This past week was overshadowed by an incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. Unfortunately, two inmates lost their lives. Two years ago, an incident escalated into a riot on Mother’s Day. On Thursday, staff were able to quickly bring the situation under control and no staff were hurt. Although we still have a long road ahead, I see the procedural improvements that staff have implemented. I commend the employees at TSCI and other state institutions for their commitment to work in our correctional system, as their job is dangerous, but very important. I also want to recognize the Johnson County Sheriff, the fire and rescue squad, and the county attorney who are also highly involved during these situations. I was able to visit with some employees the night of the incident and saw first-hand their determination in keeping the public safe.
LB 45 authorizes military honor plates for reservists. I introduced this bill at the request of a constituent who served for 10 years as an army reservist and had a service-connected injury. He was surprised to find out that he did not qualify for the military honor plates. LB 45 was passed by the Legislature on Friday on a vote of 46-1.
LB 46, authorizing the creation of Choose Life license plates, received first-round approval this past week from the Legislature. The Department of Motor Vehicles would create a design reflecting support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Twenty-nine other states allow motorists to show their support for pregnant women and the unborn through the purchase of such plates.
I introduced LB 545 before the Appropriations Committee this past week. This bill would increase the appropriation to the Property Tax Credit program by $200 million per year in each of the next three years. The property tax relief offered through this program appears on every taxpayer’s property tax statement. LB 545 would increase the current annual appropriation of $224 million to $824 million.
Of the combined revenue used for governmental services, property taxes currently account for approximately 48%, income taxes 33%, and sales taxes 19%. In 2000, property taxes accounted for 42%, income taxes 35%, and sales tax 23% of total revenue for government services. Since that time, the share of revenue from the sales tax has decreased, the share of revenue from the income tax has decreased, but the share of revenue from the property tax has increased significantly. LB 545 is projected to lower the share of the tax burden from property taxes to approximately 40%, more evenly balancing the revenue streams.
Our last major tax reform 25 years ago increased state aid to schools significantly in an effort to decrease our reliance on property taxes to fund our public schools. One problem associated with this type of property tax relief is whether it results in dollar for dollar tax relief or if it allows for increased spending. By increasing the funding to the Property Tax Credit program, it truly does provide dollar for dollar property tax relief.
Nebraskans pay the 7th highest property taxes in the country. Over the last 10 years, the valuation of agricultural land has increased 176%, compared to a 35% increase in residential valuation. Nebraska farmers and ranchers represent less than 3% of the state’s population but pay more than 30% of the total property taxes collected statewide. In the majority of the state, agricultural land comprises more than 60% of a school district’s total valuation base. Rural landowners are disproportionately funding our rural school districts, even though all residents of the school district benefit equally from having their children educated in our public schools. Even though valuation of agricultural land has increased substantially more than other classifications of land, all property taxes are too high.
The Legislature is also facing a significant shortfall in the budget for the next two years. We are in the midst of cutting funding for government agencies and services. Although it will be difficult, I think we must also address property taxes. Legislation has been introduced to broaden the base of the sales tax. I am opposed to a tax increase, but am open to a redistribution of funding in order to offer property tax relief.
As senators and committees finish up the process of selecting their priority bills for this session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on this legislation. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.
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 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.
The Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty this past week. LB 268 was passed by the Legislature on a 32-15 vote.
Governor Ricketts issued a statement prior to the final vote, urging senators to listen to their constituents and keep Nebraska among the 32 states that have a death penalty. In his extensive travels across the state, the governor said he found overwhelming support for keeping the death penalty in Nebraska. He said that a vote to repeal the death penalty will give our state’s most heinous criminals more lenient sentences.
The governor has indicated that he will veto LB 268. If so, I would predict that Senator Chambers will file a motion to override his veto, which will likely be taken up by the Legislature next week. Thirty votes are necessary to override a veto.
The recent incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution emphasizes the need for the death penalty. If the death penalty is repealed, it can no longer be used as a deterrent for inmates serving life sentences, which could impact the safety of staff.
Opponents of the death penalty pointed to the high costs associated with carrying it out. They also cited religious reasons for not taking a life, the possibility of wrongful convictions, and the emotional turmoil it places on the victim’s family.
The State of Nebraska has officially administered the death penalty since 1901, when executions were moved from individual counties to the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The method of execution at that time was hanging. In 1913, Nebraska’s execution method changed to the electric chair. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman V. Georgia that the arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violated the U.S. Constitution and constituted cruel and unusual punishment, resulting in a national moratorium. Nebraska and other states enacted new legislation seeking to overcome the constitutional defects and in 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the revised death penalty statutes. In 2009, the Legislature changed the method of execution to lethal injection, after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the sole use of the electric chair violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The State of Nebraska has carried out 23 executions, 8 by hanging and 15 by means of the electric chair, with the last occurring in 1997. Eleven men are currently on death row.
Senator Chambers has been attempting to repeal the death penalty for forty years. In 1979, the Legislature passed such legislation, but former Governor Charles Thone vetoed the bill.
The Governor signed the budget bills without a single line-item veto. Governor Ricketts said that he did not veto anything from the budget as it slowed the growth in government spending and it offered property tax relief, which were his two top priorities.
Within the budget are several items that I instigated and am appreciative of the approval from my fellow senators and the governor. Several water projects, initiated through the Nebraska Resources Development Fund (RDF) to help protect our state’s natural resources, while also producing notable recreation and economic benefits for the state, were never fully funded. The RDF was phased out with the passage of legislation in 2014 that created the Water Sustainability Fund. In fulfilling the state’s obligation, these projects will now be fully funded through a combination of General Funds and funding from the new Water Sustainability Fund.
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers are trained citizens who are appointed by a judge to speak in court for the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children. There are 22 CASA programs serving 38 counties in Nebraska. It has been shown that children with a CASA volunteer are more likely to find safe, permanent homes, are more likely to be adopted, are half as likely to re-enter foster care and are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care. I was able to obtain a stable source of state funding for this program.
I introduced legislation to increase the funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $60 million annually. The Governor also included this increase in his budget proposal. The final biennial budget contains an additional $64 million annually in direct property tax relief for taxpayers, which is shown as a credit on annual tax statements.
Along with a dozen other senators, I visited the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution this past Sunday. We wanted to show our support for the staff at TSCI and commend them for their dedicated service during the recent riot at the facility. I also joined Governor Ricketts and Scott Frakes, the director of the Department of Corrections, as they toured the facility mid-week. The Governor has pledged to seek solutions to staffing problems at TSCI, including high turnover and job vacancy rates, stagnant salaries and mandatory overtime.
As we enter our last days of this legislative session, I encourage you to continue 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.
Bills can be introduced during the first 10 days of the legislative session. The last day for bill introductions is Wednesday, January 21. The following is a brief description of the bills that I have been working on throughout the interim and have introduced so far.
LB 46, introduced on behalf of the statewide Trauma Advisory Board, revises language regarding the accreditation of rehabilitation centers in the state, specifically as it relates to the rehabilitation of trauma patients. The bill redefines the levels of rehabilitation services to reflect current practice and to bring the levels and definitions up-to-date.
LB 47 makes the question mandatory on an application for a driver’s license or identification card regarding whether to be on the Donor Registry. Currently, it is optional for applicants to answer this question. Nearby states that require responses have higher percentages of applicants indicating their wish to become donors.
Under LB 105, the state rather than the county, would have to pay for the costs associated with an autopsy and grand jury when an inmate dies in state custody. This is one of several unfunded mandates that the Legislature will address as we work towards property tax relief. This legislation would help Johnson County, where Tecumseh State Correctional Institution is located.
LB 106, the Livestock Operation Siting & Expansion Act, was introduced to encourage livestock development and expansion, which is extremely important to the economy of our state. The industry in Nebraska hasn’t grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to neighboring states. The legislation would allow counties to use a scoring matrix system for the approval of new or expanding livestock facilities, which would make the process more predictable and consistent throughout the state.
LB 130 would allow projects allocated funding through the Nebraska Resources Development Fund to be eligible for funding from the new Water Sustainability Fund. I will also introduce a bill to appropriate enough funding within the next two years to allow for the completion of these projects. These projects were existing when the new funding system was passed last year. They are important projects that are beneficial for the state and have already been approved through an extensive application process.
LB 145 would eliminate the executive officer licensing requirement, while retaining the ability of the Department of Banking and Finance to suspend the authority of the executive officer or impose fines upon the executive officer for violations of law. Nebraska may be the only state that requires a formal license process.
LB 178 would reduce the valuation of agricultural land by 5% per year for four years, thereby reducing it from 75% to 55% for school district taxation purposes. This is another option that is being presented to look at property tax relief and the high burden placed on agricultural land owners in the support of local schools.
LB 188, which I am introducing again this year, amends our current pursuit law, which was enacted to protect an innocent bystander who gets hurt as a result of a police pursuit. Nebraska is the only state that imposes liability on the law enforcement agency regardless of whether the law enforcement agency was negligent in its pursuit and even when the driver being pursued causes the injury to the “innocent third party”. Under this legislation, a passenger in a fleeing vehicle would not be considered an “innocent third party” if they entered the vehicle knowing that the driver was under the influence, if they are sought to be apprehended by law enforcement or if they are engaged in any illegal activity which would itself result in arrest.
LB 228 would reduce the corporate income tax rate to the level of the top two brackets of the individual income tax. Other types of companies, such as limited liability companies and Subchapter S corporations are considered “pass-through” organizations under state and federal income tax laws. This is a special business structure that is used to reduce the effects of double taxation, meaning that pass-through entities don’t pay income taxes at the corporate level, only at the individual owners’ level. LB 228 is attempting to level the playing field for the different types of business structures.
LB 229 appropriates funding for the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program. There are currently 22 CASA programs serving 38 Nebraska counties, with more than 600 volunteers advocating for more than 1,500 Nebraska children. Statistics have shown that a child with a CASA volunteer is more likely to be adopted and less likely to re-enter foster care. The funding would allow the program to continue and grow to serve more counties.
LB 364 would increase the funding appropriated to the Property Tax Credit program, funding the program at $200 million per year. This would translate into an approximate $100 credit for each $100,000 of valuation.
LB 386 would exempt header trailers and seed tenders from sales tax. Agricultural machinery and equipment was permanently exempted from state sales tax beginning in 1992. In 2012, the Department of Revenue issued a revised “Information Guide” ruling that these implements did not qualify for the sales tax exemption. This legislation would clarify that such trailers are exempt, as was the practice before the ruling.
As the bills are introduced, 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, Nebraska 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
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.