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The Legislature completed Day 59 of this 60-day legislative session on Wednesday, April 13, when the remainder of the pending bills were read on Final Reading and sent to the governor. The governor has 5 days, excluding Sunday, to decide whether to sign or veto the legislation. Senators won’t meet for the last day until Wednesday, April 20, thereby allowing for the consideration of overriding any veto that might be made by the governor.
The Legislature passed LB 958 and LB 959, bills that were aimed at providing property tax relief. LB 958 increases the annual funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $20 million, with the additional funding distributed to agricultural landowners. This will be accomplished by valuing agricultural land at 90%, rather than 75%, of market value for purposes of calculating the property tax credit program. LB 959 eliminates the minimum levy adjustment which reduces state aid to districts with levies less than $0.95, removes the levy criteria from the averaging adjustment calculation and reduces the special levy school districts can use to address health, safety and accessibility problems in school buildings. This bill is projected to increase state aid to primarily rural school districts by $8.5 million.
Although these bills will provide for some property tax relief, I was disappointed that they didn’t go further. I will continue to work on the proposal to include a foundation aid component in the state aid formula. Foundation aid is a certain amount of funding per student, regardless of whether the school district qualifies for equalization funding. This would reduce the reliance on property taxes in the funding of our schools. An in-depth discussion of how this increase in state aid would be funded needs to take place. Additionally, there are some senators who are advocating for an income tax reduction, to make our state more competitive with surrounding states.
Also passed this past week was LB 960, which creates an infrastructure bank, funded by a $50 million transfer from the cash reserve fund and the commitment of $400 million in additional fuel tax revenue generated by the passage of LB 610 last year. This will allow the Department of Roads to accelerate work done on major highway projects, which could include finishing the expressway system. The funding will also be used for the repair and replacement of county bridges, as well as transportation improvements to attract and support economic development.
My priority bill, LB 744, received final approval from the Legislature. It will allow for the continuation of open adoptions in private and agency adoptions.
LB 886, which I co-sponsored, was also approved by lawmakers. It recognizes the contributions of our rural volunteer firefighters and rescue squad members by authorizing a $250 refundable income tax credit.
One bill that will not become law was LB 10, which proposed to return Nebraska to the winner-take-all system for the distribution of electoral votes in presidential elections. Another filibuster was initiated on Final Reading and this time the cloture motion to cut off debate fell one vote short, meaning that the bill is pulled from the agenda.
I encourage you to contact me as we complete this year’s legislative session. 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 gave first-round approval to both bills introduced on behalf of Governor Ricketts, containing his plan for property tax relief. However, the bills have been completely rewritten through the amendment process.
LB 959, as amended by committee amendments, eliminates the minimum levy penalty which reduces state aid to districts with levies less than .95 cents, removes the levy criteria from the averaging adjustment calculation, and caps the special levy school districts can use to address health, safety and accessibility problems in school buildings at 3 cents, down from 5.2 cents. LB 959 will allow a number of school districts to reduce their levy and will also provide more state aid to some districts that depend heavily on property taxes to fund their schools.
LB 958, as introduced, would have affected local governments by placing limitations on the budget of restricted funds and reducing the number of exclusions to the property tax levy limit. It also would have limited the state-wide increase in agricultural land valuations to 3 percent. Following the public hearing, when the committee heard significant opposition from representatives of cities and other political subdivisions, LB 958 was advanced from the Revenue Committee with committee amendments that rewrote the bill. Although a portion of the original bill remained in the committee amendments, pertaining to the unused restricted funds authority for community colleges, the sponsor of the bill has filed an amendment to strike this portion during the second round of debate, as he doesn’t want it to hinder the passage of the bill.
Under the committee amendments, LB 958 proposed a $30 million increase in the Property Tax Credit program, targeted for agricultural landowners. This would be accomplished by valuing agricultural land for purposes of the Property Tax Credit program at full market value rather than 75% of market value. With the additional funding, on top of the $204 million already appropriated for the program, the credit for agricultural landowners would result in an approximate 10% reduction in property taxes.
During debate on LB 958, urban senators felt that all taxpayers should receive tax relief, not just rural landowners, and an amendment was offered to strike the provisions of the bill, replacing it with an income tax reduction. Following several hours of contentious debate, a compromise amendment was offered to reduce the additional funding for rural landowners through the Property Tax Credit program to approximately $20 million annually. I was disappointed that we had to compromise in order to get LB 958 advanced. Considering that property taxes collected statewide on agricultural land increased 176% over the last 10 years, compared with a 35% increase in residential property and a 49% increase in commercial property, it was obvious that agricultural landowners deserved some immediate relief. However, the Legislature must continue to work to provide significant relief for all taxpayers.
LB 1032, is Nebraska’s fourth attempt at expanding Medicaid, as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. After about an hour of debate, a motion was offered to bracket the bill until April 20, which is the last day of session. The motion was successful, meaning that the bill is essentially killed for this session.
The Health and Human Services Committee amendments to LB 1032 proposed to add a sunset date in three years. The amendments also proposed to appropriate $63 million from the Health Care Cash Fund to fund the state match for the coverage of the newly eligible.
In addition to the sunset, LB 1032 also states that if the federal share falls below 90%, the coverage for newly eligible individuals shall terminate. Although the intent of the bill is to ensure no appeals to the loss of eligibility if the program terminates, this could be problematic. Federal law classifies the new Medicaid expansion population as a “mandatory population” for states that opt into the expansion.
Furthermore, senators questioned whether the source of funding was sustainable. When federal reimbursement falls to 90% in 2020, the projected cost to the state for the expanded population would be approximately $58 million annually. Although the Health Care Cash fund has a positive balance currently, it only brings in approximately $59 million annually and is used to fund many other programs as well, such as tobacco-cessation programs, biomedical research, and behavior health and substance abuse services. Senators sympathized with those who fall in the gap, making too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to be eligible for subsidies. However, the majority feared that the program could end up costing more than our state could afford, thereby requiring cuts in other essential programs and services.
With just a few days left in this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your opinion on 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Appropriations Committee submitted their budget recommendations this past week to the full Legislature by the 40th legislative day, as required by legislative rule. The appropriations bills must be passed by the 50th day, which falls on March 29th this year. The appropriations bills presented this year are mid-biennium adjustments to the two-year budget passed last year for fiscal years 2015/16 and 2016/17, resulting in a net increase of $4.2 million.
Although the financial status at the end of the current biennium remains similar to what it was at the end of the last year’s session, it has fluctuated greatly during the past year. The projected status went from a positive $2.3 million to a negative $110 million after the Nebraska Economic Forecast Advisory Board reduced revenue projections by $154 million last October. This was partially offset by a lapse of unexpended appropriations, reductions in Medicaid, and a $13 million net gain when the Forecast Advisory Board met again in February, resulting in the current positive financial status of $10.1 million. However the projected status for the following biennium shows a $106 million shortfall. This volatility shows the necessity for keeping a sufficient balance in the cash reserve fund.
The $10.1 million figure is the amount of revenue above the required 3% minimum reserve, which is available to fund legislation with a fiscal impact. The reality of this figure makes it apparent that any substantial tax relief will require a tax shift or significant cuts in spending. Due to significant opposition from cities and counties, the Governor’s proposal for property tax relief will most likely not advance from the Revenue Committee as introduced. The intent of LB 958 was to slow down the increase in agricultural land valuation by limiting the state-wide increase to 3 percent per year and to slow the growth of property taxes levied by the political subdivisions. A related bill, LB 959, sought to slow the growth of spending and property taxes levied by school districts. Likewise, it has not been advanced by the Education Committee at this time.
The Appropriations Committee recommended funding three one-time projects from the cash reserve, reducing the balance by $91 million to $655 million. The transfers include $27.3 million to the Department of Corrections for adding capacity to the Lincoln Community Corrections Center, $13.7 million for the modification of two federal levee systems that impact the Offutt Air Force base, in an effort to help secure federal funding to rebuild Offutt’s deteriorating runway and keep the 55th Wing in Nebraska, and under LB 960, $50 million to fund the newly created Transportation Infrastructure Bank.
LB 960, as amended by the Appropriations Committee, creates three new programs funded by the $50 million transfer from the cash reserve fund. It also commits $400 million in additional fuel tax revenue generated by LB 610, passed by the Legislature last year. The Accelerated State Highway Capital Improvement Program will provide up-front money for major highway projects including the completion of the expressway system. The County Bridge Match Program will promote innovative solutions and provide additional funding to accelerate the repair and replacement of county bridges. Finally, the Economic Opportunity Program will finance transportation improvements to attract and support new businesses and business expansions.
Included in the budget recommendations, are amended versions of two of my bills. The first would provide a one-time $1.5 million appropriation to help with recruitment and retention of correctional staff, particularly at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. The other extended the current appropriations for deferred maintenance, repair, renovation and facility replacement construction projects at the three state colleges, thereby allowing for the Theater/Event Center project at Peru State College to proceed.
As legislators discuss the budget and other priority bills, I encourage your input. 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.