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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.
This past week, the Legislature debated whether the fees for issuing a marriage license and providing certified copies of marriage records should be increased. The marriage license fee hasn’t been increased since 1995. The proposed increase, from $15 to $50, would cover the counties’ administrative costs for issuance. Currently taxpayers are subsidizing a good portion of the cost. Amendments are pending to lower the proposed increase to $30 or $35. Under LB 88, the cost of providing a certified copy of a marriage record would increase from $5 to $16, which would align the fee charged by counties with what is charged by the Bureau of Vital Statistics.
Chief Justice Michael Heavican delivered his State of the Judiciary this past week. In his speech, he mentioned that the Judicial Branch participated in the Council of State Government’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group, along with the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch. The analysis from the CSG group found that people sentenced to probation have lower recidivism rates than people sentenced to prison and emphasized the value of increasing the use of sentencing alternatives.
Chief Justice Heavican reported on two effective sentencing alternatives available for our courts, instead of more costly incarceration sentences. Nebraska’s 16 problem-solving courts served more than 1,000 people last year, resulting in an estimated $15 million cost savings. Drug courts emphasize education and employment and results have shown that 95% of active participants are gainfully employed or attending school full-time. Furthermore, an evaluation of the drug courts portrayed that 95% of those who successfully complete the program remain crime-free one year afterwards. The second alternative is the Specialized Substance Abuse Supervision (SSAS) program, which provides an opportunity for otherwise prison-bound substance abusers to be intensively supervised by probation while receiving treatment. This program has seen 91% of participants remaining crime-free one year after being successfully discharged from the program. Additionally, an average of 94% of graduates were gainfully employed.
Several bills were heard before the Revenue Committee this past week that attempt to deal with the issue of high property taxes. Senator Kate Bolz of Lincoln introduced LB 186, which would establish a refundable income tax credit program. At a projected cost of over $200 million annually, this “circuit breaker” legislation aims to provide income tax credits to people whose property taxes or monthly rents are high compared with their incomes.
I introduced LB 178, which would lower the valuation on agricultural land from 75% to 55% for school district taxation purposes. Nebraska farmers and ranchers today represent less than 3% of the state’s population but pay more than 30% of the total property taxes collected statewide. Furthermore, in the last decade, property taxes on agricultural land has increased 162%, compared with the 40% increase in residential property over the same time period. Although I realize this legislation isn’t the end solution to the property tax problem, I feel that it is a first step, in that it helps address the disproportionate burden placed on rural land owners in the support of their school districts. The increased state aid which would be generated by this bill would be approximately $55 million, after the reduction in valuation is phased in over a four-year period.
Grand Island Senator Mike Gloor introduced LB 259, which proposes to exempt the first $25,000 in value of personal property. The fiscal impact on this bill is approximately $40 million per year.
More bills have been introduced with the goal of lowering property taxes in our state, which I will report on in coming weeks. If you have any questions or comments on legislation proposing property tax relief or on other issues before the Legislature, 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.