I have been appointed to chair a Special Committee of the Legislature to hear a challenge to Senator Ernie Chambers’ qualifications to represent his legislative district. The challenger unsuccessfully ran against Senator Chambers in the general election. He then filed a qualification challenge, as allowed by state law and legislative rules, questioning whether Senator Chambers has satisfied the Nebraska Constitution’s residency requirement.
The Special Committee is made up of seven legislators, including myself. The committee hired outside legal counsel, former Supreme Court Judge William Connolly. At our first meeting, the Special Committee discussed jurisdictional issues and determined that the challenger had met all statutory requirements for filing his challenge. A second meeting was held to approve an order regarding procedures for the hearing on the merits of the challenge and to set the hearing date. The hearing is scheduled for April 7th in the State Capitol.
I introduced LB 46 to authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to design “Choose Life” license plates. The design is to reflect support for the protection of Nebraska’s children. Choose Life license plates, which allow motorists to show support for pregnant mothers and the unborn, are available in 29 states. The additional revenue brought in through the sale of the plates would be used to supplement federal funds available for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF provides cash assistance to low-income families with minor children and is used to pay for family living expenses, such as rent, utilities, food, clothing and other necessities. LB 46 was given second-round approval this week and is now ready for final reading.
The Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, has completed the public hearing process on all bills referred to the committee, and has heard from state agencies. We will now begin post-hearing budget reviews. Our final recommendations are due to the entire Legislature by the 70th legislative day, which falls on April 24 of this year.
Farm profits in Nebraska were expected to fall to just over $4 billion in 2016, down from a high of approximately $7.5 billion in 2013. The valuation of agricultural land is beginning to decrease but not to the extent that farm income has fallen. A local economist recently noted that local taxing authorities have continued to increase property taxes on farmland, even with sharply lower farm income. Between 2013 and 2014, assessed values of farmland for a 10-state rural region increased by 11.4%, while farm earnings fell by 18%. During this time, local governments increased K-12 school spending per student by a median 3.3%, with Nebraska showing a 7.3% increase, the highest among the 10 states.
This illustrates the critical need to decrease property taxes, yet some senators in the Legislature and the Governor are still focusing on income tax relief, as well as property tax relief. The only way I could support any income tax relief is if we offered $10 of property tax relief for every $1 of income tax relief. However, the feasibility of offering any tax relief will depend on budget negotiations, as the state is facing a $1 billion shortfall. The Appropriations Committee is in the process of cutting spending significantly, something that also must be done on the local level. These cuts are difficult to make but the alternative is an increase in taxes.
As the public hearing process nears completion and the Legislature discusses bills with priority status, I encourage you to inform me of your 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.
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.
I introduced LB 547 before the Natural Resources Committee this past week. This bill is an extension of legislation that was passed last year, in which we removed a public power district’s authority to use eminent domain to take over renewable electricity generation projects. LB 547 would remove a public power district’s authority to use eminent domain over all types of privately owned and operated electricity generation and transmission projects. The legislation does not alter a public power district’s current authority to build its own generation and transmission.
I introduced this bill for economic development reasons. I believe economic development is very important in our state’s welfare. It seems counter-productive that private capital must look outside our state for electricity generation projects, thereby preventing our state from benefitting from the increased jobs, increased property tax revenue, and increased income taxes.
The argument is that Nebraska already has an excess of electricity. However, since our state has joined the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), it is now the SPP that collects all the generation in its 14-state territory, deciding how much generation its transmission system can handle and dispatching the lowest-priced energy first. The SPP has 45,000 megawatts of pending generation interconnection requests – which is about 6 times more than the 7,000 megawatts of generation that our entire state has right now. If other states don’t have eminent domain authority, those states will appear more business-friendly to private companies. Since SPP operates an integrated market, any new generation will compete with Nebraska’s public power system – whether it is within or outside of our state. If the new generation is going to happen anyway, I feel that it is in Nebraska’s best interest to promote economic development within our state.
My intent is not to harm our current public power system, as it has worked well in the past, but to plan for the future. The environment has changed since Nebraska joined the SPP. Consequently, we must work together on what is best for Nebraska ratepayers. I am looking forward to working with the industry in the partnership of the Legislature and public power.
The public hearings were held on LB 312 and LB 313 this week before the Revenue Committee. These bills were backed by the Nebraska Ag Leaders Working Group, which is composed of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Pork Producers Association, Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Soybean Association, and Nebraska State Dairy Association.
These organizations look at the bills as a way to better balance the three-legged stool, symbolizing the three sources of revenue to fund government services, by increasing revenue from the sales tax and using it to decrease the reliance on property taxes.
LB 312 would impose sales tax on additional services, such as the repair or maintenance of motor vehicles, pet related services, lawn care, and personal care services (hair care, massage, nail and spa services). The legislation would also remove the sales tax exemption on such things as school lunches, admissions to school events, soda pop, candy, and lottery tickets. LB 313 would increase the state sales tax rate from 5.5% to 6.5%. In an effort to reduce the impact of the sales tax increase on the lower income, both bills would increase the earned income tax credit to 17% of the federal credit, with the remainder of the increased revenue dedicated for property tax relief. It is projected that both of the bills combined would generate more than $500 million annually for property tax relief.
Senators and committees have begun to select their priority bills, which will now be debated ahead of bills without priority status. I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation. 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.
Governor Ricketts delivered his State of the State Address this past week. It serves as the starting point for the Appropriations committee’s work on the next biennial budget.
In his speech, the Governor recognized our unique, nonpartisan Unicameral, where the Legislature consistently passes a balanced budget on time, every bill gets a hearing, and debate happens in the public, not behind a closed door conference committee. Governor Ricketts also touched on his accomplishments during his first two years in office, including online applications for permits through the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, improving call wait times and application processing for citizens applying for benefits with the Department of Health and Human Services, and the development of a reemployment program under the Department of Labor.
Governor Ricketts outlined the principles that guided his budget recommendations. He stressed that we must reduce government expenditures because he will not support any increase in taxes to deal with the nearly $900 million projected budget gap. In balancing the budget, the governor wants to maintain an approximate $500 million balance in the cash reserve.
If the governor’s proposal for deficits in the current fiscal year is approved, the budget for the next biennium would result in an average 1.7% increase in state spending. Realizing that there are certain priorities that need to be funded, the Governor revealed his intent to increase funding for special education and for TEEOSA aid to K-12 schools, as well as the Department of Corrections, in an attempt to reduce employee vacancy rates, upgrade technology, and improve the Lincoln Correctional Center. He proposed cuts in spending for virtually every other agency and service.
The Governor’s budget proposes both property and income tax reform. Property taxes on agricultural land have risen by 176% in the last decade, and cattle and crop prices have dropped. Consequently, the governor has proposed changing the methodology for assessing property value from a market-based system to an income-potential assessment. The governor believes that income potential is a fairer measure and will slow the growth of agricultural land valuation increases, noting that if the system were in place for 2017, it would have reduced agricultural land valuations by approximately $2.2 billion. Agriculture Chair Lydia Brasch has introduced LB 338, the Agricultural Valuation Fairness Act, at the request of the governor. Several of our neighboring states, including South Dakota, Kansas, and Iowa also use income potential based property tax assessments.
When speaking of income tax reform, the Governor pointed out that only one of our bordering states has a higher income tax rate. He believes that our high tax rate hampers our ability to grow our state’s economy, discourages new investment, and causes people to leave our state. Under legislation introduced by Senator Jim Smith, the chair of the Revenue Committee, the top income tax rate would be reduced approximately one-tenth of 1% per year, beginning in 2020, if the state’s revenue growth is greater than 3.5%. LB 337, when fully implemented, would reduce the top income tax rate from 6.84% to 5.99%. This reduction in income taxes would apply to individuals making $29,831 or married couples making $59,661.
The governor’s proposal also includes several measures aimed at government efficiency. Through the merger of the Division of Veterans Homes, currently under the Department of Health and Human Services, with the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs, services can be streamlined and some red tape eliminated. He also proposes to merge the Department of Roads and the Department of Aeronautics into the Department of Transportation. Furthermore, the governor wants to eliminate unnecessary regulations in occupational licenses, making it easier for people to work and open businesses in Nebraska. He has asked senators to introduce 8 bills, ranging from reducing classroom hours for massage therapists to eliminating a license for auto sellers.
Wednesday, January 18 is the last day for bill introduction. As the Legislature begins the public hearing process, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation that has been introduced. 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 gave first-round approval to both bills introduced on behalf of Governor Ricketts, containing his plan for property tax relief. However, the bills have been completely rewritten through the amendment process.
LB 959, as amended by committee amendments, eliminates the minimum levy penalty which reduces state aid to districts with levies less than .95 cents, removes the levy criteria from the averaging adjustment calculation, and caps the special levy school districts can use to address health, safety and accessibility problems in school buildings at 3 cents, down from 5.2 cents. LB 959 will allow a number of school districts to reduce their levy and will also provide more state aid to some districts that depend heavily on property taxes to fund their schools.
LB 958, as introduced, would have affected local governments by placing limitations on the budget of restricted funds and reducing the number of exclusions to the property tax levy limit. It also would have limited the state-wide increase in agricultural land valuations to 3 percent. Following the public hearing, when the committee heard significant opposition from representatives of cities and other political subdivisions, LB 958 was advanced from the Revenue Committee with committee amendments that rewrote the bill. Although a portion of the original bill remained in the committee amendments, pertaining to the unused restricted funds authority for community colleges, the sponsor of the bill has filed an amendment to strike this portion during the second round of debate, as he doesn’t want it to hinder the passage of the bill.
Under the committee amendments, LB 958 proposed a $30 million increase in the Property Tax Credit program, targeted for agricultural landowners. This would be accomplished by valuing agricultural land for purposes of the Property Tax Credit program at full market value rather than 75% of market value. With the additional funding, on top of the $204 million already appropriated for the program, the credit for agricultural landowners would result in an approximate 10% reduction in property taxes.
During debate on LB 958, urban senators felt that all taxpayers should receive tax relief, not just rural landowners, and an amendment was offered to strike the provisions of the bill, replacing it with an income tax reduction. Following several hours of contentious debate, a compromise amendment was offered to reduce the additional funding for rural landowners through the Property Tax Credit program to approximately $20 million annually. I was disappointed that we had to compromise in order to get LB 958 advanced. Considering that property taxes collected statewide on agricultural land increased 176% over the last 10 years, compared with a 35% increase in residential property and a 49% increase in commercial property, it was obvious that agricultural landowners deserved some immediate relief. However, the Legislature must continue to work to provide significant relief for all taxpayers.
LB 1032, is Nebraska’s fourth attempt at expanding Medicaid, as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. After about an hour of debate, a motion was offered to bracket the bill until April 20, which is the last day of session. The motion was successful, meaning that the bill is essentially killed for this session.
The Health and Human Services Committee amendments to LB 1032 proposed to add a sunset date in three years. The amendments also proposed to appropriate $63 million from the Health Care Cash Fund to fund the state match for the coverage of the newly eligible.
In addition to the sunset, LB 1032 also states that if the federal share falls below 90%, the coverage for newly eligible individuals shall terminate. Although the intent of the bill is to ensure no appeals to the loss of eligibility if the program terminates, this could be problematic. Federal law classifies the new Medicaid expansion population as a “mandatory population” for states that opt into the expansion.
Furthermore, senators questioned whether the source of funding was sustainable. When federal reimbursement falls to 90% in 2020, the projected cost to the state for the expanded population would be approximately $58 million annually. Although the Health Care Cash fund has a positive balance currently, it only brings in approximately $59 million annually and is used to fund many other programs as well, such as tobacco-cessation programs, biomedical research, and behavior health and substance abuse services. Senators sympathized with those who fall in the gap, making too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to be eligible for subsidies. However, the majority feared that the program could end up costing more than our state could afford, thereby requiring cuts in other essential programs and services.
With just a few days left in this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your opinion on issues before us. 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.
The Legislature has 13 days left in this legislative session, with the 90th legislative day set for June 5. This past week, senators gave the budget bills second-round approval. The budget is now ready for Final Reading.
As I mentioned last week, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board increased their projections for the next biennium by $9.7 million. The Appropriations Committee recommended the dedication of $8 million of the projected increase to the Property Tax Credit program. With the added $4 million each year, bringing the increase in the program to $64 million annually, taxpayers will see a total of $204 million per year in direct property tax relief. This credit is reflected on annual property tax statements. The Legislature approved the committee’s recommendation, prior to advancing the budget bills.
There were several other changes to the budget that were recommended by the Appropriations Committee and approved by the entire Legislature during Select File debate. Appropriations were updated for the multi-year project to replace the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system at the State Capitol, based on continued planning and a better estimate of costs. A geothermal system has been identified as the preferred option, instead of contracting with the University of Nebraska for chilled water. Although it will cost more initially, it is expected to be more energy efficient in future years.
Funding was added to the budget for the Nebraska Developing Youth Talent Initiative. This initiative requires the Department of Economic Development to fund two pilot programs that are targeted to businesses in the manufacturing and technology sectors for two years. Grants would be provided to private sector for-profit entities, one of which must be in a rural area. This initiative will develop an industry-led partnership with schools to assist in specific career learning opportunities in manufacturing and technology sectors.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to a bill that was prioritized by the Revenue Committee. LB 259 would exempt from property tax the first $10,000 of valuation of depreciable tangible personal property in each tax district in which a personal property tax return is required to be filed. Although this wasn’t as comprehensive of a tax relief plan as some senators had hoped, it is estimated that it will provide for an average decrease of $162 in the personal property tax bills for business owners, farmers and other taxpayers.
The Legislature gave LB 610 final approval this past week on a 26-15 vote, with eight senators not voting. LB 610 proposes to increase the gas tax by a total of six cents over a four-year period. Revenue from the gas tax, which has remained flat over the past 20 years, has not kept up with the cost of road construction. The increased revenue is to be divided between the state Department of Roads, counties and cities, to be used for necessary road and bridge projects. Since the Governor has vetoed LB 610, the Legislature will need to override his veto if the tax increase is to take effect. Thirty votes are required on a motion to override, which is four more votes than given on final reading. I voted against LB 610, as I would prefer an increase in the current amount of sales tax dedicated to roads over a gas tax increase.
We have been working through the lunch hour and into the evening in an attempt to debate every priority bill. If you have any comments on the legislation that is still before us, I 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 Appropriations Committee completed its work on their budget recommendations for the next biennium, voting 9-0 to advance the recommendations to the full Legislature. The budget bills will be placed on General File by April 28, the 70th legislative day. The Legislature will take up the budget package on General File beginning April 30. According to the Legislature’s rules, the appropriations bills must be passed no later than the 80th legislative day, which falls on May 14 this year.
The budget, amounting to $8.7 billion, increases state spending by an average of 3.1% over the two-year period. The increase in spending is noticeably lower than the average 4.3% increase over that past 20 years. The budget package does include the concept contained in LB 364, the bill that I introduced to add an additional $60 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program, which provides direct property tax relief to property owners.
A bill to strengthen the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act was given first-round approval this past week. The legislation adds a definition of significant threat to the health or safety of dogs and cats. Due to recent concern regarding the inspection and enforcement procedures for licensed facilities by the Department of Agriculture, the department has updated their rules and regulations. The statutory definition mirrors the department’s regulations, clarifying that the department’s inspectors may impound animals or ask law enforcement to impound animals, if conditions pose a significant threat to the health or safety of dogs or cats. The legislation also provides for non-lapsing licenses, eliminating the difficulty the department had in taking enforcement actions against licensees whose license had expired. Furthermore, the bill removes obstacles for unannounced inspections and authorizes the department to charge a reinspection fee and mileage for reinspection trips to determine if correction of defects found in previous inspections have been completed.
As amended, LB 360 increases the annual license fee for breeders by $25 for each license fee category and imposes a new annual fee in commercial license fee categories of $2.00, times the daily average, for dogs or cats numbering more than ten. The legislation would increase the annual dog and cat license fee in cities, counties and villages from $1 to $1.25. These fee increases are necessary to adequately fund the program.
The Legislature also gave first-round approval to a bill containing many of the recommendations submitted by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. The legislation seeks to define hard cider as beer instead of wine, allows retirement homes to apply for liquor licenses, applies the keg laws to all kegs containing alcohol liquor, allows retail licensees to bottle and sell growlers, and offers tax credits for beer manufacturers to utilize local barley and hops. As introduced, LB 330 repealed the mandatory closing time for bars. This provision was stripped from the bill by the committee amendments.
LB 330 gave the Liquor Control Commission the authority to regulate powdered alcohol. This powder produces an alcoholic beverage when mixed with water. A successful amendment struck this authority by banning powdered alcohol in the state, except for research purposes. Senators were concerned that this new product would appeal to underage drinkers and would be hard to control.
A Unicameral Youth Legislature will be held on June 7-10, 2015 and I encourage high school students who have an interest in law, government, leadership or public speaking to register for the event. Students will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and learn more about our nation’s only Unicameral. Scholarships are available. More information and registration forms can be obtained at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.
If you have any comments on legislation currently before the Legislature, I urge 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.