2015 Session Underway
The Legislature convened in January and I was elected as the new chairperson for the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. For the past six weeks I have been responsible for ensuring the 50 bills that have been referred to the committee are scheduled for public hearings and discussed by the committee’s eight members. The committee decides whether the policy proposed in each bill merits consideration by the entire Legislature and either votes to advance a measure, indefinitely postpone it, or hold it until a later date. This process will continue until mid-March.
In addition to these new duties, I am still responsible for the twenty pieces of legislation I have personally sponsored, many of which are related to the transportation and telecommunication industries. This session, I was honored to assist the Nebraska Sesquicentennial Commission by sponsoring the Sesquicentennial License Plate bill (LB 220). A yet to be unveiled license plate will be available for those who want one from October 1st of this year through 2022. The specialty plate will provide the Commission with a valuable fundraising tool as it prepares for the celebration of Nebraska’s 150th anniversary of statehood in 2017. The bill passed unanimously and has already been signed into law by Governor Ricketts.
While LB 220 passed easily, another bill I introduced will present a challenge but will have a greater impact on our state. LB 357 would provide much-needed tax relief to all Nebraskans. The bill would include income tax cuts for individuals, families and businesses as well as bolster our Property Tax Credit Fund.
The Tax Foundation’s 2015 State Business Tax Climate ranks Nebraska in the bottom half of all states with respect to our tax policies. Compared to surrounding states, Nebraska has one of the highest top income tax rates, making it difficult to compete for new businesses and jobs. Over 30 states have already or are in the process of considering tax reform and it is imperative we act now or risk falling behind in economic opportunities.
LB 357 would take a measured approached to ensure any tax cut is paid in full and does not harm essential services. Tax reductions for all brackets would be slowly phased in over a period of 8 years, bringing the top bracket down from 6.84% to 5.92% and the lowest bracket from 2.46% to 1.23%. Continued growth in revenue could trigger further reductions. In addition to the personal income tax cuts, LB 357 would reduce the tax burden on businesses and would increase the amount of credit property owners receive on their tax bills. A majority of these tax cuts would be offset by reducing government spending growth by 1 percent annually, while a very small portion of the lost revenue would be replaced through the state’s Cash Reserve Fund. This savings account is at a record high of over $700 million dollars. That is $700 million dollars of taxpayer dollars that should go back to the taxpayers.
For nearly 150 years, Nebraska has flourished and grown into a state for which we can be proud. With the passage of LB 357, we can continue to grow and with the passage of LB 220, we can display the pride we have in our state, Nebraska.
A bill I introduced to provide funds for public schools to invest in career and technical education had a hearing before the Education Committee on Tuesday. LB 754 would allocate $2 million to the Department of Education to help Nebraska schools improve programs aligned with the state’s workforce needs. It is my firm belief that technical trades can be incorporated into secondary education to equip students with the skills to be successful, contributing members of the workforce.
Successful career education programs have been shown to increase student achievement and lower dropout rates. Furthermore, they prepare students for further education and careers, and promote economic development by providing business and companies with a skilled workforce. We can no longer ignore the importance of providing these opportunities in Nebraska.
Currently, the State of Nebraska provides no funding for career education programs at the K-12 level. Other states, including Kansas and South Dakota, have recently allocated millions of dollars to career and technical education. LB 754 asks for a small, but important investment for the future of our education system, our students, and our state.
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.
The second session of the 102nd Unicameral Legislature came to a close on April 18th and much had been accomplished. We have started to fix some of the many problems with the Child Welfare division of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) as well as provided a tax cut to the people of Nebraska. Also, a consensus was reached on how to site pipelines and laws were passed that help local businesses.
The Child Welfare reform package was the result of an interim study conducted last year (LR37) and included 6 different bills: LB821, LB1160, LB820, LB949, LB961, and LB998.
LB821 establishes a 22-member Nebraska Children’s Commission charged with creating a statewide plan to reform child welfare services. The bill also creates a position within the Ombudsman’s office to specifically deal with child-related issues and DHHS.
LB1160 requires DHHS to develop a web-based automated information system to facilitate the flow of information relevant to child welfare data. DHHS is also charged with bringing a nationally recognized entity in to evaluate the state’s child welfare system. The first report is due on Dec. 15th 2012.
LB820 requires the creation of a Foster Care Reimbursement Committee, under DHHS, in order to standardize the rate structure for children in foster care. It also requires standard licenses for all foster parents not related to the child by blood, marriage, or adoption.
LB949 is a budgetary bill dealing with DHHS. It stems from a performance audit of the child welfare privatization efforts and requires a strategic plan to be included in its annual budget request to the Legislature. This plan will include the main purpose of each program as well as how progress will be measured and a time line for meeting goals.
LB961 reduces the welfare caseload size to between 12 and 17 cases per worker, moves case management back to DHHS and authorizes a pilot program to privatize the eastern service area. A review of the pilot program must be completed before April 1, 2013 with the recommendations going to the Legislature for consideration.
LB998 replaces the Foster Care Review Board with a Foster Care Review Office and a Foster Care Advisory Committee. The Committee appointees will be nominated by the Legislature and submitted to the governor for approval.
These bills represent many hours of negotiations and deliberations to fix some significant problems within the Department of Health and Human services. Much more work is needed to ensure our foster children have the highest care possible but we are aware of the problems and are looking for the best solutions.
A tax cut for Nebraskans was also passed this session (LB970). The bill, proposed by Governor Heineman, would alter income tax brackets in 2014 as follows:
|1||0 – 5,999||0 – 2,999||2.46%|
|2||6,000 – 35,999||3,000 – 17,999||3.51%|
|3||36,000 – 57,999||18,000 – 28,999||5.01%|
|4||Over 58,000||Over 29,000||6.84%|
Translated, this means a married couple that makes $100,000 adjusted gross income will get an estimated $145 tax cut.
The pipeline consensus was reached with my priority bill, LB1161, and allows the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to study oil pipeline routes that go around the Sandhills as promised to Nebraska Citizens. The bill would tighten up eminent domain procedures for carriers, require carriers to reimburse the state for studies and provide for transparency in the process.
Two bills were passed that will directly impact local businesses. The first is LB1080 which provides a tax break for data centers, exempting items that are assembled in Nebraska but shipped outside of the state to be put into service. Yahoo in La Vista has mentioned they could take advantage of this exemption to create more jobs in our community and relocate its factory to Nebraska.
Finally, LB780, is a bill I introduced that will allow microbreweries to expand their capacity. Nebraska has a large number of brewpubs and microbreweries including Empyrean of Lincoln, Schilling Bridge of Pawnee City, and my personal favorite, Lucky Bucket of La Vista. Lucky Bucket was going to reach the 10,000 gallon capacity in the near future, this bill allows them to continue expanding local business and enjoy continued success.
The 2012 session saw many interesting bills, some that passed, more that didn’t. I look forward to what the 2013 session has to offer with new senators, new bills, and new issues. Please contact my office if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions. Thank you for allowing me to serve for another year in the Nebraska Unicameral.
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.