The Legislature began full-day sessions this past week, debating and advancing numerous bills. Among them was LB 137, which would adopt the Unclaimed Life Insurance Benefits Act. The act requires life insurance companies to compare its insureds with the Death Master File of the U.S. Social Security Administration to identify possible matches and determine whether benefits are due. The insurance companies would be required to try to locate the beneficiary and provide them with instructions on how to make a claim.
People usually purchase a life insurance policy as a means to provide money to family members when they die. However, the family members aren’t always aware of the existence of the policy. Sometimes companies can’t locate the beneficiaries but this isn’t always the case. Insurance officials estimate at least $1 billion in life insurance benefits are unclaimed nationally. More than twenty states have enacted similar legislation to LB 137. I believe it is time that Nebraska joined the ranks, so I signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill. LB 137 received first-round approval on a 31-0 vote.
LB 487 was given initial approval by the Legislature on a 35-4 vote. It proposes to change penalties for persons experiencing or witnessing a drug overdose if they request emergency medical assistance for themselves or another person. For the exemption from charges for possession of a controlled substance to apply, the person must be the first to request assistance, must remain on the scene until help arrives and must cooperate with emergency personnel. LB 487 is similar to legislation passed a couple of years ago that protected minors who called for help for friends experiencing alcohol poisoning.
A bill that was amended into LB 487 through the Judiciary Committee amendments was LB 167. This bill proposes to reschedule cannabidiol in a drug product approved by the FDA into Schedule V of the Nebraska Controlled Substances Act. Currently, cannabidiol (known as CBD) in any form is a Schedule I Controlled Substance with a high potential for abuse and no approved medical use. CBD can be referred to as the “medical part” of the marijuana plant, which is different from THC, the “recreational part” of the plant that gets a person high.
Later this year, CBD in a pharmaceutical formulation will be submitted to the FDA for approval. The drug, called Epidiolex, is an investigational product being studied as a potential anti-convulsive treatment for children with certain types of epilepsy. LB 167 allows Nebraska to proactively reschedule CBD in an FDA approved product, ensuring it will be available to patients in Nebraska as soon as rescheduling by the DEA on the federal level is complete.
The Revenue Committee is continuing to work on a package for tax relief that will be sent to the full Legislature for debate. It appears that it may include an income tax relief provision, which would commit future revenue for this purpose. Therefore, senators who believe that property tax relief needs to be the priority may not be able to support the package. I am disappointed in the direction this legislation is going.
Again, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation that is being discussed by senators. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, Nebraska 68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.
The chairman of the Revenue Committee, Senator Mike Gloor, introduced LB 958 at the request of the governor. LB 958 is part of a property tax relief proposal offered by Governor Pete Ricketts. The public hearing on LB 958 was held this past week before the Revenue Committee, lasting 6 ½ hours. The governor was the first proponent testifying after Senator Gloor.
The intent of the Governor’s proposal is to slow the increase in state-wide agricultural land valuation and to slow the growth of spending and therefore, property taxes levied by political subdivisions. The legislation limits the budgeted growth of restricted funds, eliminates exclusions to the levy limit, and limits the state-wide increase in agricultural land valuation to 3%.
Under LB 958, if the increase in agricultural land in any year exceeds 3% on a statewide aggregated basis, the Property Tax Administrator will determine the factor needed to uniformly and proportionately reduce the value of every parcel of agricultural land so that the statewide aggregate increase on agricultural land does not exceed 3%. The adjusted valuation used for the calculation of the school finance formula would also be adjusted by this factor.
Governor Ricketts said that the legislation introduced this year is a step toward his broader goal of tax relief in Nebraska. He pledged to continue to work to reduce property and income taxes during his time as governor. He mentioned that he has heard from Nebraskans that say his proposal doesn’t go far enough and from others, primarily local governments, that felt it goes too far, leading him to conclude that it strikes the right balance.
Earlier this week, the Nebraska Farm Bureau, the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Pork Producers all indicated their support for LB 958. The three major agricultural groups believe that the governor’s proposal is a step in the right direction and will help remedy the disproportionate property tax burden placed on agricultural landowners when supporting school districts.
Open Sky Policy Institute testified in opposition to LB 958. The Institute released a policy brief stating that if an assessment growth cap on agricultural land had been in effect for this year, it would have resulted in shortfalls for schools and other localities, tax shifts and disparate impacts on agricultural landowners. They cited another study which stated that such unintended consequences are why assessment caps are among the least effective, least equitable, and least efficient strategies available for property tax relief. While the intent of the cap is to help the agricultural community, the Institute believes that the largest benefits will go to farmers and ranchers near urban areas, not to the most rural parts of Nebraska.
Others testifying in opposition to LB 958 stated that the bill would shift taxes to residential and commercial property owners. Others feared the potential loss in revenue for school districts and other political subdivisions. City representatives stated that it would hinder their ability to save money for major projects, as well as provide for services such as public health and 911 coverage, because the bill would put capital improvements and expenditures for interlocal agreements under the overall budget limit.
As the Legislature continues to discuss various bills pertaining to tax relief, I encourage your comment. 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.
This past week began with the Legislature being notified of the Governor’s veto of $64 million within the budget bills. The Appropriations Committee met early in the week and developed a package of items that they recommended for override. The Legislature agreed with the Appropriations Committee and voted to override the recommended vetoes.
The Governor had vetoed $7.4 million of the $17.5 million in funding for the Game and Parks Commission. In his veto message, the Governor stressed that the partial funding would still allow for the projects at Ponca State Park and Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. However, the written agreement between the Appropriations Committee and the commission stated that should the committee provide $17.5 million, the commission would be able to further address priority deferred maintenance needs statewide and the undertaking of capital projects at Ponca State Park and priority capital projects at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park to put the existing facilities in a condition that would be conducive to transferring operating and management to a local partner. With the successful override motion, it eliminates any question as to whether the projects will be undertaken.
I joined the Governor at a press conference where he signed legislation offering more than $400 million in tax relief to Nebraskans over the next 5 years. Among the bills the Governor signed was LB 96. This bill will eliminate the sales tax on repair or replacement parts for agricultural machinery and equipment. Nebraska was one of only 8 states that charged sales tax on such items, which created a competitive disadvantage for our farm equipment supply industry, particularly for those located close to the state’s border. LB 905 will increase the Property Tax Credit Program by $25 million, bringing the annual appropriation to $140 million. LB 986 will expand Nebraska’s homestead exemption program so that more Nebraskans qualify, by increasing the limit on household income. LB 850, the bill I introduced to authorize a homestead exemption for individuals with developmental disabilities who meet income and valuation guidelines, was included in LB 986. LB 987 will index Nebraska’s individual income tax brackets for inflation, exempt more social security income from taxation, and provide limited tax exemptions for military retirees. Furthermore, LB 725 contains an additional $33 million in state aid to local school districts.
LB 1098, which would reconstruct the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission, was given first-round approval this past week. The legislation is the result of the work of the Water Funding Task Force during the past interim. The restructured commission would be required to revise their rules and regulations to ensure the funding process follows the ranking and criteria recommendations of the task force.
Several senators are pushing for basin-wide planning to ensure water sustainability and threatened to filibuster LB 1098 if provisions for a state water plan were not included. Others feel that such a proposal favors surface water irrigators at the expense of groundwater irrigators. I feel that statewide water planning is already in place through the work of the Department of Natural Resources and our local NRDs.
The budget bills contain $31 million in funding for water sustainability projects and LB 1098 is the vehicle for the distribution of these funds. Interested parties have pledged to work together on a compromise prior to the second-round of debate. I spoke on the floor of the importance of dealing with water sustainability projects now and not postponing them. The project at Lake McConaughy cost $43.5 million in 1935. Today, that cost would have grown to $695 million.
Although the Legislature has advanced some controversial issues, other legislation hasn’t fared as well. LB 943, which would have increased the minimum wage, failed to receive first-round approval. LB 1058, a bill that would have adopted the Interstate Compact on the Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote, was pulled from the agenda by its introducer. LB 965, which was intended to encourage more renewable energy development but could have resulted in higher electric rates, was bracketed until the end of session.
As we enter the final days of this legislative session, which is scheduled to adjourn on April 17, I still 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 is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.
The Governor gave his final State of the State address to the Legislature this past week. He began his speech on the topic of health care, referring to the many problems with the federal Affordable Care Act. The Governor said that the new federal health care law will cost the State of Nebraska more than $200 million in state general funds over the next six years. He is still strongly against the expansion of Medicaid, which was originally part of the federal plan, but due to a lawsuit became voluntary for states.
Senator Kathy Campbell, the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, introduced LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act. It is her second attempt to expand Medicaid in Nebraska, proposing to offer Medicaid coverage to adults age 19-64 with incomes up to 100% of the federal poverty level, while those with incomes above 50% of the federal poverty level would have to contribute 2% of their income. For these newly eligible with incomes between 100% and 138% of the federal poverty level, insurance would be purchased through the marketplace, with the enrollees paying 2% of their income and Medicaid paying the remainder. The plan would have to be approved by the federal government.
Although the federal government has agreed to pay 100% of the costs for the first three years of the expansion, dropping to 90% after that, the Governor fears that the state’s share could jeopardize funding for other important programs in Nebraska, such as K-12 education and higher education. He also questioned whether the federal government will keep their promised commitment.
The Governor also addressed crime and punishment. He recommended legislation that will make violent criminals earn their “good time”, instead of automatically receiving it. Currently, Nebraska’s prisons are at approximately 150% of capacity. Some senators expressed concern that this change could enhance the overcrowding problem, while not addressing the underlying problem, of lack of services to prepare the inmate to live in the community. The Governor offered some suggestions for short-term prison capacity issues, but recommended further study for long-term changes.
Senator Brad Ashford, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, introduced LB 907. This bill incorporates the concept of “supervised release”, which has been shown to result in lower rates of recidivism than if inmates are released without supervision. The use of structured monitoring is intended to help inmates adjust to life outside of prison. Each inmate would undergo a comprehensive risk and needs assessment prior to release.
The Governor stressed that the biggest and most important issue facing the state is high taxes. He indicated his support for the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s proposal to lower agricultural land valuations from 75% to 65%. Last year, I introduced LB 101 which proposed this same concept for school taxation purposes. The Governor also recommended a decrease in the top individual income tax rate.
Governor Heineman suggested that the state could offer up to $500 million in tax relief over the next three years, considering our strong cash reserve and our growing economy – if we strictly limit spending. Senators, remembering how a strong cash reserve helped carry our state through the last recession, may be reluctant to spend down the cash reserve too far.
If you have any comments on the Governor’s speech or on other legislation that has been introduced, I encourage you to contact me. 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 telephone number is (402) 471-2733.