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After completing their work, the Nebraska Legislature has adjourned sine die. Senators balanced the budget, provided property tax relief to agricultural landowners, tightened limits on school district spending, accelerated road projects, and increased opportunities for wind energy development.
Governor Ricketts vetoed three bills, but the Legislature attempted to override only one. LB 947, introduced by Omaha Senator Heath Mello, allows lawfully present immigrants to apply for professional and commercial licenses. This bill would extend benefits to youth qualifying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Under executive order, President Obama has allowed certain young people that were brought into the country illegally as children to be deemed temporarily lawfully present in our country. Last year, the governor vetoed legislation allowing drivers’ licenses for this group of individuals, but his veto was overridden on a 34-10 vote. Thirty votes are required to override a governor’s veto.
The Governor felt that LB 947 was unfair and was concerned with the scope of the legislation, which would provide business licenses to a much broader group of illegal immigrants than just the young adults under the federal DACA program. Supporters of the legislation viewed it as a workforce development issue. After attending college in Nebraska, they did not want to see these skilled youth leave for another state in order to obtain the license necessary for their job. Senators voted 31-13 to override the governor’s veto of LB 947.
The other two bills vetoed were LB 580 and LB 935. LB 580 proposed to change the redistricting process of drawing maps for governing districts, which is required every 10 years after a new census. The bill proposed to create an Independent Redistricting Citizen’s Advisory Commission in an effort to take some of the politics out of the process. Governor Ricketts believed that LB 580 was constitutionally suspect as the Nebraska Constitution requires the Legislature to conduct legislative redistricting. Senator John Murante, the primary sponsor of LB 580, chose to continue to work on this proposal rather than attempt to override the governor’s veto.
LB 935 proposed several changes in audit procedures and state operations. The Governor will work with the State Auditor on a revised proposal next year, in order to still achieve the policy objectives of the legislation but reduce bureaucratic paperwork.
Term limits affected eleven senators this year. Senators who cannot run again include the Speaker of the Legislature and the chairs of the Appropriations Committee, Education Committee, Health and Human Services Committee, Natural Resources Committee and Revenue Committee. Next year will see many new leaders emerge to carry on their responsibilities.
After senators finished their work on the last day, those outgoing senators were recognized and given the opportunity to give some final remarks. Senators spend a great deal of time together and things can get heated at times. However, we also develop a certain kind of bond that comes from working together for the betterment of the entire state. Consequently, the ceremonies on the last day can be emotional, as outgoing senators say goodbye to their colleagues.
With the session concluding, I will be spending more time at home in the district. I will be in Lincoln on a weekly basis for meetings, public hearings, and office work. My office will still be able to assist you throughout the interim, as my staff will be available if I am not, and we correspond on a daily basis. 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 One Hundred Fourth Legislature, First Session, has adjourned. I would describe this session as “different”. Although the Legislature is officially non-partisan, typically senators of one party are somewhat aligned. In the past, rural senators tend to stick together on issues. This year saw division within groups that historically band together. Because of this, there were many surprises. Conservative senators supported a gas tax increase and the repeal of the death penalty. Several issues supported by major farm organizations were either blocked or weakened.
The biennial budget, which is the primary task of the Legislature, did see unified support. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I was happy to see funding for faculty salary enhancements at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. I have previously mentioned the budget limited the growth in spending to a historical low increase and contains an additional $64 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program.
LB 643 proposed to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since this was the first time such legislation has been introduced in Nebraska, I was surprised that it was advanced from the Judiciary Committee and given first-round approval by the Legislature. Earlier this week, the sponsor of LB 643, Senator Tommy Garrett, asked to bracket the bill after realizing he didn’t have sufficient support for passage. There were many unanswered questions on this issue, such as how the manufacturer would obtain the medical cannabis and how the Department of Health and Human Services would determine a range of recommended dosages for each qualifying medical condition. Senator Garrett referred to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic on recommended dosages for certain conditions, however their website states that there is no proven safe or effective dose for marijuana in children under 18 years of age. Senator Garrett had made it known that he introduced this bill due to the pleas from mothers of children with epilepsy. A more limited version was passed in LB 390, which created a pilot study at UNMC to allow access to low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil for patients who suffer from intractable epilepsy.
Prison reform legislation was passed in an effort to reduce overcrowding and limit recidivism within the correctional system. The legislation gives preference to alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, requires post-release supervision plans for offenders released on probation, establishes the Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System in order to improve oversight of the department, requires a plan to reduce the use of segregation, and seeks to ensure adequate mental health care is provided to mentally ill inmates.
The death penalty has been repealed. Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill to repeal the death penalty but senators overrode his veto with just the required number of votes. I was saddened to see this happen, as I feel that the death penalty serves as a necessary tool in protecting the safety of the citizens of Nebraska. The very day the death penalty was repealed, an organization called Nebraskans for Justice was formed. This organization will explore the possibility of a citizen-driven ballot initiative to give Nebraska citizens the option of reinstating the death penalty.
Other legislation that passed will give nurse practitioners more independence, strengthen the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act, grant personal property tax relief, allow young immigrants participating in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to qualify for driver’s licenses, and adopt the Nebraska Agritourism Promotion Act, which encourages landowners to grant access to their farm and ranch land for recreation and tourism activities by reducing the risk of liability. Some major issues that failed to gain passage included legislation to expand Medicaid, repeal the motorcycle helmet law, lower the valuation of agricultural land, allow for a lower minimum wage for students, change habitual criminal provisions, and prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.
This past week, I met with the executive director of the Nebraska Community College Association regarding the need for Southeast Community College to provide additional services to students living in the far southeast corner of our state. I also met with the Ombudsman and several employees about staffing issues at TSCI.
I introduced a legislative resolution recognizing the contributions and service of Rodney Vandeberg and extending sympathy to his family. Rod was a tireless promoter of the Falls City area, serving as mayor and on numerous boards. He also represented District #1 on the Nebraska Highway Commission and was a key player in the launching of the Rulo bridge project.
With the completion of the legislative session, I will no longer be at the State Capitol daily and will spend most of my time back at my farm near Syracuse. However, I will be at the capitol on a weekly basis and if you cannot reach me, my staff will be able to assist you. I will be available to attend local events and encourage your invitations.
If you need information on legislation passed or on any issue pertaining to state government, I encourage you to contact my office. 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Legislature has 13 days left in this legislative session, with the 90th legislative day set for June 5. This past week, senators gave the budget bills second-round approval. The budget is now ready for Final Reading.
As I mentioned last week, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board increased their projections for the next biennium by $9.7 million. The Appropriations Committee recommended the dedication of $8 million of the projected increase to the Property Tax Credit program. With the added $4 million each year, bringing the increase in the program to $64 million annually, taxpayers will see a total of $204 million per year in direct property tax relief. This credit is reflected on annual property tax statements. The Legislature approved the committee’s recommendation, prior to advancing the budget bills.
There were several other changes to the budget that were recommended by the Appropriations Committee and approved by the entire Legislature during Select File debate. Appropriations were updated for the multi-year project to replace the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system at the State Capitol, based on continued planning and a better estimate of costs. A geothermal system has been identified as the preferred option, instead of contracting with the University of Nebraska for chilled water. Although it will cost more initially, it is expected to be more energy efficient in future years.
Funding was added to the budget for the Nebraska Developing Youth Talent Initiative. This initiative requires the Department of Economic Development to fund two pilot programs that are targeted to businesses in the manufacturing and technology sectors for two years. Grants would be provided to private sector for-profit entities, one of which must be in a rural area. This initiative will develop an industry-led partnership with schools to assist in specific career learning opportunities in manufacturing and technology sectors.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to a bill that was prioritized by the Revenue Committee. LB 259 would exempt from property tax the first $10,000 of valuation of depreciable tangible personal property in each tax district in which a personal property tax return is required to be filed. Although this wasn’t as comprehensive of a tax relief plan as some senators had hoped, it is estimated that it will provide for an average decrease of $162 in the personal property tax bills for business owners, farmers and other taxpayers.
The Legislature gave LB 610 final approval this past week on a 26-15 vote, with eight senators not voting. LB 610 proposes to increase the gas tax by a total of six cents over a four-year period. Revenue from the gas tax, which has remained flat over the past 20 years, has not kept up with the cost of road construction. The increased revenue is to be divided between the state Department of Roads, counties and cities, to be used for necessary road and bridge projects. Since the Governor has vetoed LB 610, the Legislature will need to override his veto if the tax increase is to take effect. Thirty votes are required on a motion to override, which is four more votes than given on final reading. I voted against LB 610, as I would prefer an increase in the current amount of sales tax dedicated to roads over a gas tax increase.
We have been working through the lunch hour and into the evening in an attempt to debate every priority bill. If you have any comments on the legislation that is still before us, I encourage you to contact me. 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.
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.
This past week, the Legislature discussed the line-item vetoes made by the Governor on the budget bills. His vetoes amounted to approximately $44 million in federal, state, and cash funds over the next two years. The Appropriations Committee recommended that approximately $14 million in line-item vetoes be overridden, representing approximately 85% of the general fund vetoes, 70% of the vetoes in cash funds, but allowing the vetoes of federal funds to stand. The Legislature voted in support of the committee’s recommendations.
The Legislature voted to override line-item vetoes of state funding for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) grants, increased salaries for county court employees, additional aid for the Learning Community in Douglas and Sarpy counties, and funding for a Dental Health Director within the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been vacant since 2009 and has resulted in the loss of federal funding. The Governor’s veto of funding for the UNMC College of Nursing Lincoln facility, renovation of the Museum of Nebraska History and improvements in the State Capitol were also overridden. The College of Nursing facility in Lincoln will be partially funded with savings from a University capital project previously undertaken. The renovation of the Nebraska History Museum is intended to keep it in compliance with mechanical and electrical codes and ADA regulations.
Individual senators attempted to override additional line-item vetoes, including increased funding for the State Auditor’s office, the Supreme Court, and the railroad track inspection program. However, only the motions to override offered by the Appropriations Committee were successful.
Although LB 613, which proposed to create the Tax Modernization Commission, was introduced earlier this year, it gained momentum after public hearings were held on the Governor’s proposals to eliminate or reduce the income tax. Taxpayers from across the state objected to the proposal which would have eliminated popular sales tax exemptions to compensate for the reduction in income tax revenue. Many citizens voiced their opinion that high property taxes are a more prevalent problem.
During debate on LB 613, Senator Ernie Chambers suggested that the tax study could be accomplished through a resolution rather than by statute. He proceeded to introduce LR 155, which was adopted by the Legislature this past week. LR 155 creates the Tax Modernization Committee comprised of the members of the Revenue Committee, the chair of the Appropriations, Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture, and the Legislature’s Planning Committee. In addition, the Executive Board will select two other senators to serve on the committee. The purpose of the study is to review and evaluate the state’s tax laws regarding the sales, income, and property taxes, as well as other miscellaneous taxes, credits, and incentives. The resolution states that community involvement is essential to the success of the study and encourages the participation of the public. The committee is to issue a report to the Executive Board by December 15, containing any recommendations to update state, county and local tax policies.
In discussing LR 155, Senator Galen Hadley, who will serve as the chair of the Tax Modernization Committee, emphasized that the study will not result in sweeping tax reductions. He stressed that the mission of the committee is to determine if there is equity in our current tax system. I thought it was important that he mentioned our state’s high property taxes when he spoke of the challenges before the committee.
The Legislature is finishing up this year’s business and is scheduled to adjourn on June 5. Again, I encourage your input. 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.