a vote on the advancement of the bill, senators supporting the death penalty argue that cost estimates are overstated and that the death penalty is an important and necessary factor in the sentencing process. They believe that it serves as a deterrent, especially for those already serving a life sentence. Proponents point out that the death penalty is reserved for those committing the most heinous of crimes. Statistics show that it is only sought in approximately 7% of all murders and actually imposed in less than 1%.
The Governor handed down his first veto of this session, returning LB 553 without his signature and with his objections. This legislation sought to address the shortfall in the school retirement plan. The Governor objected to the increase in the state contribution rate and felt that the long-term revisions should be studied further before implementing the changes. After some senators criticized the Governor for his absence when the Retirement Committee was studying this issue, the Legislature voted to override his veto on a 32-1 vote.
During these last several weeks of the legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the issues before us. 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.
Debate on the budget bills consumed most of this past week for the Legislature. The mainline budget bill, which contains the appropriations for the expenses of the Nebraska State Government over the next biennium, warranted the most discussion. A dozen amendments were offered to LB 195, but only the Appropriations Committee amendments, which became the bill, and two amendments offered by the Appropriations Committee chair were adopted. These amendments revised the amount appropriated to the state aid formula for K-12 school districts, based on the latest compromise on the state aid bill, and increased the revolving funds for the Nebraska Statewide Radio System, to allow for three additional towers to address necessary improvements and enhanced coverage. Unsuccessful amendments included efforts to reduce funding for the learning communities, for climate change studies, for the nurse visitation services program and for a railroad track inspector position, as well as attempting to increase funding for the property tax credit program. I was supportive of efforts to reduce the funding contained in the budget bill because if all bills pending are passed, it will result in a 5.5% increase in spending. The historical growth in revenue over the last 30 years is 5%. I do not think it is wise to increase spending by a greater percentage than the average increase in revenue.
In addition to advancing the budget bills to the second stage of debate, senators gave final approval to LB 553. This bill deals with the retirement system for school employees. Due to the recent recession, the plan has experienced a significant pension shortfall. Under LB 553, a new benefits tier is created for school employees hired on or after July 1, 2013, which averages the final salary over 5 years rather than 3 years and reduces the maximum cost-of-living adjustment from 2.5% to 1%. The sunset date on the increased employee contribution rate of 9.78% is eliminated and the state’s contribution rate is increased from 1% to 2% of total compensation. I support these efforts whereby the schools, teachers and the state share in resolving the shortfall. Furthermore, the legislation takes the initiative to adjust the current retirement system for future employees. However, I still have concerns about the sustainability of a defined benefit program.
Two years ago, legislation was passed to encourage companies to establish internships in an effort to retain our graduates in Nebraska, as research showed that interns tend to stay in the region after graduation. Under the Intern Nebraska program, grants are available to companies creating qualified new internships to help offset some of the cost and risk businesses incur when hiring interns. By the end of 2012, 229 companies had taken advantage of the program and had filled 361 positions. Of the interns who graduated and provided information about their future plans, over 50% were offered a full-time position with the company where they interned. An additional 25% were hired on full-time with another company.
LB 476, introduced this year by Senator Tom Carlson of Holdrege, amends the Intern Nebraska program. It opens eligibility up to any college student instead of just those in the upper classes. Grant amounts are increased to the lesser of 75% of the cost of the internship or $5,000, and can go up to $7,500, if the intern is a Federal Pell Grant recipient. The Department is to develop an action plan that will be marketed to high schools and higher education institutions, encouraging students to pursue internships. LB 476 was passed by the Legislature this past week.
We got our first taste of a late night session, adjourning at 11:05 p.m. on Thursday night. As we continue to work long hours, I encourage you to inform me of your thoughts and opinions. 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.
It’s almost crunch time. Senators have begun meeting in full-day session. We’ve passed the 50-day mark of the 90-day legislative session. We’ve discussed only a handful of priority bills and we still have the budget to deal with in May. Furthermore, the Appropriations Committee has estimated that the budget will only allow for $16 million to $19 million in new spending. This figure sounded sufficient, until the sum was calculated for the fiscal impact of the priority bills and came to more than $150 million for the two-year budget period. Consequently, some senator’s priority bills will not pass or they will have to be amended to reduce the fiscal impact. Senators will have to decide which priority bills are the most important for the state, as the Nebraska Legislature is required to pass a balanced budget.
Senators learned of the fiscal imbalance while debating a bill that would adopt the Wildfire Control Act of 2013. The legislation would direct the Nebraska Forest Service to contract for two air tankers for fighting fires, to thin forests to reduce risk, to provide expanded training, to expand the federal excess property programs and to oversee forest rehabilitation. Based on predictions that the drought will be even worse this summer, it was easy to argue the need for the bill. However, the legislation has an annual $1.7 million fiscal impact. Despite the warning, senators gave LB 634 first-round approval.
The following are two more examples of bills with significant fiscal impacts. Both have been designated as priority bills but neither have advanced from committee at this time.
LB 553 amends the School Employee Retirement Plan to address both short-term and long-term funding obligations. The bill creates a new tier of reduced benefits for new employees, reducing the cost-of-living adjustment from 2.5% to 1% and increasing from 3 to 5 the number of years used to determine final average salary for purposes of calculating a member’s retirement benefit. Preliminary discussions by Retirement Committee members would keep the contribution rates required of teachers at the increased level rather than allowing them to sunset. Additionally, the bill proposes to increase the state’s contribution rate from 1% to 2% of compensation, creating a fiscal impact of approximately $17 million per year. In an effort to retain costs, committee members have proposed to delay the increase in the state’s contribution rate to the second year of the biennium. Due to the recession, the pension fund is currently facing a $108 million actuarial shortfall and LB 553 helps to ensure the sustainability of the School Employees Retirement System.
LB 625 would increase the maximum income level for families qualifying for the Child Care Subsidy Program from 120% to 185% of the federal poverty level. In 2011, 13 states set eligibility for child care assistance above 200% and an additional 22 states set eligibility above 150% of federal poverty level. Prior to 2002, the income limit for the child care subsidy was 185% of federal poverty guidelines, but this income level was never authorized in statute. Supporters testified that child care subsidies are critical to ensuring that children are safe and parents can work. Studies have shown that child care represents the largest portion of a family’s income. The fiscal note estimates that the cost to the state would be approximately $11 million per year. As I understand, negotiations are taking place on the percentage of increase in the income level.
The Legislature will have a tough job ahead. All of the bills that have been designated as priority bills have merit and are important to certain groups of Nebraskans. If you have any comments on the bills that have been prioritized, I value your input and 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 e-mail address is email@example.com.