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Seat belts, texting, and Medicaid expansion were the topics of bills heard this past week by the committees on which I serve. LB 807, the Nebraska Roadway Safety Act, was heard before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee on Tuesday, January 28. LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act, was heard by the Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday, January 29.
Currently, the laws pertaining to safety belts and texting are secondary enforcement laws. This means that motorists may only be ticketed if they have been stopped for another offense. LB 807 would place Nebraska among 33 other states that have primary seat belt enforcement laws and at least 36 states with a primary texting enforcement law. Enforcement of provisions applying to the Graduated Driver’s License law for young drivers would also change from secondary to primary. LB 807 would require back seat passengers to use seat belts and ban the use of cell phones and other wireless devices by school bus drivers.
In 2013, of the 207 people that died on Nebraska roadways, 179 were killed in passenger vehicle crashes. Of these 179 deaths, 146 were not wearing seat belts. Half of those not wearing seat belts were ejected from their vehicle. The National Safety Council estimated that 50-60 deaths could have been prevented if Nebraska had a primary seat belt enforcement law last year.
Research has shown that distracted driving is just as deadly as drunk driving. As many as 27% of all crashes each year are caused by drivers using cell phones.
At the public hearing, several senators questioned how law enforcement would be able to differentiate between drivers illegally texting or legally making a telephone call. They also wondered whether allegations of racial profiling might increase. Although it is apparent that the Transportation Committee is divided on this issue, we have not yet taken a vote on the advancement of LB 807.
LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act, is this year’s attempt to expand Medicaid in Nebraska. The expansion of Medicaid, as a part of the federal Affordable Care Act, is voluntary for states.
The legislation would allow adults age 19-64 with incomes between 0 and 133% of the federal poverty level to qualify for Medicaid. The federal government would pick up 100% of the aid costs through 2016, decreasing to 90% in 2020 and thereafter. Administrative costs are split 50/50 between the state and the federal government.
The bill proposes to provide coverage through the marketplace with health insurance premiums paid by Medicaid funds for those with incomes from 100-133% of the federal poverty level or for payment of the employee portion of employer sponsored insurance, if the state determines it is cost effective. Medicaid coverage would be provided for those with incomes up to 100% of the federal poverty level through Medicaid managed care or for those classified as medically frail or with exceptional medical conditions.
The hearing room was filled with persons interested in LB 887, including two department heads. Both the CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Director of the Department of Insurance testified in opposition to LB 887. The CEO of HHS stated that if LB 887 passed, nearly one in five Nebraskans would be on Medicaid.
Projections of the fiscal impact to the state differed from the department to the Legislature’s fiscal office. Furthermore, the estimated number of newly eligible Medicaid recipients that would apply for the benefits varies dramatically. This reiterates the uncertainty surrounding Medicaid expansion and is why the Governor has expressed his strong opposition to LB 887.
I encourage you to inform me of your opinion on bills 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.
Should police be able to stop a motorist for not wearing a seat belt or for texting? As a member of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, one afternoon this past week was spent discussing these issues. The current law requires all front seat motorists to wear seat belts. However, police can only ticket violators if they are stopped for some other reason. Both LB 10 and LB 189 would make a seat belt violation a primary offense and would require all passengers to be buckled up, not just front seat passengers. LB 189, introduced by Senator John Harms of Scottsbluff, also proposes to increase the fine for a seat belt violation from $25 to $100 and to assess 1 point to the driving record. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have primary seat belt laws. New Hampshire is the only state with no seat belt law for adults. Seat belt laws in the remainder of the states (including Nebraska) are secondarily enforced.
Currently, seat belt usage is approximately 79%. Based on experience in other states, testifiers projected that this statistic would increase to 90% if either LB 10 or LB 189 were passed into law. Proponents testified that primary seat belt laws save lives, reduce injuries, and lower crash costs to society.
Opponents feared that making a seat belt violation a primary offense could lead to racial profiling by police. Others questioned how far the government should intrude into personal decision-making.
Senator Harms also introduced LB 118, which would make texting a primary offense. Currently, reading, typing or sending a text message is against the law while operating a motor vehicle that is in motion, but a driver can only be charged if pulled over for a different traffic violation.
For years, Nebraskans have discussed the need for a comprehensive statewide plan to deal with water challenges facing the state, from severe drought to flooding, interstate compacts, and management of our underground water supplies. There have been studies and discussions, but no widespread solutions or agreement on funding sources.
This past week, the Natural Resources Committee held a public hearing on LB 517, which proposes to establish a Water Sustainability Project Task Force to work with the Department of Natural Resources. The task force would be charged with identifying water resources programs, projects and activities in need of funding in order to meet the long-term statewide goals of water sustainability, increased water use productivity, and maximizing the beneficial use of water resources. Experts would be hired to accomplish the objectives in LB 517, analyzing data gathered from past studies. The funding for the study would be sought from the oil and gas severance taxes the state collects, which currently are transferred to the permanent school fund. A report is to be submitted to the Legislature by January 31, 2014. LB 517 was introduced by Senator Tom Carlson, the chair of the Natural Resources Committee.
Senator Carlson also introduced another bill which will have a public hearing before the Revenue Committee on March 15. LB 516 would establish the Nebraska Water Legacy Commission and proposes to earmark one-fourth of one percent of sales tax revenue as a dedicated source of funding for new water projects, management and research, as identified by the recommendations for a comprehensive, multi-year plan developed as a result of the LB 517 study. With the passage of LB 84 last year to divert one-fourth of one percent of sales tax revenue for road projects, supporters claim that water is just as important as roads to our state. This bill will be held over until next year, giving senators and the public time to discuss whether this is an appropriate source of funds.
Again, I encourage your comments on the issues that are before the Legislature. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2733.