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March 21, 2017
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Sen. Watermeier invites students to youth legislature
High school students are invited to take on the role of state senators at the Unicameral Youth Legislature June 11-14. At the State Capitol, student senators will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and discover the unique process of the nation’s only unicameral.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature gives behind-the-scenes access to students who have an interest in public office, government, politics, law, public policy, debate or public speaking. Students will learn about the inner workings of the Legislature directly from senators and staff.
Registrants are encouraged to apply for a Greg Adams Civic Scholarship award, which covers the full cost of admission. Applicants must submit a short essay. Other $100 scholarships are also available.
The Office of the Clerk of the Nebraska Legislature coordinates the Unicameral Youth Legislature. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Extension 4-H Youth Development Office coordinates housing and recreational activities as part of the Big Red Summer Camps program.
To learn more about the program, go to www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl or call (402) 471-2788. The deadline for registration is May 15.
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 email@example.com and my telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2733.
The Appropriations Committee completed its work on their budget recommendations for the next biennium, voting 9-0 to advance the recommendations to the full Legislature. The budget bills will be placed on General File by April 28, the 70th legislative day. The Legislature will take up the budget package on General File beginning April 30. According to the Legislature’s rules, the appropriations bills must be passed no later than the 80th legislative day, which falls on May 14 this year.
The budget, amounting to $8.7 billion, increases state spending by an average of 3.1% over the two-year period. The increase in spending is noticeably lower than the average 4.3% increase over that past 20 years. The budget package does include the concept contained in LB 364, the bill that I introduced to add an additional $60 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program, which provides direct property tax relief to property owners.
A bill to strengthen the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act was given first-round approval this past week. The legislation adds a definition of significant threat to the health or safety of dogs and cats. Due to recent concern regarding the inspection and enforcement procedures for licensed facilities by the Department of Agriculture, the department has updated their rules and regulations. The statutory definition mirrors the department’s regulations, clarifying that the department’s inspectors may impound animals or ask law enforcement to impound animals, if conditions pose a significant threat to the health or safety of dogs or cats. The legislation also provides for non-lapsing licenses, eliminating the difficulty the department had in taking enforcement actions against licensees whose license had expired. Furthermore, the bill removes obstacles for unannounced inspections and authorizes the department to charge a reinspection fee and mileage for reinspection trips to determine if correction of defects found in previous inspections have been completed.
As amended, LB 360 increases the annual license fee for breeders by $25 for each license fee category and imposes a new annual fee in commercial license fee categories of $2.00, times the daily average, for dogs or cats numbering more than ten. The legislation would increase the annual dog and cat license fee in cities, counties and villages from $1 to $1.25. These fee increases are necessary to adequately fund the program.
The Legislature also gave first-round approval to a bill containing many of the recommendations submitted by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. The legislation seeks to define hard cider as beer instead of wine, allows retirement homes to apply for liquor licenses, applies the keg laws to all kegs containing alcohol liquor, allows retail licensees to bottle and sell growlers, and offers tax credits for beer manufacturers to utilize local barley and hops. As introduced, LB 330 repealed the mandatory closing time for bars. This provision was stripped from the bill by the committee amendments.
LB 330 gave the Liquor Control Commission the authority to regulate powdered alcohol. This powder produces an alcoholic beverage when mixed with water. A successful amendment struck this authority by banning powdered alcohol in the state, except for research purposes. Senators were concerned that this new product would appeal to underage drinkers and would be hard to control.
A Unicameral Youth Legislature will be held on June 7-10, 2015 and I encourage high school students who have an interest in law, government, leadership or public speaking to register for the event. Students will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and learn more about our nation’s only Unicameral. Scholarships are available. More information and registration forms can be obtained at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.
If you have any comments on legislation currently before the Legislature, I urge 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cities are allowed to impose a local option sales tax on their communities. As of last year, approximately 200 communities had authorized a local option sales tax rate of up to 1.5 percent. This is on top of the state sales tax rate of 5.5 percent. Last year, legislation was passed, in spite of a Governor’s veto, to allow cities to increase their local option sales tax to a maximum of 2 percent. Three communities have voted to take advantage of this increase in local tax revenue – Alma, Sidney and Waterloo. Voters in Nebraska City and Bellevue rejected the proposed increase.
This year, Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha introduced LB 266, which would repeal the increased tax authority for communities. The bill had a public hearing before the Revenue Committee in February but was not advanced to the floor of the Legislature. Late last month, Senator Chambers filed a motion to place LB 266 on General File. When discussing the motion this past week, the allotted time on the agenda expired before a vote was taken on the motion. Senators did mention that an amendment is pending on LB 613, the comprehensive tax study, that would place a moratorium on this increased taxing authority pending the outcome of the study.
Lawmakers voted to advance LB 216, a bill introduced and prioritized by Senator Amanda McGill of Lincoln. This bill proposes to establish the Young Adult Voluntary Services Act. Former state wards between the ages of 19 and 21 could voluntarily request continued services from the state. The primary costs associated with the bill would be for housing assistance and case management. In an effort to reduce the estimated $3.3 million dollar fiscal impact in each of the next two years to less than $1 million per year, an amendment was adopted to limit the program to foster children that were abused and neglected. Federal funds are available in addition to the state general funds. The bill aims to replace a current program that was not well-utilized for state wards that “age-out” of the system. To be eligible, youth would have to be enrolled in post-secondary education or working 80 hours per month. LB 216 provides a support system for vulnerable youth, in an effort to improve long-term outcomes in education, employment and housing stability.
This past week, the Legislature also discussed LB 637, which was introduced and prioritized by Senator Norm Wallman of Cortland. If the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality intends to adopt a rule or regulation that would impose requirements different than federal regulations or increase costs on regulated persons or entities, the department would have to prepare a statement that describes the annual economic impact of the rule. I spoke on the floor regarding the significant effect more stringent state regulations can have on local entities, thus showing why I am supportive of the proposed additional requirements placed on DEQ.
Senators gave first-round approval to LB 57, introduced and prioritized by Senator Tyson Larson. Under LB 57, an applicant who uses grant funding from the Environmental Trust Fund to purchase real property, and subsequently seeks to transfer such property to a federal land management agency, which transfer would result in the removal of the property from the tax rolls, shall have such transfer approved by the Environmental Trust Board. The contract would also have to provide information on how the taxes to the county would be replaced.
The Clerk of the Legislature’s office coordinates an annual Unicameral Youth Legislature, which will be held June 9-12, 2013. The four-day camp is a legislative simulation for students, ages 14-17, in which they take on the role of lawmakers. Student senators sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and discover the unique process of the nation’s only unicameral. The Unicameral Youth Legislature is jointly sponsored by 4-H and the University of Nebraska Big Red Summer Camps program. More information on the details can be found at www.nebraskalegislature.gov/education/unicamyouth.php.
The Speaker of the Legislature announced this past week that we will start working into the evening most nights in April, with even later nights expected in May, prior to adjournment in June. As we debate bills that have been prioritized, 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 e-mail address is email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.