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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 email@example.com and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
This past week, the Legislature discussed the line-item vetoes made by the Governor on the budget bills. His vetoes amounted to approximately $44 million in federal, state, and cash funds over the next two years. The Appropriations Committee recommended that approximately $14 million in line-item vetoes be overridden, representing approximately 85% of the general fund vetoes, 70% of the vetoes in cash funds, but allowing the vetoes of federal funds to stand. The Legislature voted in support of the committee’s recommendations.
The Legislature voted to override line-item vetoes of state funding for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) grants, increased salaries for county court employees, additional aid for the Learning Community in Douglas and Sarpy counties, and funding for a Dental Health Director within the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been vacant since 2009 and has resulted in the loss of federal funding. The Governor’s veto of funding for the UNMC College of Nursing Lincoln facility, renovation of the Museum of Nebraska History and improvements in the State Capitol were also overridden. The College of Nursing facility in Lincoln will be partially funded with savings from a University capital project previously undertaken. The renovation of the Nebraska History Museum is intended to keep it in compliance with mechanical and electrical codes and ADA regulations.
Individual senators attempted to override additional line-item vetoes, including increased funding for the State Auditor’s office, the Supreme Court, and the railroad track inspection program. However, only the motions to override offered by the Appropriations Committee were successful.
Although LB 613, which proposed to create the Tax Modernization Commission, was introduced earlier this year, it gained momentum after public hearings were held on the Governor’s proposals to eliminate or reduce the income tax. Taxpayers from across the state objected to the proposal which would have eliminated popular sales tax exemptions to compensate for the reduction in income tax revenue. Many citizens voiced their opinion that high property taxes are a more prevalent problem.
During debate on LB 613, Senator Ernie Chambers suggested that the tax study could be accomplished through a resolution rather than by statute. He proceeded to introduce LR 155, which was adopted by the Legislature this past week. LR 155 creates the Tax Modernization Committee comprised of the members of the Revenue Committee, the chair of the Appropriations, Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture, and the Legislature’s Planning Committee. In addition, the Executive Board will select two other senators to serve on the committee. The purpose of the study is to review and evaluate the state’s tax laws regarding the sales, income, and property taxes, as well as other miscellaneous taxes, credits, and incentives. The resolution states that community involvement is essential to the success of the study and encourages the participation of the public. The committee is to issue a report to the Executive Board by December 15, containing any recommendations to update state, county and local tax policies.
In discussing LR 155, Senator Galen Hadley, who will serve as the chair of the Tax Modernization Committee, emphasized that the study will not result in sweeping tax reductions. He stressed that the mission of the committee is to determine if there is equity in our current tax system. I thought it was important that he mentioned our state’s high property taxes when he spoke of the challenges before the committee.
The Legislature is finishing up this year’s business and is scheduled to adjourn on June 5. Again, I encourage your input. 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.