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This past week began with the Legislature being notified of the Governor’s veto of $64 million within the budget bills. The Appropriations Committee met early in the week and developed a package of items that they recommended for override. The Legislature agreed with the Appropriations Committee and voted to override the recommended vetoes.
The Governor had vetoed $7.4 million of the $17.5 million in funding for the Game and Parks Commission. In his veto message, the Governor stressed that the partial funding would still allow for the projects at Ponca State Park and Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. However, the written agreement between the Appropriations Committee and the commission stated that should the committee provide $17.5 million, the commission would be able to further address priority deferred maintenance needs statewide and the undertaking of capital projects at Ponca State Park and priority capital projects at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park to put the existing facilities in a condition that would be conducive to transferring operating and management to a local partner. With the successful override motion, it eliminates any question as to whether the projects will be undertaken.
I joined the Governor at a press conference where he signed legislation offering more than $400 million in tax relief to Nebraskans over the next 5 years. Among the bills the Governor signed was LB 96. This bill will eliminate the sales tax on repair or replacement parts for agricultural machinery and equipment. Nebraska was one of only 8 states that charged sales tax on such items, which created a competitive disadvantage for our farm equipment supply industry, particularly for those located close to the state’s border. LB 905 will increase the Property Tax Credit Program by $25 million, bringing the annual appropriation to $140 million. LB 986 will expand Nebraska’s homestead exemption program so that more Nebraskans qualify, by increasing the limit on household income. LB 850, the bill I introduced to authorize a homestead exemption for individuals with developmental disabilities who meet income and valuation guidelines, was included in LB 986. LB 987 will index Nebraska’s individual income tax brackets for inflation, exempt more social security income from taxation, and provide limited tax exemptions for military retirees. Furthermore, LB 725 contains an additional $33 million in state aid to local school districts.
LB 1098, which would reconstruct the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission, was given first-round approval this past week. The legislation is the result of the work of the Water Funding Task Force during the past interim. The restructured commission would be required to revise their rules and regulations to ensure the funding process follows the ranking and criteria recommendations of the task force.
Several senators are pushing for basin-wide planning to ensure water sustainability and threatened to filibuster LB 1098 if provisions for a state water plan were not included. Others feel that such a proposal favors surface water irrigators at the expense of groundwater irrigators. I feel that statewide water planning is already in place through the work of the Department of Natural Resources and our local NRDs.
The budget bills contain $31 million in funding for water sustainability projects and LB 1098 is the vehicle for the distribution of these funds. Interested parties have pledged to work together on a compromise prior to the second-round of debate. I spoke on the floor of the importance of dealing with water sustainability projects now and not postponing them. The project at Lake McConaughy cost $43.5 million in 1935. Today, that cost would have grown to $695 million.
Although the Legislature has advanced some controversial issues, other legislation hasn’t fared as well. LB 943, which would have increased the minimum wage, failed to receive first-round approval. LB 1058, a bill that would have adopted the Interstate Compact on the Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote, was pulled from the agenda by its introducer. LB 965, which was intended to encourage more renewable energy development but could have resulted in higher electric rates, was bracketed until the end of session.
As we enter the final days of this legislative session, which is scheduled to adjourn on April 17, I still 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 is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to the budget bills that make adjustments to the biennial budget passed last year. The Appropriations Committee’s recommendations result in a net increase of $27,739 over the two-year period. However, this does not take into account other legislation with a fiscal impact. If all bills pending on the second and third stage of debate would happen to pass, spending would grow by approximately $44.5 million.
The Appropriations Committee’s budget recommendations included funding for increased costs due to prison overcrowding, funding to serve additional persons with developmental disabilities that are on the waiting list, increased funding for grants for the early childhood education program, and increased funding for our Medicaid match rate, due to a lower federal match rate, which is calculated based on a comparison of our personal per capita income compared with other states. These increased costs were almost entirely offset by reductions in expenses, such as lower costs than projected for the homestead exemption program and the state aid formula for schools.
Bills pending that could increase the spending above the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations include LB 725, which proposes to move the scheduled decrease in the local effort rate (LER) in the school state aid formula up one year. The LER was increased during the budget cutting years of the recession. LB 725 would add approximately $33 million to the budget. LB 986 proposes to increase the number of people that qualify for the homestead exemption by raising the income brackets.
Under the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations, the projected ending balance of the cash reserve fund is $697 million. Committee members made it a priority to leave a sufficient amount in the cash reserve fund, as this is what helped sustain our state during the recent recession, preventing the necessity of raising taxes when revenues fell. Furthermore, the committee emphasized that any use of the cash reserve fund should be for one-time items and not for projects requiring on-going support.
The Appropriations Committee recommended $65 million in transfers from the cash reserve fund. This includes $20 million for water projects, $15 million to state parks, $10 million for job training, $5 million to county jails to ease the burden of prison overcrowding, and $15 million for improvements at the State Capitol, including the replacement of the HVAC system, which is 50 years old and has outlived its predicted lifespan.
During debate on the budget bills, Senator Galen Hadley, chair of the Revenue Committee, offered an amendment to increase funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $20 million, in addition to the $25 million already proposed by the Appropriations Committee. His amendment lost on a 20-18 vote. The Property Tax Credit program was enacted in 2007 and has been funded at $115 million annually since 2008. Currently, a homeowner receives a $60.88 credit per $100,000 of value. The credit will increase to $74.11 under the committee’s proposal, but would have increased to $84.70 per $100,000 of value if the amendment would have been successful.
In addition to the property tax relief offered through the increase in the Property Tax Credit program and an expansion of the Homestead Exemption Program, the Legislature also gave first round approval to LB 987. This bill proposes to adjust individual income tax brackets for inflation and increases the number of persons who won’t be liable for income taxes on their social security income.
With approximately a month left in this legislative session, 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 email address is email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Legislature began meeting in full-day session this past week, following the completion of the public hearing process. The Speaker of the Legislature warned senators of the workload that is ahead of them, with just twenty days left and many priority bills yet to be discussed. Speaker Adams announced that the Legislature will begin working late nights on March 18. Working late is typically around 8:30 p.m., but could be as late as 11:59 p.m.
Legislation requesting funding for water sustainability projects was introduced as a result of work completed by the Nebraska Water Funding Task Force, on which I served this past interim. The Appropriations Committee included $31.4 million for water projects in their recommendations to the Legislature. The proposal includes one-time funding of $20 million from the cash reserve, with $11 million appropriated annually from the general fund. Over the next several years, $10.5 million will be used to complete existing water projects. New water projects will fall under the guidelines proposed as a result of the task force’s work and will require a local match.
LB 1098 reconfigures the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission. The Commission is charged with revising rules and regulations to ensure the funding process establishes and utilizes criteria upon which projects, programs, and activities will be ranked and prioritized according to the water sustainability goals that were recommended by the task force.
LB 1001, which would allow the production, sale, and purchase of industrial hemp in Nebraska, received first-round approval on a 32-1 vote. It would exempt industrial hemp from the Uniform Controlled Substances Act. Hemp is used in materials such as fabric, rope, paper, and construction products. Senators viewed industrial hemp as another crop and source of revenue for farmers and NOT as a gateway to recreational use of marijuana. Hemp contains 1% or less of THC, the mind-altering ingredient found in the cannabis plant. Since cross-pollination would ruin a marijuana crop by lowering the THC levels, it would not be feasible to grow hemp in an effort to hide marijuana plants. The farm bill recently passed by Congress allows state agricultural departments and universities to develop research and evaluate markets in states that have legalized industrial hemp. Therefore, this legislation could open the door for additional research at the university, which could result in economic development opportunities for our state.
I successfully amended LB 850 into LB 986 this past week. LB 850 is the bill that I introduced to allow individuals who have a developmental disability to qualify for the homestead exemption, if they meet certain income and valuation guidelines. LB 986 is a Revenue Committee bill that changes the income guidelines for those qualifying for the homestead exemption, in order to expand eligibility for the program. After the adoption of the amendment, the bill was given first-round approval.
Senators also gave first-round approval to LB 814, which proposes to dedicate the state sales tax revenue derived from the sale or lease of motorboats and personal watercraft for the repair or maintenance of the Game and Parks Commission’s infrastructure. Committee amendments added the provisions of LB 841, which would also dedicate the sales tax revenue on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and utility-type vehicles for Game and Parks projects. This would earmark approximately $2.6 million annually for deferred maintenance projects.
The Game and Parks Commission has a $43 million shortfall in deferred maintenance and ADA compliance projects. The commission has had to reduce maintenance, mowing, and trash removal at some state parks and recreational areas. Furthermore, they have temporarily closed some areas, including the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.
LB 814, as well as the Appropriations Committee’s recommendation for a one-time transfer of $17.5 million for statewide projects (including projects at Ponca State Park and Arbor Lodge), is necessary to help the Game and Parks Commission deal with the serious backlog issue. Our parks are some of the most popular tourist attractions in the state and it is important that they are sufficiently funded and maintained.
As senators work to address priority issues, I welcome your comments. 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.