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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.
The Legislature gave first-round approval this past week to a bill that overhauls the juvenile justice system in our state. The intent of LB 561, introduced by Senator Brad Ashford of Omaha, and prioritized by the Judiciary Committee, is to keep more kids out of the judicial system and in effective and appropriate community-based services.
Pre-trial diversion programs hold youth accountable, provide restitution to victims, and link youth and their families with appropriate services. LB 561 would establish a position within the Crime Commission to assist in the creation and maintenance of juvenile pre-trial diversion programs in counties across the state. Funding would be appropriated for the development of community-based care.
Under LB 561, as amended, the number of juveniles sent to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTC) in Kearney and Geneva would be limited to the most severe cases for the protection of the individual or the public. The original version of the bill called for the closure of the facilities. Furthermore, a process would be created for juveniles leaving a YRTC to help youth more effectively reenter their communities with the involvement of their families.
LB 561 shifts responsibility for juvenile offenders from the Office of Juvenile Services within the Department of Health and Human Services to the Office of Probation Administration statewide. Probation officers have already assumed responsibility for offenders in Douglas County and the North Platte and Scottsbluff areas, through a successful pilot project.
Senators also debated tax incentives for wind energy this past week. As amended, LB 104, introduced and prioritized by Omaha Senator Steve Lathrop, amends the definition of “qualified business” for Tiers 2 through 5 of the Nebraska Advantage Act, to include businesses engaged in the production of electricity by using one or more sources of renewable energy to produce electricity for sale. This definition would include wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy.
LB 104 was introduced in an effort to encourage the development of renewable energy. It specifically attempts to attract a Kansas company who has expressed interest in building a $300 million wind farm in northeast Nebraska. Nebraska ranks 4th in wind energy potential but lags behind other states in the development of wind farms. LB 104 provides for a refund of the sales tax paid on machinery and equipment at the project location, which will make us competitive with neighboring states regarding wind development. LB 104 was given initial approval on a 30-0 vote.
The formula that distributes state aid to K-12 school districts is a highly controversial issue. State aid to K-12 schools is the largest single recipient of state funds within the budget. The current formula would have resulted in an approximate 11% increase, which is unsustainable considering the other responsibilities of the state. The Education Committee worked on adjustments to the formula, bringing it down to an average increase of about 5% each year of the biennium, which approximates the growth in state revenues.
As debate began on LB 407, the larger districts argued that additional state aid should focus on the schools where most of the state’s students attend, whereas smaller schools feel that they should be awarded a greater portion, as they cannot offer the broad curriculum enjoyed by the larger schools. After it became apparent that there was no agreement on the amendments offered by the Education Committee, the bill was pulled from the agenda. Three days later, after a compromise was reached granting concessions to both the larger and smaller school districts, LB 407 received first-round approval on a 42-0 vote.
A major concern that I have with the present state aid formula is the number of school districts that no longer qualify for equalization aid. Of the 249 school districts, it is projected that 114 districts will receive no equalization aid, although they still receive some state aid, such as income tax rebates and net option funding. As valuations continue to increase, especially for rural landowners, the burden of funding rural schools is falling primarily on our agriculture sector.
Senators have begun to work into the evening most nights of the week. As we debate many issues affecting the citizens of the state, 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 e-mail address is email@example.com and my telephone number at the Capitol is (402) 471-2733.