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After completing their work, the Nebraska Legislature has adjourned sine die. Senators balanced the budget, provided property tax relief to agricultural landowners, tightened limits on school district spending, accelerated road projects, and increased opportunities for wind energy development.
Governor Ricketts vetoed three bills, but the Legislature attempted to override only one. LB 947, introduced by Omaha Senator Heath Mello, allows lawfully present immigrants to apply for professional and commercial licenses. This bill would extend benefits to youth qualifying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Under executive order, President Obama has allowed certain young people that were brought into the country illegally as children to be deemed temporarily lawfully present in our country. Last year, the governor vetoed legislation allowing drivers’ licenses for this group of individuals, but his veto was overridden on a 34-10 vote. Thirty votes are required to override a governor’s veto.
The Governor felt that LB 947 was unfair and was concerned with the scope of the legislation, which would provide business licenses to a much broader group of illegal immigrants than just the young adults under the federal DACA program. Supporters of the legislation viewed it as a workforce development issue. After attending college in Nebraska, they did not want to see these skilled youth leave for another state in order to obtain the license necessary for their job. Senators voted 31-13 to override the governor’s veto of LB 947.
The other two bills vetoed were LB 580 and LB 935. LB 580 proposed to change the redistricting process of drawing maps for governing districts, which is required every 10 years after a new census. The bill proposed to create an Independent Redistricting Citizen’s Advisory Commission in an effort to take some of the politics out of the process. Governor Ricketts believed that LB 580 was constitutionally suspect as the Nebraska Constitution requires the Legislature to conduct legislative redistricting. Senator John Murante, the primary sponsor of LB 580, chose to continue to work on this proposal rather than attempt to override the governor’s veto.
LB 935 proposed several changes in audit procedures and state operations. The Governor will work with the State Auditor on a revised proposal next year, in order to still achieve the policy objectives of the legislation but reduce bureaucratic paperwork.
Term limits affected eleven senators this year. Senators who cannot run again include the Speaker of the Legislature and the chairs of the Appropriations Committee, Education Committee, Health and Human Services Committee, Natural Resources Committee and Revenue Committee. Next year will see many new leaders emerge to carry on their responsibilities.
After senators finished their work on the last day, those outgoing senators were recognized and given the opportunity to give some final remarks. Senators spend a great deal of time together and things can get heated at times. However, we also develop a certain kind of bond that comes from working together for the betterment of the entire state. Consequently, the ceremonies on the last day can be emotional, as outgoing senators say goodbye to their colleagues.
With the session concluding, I will be spending more time at home in the district. I will be in Lincoln on a weekly basis for meetings, public hearings, and office work. My office will still be able to assist you throughout the interim, as my staff will be available if I am not, and we correspond on a daily basis. 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 legislative session is well underway, having passed the one-fourth mark of this 60-day session. Senators have been debating controversial issues, with several bills encountering a filibuster and requiring a cloture motion before the vote to advance can be taken.
LB 471 is an important bill that didn’t require much debate and was easily advanced by senators this past week. This bill, introduced by Omaha Senator Sara Howard, will strengthen the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program in Nebraska. Currently, dispensers of prescription drugs are not required to report prescription information and patients can opt out of having their information reported. LB 471 would prohibit patients from opting out of the system and would require all dispensed prescriptions to be entered into the system, including those with cash payments. Prescribers and dispensers of prescription drugs would be able to access the system at no cost to the provider.
Narcotic overdose deaths are a significant problem. Persons addicted to prescription drugs will go from doctor to doctor to obtain prescription painkillers. Nebraska and Missouri are the only states that have not implemented an operational prescription drug monitoring program. Senator Howard disclosed documentation showing that people from 38 states have come to Nebraska to fill prescriptions for narcotic pain medications. LB 471 would close loopholes in our current program in an effort to prevent the misuse of prescription drugs.
When our current school finance formula was first developed 25 years ago, one of the goals was to have no more than 45% of the revenue financing our K-12 school districts coming from property taxes. Today, property taxes make up approximately 50% of the funding for our local school districts. Our current state aid formula is too dependent on property taxes and needs to be revised. However, as I have mentioned earlier, the Legislature is facing a $140 million shortfall. Analysts have estimated that reducing school district’s reliance on property taxes to the 45% level would require $176 million in additional state aid.
Our current state aid formula calculates the needs of a district, which are what it costs to run the school. Subtracted from this figure are the resources of the district, which is made up of primarily property tax revenue, as well as state sources, such as special education reimbursement. The difference is paid to school districts through the state aid formula as equalization aid. The number of districts that receive equalization aid has steadily decreased over the years, primarily due to the significant increase in the valuation of agricultural land. Currently, only 87 of our 245 school districts receive equalization aid. That is why I am supporting LB 883, introduced by Norfolk Senator Jim Scheer and 11 other senators. It would provide a base amount of aid to all school districts, regardless of whether they qualify for equalization aid. LB 882, a companion bill, deals with school budgeting. It limits a school district’s ability to exceed its allowable growth percentage, limits cash reserve growth and removes the ability of schools to carry forward their unused budget authority.
When looking at the revenue that funds our state government, property taxes make up about 42% of total taxes paid in Nebraska, with sales tax revenue comprising 28% and the income tax contributing 27%. I believe that the Legislature should strive to more evenly balance the revenue from our three major tax sources. Last year, we increased the funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $64 million annually. This year, there are several proposals (including LB 883) that would increase state aid to school districts, thereby lowering the burden on the property tax to fund our schools. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I am hopeful we can continue to make progress on property tax relief, while balancing the budget.
As the Legislature debates issues of interest to Nebraskans, 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 telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.
Governor Ricketts presented his State of the State Address to the Legislature this past week. He said he looks forward to working with us to bring relief to taxpayers. He urged us to prioritize property tax relief, as it is his number one priority this year. He touched on economic development and the need to grow Nebraska. He expressed his support for a proposed $26 million investment in the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, as part of his broader efforts to help reduce recidivism. The governor reiterated his opposition to Medicaid expansion, referring to it as one of the biggest long-term risks to the budget.
Following his speech, several bills were introduced by senators, at the request of the governor. Two bills, introduced by the chair of the Revenue Committee and the chair of the Education Committee, make structural changes to how property taxes are levied on residential, commercial and agricultural property. These bills tighten current spending limits on all local governments. They also propose to tighten levy limits by removing exceptions that don’t require voter approval. Furthermore, the proposed legislation will limit the statewide aggregate increase in the class of agricultural property to 3% per year by adjusting the value of agricultural land.
As I mentioned last week, I worked with other senators on legislation that alters the school finance formula to provide property tax relief. Senator Jim Scheer of Norfolk is the primary sponsor of LB 883 and 11 senators have signed on as co-sponsors. LB 883 proposes to provide a base amount of state aid per student to school districts to offset property taxes. This aid would be phased in over four years, until it reaches $3,000 per student, regardless of whether the school qualifies for equalization aid. The bill also makes some adjustments in the state aid formula to help subsidize the cost of the base aid. Under the current formula, almost two-thirds of the school districts receive no equalization aid. The increase in the valuation of agricultural land has contributed to the disproportionate burden placed on property taxes in supporting school districts. I don’t believe that the founders of the current state aid formula envisioned this would happen and consequently, I feel that it is time to revamp the system.
Last year, I introduced LB 47, which proposes to make the question mandatory rather than optional, on the driver’s license application regarding whether to place your name on the Donor Registry. LB 47 was selected as a Speaker priority bill last year, but was not fully debated. The purpose of the bill is to increase the number of donors in Nebraska. More than 98% of Nebraskans registered as donors became registered through the application process for a driver’s license. With the question currently optional, only 55% of applicants are registered as donors. This percentage is higher in states where the question is mandatory.
LB 47 does not require applicants to become donors, but merely requires that they answer the question with “yes”, “no” or “elect not to answer”. At the public hearing, an organ recipient testified that he can accept if applicants choose not to register. However, it’s harder to accept apathy, when applicants skip over the answer. After several hours of debate, LB 47 received initial approval earlier this week.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature will be held on June 5-8, 2016 at the State Capitol. It gives students an opportunity to learn what it’s like to serve as a state senator. High School students will learn about the unique process of our unicameral system by sponsoring bills, conducting committee hearings, and debating legislation. Students learn directly from senators, staff and lobbyists, working on legislation from the previous session. All high school students are eligible and the deadline is May 15. The fee is $350, which includes lodging, meals and transportation. Scholarships are available. For more information visit NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.
The hearing process will begin on January 19. Senators will meet as a body in the morning and divide into committees in the afternoon. All bills are referenced to a standing committee and a hearing is held before this committee. This gives the public the opportunity to make their viewpoints known before the committee takes action on the bill. If you are interested in any of the bills that have been introduced, I encourage you to attend a public hearing. I also encourage you to contact me with your opinions on legislation that has been introduced or with any question you may have. 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 at the capitol is (402) 471-2733.