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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.
Committee hearings have concluded and the Legislature is now spending full days debating those measures that have been identified as priorities. Each senator is allowed to designate one bill as his or her priority bill and the committees are allotted two priorities. In addition, the Speaker of the Legislature has the option of designating 25 priority bills. Fortunately for District #14, Speaker Mike Flood designated a bill I introduced, LB 589, as one of his priority bills for this session.
LB 589 is not only very important to my legislative district, it is important to communities across the entire state. Recently, the Nebraska Department of Roads adopted a policy that would prohibit cities, counties and villages from using state highways with speed limits over 45 M.P.H. for special events such as parades, marathons, street dances and bike races. This new rule effectively ends Papillion’s Dualthon and the Triathlon; events that attract participants from all over the country and bring thousands of dollars into the community and into the state.
According to the Department of Roads, the concern is that of liability. My bill addresses this issue by requiring the Department to authorize the encroachment of the state highway system if the city, county, or village waives all rights of recovery against the state for any damages or liability. A public hearing on LB 589 was held in front of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee on March 8th. The committee has not yet advanced the bill to the entire Legislature for consideration, but the Speaker’s priority designation should help get the bill moving.
These special events are important to Nebraska. These events celebrate our heritage, they strengthen our communities, they attract people from other states and they are valuable to the economy. Passage of LB 589 will ensure that these events continue throughout our state for years to come.
The 90-day session of the 102nd Legislature has reached the halfway point, but there is still a lot of work to do and serious policy decisions to be made. Since the beginning of the session in January, legislators have been spending their afternoons in committee hearings and listening to testimony on over 700 bills and proposed amendments to the constitution. The public hearings will be concluding and the Legislature will now be spending full days discussing those measures that have been advanced from the various committees.
Given the time constraints of the session, there is simply not enough time to discuss all the proposals that have been introduced. Those issues that have been identified as priorities for the state are moved ahead of other bills, but there is still no guarantee a particular bill will be debated and passed.
Among the topics that will be the focus of the Legislature’s deliberations include our tax policy, the child welfare system, state aid to schools, abortion, roads funding, DUI laws, collective bargaining for public employees and water management. Of course, the other big issue will be the state’s budget. Before the end of the session in June, the Legislature must also find a way to close a nearly $1 billion budget gap.
The progress of these various measures can be monitored from the Legislature’s website “http://nebraskalegislature.gov/”. Debate on legislation is also broadcast via live video stream on this site. Your opinion is important to me, so I encourage you to pay attention to these issues and provide your input as a Nebraska citizen.
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.