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The Legislature debated a number of important issues this past week. LB 640 was up first. This bill proposed to cap the property tax portion of total general fund revenue supporting K-12 school districts at 60%. It also sought to lower the maximum levy for school districts from $1.05 to $1.00 per one hundred dollars of taxable valuation. Although LB 640 would have resulted in property tax relief, the revenue needed to fund the legislation would have been transferred from the Property Tax Credit Fund. This fund currently disperses $224 million in dollar for dollar property tax relief annually. Senators generally saw it as robbing one pot and putting it in another, making it doubtful that the bill will be on the agenda again.
LB 409 seeks to revise the state school aid formula (TEEOSA) by reducing the base limitation rate from 2.5% to 1.5%, which would reduce the amount of increase in TEEOSA aid provided to school districts for the next two school years. It changes the local effort rate from $1.00 to $1.02, which also reduces the amount of state aid provided to school districts because the formula assumes a district has increased resources. Furthermore, LB 409 reduces net option funding by 4.5%. This legislation was necessary due to the significant revenue shortfall that the state is facing. Since TEEOSA school aid represents 69% of total general fund aid to local governments, it was not feasible to leave it off the table when considering budget cuts. Even with LB 409, the amount appropriated to TEEOSA represented the largest increase in the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations for the next biennial budget.
The Legislature also discussed LB 622, which would legalize marijuana for certain medical conditions, and LB 661, which would provide for confidentiality of lethal injection drug sources. Both bills were given a couple hours of debate and now the bill’s sponsor must show the Speaker of the Legislature that he/she has the 33 votes to overcome a filibuster in order for the bill to be placed on the agenda again.
Senators also discussed numerous bills on consent calendar this past week. Consent calendar is limited to non-controversial bills that don’t contain a lot of changes and do not have a general fund impact. This procedure gives bills that don’t warrant a priority designation the chance of passage. An example of this is LB 463, the bill I introduced that would allow a village chairperson to appoint cemetery board members from the county, as well as the village. I introduced this legislation because some villages were having difficulty finding people to serve on the board.
The week ended with discussion on LB 461, the governor’s proposal for tax relief. LB 461 would change the way agricultural land is valued from the current market based approach to an income-producing approach. Capitalization rates would be derived using estimated net income divided by the market value of land as determined using comparable sales. Capitalization rates would be adjusted to assure that aggregate taxable values fall between 55% and 65% of market value. The percentage growth in aggregate taxable value statewide for agricultural land would be limited to 3.5%.
LB 461 also decreases the top individual and corporate income tax rate to 5.99% over a number of years when the expected rate of growth in general fund receipts is at least 3.5% and 4% respectively. The Earned Income Tax Credit would be increased from 10% to 12% of the federal credit. The personal exemption would be reduced for the higher income and a new credit would be created for the lower income. However, calculations reflect that when fully implemented, wealthier Nebraskans are the biggest beneficiaries of this tax relief plan, which offers approximately $10 in income tax relief for every $1 in property tax relief.
I am working on an amendment that alters the trigger mechanism for income tax reductions by increasing the percentage and requiring that it be based on actual rather than expected growth rates. It also would require any increased revenue above the trigger level to be distributed to the Property Tax Credit Fund, with a smaller portion directed towards lowering the top income tax rate. I spoke on the floor that I am opposed to LB 461 as it currently stands because my constituents overwhelmingly favor property tax relief over income tax relief. Although some senators questioned why we were even discussing tax decreases when facing an approximate $1 billion shortfall in revenue projections, many senators support the governor’s efforts. It will be an uphill battle to substantially change this legislation.
Next week will be devoted to budget deliberations. By legislative rule, the 2017-18/2018-19 biennial budget has to be passed by the 80th day, which falls on May 10 this year.
Again, I encourage you to notify me of your thoughts on legislation that senators are discussing. 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 full-day sessions this past week, debating and advancing numerous bills. Among them was LB 137, which would adopt the Unclaimed Life Insurance Benefits Act. The act requires life insurance companies to compare its insureds with the Death Master File of the U.S. Social Security Administration to identify possible matches and determine whether benefits are due. The insurance companies would be required to try to locate the beneficiary and provide them with instructions on how to make a claim.
People usually purchase a life insurance policy as a means to provide money to family members when they die. However, the family members aren’t always aware of the existence of the policy. Sometimes companies can’t locate the beneficiaries but this isn’t always the case. Insurance officials estimate at least $1 billion in life insurance benefits are unclaimed nationally. More than twenty states have enacted similar legislation to LB 137. I believe it is time that Nebraska joined the ranks, so I signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill. LB 137 received first-round approval on a 31-0 vote.
LB 487 was given initial approval by the Legislature on a 35-4 vote. It proposes to change penalties for persons experiencing or witnessing a drug overdose if they request emergency medical assistance for themselves or another person. For the exemption from charges for possession of a controlled substance to apply, the person must be the first to request assistance, must remain on the scene until help arrives and must cooperate with emergency personnel. LB 487 is similar to legislation passed a couple of years ago that protected minors who called for help for friends experiencing alcohol poisoning.
A bill that was amended into LB 487 through the Judiciary Committee amendments was LB 167. This bill proposes to reschedule cannabidiol in a drug product approved by the FDA into Schedule V of the Nebraska Controlled Substances Act. Currently, cannabidiol (known as CBD) in any form is a Schedule I Controlled Substance with a high potential for abuse and no approved medical use. CBD can be referred to as the “medical part” of the marijuana plant, which is different from THC, the “recreational part” of the plant that gets a person high.
Later this year, CBD in a pharmaceutical formulation will be submitted to the FDA for approval. The drug, called Epidiolex, is an investigational product being studied as a potential anti-convulsive treatment for children with certain types of epilepsy. LB 167 allows Nebraska to proactively reschedule CBD in an FDA approved product, ensuring it will be available to patients in Nebraska as soon as rescheduling by the DEA on the federal level is complete.
The Revenue Committee is continuing to work on a package for tax relief that will be sent to the full Legislature for debate. It appears that it may include an income tax relief provision, which would commit future revenue for this purpose. Therefore, senators who believe that property tax relief needs to be the priority may not be able to support the package. I am disappointed in the direction this legislation is going.
Again, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation that is being discussed by senators. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, Nebraska 68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This past week, the Legislature gave second-round approval to LB 10, which would return Nebraska to a winner-take-all system for the distribution of electoral votes in presidential elections. Our current system awards a presidential electoral vote to the winner in each of the state’s three congressional districts, while giving two votes to the statewide winner. In addition to Nebraska, only Maine does not deliver all of their electoral votes to the statewide presidential winner.
LB 10, introduced in 2015 by Senator Beau McCoy, has been filibustered at every stage of debate, requiring a cloture motion to cut off debate and allow for a vote on the advancement of the bill. Last year, at the first stage of debate, the cloture motion was successful, but it fell two votes short at the second stage of debate. After being prioritized again in 2016, the cloture motion was successful this year at the second stage of debate. Senator Ernie Chambers is very much opposed to this legislation and promised to halt the session if it was advanced. Consequently, the next couple days proceeded at a very slow pace.
Senators debated LB 643, which would allow medical marijuana in Nebraska, for four hours this past week. After a cloture motion failed, the bill was pulled from the agenda for the year.
Supporters of LB 643 argued that almost half of the states have laws permitting medical marijuana. They pointed out that under the provisions contained in LB 643, Nebraska would have had one of the most tightly regulated medical marijuana programs in the nation. Persons seeking medical cannabis would have needed certification from a health care practitioner and must have been suffering from one of the conditions specified in the bill, such as cancer, seizures, terminal illness, or Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, patients would have been limited to taking the drug in the form of pills, liquid, or through a vaporizer. Smoking marijuana was not permitted under the bill.
Opponents included Governor Ricketts, Attorney General Peterson, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Nebraska Medical Association, the County Attorneys Association and the Nebraska Sheriff’s Association. Senators opposing the bill reminded their colleagues that marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I substances are considered to have a high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use, making distribution of marijuana a federal offense. Although the current administration has chosen to be lax in enforcement of marijuana laws, senators pointed out that this could change with the next administration. They were also concerned with the use of marijuana by our youth, as studies have confirmed that casual marijuana use causes structural harm in the brain of young users and has long-term impact on their mental health, making them more susceptible to serious mental health conditions. Opposing senators felt that marijuana should go through the research and testing protocols required by the FDA before it should be used as a medicine.
This was a very emotional issue and the rotunda was full of families who have a loved one with severe health issues. They have tried conventional drugs and they haven’t worked. They were pleading for another option.
As I understand, a decision on whether to reclassify the drug may be made in the near future. If it is reclassified, it will allow for more research on marijuana for medicinal purposes. The pharmaceutical grade marijuana extract of purified cannabidiol is already being tested through FDA authorized trials and it is possible that a FDA approved product could be on the market soon. Furthermore, a ballot initiative to reform marijuana laws has been filed with the Secretary of State.
As we head into our last few days of this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me. 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 One Hundred Fourth Legislature, First Session, has adjourned. I would describe this session as “different”. Although the Legislature is officially non-partisan, typically senators of one party are somewhat aligned. In the past, rural senators tend to stick together on issues. This year saw division within groups that historically band together. Because of this, there were many surprises. Conservative senators supported a gas tax increase and the repeal of the death penalty. Several issues supported by major farm organizations were either blocked or weakened.
The biennial budget, which is the primary task of the Legislature, did see unified support. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I was happy to see funding for faculty salary enhancements at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. I have previously mentioned the budget limited the growth in spending to a historical low increase and contains an additional $64 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program.
LB 643 proposed to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since this was the first time such legislation has been introduced in Nebraska, I was surprised that it was advanced from the Judiciary Committee and given first-round approval by the Legislature. Earlier this week, the sponsor of LB 643, Senator Tommy Garrett, asked to bracket the bill after realizing he didn’t have sufficient support for passage. There were many unanswered questions on this issue, such as how the manufacturer would obtain the medical cannabis and how the Department of Health and Human Services would determine a range of recommended dosages for each qualifying medical condition. Senator Garrett referred to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic on recommended dosages for certain conditions, however their website states that there is no proven safe or effective dose for marijuana in children under 18 years of age. Senator Garrett had made it known that he introduced this bill due to the pleas from mothers of children with epilepsy. A more limited version was passed in LB 390, which created a pilot study at UNMC to allow access to low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil for patients who suffer from intractable epilepsy.
Prison reform legislation was passed in an effort to reduce overcrowding and limit recidivism within the correctional system. The legislation gives preference to alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, requires post-release supervision plans for offenders released on probation, establishes the Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System in order to improve oversight of the department, requires a plan to reduce the use of segregation, and seeks to ensure adequate mental health care is provided to mentally ill inmates.
The death penalty has been repealed. Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill to repeal the death penalty but senators overrode his veto with just the required number of votes. I was saddened to see this happen, as I feel that the death penalty serves as a necessary tool in protecting the safety of the citizens of Nebraska. The very day the death penalty was repealed, an organization called Nebraskans for Justice was formed. This organization will explore the possibility of a citizen-driven ballot initiative to give Nebraska citizens the option of reinstating the death penalty.
Other legislation that passed will give nurse practitioners more independence, strengthen the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act, grant personal property tax relief, allow young immigrants participating in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to qualify for driver’s licenses, and adopt the Nebraska Agritourism Promotion Act, which encourages landowners to grant access to their farm and ranch land for recreation and tourism activities by reducing the risk of liability. Some major issues that failed to gain passage included legislation to expand Medicaid, repeal the motorcycle helmet law, lower the valuation of agricultural land, allow for a lower minimum wage for students, change habitual criminal provisions, and prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.
This past week, I met with the executive director of the Nebraska Community College Association regarding the need for Southeast Community College to provide additional services to students living in the far southeast corner of our state. I also met with the Ombudsman and several employees about staffing issues at TSCI.
I introduced a legislative resolution recognizing the contributions and service of Rodney Vandeberg and extending sympathy to his family. Rod was a tireless promoter of the Falls City area, serving as mayor and on numerous boards. He also represented District #1 on the Nebraska Highway Commission and was a key player in the launching of the Rulo bridge project.
With the completion of the legislative session, I will no longer be at the State Capitol daily and will spend most of my time back at my farm near Syracuse. However, I will be at the capitol on a weekly basis and if you cannot reach me, my staff will be able to assist you. I will be available to attend local events and encourage your invitations.
If you need information on legislation passed or on any issue pertaining to state government, I encourage you to contact my office. 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.
It’s been a busy week in the Unicameral. The Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto of the gas tax with no votes to spare. Consequently, the gas tax will increase by six cents over a four-year period beginning in January. We discussed LB 586, which would prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity, for several hours before it was pulled from the agenda at the sponsor’s request.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to LB 623, which authorizes driver’s licenses for certain children of undocumented immigrants, and to LB 643, the bill allowing medical marijuana. We gave second-round approval to the prison reform bills, which took on more significance after the incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI). The budget bills were given final approval this past week by the Legislature. The Governor now has the ability to line-item veto specific appropriations from these bills, after which the Appropriations Committee will meet to decide which vetoes, if any, to recommend be overridden.
LB 623 would make individuals who can demonstrate lawful status for a period of time by the federal government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program eligible for driver’s licenses. Nebraska is the only state that denies driver’s licenses to these children that have been given legal protection by the President. Nebraska’s policy denying the licenses was put in place by former Governor Dave Heineman. A similar law in Arizona was ruled unconstitutional last year and a lawsuit is currently pending in Nebraska. After 8 hours of debate and a successful cloture motion, LB 623 was advanced on a 37-8-4 vote.
LB 643, the Medical Cannabis Act, was amended by Judiciary Committee amendments prior to advancing from the first stage of debate on a 27-12-10 vote. The committee amendments are fashioned after a similar law adopted in Minnesota, which is seen as one of the strictest laws among the 23 states that allow for medical marijuana.
The Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health would create a registry of patients that would be permitted to obtain medical cannabis, if diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition by a health care practitioner. The qualifying medical conditions listed in the bill include cancer, HIV, seizures, multiple sclerosis, and terminal illness. Severe or chronic pain does not qualify on its own, but must be associated with one of the listed conditions. Medical marijuana could be used as a liquid or oil, as a pill, or in a vaporized form of the liquid or oil. Smoking of marijuana would not be permitted under LB 643.
I am concerned for the staff at TSCI. I was aware of the use of mandatory overtime at the institution prior to the incident last week. Mandatory overtime can lead to safety issues, as well as job discontent. High turnover in staff results in less experienced employees. The newly appointed director of the Department of Corrections has indicated that he will conduct a study on staffing this summer and I have asked to be kept updated.
I am also concerned with the costs from the TSCI incident that will fall on Johnson County due to the death of two inmates and the charges that will be filed on other inmates. I introduced a bill earlier this year to transfer the financial responsibility for the costs of an autopsy, grand jury payments and witness compensation from the counties to the State of Nebraska when an incarcerated inmate dies while serving a sentence in a state correctional institution. Although the bill advanced from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, it has stalled on General File. I am hopeful that something can be done to help the county with these “state” expenses.
During the last two weeks of this legislative session, I still 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.
The Legislature is at the half-way mark of this 90-day session. This past week marked the priority bill designation deadline. Senators have the ability to designate one bill as their personal priority bill. Committees can designate two bills as committee priority bills and the Speaker of the Legislature is given the authority to designate up to 25 bills as speaker priority bills. After this point in the legislative session, generally only bills with priority status are debated by the Legislature.
I chose LB 106 as my priority bill. LB 106, the Livestock Operation Siting and Expansion Act, was recently advanced from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. It directs the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, with advice from experts representing the Nebraska Association of County Officials, livestock production agriculture and the University of Nebraska, to develop an assessment matrix for use by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation siting permit. Nebraska’s agricultural industry has not grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to our neighboring states. LB 106 would provide for consistent standards, based on factual, objective criteria to be used by local governing bodies when granting permits, thereby allowing for more predictability and uniformity in the process.
As chair of the Performance Audit Committee, we chose LB 538 and LB 598 as committee priority bills. LB 538, introduced by the Performance Audit Committee, creates a process for ongoing evaluation of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs, in order to give legislators information to draw clear conclusions about whether tax incentives are benefitting Nebraska’s economy and meeting program goals. LB 538 requires the Legislative Audit Office to conduct a performance audit of each tax incentive program at least every three years.
LB 598, introduced by Senator Paul Schumacher, addresses the use of segregation in our prisons. Rules would be developed to guide the level of confinement, conditions, behavior, and mental health status of inmates. The legislation contains recommendations from an interim study conducted by the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee of the Legislature, which incorporated results from an audit conducted by the Performance Audit Committee.
Other bills designated as priority bills by individual senators include:
LB 350, introduced and prioritized by Senator Lydia Brasch, reduces the valuation of agricultural land for purposes of property taxation from 75% to 65%. As of this time, LB 350 has failed to advance from the Revenue Committee.
Another bill that was prioritized but has not advanced from the Revenue Committee was LB 357, introduced by Senator Jim Smith. It proposes to reduce the individual and corporate income tax rates and increase the amount of funding to the Property Tax Credit program. The tax relief would be funded through transfers from the cash reserve and reductions in spending.
LB 586 prohibits discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity. This bill was introduced by Senator Adam Morfeld and designated as a priority by Senator Patty Pansing Brooks.
LB 610 was introduced by Senator Jim Smith and prioritized by Senator Curt Friesen. It would increase the gas tax by 1.5 cents every year for four years, with revenue being used by cities, counties and the state for road and bridge projects.
LB 643 proposes to legalize marijuana for medical use. It was introduced and prioritized by Senator Tommy Garrett.
Among the bills designated as priorities by committees include:
LB 259, which as amended by committee amendments, would exempt the first $15,000 worth of personal property value for each personal property tax return. This bill was designated as a priority by the Revenue Committee. Although this will provide some property tax relief, many senators were disappointed that the committee did not offer a more comprehensive solution.
LB 472 was prioritized by the Health and Human Services Committee. It is Senator Kathy Campbell’s third attempt at Medicaid expansion, which was ruled optional for states after the Affordable Care Act was challenged in court.
If you have any comments on the bills that have been given priority status, I encourage you to contact me. 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.
Things are heating up in the Legislature. The Speaker cancelled debate on the floor of the Legislature for two mornings, allowing the committees that meet in the afternoons for public hearings to hold executive sessions. The deadline for the designation of priority bills is next week and senators like to know if a bill has a chance of advancing from committee prior to designating it as a priority bill.
Public hearings were held on several controversial issues this past week. The annual attempt by Senator Ernie Chambers to repeal the death penalty was heard before the Judiciary Committee. I believe this is his 38th attempt. Since LB 268 was introduced, eight senators have added their names as co-sponsors, including four members of the Judiciary Committee. With Senator Chambers’ vote, it is virtually assured that the bill will be advanced from committee. Senator Chambers has already designated it as his priority bill.
Proponents of LB 268 note that since 1973, 150 individuals in the U.S. have been wrongfully sentenced to death. They also point out that the death penalty is arbitrarily applied, that it is emotionally hard on the victim’s families and that it is very expensive due to the cost of appeals. Opponents argue that the death penalty serves as a deterrent and that it is a necessary tool in securing convictions.
Currently, we have 11 men on death row. However, we do not have a means of carrying out the death penalty, as one of the three drugs required by the Department of Correction’s protocol has expired and is extremely difficult to legally obtain. The last execution in Nebraska took place in 1997.
The Judiciary Committee also heard testimony on LB 643, introduced by Bellevue Senator Tommy Garrett. LB 643 would adopt the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act. It would allow for and regulate the use of marijuana for medical treatment. This is the first time that such legislation has been introduced in Nebraska.
Senator Sue Crawford, also of Bellevue, introduced LB 390. It creates the Medical Cannabidiol Pilot Study within the University of Nebraska Medical Center for patients who suffer from severe and untreatable epileptic seizures. It allows access to low-THC cannabidiol for patients under the supervision of a neurologist at UNMC. Since low-THC cannabidiol has no psychoactive effects on the user, it would have no recreational use. I have signed on to LB 390 as a co-sponsor, after visiting with parents that have exhausted traditional means of treatment for their children and have nowhere else to turn.
LB 610, introduced by Papillion Senator Jim Smith, was heard before the Revenue Committee. It proposes to increase the fixed portion of the gasoline tax by 1.5 cents every year for four years. Once fully implemented, it would generate approximately $25 million more a year for the Department of Roads and $50 million more annually for cities and counties, to be used for necessary road and bridge projects.
Omaha Senator Jeremy Nordquist introduced LB 623 that was heard before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. It would grant a driver’s license to those demonstrating lawful status by the federal government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It is estimated that approximately 2,300 individuals would be eligible under the bill. Nebraska is the only state that does not allow such individuals to obtain a driver’s license.
I welcome your comments and opinions on these issues, as well as others that are before the Legislature. 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 email@example.com.