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The budget bills were given second-round and final approval this past week. Governor Ricketts now has 5 days (excluding Sunday) to decide whether he’ll use his line-item veto authority to strike specific budget appropriations from the package. His vetoes are due to the Legislature by midnight on Wednesday, March 30. The budget passed by the Legislature did not differ markedly from what the governor recommended.
My priority bill, LB 744, received first-round approval this past week on a 42-0 vote. Under LB 744, open adoptions would be recognized in state statute, allowing for future communication or contact between birth parents and adoptive parents in private and agency adoptions. However, the law would make it clear that the failure to comply with such an agreement would not affect the validity of the adoption. A recent Nebraska Supreme Court decision stated that until the Legislature acts to approve of these open adoption arrangements in a private adoption context, they will not recognize them and will instead continue to hold that relinquishments signed with the promise of such an open adoption are invalid.
In order to help the birth mother as she makes this important decision, I offered an amendment to require independent legal counsel for the relinquishing parents from that of the adoptive parents, at the adoptive parents’ expense. The amendment also requires that free counseling be offered to the birth parents.
Due to this lawsuit, agencies and private attorneys may have advised against any type of open adoption because even the existence of a communication and contact agreement could prove problematic in the view of the court. LB 744 will allow open adoptions to continue in Nebraska and will assure the permanency of the adoption process.
LB 886, a bill that I co-sponsored with Senator Al Davis of Hyannis, has received initial approval from the Legislature. The legislation would provide a refundable income tax credit of $250 for volunteer emergency responders who meet certain criteria. The intent behind the bill is to recognize volunteers for the important service they provide to their local communities. It stemmed from an interim study that I introduced last year, which among other things, looked at incentives for recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters, emergency responders and rescue squad members in our rural communities.
LB 1038, another bill given first-round approval, contains the language needed to implement the Niobrara River Memorandum of Understanding between the Nebraska Public Power District, the Niobrara NRDs and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. I have been involved in meetings preparing for this important legislation. After many years of legal battles and negotiation, these three political subdivisions reached an agreement on the transfer of the controlling water rights to the Niobrara River. The agreement will allow the NRDs and the Game and Parks Commission to jointly purchase and hold the water rights from the Spencer Hydroelectric generation facility and convert the rights to provide a protected instream flow for the Niobrara River. The agreement protects all existing uses of domestic, livestock, municipal, surface water irrigation and groundwater irrigation.
The Speaker of the Legislature informed senators that 33 priority bills are on General File (first stage of debate) and 15 priority bills are on Select File (second stage of debate), verifying that we have a great deal of work to do in our last 11 days of this session. We will be working into the evening on most days.
As we debate the final priority bills before us, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com.
January 20 was the 10th day of the legislative session, which was the final day for bill introduction. In total, 446 bills and 8 constitutional amendments were introduced by senators and committees.
Supreme Court Chief Justice, Mike Heavican, presented his State of the Judiciary address to state senators this past week. He reviewed the work of the Office of Public Guardian, which was created by the Legislature in 2014 to improve the services provided to vulnerable adults in need of guardianships or conservatorships. He touched on the Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative, which focuses on education for judges, guardians ad litem, lawyers, HHS employees and community volunteers. The Chief Justice gave an overview of juvenile justice reform efforts, explaining that with the passage of legislation two years ago, children no longer have to become state wards to access services. He noted a significant increase in the number of children placed on probation and receiving services to reduce recidivism and likewise, a 7.6% decline in out-of-home placements in the past 6 months.
Last year, the Legislature passed LB 605, which created significant criminal justice reform. The court system is working towards implementation of the Justice Reinvestment goals outlined in the legislation. The court rules on post-release probation supervision have been adopted and locations were selected for new day and evening reporting centers. These centers average 6,000 visits from probation clients each month and provide services in every major community across the state. Every reporting center has a supervised substance abuse supervision program and Chief Justice Heavican noted that 89% of the clients released from the program in 2015 have been drug-free for at least one year and 91% are gainfully employed. The Chief Justice confirmed that they have now achieved their goal of developing problem-solving courts in each judicial district. Finally, he noted that total eFilings have increased, with the volume of electronically-filed documents in the trial courts up 30%, saving the court staff time and greatly increasing the accuracy of data entry.
Public hearings were held on three bills that I introduced this past week. The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard LB 732, which would allow reservists to qualify for Military Honor license plates. The way the law is currently written, only federalized reservists are eligible, which means that they had to serve on active duty that is not considered training. I believe that these soldiers served their country, although in a time of peace, and should be eligible for the plates.
The public hearing for LB 734 was held before the Education Committee. LB 734 would allow non-resident members of the Nebraska National Guard to receive in-state tuition rates at state educational institutions. Although this proposal would only apply to a small number of student soldiers, it would make a significant difference in their cost of schooling.
LB 744 was heard before the Judiciary Committee. It deals with open adoptions. LB 744 recognizes that biological parents and adoptive parents can agree to communication and contact after the adoption of a child in private and agency adoptions, but makes it clear that the failure to comply with such agreement does not affect the legality of the adoption. The goal behind the legislation is to ensure permanency in adoptions.
Several of the bills that I introduced this year are the direct result of a constituent contact. I encourage you to continue to inform me of your opinions on legislation and suggestions for change. I can be reached at District #1, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.