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The budget bills were discussed during the second stage of debate this past week. Senator Ernie Chambers offered an amendment to strip $5 million in one-time funding for county jails. A number of county jail facilities in the state have available empty beds. The intent was to temporarily ease current state prison overcrowding by contracting with willing counties to house up to 150 inmates in county jails, while a study is taking place on the feasibility of building a new prison and the Legislature is working with a national organization on alternatives to prison. However, the state’s two most populated counties have indicated that they may not be interested in taking state prisoners, since their facilities are not designed for long-term prisoners and due to funding concerns. The amendment offered by Senator Chambers failed on a 16-22-11 vote. Following the adoption of a technical amendment, the budget bills were given second-round approval.
The Legislature debated LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act, this past week. The Affordable Care Act, proposed by President Obama, was passed into law on the federal level in 2010. Due to a Supreme Court ruling, the mandatory provision requiring Medicaid expansion became voluntary for the states. LB 887 proposed to expand Medicaid in Nebraska by increasing eligibility for Medicaid coverage to adults ages 19-64, with incomes at or below 133% of federal poverty level, regardless of whether they have dependent children. Currently eligibility for Medicaid is limited to low-income children, pregnant women, parents with Aid to Dependent Children, and the disabled, blind and elderly. The federal government has pledged to pay 100% of the costs of expansion for the first 3 years, with the federal share dropping to 90% by 2020. However, this does not apply to administrative costs, which are shared by the state and federal government.
Proponents of the bill stressed the importance of providing access to health insurance to all Nebraskans. Currently, those with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level qualify for federal subsidies when purchasing insurance. Nebraskans with incomes below 100% of the federal poverty level do not qualify for any assistance, unless they meet current qualifications. Other senators pointed out that if LB 887 were to pass, 1 in 5 Nebraskans would be on Medicaid. They were also concerned with the future financial burden the expansion could place on the state, as the number of those eligible and the projected cost estimates varied significantly, reiterating the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act.
After 8 hours of debate on LB 887, Senator Kathy Campbell, the sponsor of the legislation and the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, offered a motion for cloture. A successful cloture motion requires 33 votes. It immediately cuts off debate, allowing for a vote on the pending amendment and the advancement of the bill. However, the motion to invoke cloture failed, falling 6 votes short with a 27-21-1 vote. Due to the unsuccessful cloture motion, LB 887 will not be debated again this year.
Senator Jim Scheer of Norfolk prioritized a bill that would require any school district with fewer than 650 students to form an allied system with at least three other school districts. Although the school districts within the allied system would not have had to combine revenue, spending, taxation or state aid, they would have been required to have the same yearly calendar and daily schedule. The intent behind the bill was to enable smaller school districts to use modern technology to expand course offerings and educational opportunities for students. Senator Scheer pulled his bill from consideration after the major education organizations united in their opposition to the mandatory nature of the bill.
In addition to increasing the Property Tax Credit program, expanding the Homestead Exemption program, adjusting income tax brackets for inflation and shielding more social security income from taxes, which I mentioned last week, the Legislature also addressed the taxation of military retirement benefits. A proposal was initially approved this past week that would allow military retirees to elect to either exempt 40% of military retirement benefits for 7 years after the date of separation or to exempt 15% of military retirement beginning at age 67. Nebraska is one of only 8 states that provides no tax exemption for military benefits.
As the Legislature enters the final few weeks of this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the legislation that is before us. 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.
Seat belts, texting, and Medicaid expansion were the topics of bills heard this past week by the committees on which I serve. LB 807, the Nebraska Roadway Safety Act, was heard before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee on Tuesday, January 28. LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act, was heard by the Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday, January 29.
Currently, the laws pertaining to safety belts and texting are secondary enforcement laws. This means that motorists may only be ticketed if they have been stopped for another offense. LB 807 would place Nebraska among 33 other states that have primary seat belt enforcement laws and at least 36 states with a primary texting enforcement law. Enforcement of provisions applying to the Graduated Driver’s License law for young drivers would also change from secondary to primary. LB 807 would require back seat passengers to use seat belts and ban the use of cell phones and other wireless devices by school bus drivers.
In 2013, of the 207 people that died on Nebraska roadways, 179 were killed in passenger vehicle crashes. Of these 179 deaths, 146 were not wearing seat belts. Half of those not wearing seat belts were ejected from their vehicle. The National Safety Council estimated that 50-60 deaths could have been prevented if Nebraska had a primary seat belt enforcement law last year.
Research has shown that distracted driving is just as deadly as drunk driving. As many as 27% of all crashes each year are caused by drivers using cell phones.
At the public hearing, several senators questioned how law enforcement would be able to differentiate between drivers illegally texting or legally making a telephone call. They also wondered whether allegations of racial profiling might increase. Although it is apparent that the Transportation Committee is divided on this issue, we have not yet taken a vote on the advancement of LB 807.
LB 887, the Wellness in Nebraska Act, is this year’s attempt to expand Medicaid in Nebraska. The expansion of Medicaid, as a part of the federal Affordable Care Act, is voluntary for states.
The legislation would allow adults age 19-64 with incomes between 0 and 133% of the federal poverty level to qualify for Medicaid. The federal government would pick up 100% of the aid costs through 2016, decreasing to 90% in 2020 and thereafter. Administrative costs are split 50/50 between the state and the federal government.
The bill proposes to provide coverage through the marketplace with health insurance premiums paid by Medicaid funds for those with incomes from 100-133% of the federal poverty level or for payment of the employee portion of employer sponsored insurance, if the state determines it is cost effective. Medicaid coverage would be provided for those with incomes up to 100% of the federal poverty level through Medicaid managed care or for those classified as medically frail or with exceptional medical conditions.
The hearing room was filled with persons interested in LB 887, including two department heads. Both the CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Director of the Department of Insurance testified in opposition to LB 887. The CEO of HHS stated that if LB 887 passed, nearly one in five Nebraskans would be on Medicaid.
Projections of the fiscal impact to the state differed from the department to the Legislature’s fiscal office. Furthermore, the estimated number of newly eligible Medicaid recipients that would apply for the benefits varies dramatically. This reiterates the uncertainty surrounding Medicaid expansion and is why the Governor has expressed his strong opposition to LB 887.
I encourage you to inform me of your opinion on bills before the Legislature. 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.
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 email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.