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The Legislature began meeting in full-day session this past week, following the completion of the public hearing process. The Speaker of the Legislature warned senators of the workload that is ahead of them, with just twenty days left and many priority bills yet to be discussed. Speaker Adams announced that the Legislature will begin working late nights on March 18. Working late is typically around 8:30 p.m., but could be as late as 11:59 p.m.
Legislation requesting funding for water sustainability projects was introduced as a result of work completed by the Nebraska Water Funding Task Force, on which I served this past interim. The Appropriations Committee included $31.4 million for water projects in their recommendations to the Legislature. The proposal includes one-time funding of $20 million from the cash reserve, with $11 million appropriated annually from the general fund. Over the next several years, $10.5 million will be used to complete existing water projects. New water projects will fall under the guidelines proposed as a result of the task force’s work and will require a local match.
LB 1098 reconfigures the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission. The Commission is charged with revising rules and regulations to ensure the funding process establishes and utilizes criteria upon which projects, programs, and activities will be ranked and prioritized according to the water sustainability goals that were recommended by the task force.
LB 1001, which would allow the production, sale, and purchase of industrial hemp in Nebraska, received first-round approval on a 32-1 vote. It would exempt industrial hemp from the Uniform Controlled Substances Act. Hemp is used in materials such as fabric, rope, paper, and construction products. Senators viewed industrial hemp as another crop and source of revenue for farmers and NOT as a gateway to recreational use of marijuana. Hemp contains 1% or less of THC, the mind-altering ingredient found in the cannabis plant. Since cross-pollination would ruin a marijuana crop by lowering the THC levels, it would not be feasible to grow hemp in an effort to hide marijuana plants. The farm bill recently passed by Congress allows state agricultural departments and universities to develop research and evaluate markets in states that have legalized industrial hemp. Therefore, this legislation could open the door for additional research at the university, which could result in economic development opportunities for our state.
I successfully amended LB 850 into LB 986 this past week. LB 850 is the bill that I introduced to allow individuals who have a developmental disability to qualify for the homestead exemption, if they meet certain income and valuation guidelines. LB 986 is a Revenue Committee bill that changes the income guidelines for those qualifying for the homestead exemption, in order to expand eligibility for the program. After the adoption of the amendment, the bill was given first-round approval.
Senators also gave first-round approval to LB 814, which proposes to dedicate the state sales tax revenue derived from the sale or lease of motorboats and personal watercraft for the repair or maintenance of the Game and Parks Commission’s infrastructure. Committee amendments added the provisions of LB 841, which would also dedicate the sales tax revenue on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and utility-type vehicles for Game and Parks projects. This would earmark approximately $2.6 million annually for deferred maintenance projects.
The Game and Parks Commission has a $43 million shortfall in deferred maintenance and ADA compliance projects. The commission has had to reduce maintenance, mowing, and trash removal at some state parks and recreational areas. Furthermore, they have temporarily closed some areas, including the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.
LB 814, as well as the Appropriations Committee’s recommendation for a one-time transfer of $17.5 million for statewide projects (including projects at Ponca State Park and Arbor Lodge), is necessary to help the Game and Parks Commission deal with the serious backlog issue. Our parks are some of the most popular tourist attractions in the state and it is important that they are sufficiently funded and maintained.
As senators work to address priority issues, I welcome your comments. 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.
Last year, the Legislature passed LB 517, which created the Nebraska Water Funding Task Force. I was appointed to serve on the task force, which met throughout the interim. The task force was to focus on the long-term sustainability of water resources in our state.
The strategic plan established by the task force expresses a vision for funding priorities and financing mechanisms. It identifies options for a significant, stable source of funding, which will be used to help pay for water programs, projects, and activities. It also identifies a system to distribute funds across the state for projects that rank high using a new set of evaluation criteria that emphasizes sustainability.
Three bills were introduced as a result of the task force’s recommendations. LB 940, introduced by task force member Senator Ken Schilz of Ogallala, would create the Water Sustainability Fund. It seeks a one-time $50 million transfer from the Cash Reserve Fund in 2014 to be used to fund programs, projects, and activities identified by the task force. LB 1046, introduced by Holdrege Senator Tom Carlson, the chair of the task force, seeks an annual appropriation of $50 million in general funds, beginning in 2015.
LB 1098, also introduced by Senator Carlson, restructures the Natural Resources Commission. It authorizes the commission to adopt rules and regulations to ensure that the funding process establishes and utilizes criteria upon which projects, programs, and activities will be ranked and prioritized according to the water sustainability goals established by the commission.
Agriculture is the number one industry in Nebraska. Farmers in our state irrigate more acres than any other state in the United States. Although, on average only 1% of groundwater storage has been depleted in Nebraska, models show that groundwater pumping has reduced base flow in the Platte and other rivers by up to 15%. Withdrawing groundwater can have long-term impacts on surface water by reducing discharge to streams, as well as lasting effects on groundwater-dependent users, ecosystems, and surface water and groundwater quality. This reiterates the importance of reaching water sustainability, which means that on average, we don’t use any more water than what our supply gives us.
Furthermore, we must keep in mind that we have to protect the domestic use of water, which is our primary priority. Declining water supplies threaten not only the agriculture industry, but the production of electricity and energy, municipal drinking water and wells, recreation, tourism, and conservation, as well as Nebraska’s ability to comply with compacts, contracts, and agreements.
Currently, the state funds approximately $3 million annually through the Resources Development Fund for water-related projects. However, there are more than $900 million of proposed water sustainability projects that need funding throughout the state. Projects that have committed local and partner resources and funding will be given additional consideration.
The public hearing on LB 940 and LB 1046 will be held before the Appropriations Committee on February 18. The hearing on LB 1098 will be held before the Natural Resources Committee on February 26.
If you have any comments on the water bills or any other legislation before the Legislature, 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 One Hundred Third Legislature, Second Session, began on Wednesday, January 8 and got right down to work. This is considered the short session of the Legislature, lasting 60 days, and is tentatively scheduled to adjourn on April 17. During the 90-day legislative session in even-numbered years, the biennial budget is the Legislature’s primary responsibility. Only minor budget adjustments and deficit requests will be dealt with during this session.
Senators began introducing legislation on the first day of session and can introduce bills through the tenth day, which falls on January 22 this year. We will meet in full day session, discussing carry-over bills beginning on Monday, January 13. The public hearing process will start on January 21, lasting through the end of February. Every bill that is introduced is guaranteed a public hearing, allowing for the input of the residents of Nebraska.
Although it is just a short session, we will have many important issues before us this year. Tax reform is foremost on most senator’s mind, following the interim study on taxes, which was the direct result of the Governor’s proposal last year to eliminate the income tax, making up the lost revenue by repealing several important sales tax exemptions. Public hearings were held throughout the state and the senators on the Tax Modernization Committee heard repeatedly of frustrations with high property taxes. Two senators, who are also gubernatorial candidates, have already introduced several bills on tax relief.
I served on the Water Funding Task Force, attending a couple dozen meetings across the state over the interim. A package of bills will be introduced as a result of our efforts to recommend a permanent, stable source of funding to ensure that Nebraska’s water resources are managed effectively and efficiently.
Also this year, the Legislature will deal with prison reform, juvenile justice reform, funding for our K-12 schools and early education, seat belt and texting laws, taxing of retirement income, and whether to expand Medicaid as part of the federal Affordable Care Act.
I want to remind you of the Legislature’s website at NebraskaLegislature.gov. Viewers can read the text of bills introduced, search state statutes and past and current legislation, e-mail state senators, view the agenda for the day, read the online version of the Unicameral Update and watch the Unicameral live.
If you call my State Capitol office, I will be happy to visit with you if I am available. If not, my staff will be able to assist you. Tim Freburg is my Administrative Assistant. He answers the phone and handles my calendar. Kim Davis is my Legislative Aide. She works on constituent issues and legislation.
I encourage you to contact my office with your views and opinions on the legislation that is introduced by senators during this session. Only with your input, can I effectively represent the residents of the 1st district. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. My telephone number at the State Capitol is (402) 471-2733 and my mailing address is Senator Dan Watermeier, District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.
According to the legislative rules, the Appropriations Committee must place appropriations bills on General File by the 70th day in a 90-day session or the Legislature reverts to the Governor’s budget proposal. The budget bills were reported to the floor on May 1, which was the 70th day, and must be passed by the 80th legislative day, which falls on May 20.
The Appropriations Committee has proposed a budget of $3.8 billion the first year and $4 billion the second year of the biennium. This represents a 5.5% growth in the first year and a 4.8% growth in the second year, for an average of 5.2%. The primary differences between the Governor’s budget proposal, with an average increase of 4.9%, was that the committee recommended a higher level of state aid funding for K-12 schools and appropriated additional contributions to the defined benefit retirement plans for school employees, due to a projected actuarial shortfall.
At the end of the 2012 legislative session, a $619.4 million shortfall from the required minimum 3% reserve was projected for the 2013-2015 biennium. Since that time, the projected shortfall has switched to a positive $50 million, due to higher revenue forecasts by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board and lower spending projections, including proposed alterations to the state aid formula for K-12 schools. This means that approximately $50 million is available for new legislative proposals.
The cash reserve fund is projected to have a balance of $625 million at the end of the next biennium. This is the fund that allowed the state to recover from the recent recession without major damage to programs and services or the necessity of a tax increase.
The budget is broken up into 3 major parts. Approximately 34% of the budget is dedicated to the funding of agency operations. This includes funding for the University, State Colleges, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Corrections, the State Patrol, the court system, and dozens of other agencies. Another 32% is for state aid to individuals, which includes funding for persons qualifying for Medicaid, child welfare, public assistance, and those with developmental disabilities. The last 34% of the budget is devoted to state aid to local governments, which includes school districts, special education, community colleges, and funding for the homestead exemption.
The Legislature gave first-round approval this past week to LB 93, which allows for the notation of the word “veteran” on a driver’s license or a state identification card. In order to implement this voluntary privilege, the Department of Veterans Affairs would create a registry to determine eligibility for use by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The intent is to make it more convenient for persons to identify themselves as veterans, as they must now show their discharge papers, which are cumbersome to carry and contain confidential information.
As advanced from the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, LB 93 also proposed to create the Military Honor license plate. Unfortunately, Senator Ernie Chambers pledged to fight this provision, so due to time constraints in the remaining days of this legislative session, the proposal was amended out of the bill and will be taken up next year.
Senators gave second-round approval to LB 517, which would create a Water Funding Task Force. The task force would be charged with the development of a 20-year strategic plan for water sustainability. They are to present the recommended plan, along with a funding proposal, in time for the Legislature to discuss it during the 2014 legislative session.
As the Legislature discusses the budget and other bills of interest, I welcome your input. 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 at the Capitol is (402) 471-2733.