NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
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Sen. Dan Watermeier

Sen. Dan Watermeier

District 1

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Legislative Update

March 18th, 2016

The Legislature gave first-round approval to the budget package this past week. Senators also stopped a measure that proposed to repeal the motorcycle helmet law for riders 21 years of age and older.

Progress has been made this past week on property tax relief, although it isn’t as comprehensive as hoped. LB 958, introduced on behalf of the Governor, sought to slow the increase in agricultural land valuation by capping statewide agricultural land valuation growth at 3% per year. It also aimed to slow the growth of property taxes levied by political subdivisions. After significant opposition was encountered from representatives of cities and other political subdivisions, the committee eliminated most of the bill, except for the portion that limits the unused restricted fund authority for community colleges to 3% of their prior year’s restricted funds. In the amendment proposed by the Revenue Committee, instead of the 3% cap on valuation, the committee is proposing an increase in the Property Tax Credit program. This program provides direct property tax relief for property owners through a credit on their property tax statement. Last year, funding for this program was increased by $64 million to $204 million in annual funding. This year, the proposed increase in credits would be directed to agricultural land owners. Since this is a new concept, the Revenue Committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed amendment on Thursday, March 24. After calculations are completed, an amount of funding will be added to the amendment.

A companion bill, LB 959, also introduced on behalf of the Governor, intended to slow the growth of spending and property taxes levied by school districts. It was advanced from the Education Committee, after being substantially amended. The bill now proposes to eliminate the minimum levy adjustment, which takes away state funding from schools with levies below $0.95. Additionally, it would tighten limits on a special project fund that schools use to address safety, environmental hazards, accessibility barriers and mold in existing buildings.

Two other bills promising property tax relief encountered roadblocks this past week. LB 717, introduced by Senator Mike Groene, proposed to use a 5-year history of comparable sales, excluding 20% of sales with the lowest valuation to sale price ratio, in an effort to remove abnormal high priced sales. It also would have frozen 2016 valuations at the 2015 level. An attorney general’s opinion stated that the bill is likely unconstitutional as it would appear to result in property within the same class being assessed at values that are not uniform and proportionate relative to their market value.

LB 883, introduced by Senator Jim Scheer and eleven other senators, including myself, was killed by the Education Committee. This legislation proposed to add a per student foundation aid component to the K-12 school funding formula, in an effort to reduce property taxes by giving every school district some base funding through the state aid formula. Currently, almost two-thirds of our school districts don’t receive equalization aid because their resources from property taxes exceed their needs, which illustrates the high dependence on property taxes in our school funding formula. This concept would require additional revenue to implement and I feel that this is a discussion that needs to take place.

According to calculations made by Senator Scheer’s office, under LB 883, schools in District #1 would have seen substantial increases in state aid. Following is the projected amount of additional state aid that schools would receive over the current amount, with the addition of $3,000 per student in foundation aid. Sterling Public Schools – $587,467; Johnson County Central Public Schools – $1,515,000; Johnson-Brock Public Schools – $389,596; Auburn Public Schools – $198,681; Syracuse-Dunbar-Avoca Schools – $2,123,988; Nebraska City Public Schools – $580,394; Palmyra District OR 1 – $1,135,510; Pawnee City Public Schools – $306,458; Lewiston Consolidated Schools – $37,773; Falls City Public Schools – $2,455,119; and HTRS Public Schools – $1,029,000.

Property taxes bear a disproportionate burden in support of our school districts, especially in our rural areas. I believe the concept of foundation aid has merit and I am hopeful that it plays a major role in the Legislature’s continued discussion of property tax relief this year and in following years.

As we begin late night sessions, I encourage your input on legislation of interest to you. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.

Legislative Update

February 19th, 2016

February 19th marked the deadline for priority bill designations. Every senator is allowed to designate one bill as their personal priority bill. Committees are allowed to designate two bills and the Speaker of the Legislature is allowed to designate up to 25 bills as speaker priority bills. Typically, after the deadline date, bills that have not been designated as priorities do not stand a good chance of being debated, unless they are non-controversial and are chosen for consent calendar.

I chose LB 744 as my priority bill. It recognizes communication and contact agreements to permit continuing communication and contact after the placement of an adoptee between the birth parents and the adoptive parents in private and agency adoptions. However, the law would make it clear that the existence of, or the failure to comply with such agreements, does not affect the adoption decree, the relinquishment of parental rights, or the written consent to adoption.

Senator Lydia Brasch chose LB 960, introduced by Senator Jim Smith, at the request of the Governor, as her priority bill. LB 960, the Transportation Innovation Act, would create three new programs funded by transfers of up to $150 million from the Cash Reserve Fund to the Transportation Infrastructure Bank Fund by June 30, 2023 and pledges up to $150 million of state motor fuel taxes collected during the same time period. A major purpose of the Accelerated State Highway Capital Improvement Program is to fast-track the completion of the expressway system. The County Bridge Match Program is proposed to promote innovative solutions and additional funding to accelerate the repair and replacement of county bridges. The goal behind the Economic Opportunity Program is to finance transportation improvements to attract and support new businesses and business expansions.

Senator Ernie Chambers picked LB 1056, the Patient Choice at End of Life Act. This legislation would allow an adult with a terminal illness to request a prescription for aid-in-dying medication. Senator Tommy Garrett has chosen LB 643, which would allow for the use of marijuana for medical treatment. Senator Mike Gloor selected LB 1013, which proposes to increase the tax on cigarettes from $0.64 to $2.14 per package.

Senator Laura Ebke has designated LR 35, which calls for Nebraska to join other states in passing an application calling for an interstate convention for the purpose of proposing amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The scope of the convention is to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress. The convention will only occur after 34 states pass the same application. In order for a valid amendment to emerge from the convention, it needs a simple majority vote. However, it still must be ratified by the legislatures of 38 states before becoming part of the U.S. Constitution.

Senator Mike Groene selected LB 717, which would change the way that land is assessed for property tax purposes, using a 5-year history of comparable sales, rather than the current 3-year history for agricultural and commercial property and two years for residential property. It would exclude the sales that constitute the lowest 20% of assessment ratios, thereby removing abnormal sales and smoothing out the spikes in valuation. It would also freeze 2016 valuations at the 2015 level of assessment.

Senator Jim Scheer picked LB 883 as his priority. This bill, which I have mentioned several times in past newsletters, proposes to add a student foundation aid component to the school finance formula. It would provide a base level of funding to all public school districts, regardless of whether they qualify for equalization aid.

Senator John Kuehn prioritized LR 378, a constitutional amendment introduced in an effort to protect agriculture as a vital sector of Nebraska’s economy by guaranteeing the rights of Nebraskans to engage in farming and ranching practices. It is meant to protect Nebraska farms from out-of-state extremist animal rights and environmental groups that target Nebraska agriculture.

The Revenue Committee chose LB 958 and the Education Committee selected LB 959 as committee priority bills. These two bills, introduced at the request of the Governor, aim to slow the increase in statewide agricultural land valuation, slow the growth of property taxes levied by the political subdivisions, and slow the growth of spending by schools.

The Health and Human Services Committee selected LB 1032 as one of their committee priority bills. LB 1032, which would adopt the Transitional Health Insurance Program Act, is the fourth attempt at Medicaid Expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act. Even with the federal government picking up 90% of the cost, the Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that over a 10-year period, it could cost our state almost $1 billion to pay for health insurance for this expanded population.

These are just a few of the bills that have been designated as priorities, but portray the controversial issues that have been selected. Senators are set to begin all day debate the first full week in March. I can foresee that we will be working into the evening on many nights prior to our scheduled last day on April 20.

I have heard from constituents who have received telephone calls from organizations asking them to call their senator either in support or against a certain issue. Sometimes these robo calls may give you incorrect information. You may need to ask some questions or do some research in order to get the full story.

As we get into discussion of priority bills, I encourage you to inform me of your opinions. Only with your input, can I thoroughly represent my district. 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 dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov.

 

Legislative Update

January 28th, 2016

The legislative session is well underway, having passed the one-fourth mark of this 60-day session. Senators have been debating controversial issues, with several bills encountering a filibuster and requiring a cloture motion before the vote to advance can be taken.

LB 471 is an important bill that didn’t require much debate and was easily advanced by senators this past week. This bill, introduced by Omaha Senator Sara Howard, will strengthen the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program in Nebraska. Currently, dispensers of prescription drugs are not required to report prescription information and patients can opt out of having their information reported. LB 471 would prohibit patients from opting out of the system and would require all dispensed prescriptions to be entered into the system, including those with cash payments. Prescribers and dispensers of prescription drugs would be able to access the system at no cost to the provider.

Narcotic overdose deaths are a significant problem. Persons addicted to prescription drugs will go from doctor to doctor to obtain prescription painkillers. Nebraska and Missouri are the only states that have not implemented an operational prescription drug monitoring program. Senator Howard disclosed documentation showing that people from 38 states have come to Nebraska to fill prescriptions for narcotic pain medications. LB 471 would close loopholes in our current program in an effort to prevent the misuse of prescription drugs.

When our current school finance formula was first developed 25 years ago, one of the goals was to have no more than 45% of the revenue financing our K-12 school districts coming from property taxes. Today, property taxes make up approximately 50% of the funding for our local school districts. Our current state aid formula is too dependent on property taxes and needs to be revised. However, as I have mentioned earlier, the Legislature is facing a $140 million shortfall. Analysts have estimated that reducing school district’s reliance on property taxes to the 45% level would require $176 million in additional state aid.

Our current state aid formula calculates the needs of a district, which are what it costs to run the school. Subtracted from this figure are the resources of the district, which is made up of primarily property tax revenue, as well as state sources, such as special education reimbursement. The difference is paid to school districts through the state aid formula as equalization aid. The number of districts that receive equalization aid has steadily decreased over the years, primarily due to the significant increase in the valuation of agricultural land. Currently, only 87 of our 245 school districts receive equalization aid. That is why I am supporting LB 883, introduced by Norfolk Senator Jim Scheer and 11 other senators. It would provide a base amount of aid to all school districts, regardless of whether they qualify for equalization aid. LB 882, a companion bill, deals with school budgeting. It limits a school district’s ability to exceed its allowable growth percentage, limits cash reserve growth and removes the ability of schools to carry forward their unused budget authority.

When looking at the revenue that funds our state government, property taxes make up about 42% of total taxes paid in Nebraska, with sales tax revenue comprising 28% and the income tax contributing 27%. I believe that the Legislature should strive to more evenly balance the revenue from our three major tax sources. Last year, we increased the funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $64 million annually. This year, there are several proposals (including LB 883) that would increase state aid to school districts, thereby lowering the burden on the property tax to fund our schools. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I am hopeful we can continue to make progress on property tax relief, while balancing the budget.

As the Legislature debates issues of interest to Nebraskans, 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 telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov.

Legislative Update

January 15th, 2016

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 dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2733.

Sen. Dan Watermeier

District 1
Room #2000
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2733
Email: dwatermeier@leg.ne.gov
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