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.
The Appropriations Committee submitted their budget recommendations this past week to the full Legislature by the 40th legislative day, as required by legislative rule. The appropriations bills must be passed by the 50th day, which falls on March 29th this year. The appropriations bills presented this year are mid-biennium adjustments to the two-year budget passed last year for fiscal years 2015/16 and 2016/17, resulting in a net increase of $4.2 million.
Although the financial status at the end of the current biennium remains similar to what it was at the end of the last year’s session, it has fluctuated greatly during the past year. The projected status went from a positive $2.3 million to a negative $110 million after the Nebraska Economic Forecast Advisory Board reduced revenue projections by $154 million last October. This was partially offset by a lapse of unexpended appropriations, reductions in Medicaid, and a $13 million net gain when the Forecast Advisory Board met again in February, resulting in the current positive financial status of $10.1 million. However the projected status for the following biennium shows a $106 million shortfall. This volatility shows the necessity for keeping a sufficient balance in the cash reserve fund.
The $10.1 million figure is the amount of revenue above the required 3% minimum reserve, which is available to fund legislation with a fiscal impact. The reality of this figure makes it apparent that any substantial tax relief will require a tax shift or significant cuts in spending. Due to significant opposition from cities and counties, the Governor’s proposal for property tax relief will most likely not advance from the Revenue Committee as introduced. The intent of LB 958 was to slow down the increase in agricultural land valuation by limiting the state-wide increase to 3 percent per year and to slow the growth of property taxes levied by the political subdivisions. A related bill, LB 959, sought to slow the growth of spending and property taxes levied by school districts. Likewise, it has not been advanced by the Education Committee at this time.
The Appropriations Committee recommended funding three one-time projects from the cash reserve, reducing the balance by $91 million to $655 million. The transfers include $27.3 million to the Department of Corrections for adding capacity to the Lincoln Community Corrections Center, $13.7 million for the modification of two federal levee systems that impact the Offutt Air Force base, in an effort to help secure federal funding to rebuild Offutt’s deteriorating runway and keep the 55th Wing in Nebraska, and under LB 960, $50 million to fund the newly created Transportation Infrastructure Bank.
LB 960, as amended by the Appropriations Committee, creates three new programs funded by the $50 million transfer from the cash reserve fund. It also commits $400 million in additional fuel tax revenue generated by LB 610, passed by the Legislature last year. The Accelerated State Highway Capital Improvement Program will provide up-front money for major highway projects including the completion of the expressway system. The County Bridge Match Program will promote innovative solutions and provide additional funding to accelerate the repair and replacement of county bridges. Finally, the Economic Opportunity Program will finance transportation improvements to attract and support new businesses and business expansions.
Included in the budget recommendations, are amended versions of two of my bills. The first would provide a one-time $1.5 million appropriation to help with recruitment and retention of correctional staff, particularly at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. The other extended the current appropriations for deferred maintenance, repair, renovation and facility replacement construction projects at the three state colleges, thereby allowing for the Theater/Event Center project at Peru State College to proceed.
As legislators discuss the budget and other priority bills, I encourage your input. 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 voted to repeal the death penalty this past week. LB 268 was passed by the Legislature on a 32-15 vote.
Governor Ricketts issued a statement prior to the final vote, urging senators to listen to their constituents and keep Nebraska among the 32 states that have a death penalty. In his extensive travels across the state, the governor said he found overwhelming support for keeping the death penalty in Nebraska. He said that a vote to repeal the death penalty will give our state’s most heinous criminals more lenient sentences.
The governor has indicated that he will veto LB 268. If so, I would predict that Senator Chambers will file a motion to override his veto, which will likely be taken up by the Legislature next week. Thirty votes are necessary to override a veto.
The recent incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution emphasizes the need for the death penalty. If the death penalty is repealed, it can no longer be used as a deterrent for inmates serving life sentences, which could impact the safety of staff.
Opponents of the death penalty pointed to the high costs associated with carrying it out. They also cited religious reasons for not taking a life, the possibility of wrongful convictions, and the emotional turmoil it places on the victim’s family.
The State of Nebraska has officially administered the death penalty since 1901, when executions were moved from individual counties to the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The method of execution at that time was hanging. In 1913, Nebraska’s execution method changed to the electric chair. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman V. Georgia that the arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violated the U.S. Constitution and constituted cruel and unusual punishment, resulting in a national moratorium. Nebraska and other states enacted new legislation seeking to overcome the constitutional defects and in 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the revised death penalty statutes. In 2009, the Legislature changed the method of execution to lethal injection, after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the sole use of the electric chair violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The State of Nebraska has carried out 23 executions, 8 by hanging and 15 by means of the electric chair, with the last occurring in 1997. Eleven men are currently on death row.
Senator Chambers has been attempting to repeal the death penalty for forty years. In 1979, the Legislature passed such legislation, but former Governor Charles Thone vetoed the bill.
The Governor signed the budget bills without a single line-item veto. Governor Ricketts said that he did not veto anything from the budget as it slowed the growth in government spending and it offered property tax relief, which were his two top priorities.
Within the budget are several items that I instigated and am appreciative of the approval from my fellow senators and the governor. Several water projects, initiated through the Nebraska Resources Development Fund (RDF) to help protect our state’s natural resources, while also producing notable recreation and economic benefits for the state, were never fully funded. The RDF was phased out with the passage of legislation in 2014 that created the Water Sustainability Fund. In fulfilling the state’s obligation, these projects will now be fully funded through a combination of General Funds and funding from the new Water Sustainability Fund.
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers are trained citizens who are appointed by a judge to speak in court for the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children. There are 22 CASA programs serving 38 counties in Nebraska. It has been shown that children with a CASA volunteer are more likely to find safe, permanent homes, are more likely to be adopted, are half as likely to re-enter foster care and are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care. I was able to obtain a stable source of state funding for this program.
I introduced legislation to increase the funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $60 million annually. The Governor also included this increase in his budget proposal. The final biennial budget contains an additional $64 million annually in direct property tax relief for taxpayers, which is shown as a credit on annual tax statements.
Along with a dozen other senators, I visited the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution this past Sunday. We wanted to show our support for the staff at TSCI and commend them for their dedicated service during the recent riot at the facility. I also joined Governor Ricketts and Scott Frakes, the director of the Department of Corrections, as they toured the facility mid-week. The Governor has pledged to seek solutions to staffing problems at TSCI, including high turnover and job vacancy rates, stagnant salaries and mandatory overtime.
As we enter our last days of this legislative session, I encourage you to continue 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.
It’s been a busy week in the Unicameral. The Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto of the gas tax with no votes to spare. Consequently, the gas tax will increase by six cents over a four-year period beginning in January. We discussed LB 586, which would prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity, for several hours before it was pulled from the agenda at the sponsor’s request.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to LB 623, which authorizes driver’s licenses for certain children of undocumented immigrants, and to LB 643, the bill allowing medical marijuana. We gave second-round approval to the prison reform bills, which took on more significance after the incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI). The budget bills were given final approval this past week by the Legislature. The Governor now has the ability to line-item veto specific appropriations from these bills, after which the Appropriations Committee will meet to decide which vetoes, if any, to recommend be overridden.
LB 623 would make individuals who can demonstrate lawful status for a period of time by the federal government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program eligible for driver’s licenses. Nebraska is the only state that denies driver’s licenses to these children that have been given legal protection by the President. Nebraska’s policy denying the licenses was put in place by former Governor Dave Heineman. A similar law in Arizona was ruled unconstitutional last year and a lawsuit is currently pending in Nebraska. After 8 hours of debate and a successful cloture motion, LB 623 was advanced on a 37-8-4 vote.
LB 643, the Medical Cannabis Act, was amended by Judiciary Committee amendments prior to advancing from the first stage of debate on a 27-12-10 vote. The committee amendments are fashioned after a similar law adopted in Minnesota, which is seen as one of the strictest laws among the 23 states that allow for medical marijuana.
The Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health would create a registry of patients that would be permitted to obtain medical cannabis, if diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition by a health care practitioner. The qualifying medical conditions listed in the bill include cancer, HIV, seizures, multiple sclerosis, and terminal illness. Severe or chronic pain does not qualify on its own, but must be associated with one of the listed conditions. Medical marijuana could be used as a liquid or oil, as a pill, or in a vaporized form of the liquid or oil. Smoking of marijuana would not be permitted under LB 643.
I am concerned for the staff at TSCI. I was aware of the use of mandatory overtime at the institution prior to the incident last week. Mandatory overtime can lead to safety issues, as well as job discontent. High turnover in staff results in less experienced employees. The newly appointed director of the Department of Corrections has indicated that he will conduct a study on staffing this summer and I have asked to be kept updated.
I am also concerned with the costs from the TSCI incident that will fall on Johnson County due to the death of two inmates and the charges that will be filed on other inmates. I introduced a bill earlier this year to transfer the financial responsibility for the costs of an autopsy, grand jury payments and witness compensation from the counties to the State of Nebraska when an incarcerated inmate dies while serving a sentence in a state correctional institution. Although the bill advanced from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, it has stalled on General File. I am hopeful that something can be done to help the county with these “state” expenses.
During the last two weeks of this legislative session, I still encourage your input. 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.
I introduced two bills before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee this past week. The first bill deals with unfunded mandates placed on several counties across the state. An interim study was conducted last year looking at the impact of unfunded and underfunded mandates on counties. As a result, a list of possible state action items was identified. One of the items was the basis for LB 105.
Currently, counties are financially responsible for the costs of an autopsy, grand jury payments and witness compensation when there is a death of an incarcerated person. LB 105 seeks to transfer these costs from the county to the state, if the inmate died while serving a sentence in a state correctional institution. I agreed to offer this legislation because I represent Johnson County, where Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI) is located. Since TSCI opened at the end of 2001, Johnson County has incurred more than $150,000 in expenses, consisting of grand jury fees, witness fees, coroner tests, as well as district and county court filing fees. LB 105 would help with approximately half of these expenses, which are difficult for a smaller county to handle.
The Johnson County attorney researched the deaths that have occurred since TSCI opened and none of the inmates who have died at TSCI were sentenced in Johnson County. It seems logical to require a county to pay the expenses if an inmate dies while in a sheriff’s custody, but it does not seem fair to require the county to pay for autopsies and grand jury hearings on state prisoners that die in a state facility that happens to be in a certain county.
Recent research has shown that unfunded mandates from the state account for at least 8% of local government’s budgets. LB 105 is one small step towards resolving the broader property tax problem in Nebraska.
The other bill I introduced, LB 106, creates the Livestock Operation Siting and Expansion Act. The legislation directs the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to develop an assessment matrix, for use by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation siting permit. Such matrices are already being used in two counties in northeast Nebraska. The matrix would be used to evaluate operations on factors such as odor control practices, manure storage and application practices, proximity to neighboring residences, community support, and economic impact to the community. The matrix would be based on scientific information and the department would set a minimum threshold for approval.
A county may enact a requirement that in areas zoned for agricultural use, a person must obtain a permit from the county planning commission or county board for a new livestock operation or for the expansion of an existing livestock operation if over specified size thresholds contained in the legislation. The county may deny a permit if the site is not zoned for agricultural use only, if the operation will exceed the size thresholds but does not meet the minimum score required under the matrix, or if necessary to protect health, safety and welfare. If a permit is denied, the applicant may appeal the decision by requesting a review by the Livestock Operation Siting Review Board, which is created under the legislation. Such board would uphold a county decision unless the board determines the decision by the county was unreasonable, arbitrary or an abuse of discretion.
A recent report from UNL highlighted the important role that the livestock industry plays in our state’s economy. However, the industry has not grown at rates comparable to our neighboring states. The report cited numerous policies and issues that have constrained potential development, such as local permitting processes, nuisance rules and lawsuits, and concerns from interest groups.
LB 106 attempts to address the constraints and to promote the development of the livestock industry in Nebraska by providing for consistent standards, based on factual objective criteria, to be used by local governing bodies when granting permits.
If you have comments on either of these bills or other legislation before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me. 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.