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On Tuesday, I introduced LB 865 to the Legislature’s Education Committee. LB 865 would eliminate the Learning Community’s common levy and address a funding deficiency of the current Learning Community law. I introduced this legislation after spending hours meeting with school board members, superintendents, city officials, and Learning Community Coordinating Council members over the interim. The message I consistently took away from those conversations was that the common levy is simply not working.
While the intention of the common levy is to help children and families in poverty, it is clear the funds are not going where they are most needed. Because of the current funding formula, the 11 Learning Community school districts have collectively missed out on 3.5 million dollars in state aid each year. LB 865 will allow the Legislature to find a better method to address the education needs of students living in poverty and help local school districts to regain control over their tax dollars.
I’m hopeful the Education Committee will look favorably on LB 865. At the very least, I believe the hearing was eye-opening for the members of the committee who have not had much experience with the Learning Community. It is clear there is a problem, and this legislation should prompt a discussion on what the Legislature can do to provide quality education for children in every school district.
The second session of the 103rd Legislature convened on Wednesday with a number of important issues already facing the Unicameral. A short time-frame—only 60 working days—means my colleagues and I will have a busy session with much to accomplish by mid-April.
Among the most important issues the Legislature will discuss this session is taxes. Tax reform continues to be on the forefront after an interim study on the topic this summer. A number of bills have already been introduced on this subject, and I expect more proposals to come. I look forward to taking on this issue and addressing the needed changes to Nebraska’s tax policy.
Along with tax reform, corrections, healthcare, and education policy are set to become priorities this session. The Legislature will take up prison overcrowding, the good time law, and juvenile justice concerns. A discussion on Medicaid expansion will return for a second time as Nebraska grapples with the Affordable Care Act. Lawmakers will also likely revisit education funding. With big issues dominating the session, I still hope to continue to make progress addressing the deficiencies of the Learning Community.
The next 57 days will be busy, and I look forward to the progress the session will yield. It’s an honor to be representing you in the Nebraska Legislature for a fourth year. Please feel free to contact my office with your concerns about the issues facing you and your family.
Wednesday saw the last day of the 103rd legislative session and the adjournment of the Nebraska Legislature. I’m pleased with the work my colleagues and I accomplished this year, including balancing the state’s $7.8 billion budget. In Nebraska, our constitution requires us to balance the budget every year. This year we did it by rejecting the unnecessary expansion of government while taking care of our obligations to the people of Nebraska, including funding education and state employee retirement.
On Tuesday, Governor Heineman signed into law a bill I sponsored to require all newborns in Nebraska to undergo screening for critical congenital heart disease. Congenital heart disease is a leading cause of death in newborns, and this inexpensive test will save lives and save the state money long term.
The accomplishment I’m most proud of this session is passage of legislation to reform the Learning Community. This bill was my priority, and the governor signed it into law last month. Its passage means the Learning Community will see significant changes, including decreased transportation costs and reduced levy authority, with new investments made in early childhood education.
Although the next legislative session will not begin until January 2014, we will spend the interim period studying issues that may result in future legislation. This year I’ve introduced resolutions that include a study of how school boundaries impact community development and a study of renewable energy policy in Nebraska.
Please contact my office if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions. Thank you for allowing me to serve another year in the Nebraska Legislature.
Last week brought the clearing of a major hurdle, with an amended version of LB 585 being advanced by the Education Committee for consideration by the full Legislature. LB 585 is the bill I introduced to address the deficiencies of the Learning Community. The seven votes to advance the bill came after weeks of negotiations with Education Committee members.
As amended, LB 585 reduces the overall levy authority of the Learning Community and ensures allocation of funds to early childhood education for children in poverty. Studies show investing in early childhood education significantly improves the long-term academic success of students. In its amended form, the bill reduces transportation costs by eliminating the requirement that school districts pay for transportation if a student is transferring within a district or to a district that is not contiguous to his or her own district. This allows more money to go directly to the classroom.
Most importantly, the advancement of LB 585 will provide an opportunity for the full Legislature to discuss the Learning Community. There has not been an in-depth discussion on the floor of the Legislature regarding the Learning Community since the early years of its existence, and a majority of the body had not yet taken office when the Learning Community was put in place. I look forward to familiarizing my colleagues with the issue as we debate the benefits of this legislation.
The 2013 session is well underway, with 655 bills introduced for consideration by the Legislature. The Legislature has been meeting on the floor in the mornings, while afternoons are occupied with committee assignments. March 21 is the last day for committee hearings, and the Legislature will then begin full-day floor debate.
Among the 655 bills, were two bills introduced on the behalf of Governor Heineman that would have significantly reformed the way Nebraska collects taxes. Last month, Governor Heineman pulled the legislation, instead ordering a study of the state’s tax system over the next year. I’m disappointed the 2013 session will not bring a solution for comprehensive tax reform in Nebraska, but I’m encouraged by the prospect of the study. As an employer, I see first-hand the burden personal income taxes place on our families, and I believe Nebraska needs to be more competitive with respect to taxes.
On February 26, my Learning Community bill was heard before the Education Committee. While there have been multiple bills brought before the Legislature to address the Learning Community, including one to eliminate it (LB 178, which I co-sponsored), LB 585 addresses its deficiencies without calling for its elimination. Instead, the bill reduces the size of its government, reduces transportation costs, and reduces levy authority, saving taxpayers money. I believe this bill is an acceptable compromise and has a reasonable chance of being debated by the full Legislature this session.
I’m pleased that LB 225 is awaiting Final Reading before the Legislature. LB 225 requires all newborns in the state to be screened for Critical Congenital Heart Disease (CCHD). CCHD is one of the leading causes of newborn morbidity and death, and early detection is key to getting infants with CCHD the care that is necessary. I generally do not support government mandates, but requiring screening for CCHD will save the state money in the long run and, most importantly, will save lives.
Much work has been done already this session, and I anticipate more accomplishments in the next several weeks. I continue to appreciate your emails and phone calls as the Legislature takes on the issues that matter to you.
The 103rd Legislature has convened, and this session promises to be a busy one for me and my colleagues. 2013 is a budget year, the first year in a two-year cycle. This means a long, 90-day session, during which we must set the two-year budget for fiscal year 2014-2015.
Setting the budget will involve debating education spending and inheritance tax, along with property, income, and sales tax. The Legislature will also face difficult decisions regarding health care and Medicaid expansion. Water funding is set to become a top issue as the drought continues across Nebraska.
This session I am pleased to join the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee as Vice Chair. I look forward to my new duties on Transportation and Telecommunications, along with continuing to serve on the Natural Resources Committee.
Our work is cut out for us this year, but I am hopeful this session will provide positive results for Nebraska. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Unicameral to serve you and your families.
Since the beginning of the legislative session, I have been contacted by constituents who are in favor of Governor Heineman’s tax-cut proposal and by those who are in favor of fully-funding our local school districts. As a fiscal conservative I am in complete support of letting taxpayers keep more of their hard-earned dollars, but I am also a very strong believer in a quality education system. Unfortunately, from the looks of a preliminary proposal released by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, our wish list will have to be trimmed.
The $7.2 billion budget includes funding for important state obligations such as child welfare reform, capitol construction, and services for the developmentally disabled. The 2011-2013 budget’s biggest expenditure is state aid to schools, but it is considerably less than anticipated and the recommendation leaves only $17.6 million available for a number of other proposals, including the Governor’s tax reduction plan. Despite recent improvements in the economy, it is projected that the state will be facing a $461 million shortfall for the 2013-2015 budget.
In crafting the two-year budget last year, the state aid formula provided for $880 million in aid going to Nebraska school districts. However, more recent projections for the 2012-13 school year have lowered that number, due in part to higher property valuations, and the Appropriations Committee has recommended providing only $837 million. In addition, next year will be the first time in four years that the school districts will not be receiving assistance from federal funds.
Recognizing the competing needs for state funds, the Governor has offered to trim his tax-cut package by almost a third. As originally proposed, the plan would expand the tax brackets, lower individual income tax rates, lower the corporate tax rates to assist small businesses and eliminate the inheritance tax. It was estimated to cost $317 million over the next three years. Under the most recent proposal, the inheritance tax and the corporate income tax rate would not change, but low-and middle-income taxpayers would still realize some tax relief.
The Legislature will be discussing the Appropriations Committee’s recommendation in the coming weeks and adjustments may certainly be made; however, I praise the committee for taking the fist steps in the daunting task of holding the line on spending while adequately funding the state’s many needs.
After months and months of sometimes contentious debate, the Legislature has finally advanced legislation that makes substantial changes to the Commission on Industrial Relations. LB 397 is on track to be passed in the last few days remaining in this year’s session and go to the Governor for approval.
Early on in the process, I did not support the bill as proposed by a majority of my colleagues on the Business and Labor Committee, of which I am a member. I believe this to be one of the most important issues facing Nebraska and had assured my constituents that I would not support any legislation that did not represent significant, meaningful and comprehensive reform. Long hours of negotiations between senators, the governor’s office and business and labor interests resulted in amendments to LB 397 that finally embodies real change and is a major improvement to Nebraska’s unique system for resolving public employee contract disputes.
Over 43,000 Nebraskans are public employees and take part in the collective bargaining process. Our state law, however, prohibits unions from striking and instead sends labor disputes to a five-judge panel to decide such issues. Recent CIR decisions have resulted in large, unforeseeable financial obligations for local governments and made it clear that the current process was not working as intended, particularly in an unpredictable economy.
This has been an issue that has caused much turmoil and great division in other states across the nation. Though at times discussions became heated, in our state, all sides continued to work together toward a seemingly impossible resolution. I have a newfound respect for our legislative process and I am proud at the way Nebraskans – our public and private employees, our business owners and our local governmental officials – tackled this issue with respectful and thoughtful resolve.
A copy of LB 397 can be found on the Legislature’s website http://www.nebraskalegislature.gov/.
The Legislature concluded its 18th week of the session by advancing a series of budget bills through two rounds of debate. Appropriations Committee members should be credited for their hard work in constructing the two-year, $17.4 billion budget. Senator Lavon Heidemann, the chairman of the committee, said that an extensive study conducted by all of the Legislature’s committees helped identify the cuts that needed to be made in the various state programs and agencies.
Prior to this week, the state faced a $986 million general fund shortfall between expected revenues and necessary expenditures. However, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board recently projected healthier income tax returns would result in a boost to the state coffers of $82.5 million by the end of the fiscal year. Despite the board’s optimism that the economy is slowly recovering from the recession and that the increase in revenue should continue through the two-year cycle, the Legislature still made difficult cuts and significant budget adjustments.
Overall, state spending will increase at an average of 2.6% during the two years, but much of that increase can be attributed to replacing the one-time funds given to Nebraska through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Most of these funds went to public school districts to prevent harmful cuts to education during the peak of the recession. Budget-related actions included cutting Childrens Health Insurance (SCHIP) and Medicaid provider rates by 2.5%; eliminating $22 million in state aid to cities, counties and natural resource districts; and adjusting the state aid to schools formula, resulting in $410 million less to schools.
In addition, $105 million from the state’s cash reserve fund was transferred in order to balance the budget, as required by the Nebraska Constitution. This amount could have been much more, but the Legislature voted to put the extra projected funds into the cash reserve, otherwise known as the “rainy day fund”.
I applaud the Appropriations Committee for leading the rest of the Legislature in exercising fiscal restraint and for saving for future tough times. It is common-sense budgeting practices that have resulted in Nebraska recently being identified as the nation’s second least economically stressed state by the Associated Press’ Economic Stress Index. That is something for which we Nebraska should be proud.
It has been a busy first week. We are still introducing bills to the legislature. This process will end on the tenth day or Wednesday, January 19th. Committee hearings begin next week, every bill that has been introduced will have a hearing. This process can be followed on the Legislature’s website. You can also track individual bills there.
My time has been spent meeting people and learning the ins and outs of legislature. I would appreciate any and all comments that you may have for me and my staff.
My staff is made up of Lisa Johns, my legislative aide and Anne Duda, my administrative assistant. Lisa joined me from Sen. Gay’s office, she has 18 years experience working in the Legislature. Anne joined us from the Platte Institute and this is her first time working for the Legislature. They provide the support that is needed to properly represent District 14. It looks like the session is off to a good start.
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