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The holiday season is upon us which means the next legislative session of the Nebraska Unicameral is just around the corner. Nebraska’s Constitution requires the Legislature to convene in session each year on the first Wednesday after the first Monday in January, making the 2022 session get off to an early start on January 5, 2022. The Legislature operates on a biennial schedule, with the first session of the biennium in odd-numbered years lasting a maximum of ninety days and the second session occurring in even-numbered years and lasting a maximum of sixty days. This means 30 fewer days for the 107th Legislature to hold public hearings, conduct debate and vote on the many proposals that will come before the body.
I anticipate many of the issues that will be considered during the 2022 session will be those issues that are routinely part of the legislative forum – tax reform, property tax reduction, state aid to schools, prison overcrowding, aid to individuals, behavioral-health services, election integrity, affordable housing and economic development. However, as evidence of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have on our society and our “normal” daily lives, I predict the next legislative session could very well include impassioned discussions involving vaccination and mask mandates, the powers of local health departments and business rights versus individual rights.
Also related to the pandemic, the Legislature will be presented with an extremely unusual challenge in the coming session – how to spend over a billion dollars in federal funds. In March, the federal government passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic with the intent of helping states, counties, cities, tribal governments, businesses, and individuals overcome the economic and personal impacts of the pandemic. In total, Nebraska is slated to receive roughly $6 billion. Of this, ARPA dictates direct allocation of $3.3 billion to specific state/federal programs, $773 million to education, $375.3 million to counties (Sarpy County will receive over $36 million) and $287.2 million to cities (Papillion and La Vista will each receive over $3 million). Additionally, under ARPA, the Capital Projects Fund was created of which Nebraska will receive $128.7 million. These funds can be used for capital projects that directly enable work, education, and health monitoring.
That leaves $1.04 billion to be spent at the discretion of the Governor and the Legislature. As you can imagine, many special interest groups have already shared numerous ideas on how this money could be utilized. However, these funds may only be used to cover costs associated with the public health emergency, including support for public health, and addressing negative economic impacts to workers, households, small businesses, and industries. The funds may also be used to invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, replace lost public sector revenues related to the pandemic, and to provide premium pay for essential workers. The funds may not be used to provide tax cuts or to increase any pension fund. Funds that are inappropriately expended are subject to recoupment as are funds that aren’t obligated by December 31, 2024 and expended by December 31, 2026. The Legislature will also have to resist the temptation to use this money to create new government programs no matter how worthy the cause. These are one-time funds and any program that requires on-going financial support will fall on the shoulders of taxpayers.
This will be my fourth legislative session and I have found serving the state and the constituents of Legislative District 14 in the capacity of a state senator to be more challenging than I ever imagined and equally more rewarding than I initially anticipated. I thank all of you who have contacted me to share your thoughts on the number of different issues that come before the Legislature. Your voice helps guide me in making difficult decisions and ensures I represent the district adequately while adopting policies to make our great state even greater.
I wish you and yours a promising and prosperous 2022 and look forward to hearing from you next year!
On August 27, 2021, Governor Pete Ricketts issued a proclamation calling the Legislature into a special session on September 13, 2021 as permitted under Article IV, Section 8 of the Nebraska Constitution. The purpose of the special session was to redraw district boundaries for the Supreme Court, the Public Service Commission, the Nebraska University Board of Regents, the State Board of Education, Representatives of Congress of the United States and members of the Legislature. On September 30, 2021 the Legislative adjourned, having completed its task after a lot of map drawing, a lot of impassioned debate and a lot of compromise.
The various district boundaries are redrawn every ten years based on U.S. Census figures. Not only does the census data determine where billions of federal dollars go to fund vital community programs, this data is also important to ensure equal representation by governmental entities based on the one person, one vote principle. The Legislature usually tackles the task of redistricting during the course of a regular session, but as evidence of the continuing impact of the pandemic, the collection of the 2020 U.S. Census numbers were stalled by several months and the census numbers were not released until early August, months after the Legislature had adjourned for the year.
New governmental districts were drawn in adherence to criteria adopted by a special legislative redistricting committee. That criteria included: following county lines where practical; establishing districts that are compact and contiguous and easily identifiable; preserving communities of interest and retaining the core of prior districts. These strict guidelines are important to ensure our government boundaries can withstand any court challenge alleging gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of boundaries to favor one party or group over another.
On the federal level, apportionment is the process of determining how many seats in the U.S. House of Representatives each state is allotted. This is of course important for representation when Congress considers federal policy, but apportionment plays a huge role in presidential elections as well because electoral votes are based on the number of congressional seats in each state. According to the 2020 Census, Nebraska’s population increased by 135,163 people, which is not enough of a change to alter the number of seats the state is allowed in the U.S. of House of Representatives. Nebraska is retaining its three seats, but the boundaries of the congressional districts changed significantly through the redistricting process based on population shifts within the state.
The courts have held that congressional districts must have a 0% deviation from the ideal population. This means Nebraska’s new congressional districts must each have a population of 653,835 residents. With respect to the congressional districts, my main objective was to keep the five cities of Sarpy County in one congressional district as I believe the cities represent one community of interest. Unfortunately, due to significant growth in the Omaha-metro area, either Douglas or Sarpy county needed to be split between Congressional District 1 and Congressional District 2. Since Douglas County has historically been the core of Congressional District 2, splitting the county between north and south, as was initially considered, resulted in an intensive filibuster that deadlocked any progress. However, an alternative proposal that was offered would have split Sarpy County down the middle of Papillion’s main street and that also lacked support. After days of negotiations, a final map was agreed upon that resulted in all of La Vista and a majority of Papillion joining Bellevue in Congressional District 1 to recognize the community of interest represented by these Sarpy County cities. You can view a copy of those maps at the end of this post.
Population shifts within our state over the past ten years have also resulted in rural Nebraska losing a great deal of its residents, which impacted the boundaries of all 49 legislative districts. Again, in following the one person, one vote rule each legislative district should ideally have a population of 40,031. Given geographic limitations, reaching this exact number in establishing districts is not always possible, and unlike congressional districts, a greater deviation from the ideal is permissible. Nebraska set a standard of a 5% plus or minus deviation from the target number.
While rural Nebraska’s population shrank considerably, Sarpy County grew considerably. Between 2010 and 2020, over 33,000 people moved into Sarpy County, making it the fastest growing region in the state. This population shift resulted in Sarpy County gaining another seat in the Legislature and rural Nebraska losing a district in central Nebraska, currently represented by Senator Matt Williams of Gothenburg. The new district, 36, covers west and south Sarpy County and will be represented by Senator Williams until a new representative is elected in the 2022 General Election. Legislative District 14 grew by 4,509 residents, a 5.5% deviation from the ideal and it had to shrink in population size. District 14 lost an area of its southeastern boundary east of 72nd Street and south of Cornhusker Road, but picked up a small area northeast along the Big Papillion Creek and an area south of Highway 370 including Midlands Hospital and nearby neighborhoods. This means some of you may end up in another district with new representation. A map of the new Legislative District 14 is also attached. If you are interested in all of the new governmental districts, maps can be found on the Legislature’s webpage: http://news.legislature.ne.gov/red/.
In my three years of serving in the Legislature, the redistricting process was probably one of the more difficult undertakings I have experienced. However, it is also one of the most important as it is the very basis of our system of government to ensure every citizen has equal representation and a voice. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be your voice in the Nebraska Legislature.
Final Congressional Map – District 1
Final Congressional Map – District 2
Final Congressional Map – District 3
Congressional Map – Base Plan – District 1
Congressional Map – Base Plan – District 2
Congressional Map – Base Plan – District 3
Congressional Map – Alternative Plan
Congressional Map – Alternative Plan – District 1
Congressional Map – Alternative Plan – District 2
Congressional Map – Alternative Plan – District 2 close up
Congressional Map – Alternative Plan – District 3
The long session of the One-Hundred and Seventh Legislature concluded on May 27th, four days earlier than the usual 90-day session. But there was nothing usual about the 2021 legislative session. As is custom, the first day of the legislative session included the swearing in of newly-elected senators and the selection of the body’s leadership positions. I was elected to serve as the chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee for the next two years and I am honored to serve in this capacity. Also in the usual fashion, senators introduced legislation for the first ten days, with 684 measures being proposed this year for consideration. And this is where business as usual stopped.
When the session began in January, Nebraska was still in a declared state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic and drastic changes were made to the day-to-day operation of the Legislature. In the past, the first half of the session was spent with mornings dedicated to debating legislative proposals and afternoons dedicated to public hearings on all of the measures that have been introduced. In order to mitigate the potential for exposure to the virus during the peak months of January and February, the Legislature held hearings both morning and afternoons as committees represent a smaller gathering of senators. Once the hearings concluded in March, the Legislature spent the rest of the session debating the bills that were advanced from the various committees.
Regardless of the unusual circumstances the pandemic presented, the session moved forward and many important policy matters were contemplated. As the chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, much of my focus was on bills under the jurisdiction of the committee. In addition, I personally introduced measures intended to improve the health of Nebraskans by increasing access to telehealth services, particularly for those individuals seeking mental health services. These telehealth bills passed with significant support and were signed into law by the Governor. The new laws will take effect in August.
Every odd-numbered session, the Legislature is also tasked with adopting a two-year state budget. This year, the Legislature passed a $9.7 billion budget that represents a conservative 1.6 percent average annual budget growth. Included in the budget is roughly $1.45 billion in property tax relief through the state’s homestead exemption program, the State Property Tax Relief Fund and the new refundable property tax credit. The new credit was passed by the Legislature last year and provides an income tax credit based on property taxes paid to school districts. The credits are available now and can still be claimed even if you have already filed your taxes for 2020. More information on the new credit can be found on the Department of Revenue’s website: https://revenue.nebraska.gov/about/frequently-asked-questions/school-district-property-tax-credit-faqs.
In addition to property tax relief, the Legislature passed other measures to ease the tax burden on Nebraskans. Laws have been enacted to exempt 100% of military retirement income to encourage retired military personnel to make Nebraska their home; phase in an exemption from income taxation of social security benefits to keep our retirees in the state; reduce our corporate income tax to make us competitive with neighboring states in attracting new business; and repeal the sales tax on residential water. Other important bills that passed will provide for the expansion of broadband access across the state; leverage federal dollars for investment in small businesses; authorize the creation of inland port authorities to assist in large commercial and industrial development; and allow for the development of an implementation plan for a Mental Health Crisis Hotline.
Despite some of the challenges that COVID-19 presented to an already challenging job, my colleagues and I worked through the session to provide the public service for which we were elected. And while the session has come to an end, we continue to work on issues throughout the interim. I personally will be serving as the chairman of a special investigatory committee looking into our child welfare services in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, as vice-chairman of a special committee to provide oversight for the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, and will continue to study potential future legislation. Your voice is valuable in the legislative process no matter what time of year and I encourage you to continue to share your thoughts on issues that are important to you.
Despite being over a year into a global pandemic that has shuttered businesses and caused record unemployment, Nebraska’s February economic forecast was surprisingly very positive. However, because of the many unknowns that come with an unexpected event such as a pandemic, the Legislature exercised constraint and fiscal responsibility in passing the new biennial budget for the state of Nebraska.
The $9.7 billion budget, which has been approved by Governor Pete Ricketts, represents a conservative 1.7 percent annual budget growth. Instead of spending excess funds on expensive new government programs, the Legislature significantly increased the state’s cash reserve fund by $351 million, bringing the total to $763 million. The cash reserve fund, also known as the “rainy-day fund” provides important security for the state in cases of emergencies and was tapped at the onset of the pandemic before federal aid became available.
While the budget ensures fiscal security in times of emergencies, it also addresses key concerns of Nebraska citizens. Over the two-year budget, the state will be contributing roughly $1.45 billion in property tax relief through the state’s homestead exemption program, the State’s Property Tax Relief Fund and the new refundable property tax credit, based on property taxes paid to school districts. Even if you have already filed your taxes, you can still apply the credit. Information can be found on the Department of Revenue’s website: https://revenue.nebraska.gov/about/frequently-asked-questions/school-district-property-tax-credit-faqs.
The budget for Fiscal Years 2021/2022 & 2022/2023 also increases the Medicaid reimbursement to child welfare and mental health care providers by 2% to ensure Nebraska’s most vulnerable citizens continue to get needed services. Additionally, the budget supports the state’s strong educational system by appropriating over $1 billion to K-12 public schools and including private colleges in the state’s Career Scholarships program.
Finally, $115 million has been earmarked as partial payment for a $230 million new prison being proposed by the Governor. While the Legislature and the administration have come to an agreement to aggressively pursue efforts to reduce Nebraska’s prison population, the Nebraska State Penitentiary is over 150 years old and nearing the end of its useful life. The Legislature is requiring a needs study to be conducted before additional funding for the proposal will be approved.
Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee deserve recognition for crafting a two-year state budget that responsibly addresses essential services, protects taxpayers and looks to the future; ensuring Nebraska remains a great state to call home.
Sen. John Arch invites students to youth legislature
High school students are invited to take on the role of state senators at the Unicameral Youth Legislature June 13-16. 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.
“The Unicameral Youth Legislature gives participants first-hand experience in Nebraska’s distinctive legislative process,” said Senator John Arch. “Students interested in future public service will gain a valuable lesson about our democratic system of government and will learn about the challenges and rewards of making public policy.”
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 28.
While we continue to work on tax relief in the Legislature, it is important for Nebraskans to know about every tax credit currently available to them. This website will help answer your questions and help you receive the tax breaks you deserve.
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