May 5th was the 77th day of our 90 day session. We are approaching the end of the session, and with that, there are a number of “big item” legislation. This week we worked into the evenings, and while we did get through much of the legislative agenda, there is still a lot of work left to do.
This week we gave final approval to LB 409, introduced by Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, which adjusts Nebraska’s school funding formula to match budget projections. The bill, which passed 43-0, modifies two components of the formula which we use to distribute school funds.
The bill reduces the base limitation rate – the rate at which school budgets are allowed to grow from year to year from 2.5 percent to 1.5 percent. It also increases the local effort rate, which accounts for a district’s property tax capacity, from $1.00 to approximately $1.02.
The main focus of this week has been to work through a number of budget bills which we need to pass to keep the state up and running. Right now the budget package calls for general fund spending of $8.9 billion, limiting spending growth to about 1 percent and does so without raising taxes – something that was important to me.
Unfortunately, it does draw $173 million from the cash reserve – which has been created as a “rainy day” fund there to ensure we have money. The cash reserve was an integral reason that Nebraska was able to weather the economic down turn a few years ago, and I am not a fan of taping those funds to cover the budget.
I would have liked to have had a more robust discussion about where we could find spending cuts, unfortunately there just was not enough time for us to bring those issues to the floor.
Also this week, LB 461, which would have provided tax relief for taxpayers, failed to achieve the necessary 33 votes to end debate. This was unfortunate as it did end any chance we had to pass meaningful tax reform this year. The debate proved to be tremendously interesting and at times emotional. I appreciate that people on both sides of the issue have contacted me about this issue, and I took their comments to heart.
One thing to remember is that Nebraska was one of the last states to implement a state income tax 50 years ago. Today, Nebraska imposes one of the highest income tax rates in our region. This didn’t happen overnight, and I don’t think it will be solved overnight.
Another criticism of the bill was that it did not adequately address property tax issues.
As I’ve said, I agree that property taxes in our state are an issue. LB 461 did attempt to address property tax values, but for many it did not go far enough. While I still contend that a little property tax relief would have been better than no tax relief, I understand ag land owners’ frustrations.
I do hope this issue will come up again next year. It is a conversation that needs to be had. LB 461 would have provided for a responsible, conditional and step-wise approach to provide tax relief for workers, small businesses, retirees and – yes – ag producers. Now the conversation moves on.
There was an attempt to amend the budget bill with language specifically dealing with property tax. Unfortunately the way the amendment was brought to the floor – at the last minute and without enough time to adequately discuss what was actually in the amendment, it was tabled.
Last week we passed the 73rd day of the legislative session. We are currently working on the state’s $8.9 billion budget package. Nebraska’s state budget is structured on a two-year basis, with emergency budget sessions called as necessary.
Gering Senator John Stinner and the Appropriations Committee has spent months preparing the budget proposal, even going so far as to prepare a “mini-budget” earlier in the session to address the shortfall we were facing at the time.
This is a long process. The goal is prepare a balanced budget that encourages growth without being a burden on Nebraska tax-payers.
Among other provisions, the budget includes increases to educational funding through the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act (TEEOSA) of $62.4 million, $35.6 million for Medicaid, and $15.4 million for the Department of Corrections.
The proposed budget would cut $24.7 million to other state agencies and $13 million to the university system, among other cuts.
There is still a lot of work left to do and over the next week I expect this issue to take us well into the evenings. The budget should be passed by May 10 and sent to the Governor for his signature.
On another topic, I’m proud to announce my priority bill, LB 506 – the Compassion and Care for Medically Challenging Pregnancies Act – was signed into law by Governor Ricketts last week.
As prenatal testing becomes increasingly routine and diagnostic methods have improved significantly over the last few years, more fetal anomalies are being detected. In these very rare, but tragic circumstances, parents are given minimal options.
No parent prepares to hear the news that the child they are carrying is going to die before or shortly after birth. Until today, families in this heartbreaking situation had to leave their doctor’s office in shock with no help, no hope, and feeling they have nowhere to turn.
Perinatal hospice is an innovative and compassionate model of support for families who find out a pregnancy has a life-limiting condition. This support helps parents embrace whatever life their baby might be able to have and also enables families to make meaningful plans to honor their child.
This care begins at diagnosis and continues through the baby’s birth and death.
Unfortunately, many parents faced with this horrible situation find themselves adrift without a life raft and having to find out for themselves what resources there are.
The purpose of this bill is to raise awareness of perinatal hospice care and provide readily available information to help women and families through one of life’s most difficult stages.
That is why I introduced LB 506 and that is why I’m proud to have worked with so many who helped make today possible.
Over the last few months I have had wonderful, eye-opening and emotional conversations with experts, medical professionals, and families. The most challenging situation faced by mothers should be met with the most readily available information, compassion and care.
Friday, April 21st was the 69th day of the legislative session. With only 20 legislative days left in the session, there is still a lot of work left to be done. Next week we will begin to have a series of late night votes that could take us to 9:30 p.m. or later.
On Thursday, the legislature debated bills that were on the Consent Calendar. These are bills selected by Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk and are fairly non-controversial. Each bill is allowed 15 minutes of introduction and debate and can be pulled from the agenda if enough senators feel that a bill is too controversial or complicated for such an expedited process.
I’m pleased that my bill, LB 264 – which is a bill that makes some technical changes relating to the qualifications of state boiler inspectors – was selected for consent calendar and now moves into the next round of debate. This bill was introduced at the Department of Labor’s request to match standard language used by the industry.
On Friday, we took up LB 461, a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion which would change the way agricultural land is assessed and cut the state’s income and corporate tax rates if projected state revenue growth meets certain targets.
The bill, as amended would change Nebraska’s method of valuing ag land to an income based approach, would use economic growth rates to trigger income tax cuts and would change income tax rates and personal exemption amounts.
LB 461 would eliminate income tax exemptions for some high earners and increases tax credits for low-income families by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit by 20 percent.
The bill is not perfect. I, along with many of my colleagues, would like to see more done on the property tax side of the equation, as this is an issue that directly impacts ag producers throughout our state.
We did not have a final vote on the bill on Friday. The only vote that was taken was a vote to send the bill back to the Revenue Committee, which would have essentially killed the bill for the year.
That attempt failed by a vote of 29-17. For the bill to return to the schedule, Sen. Smith must be able to prove he has the support of 33 senators to vote to end debate. Whatever LB 461’s final fate may be, I’m glad that we were at least able to have the floor debate over reducing the tax burden on Nebraskans. According to Sen. Smith, it has been close to 20 years since the Unicameral has engaged in such a discussion, which has been too long.
Time and time again, I have heard from my constituents who have said the tax climate in Nebraska is tough on business owners, ag producers and families. My goal is see meaningful tax reform that leaves our state in a better position to compete on a national level, and I’m grateful to Sen. Smith and Governor Pete Ricketts for at least allowing us to have this discussion this week.
We will just have to wait and see if this bill returns to the floor in the next twenty days.
Thursday, April 13th was the 65th day of the legislative session. With the end of the 90-day session in sight, we will begin to have what are known as “late nights” in which floor debate will go past the traditional cut off time of 5:00 pm and instead will go to as late as 9:30 pm or later.
On one hand this is good, as it gives us more time to debate legislation. We have a number of bills that have priority designation which must be debated on the floor, as well as passing the state budget (more on that later). On the other hand, this does put a stress on Senators and staff. In the past tempers have flared and it is incumbent on Senators make sure that any legislative action taken during this time is the correct path.
As we approach day 70, we will begin debating the budget. Recently the Legislature’s Revenue Committee advanced a comprehensive tax reform package including property and income tax relief measures by a vote of 6-2.
LB461 would introduce an income-based assessment of agricultural property as well as a restructuring and reduction of Nebraska’s personal and corporate income tax rates. During my meetings throughout the district, one of the major concerns expressed to me is that taxes in Nebraska are too high.
While I agree that we need to take action to reduce the tax burden on our businesses and families, I want to make sure we don’t take overreaching steps or move too quickly and risk weakening our fiscal stability.
One of the major aspects of LB461 that I like is the fact that some measures would be enacted quickly, while others would occur in a series of incremental tax reductions based on state revenue growth projections.
Of course, one thing I’ve learned in my time here in Lincoln is that bills can change significantly as they work their way through the legislative process here in the Unicameral, so I want to stress that nothing is set in stone.
On the floor this week, my bill LB276, which modernizes the definition of hybrid seed corn allowed here in Nebraska, passed on to Final Reading. This is the last stage a bill goes through before being signed into law. In most instances, Final Reading is a simple event in which the bill is literally read by the Clerk of the Senate and then a final vote is conducted.
Nearly all bills which reach this point have had any changes already made and the vote is usually a formality. In rare occasions for some of the more contentious bills, there will be one more debate, restricted to one hour.
There will probably be another round of bills up for Final Reading as early as the week of April 24th.
Even though we are near the end of the session, our work won’t be over. During the time between sessions we have the opportunity to examine certain topics in more depth than the time we are in session allows.
These investigations are usually called Interim Studies or Interim Hearings. Though usually not dealing with any specific legislation, these fact-finding missions can result in legislation in the future, or help clear up issues regarding bills already introduced.
This week, the Nebraska Legislature passed the 60th legislative day, meaning we are now 2/3rds of the way through the session. Things are heating up, and my entire day is spent on the floor of the Unicameral debating legislation.
We are starting to deal with some of the more high-profile bills this week including LB 46, a bill by Senator Dan Watermeier of Syracuse which allows Nebraskans to order special “Choose Life” license plates. Another bill, LB 173 by Senator Adam Morfeld (Lincoln), would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
On a less controversial note, by priority bill – LB506 – advanced to the final stage by voice vote and should be voted on one last time in the next week or so.
Another bill which I was proud to work on was LB639, a bill that will help military families become established in Nebraska. Introduced by my colleague Sen. Bruce Bostelman (Brainard), and referred to the Business and Labor Committee, the bill will give preference to active duty service members when seeking employment with the state or its governmental subdivisions. Military veterans are already eligible for such a preference. I was able to introduce an amendment which would allow military spouses to be eligible as well.
I also want to make sure youth in my district are aware of two different opportunities to get involved in public policy.
Agriculture is a way of life here in Nebraska, and a great way for youth to learn about agriculture is through the Nebraska Agricultural Youth Institute (NAYI). NAYI is celebrating its 46th anniversary this year. The five-day program is designed to teach current high school juniors and seniors about the agriculture industry and all the career possibilities available. NAYI is the longest running youth event of its kinds in the country and is free of charge.
The 2017 Nebraska Agricultural Youth Institute will be held in Lincoln from July 10-14th. The selection of delegates to this Institute can be found online at www.nda.nebraska.gov/nayi.
For youth who are interested in getting a better understanding of public power, electricity, power generation, and the rural electric program, the Nebraska Rural Electric Association will be holding its Youth Energy Leadership Camp in July.
The Youth Energy Leadership Camp is open to high school freshman, sophomores, and juniors whose families are customers of NREA member-systems may apply. The camp is also being held July 10-14th in Lincoln. Contact your local rural electric provider or call the NREA at 402-475-0835 for more information.
Friday, March 31st marks the 57th day of the 105th Legislative Session. This week we moved into all day floor debate, which has resulted in a number of bills moving quickly through the first stage of the process. Once a bill has been voted on initially, it will still face two more rounds of voting before becoming a law.
This is both exciting and a bit overwhelming. Throughout the course of the week we have taken up more than 40 bills, not to mention dozens of amendments. I am learning a great deal every day.
This week has been especially gratifying in that I was able to put forward three of my legislative priority bills for debate by the body. I’m pleased to announce that this week I am 3-0 when it comes to my legislation passing.
First up was LB 506, which would adopt the Care and Compassion for Medically Challenging Pregnancies Act, which passed by a vote of 38-0.
As prenatal testing becomes increasingly routine and diagnostic methods have improved significantly over the last few years, more fetal anomalies are being detected. In these very rare, but tragic circumstances, parents are given minimal options. Perinatal hospice is an innovative and compassionate model of support for families who find out a pregnancy has a life-limiting condition. This support helps parents embrace whatever life their baby might be able to have and also enables families to make meaningful plans to honor their child.
My bill asks the Department of Health and Human Services to host on their website information that medical professionals may share with these parents. The purpose of this bill is to raise awareness of perinatal hospice care and provide readily available information to help women and families through one of life’s most difficult stages.
This bill was the result of a lot of hard work with multiple stakeholders, and I’m proud to have the support of groups such as the Nebraska Medical Association.
Next up was LB 172, which is a cleanup bill to Nebraska’s Employment Security Law which eliminates obsolete language and clarifies other provisions to make the law easier to understand, without making any substantive changes to the law. This was a needed modernization of the statute which is why I chose this bill as one of two priority bills from the Business and Labor Committee.
LB 172 passed 34-0, which I feel was a testament to the hard work by staff from the Department of Labor as well as my Legal Counsel Meghan Chaffee with my committee.
Immediately after LB 172, the Unicameral took up LB 276, which I brought on behalf of the Department of Agriculture. This bill updates sections of Nebraska law first adopted in the 1930s that deal with hybrid seed corn, specifically to include modern processes of producing hybrid seed corn.
Some of the methods listed in current statute are no longer used and other processes have emerged since the law was first written, necessitating a modernization of the language.
There is still some work to be done but this bill passed with strong support, 39-0.
Friday, March 24th marks the 54th day of the 105th Legislative Session. We spent most of the day on Final Reading, which is the final passage of bills that have worked their way through the first two rounds of votes. These bills were for the most part non-controversial, and included the final passage of LB 203, which included language from my bill LB 301. Both bills advanced through the Business and Labor Committee, which I chair.
Speaking of the Committee, we have finished with our public hearings this week. All in all, we’ve heard 32 bills in our committee, with 16 bills advancing to the floor. Of the others, there is still work that needs to be done and we may revisit them next year.
One of the bills which was passed through the committee and to the floor was LB 518, a bill introduced by Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg which would adopt the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Act.
One of my main goals is to help grow and strengthen Nebraska’s entire state-wide economy. This includes both rural and urban economies. One of the major hurdles for our rural areas is the access to quality, affordable housing. During my conversations with economic development professionals, I have heard that many jobs in rural Nebraska go unfilled due to this lack of housing.
A report from the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (NIFA) shows the cost of new construction for single family homes was highest in the Panhandle region of the state. The report also shows that the cost of new construction homes in that area averaged $248,000 compared to $198,000 in the metro areas such as Lincoln and Omaha.
This bill is designed to expand the availability of housing options by creating a grant program to stimulate housing development in rural areas of our state. A nonprofit development organization would apply to the Department of Economic Development for funds to develop workforce housing through new construction, rehabbing existing homes, or building rental units. The bill requires a one-to-one match with local funds to ensure communities are behind such housing and that it is needed.
One of my considerations with each and every bill is how fiscally responsible it is. This bill transfers $7 million in unallocated funds from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Established in 1996 in response to concerns about the effect of poor quality housing on the economic development of the state, the fund has supported 524 grants totaling more than $120 million for low-income housing.
A recent report from the Legislature’s Performance Audit Committee states there is currently more than $11 million in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund above the existing commitments for grants. According to Sen. Williams, the Department of Economic Development is comfortable the funds transferred by LB 518 would not adversely impact any current or future obligations or needs.
During our Committee hearing, a number of groups testified in support of the bill – including the Nebraska Economic Developers Association, the State Chamber, Nebraska Bankers Association, the Nebraska Housing Developers Association and others. The bill advanced from committee by a vote of 7-0 and shortly after, I named this bill as one of the Committee’s priority bills.
This bill will help rural areas of our state provide the housing they need to help Nebraska grow.
The Nebraska Legislature has passed the halfway point in this year’s session, and committee hearings are beginning to wrap up. Some committees are already done for the year. My committee, the Business and Labor Committee, has one more hearing on March 20. After the week of March 20, the legislature will move into full day debate on the floor of the Unicameral.
I’m looking forward to celebrating National Agriculture Week from March 21-23. Agriculture and family farms are tremendously important to Nebraska’s economy. It is estimated that one in four jobs and a quarter of our state’s economic activity is related in some way to agriculture. Healthy farms and ranches are integral to our state’s economic success now and in the future.
According to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, in the last two years our state has seen a 9.3 percent increase in our beef cow inventory and an 11.1 percent increase in our state’s dairy herds. Our growth in the pork industry is outpacing national trends.
It is great to see that Governor Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s Director Greg Ibach will be touring the state to celebrate Ag Week and even swinging by our neck of the woods. They will be touring Wakefield Farms in Emerson and taking part in the National Ag Day Celebration Dinner in Wakefield.
I’m proud of my family farming operation with my husband, Mike, and being a member of the Agriculture Committee has been fascinating, educational and illuminating. Every hearing is an opportunity to take part in issues that, as I’ve said, directly impact our state’s economy.
Serving in Nebraska’s state legislature has been such a wonderful experience, and I’m thrilled to help announce an opportunity for Nebraska students to learn more about the nation’s only Unicameral.
Each June, the Clerk of the Legislature’s Office coordinates a four-day legislative simulation, which offers high school students a hands-on opportunity to experience the legislative process. The Unicameral Youth Legislature meets in the historic Warner Chamber (the former home of the Nebraska Senate) from June 11- 14 and provides young Nebraskans an in-depth learning experience. Student senators will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and using the same processes and rules that I and every other state senator use every day we are in session.
This four-day event gives a behind-the-scenes access to students who have an interest in public office, government, politics, law, public policy, debate or public speaking. Students will also have the opportunity to interact with senators and staff to learn how the legislature functions.
Applications are due by May 15. Registration includes lodging, meals (including a luncheon at the Governor’s Residence) and daily transportation from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus to the State Capitol.
There is a cost of $350 to attend, but registrants are encouraged to apply for a Greg Adams Civic Scholarship which covers the full cost of the session. Other scholarships are also available.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature is jointly sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Extension 4-H Youth Development office and the University of Nebraska Big Red Summer Camps program.
More information is available at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl or by calling (402)-471-2788. Interested students can also contact my office.
Things are beginning to heat up in Lincoln as a number of high profile bills are beginning to make their way to the Unicameral floor for debate by state senators.
One of the more contentious bills that have been debated so far this year was LB 477, a bill which would have repealed the state’s mandatory minimum sentences of three to five years for all offenses but rape and child molestation. These aren’t non-violent drug users who pose little threat, these are serious criminals.
As the debate on the bill moved forward, it was clear that it did not have the votes to pass. An attempt was made to scale down the legislation so that it applies only to drug offenses, but to many of us, this didn’t clear up our concerns.
Under current law, dealers who sell cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine (also known as meth) to minors or within 1000 feet of a school, college or university can face mandatory minimum penalties.
As amended the bill would allow those caught dealing heroin, cocaine or meth – even to children or near school property – would no longer face mandatory minimums. The bill still faces two more rounds of consideration before it will go to Governor Ricketts, who has indicated he will veto this bill. If he were to veto the measure, it will need 30 votes to override.
Listening to my constituents, I am not comfortable with removing the penalties for those caught with dealer-level quantities of meth, cocaine and heroin.
I agree that Nebraska’s prison system is overcrowded, but I am hesitant to look to a solution that reduces mandatory minimums with such a sweeping action. As always, if any of my constituents want to weigh in on this or other bills making their way through the Nebraska Legislature, please reach out to me (contact info below).
I’m pleased to report that my priority bill LB 506, to Adopt the Compassion and Care for Medically Challenging Pregnancies Act, has been passed out of the Health and Human Services Committee with unanimous support. My bill would task the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to place on their website information that may be shared by physicians to expectant parents whose unborn child has been diagnosed with a lethal fetal anomaly. This is a relatively simple bill which will have a big impact on families going through such a horrible situation.
Also the Agriculture Committee prioritized my bill, LB 276, which will update sections of Nebraska law first adopted in 1937 relating to hybrid seed corn to specifically to include modern processes of producing seed corn. The bill was passed out of committee without opposition.
I wanted to make sure my constituents knew of the Unclaimed Property program, administered by the State Treasurer’s office. State Treasurer Don Stenberg is currently holding more than $170 million in unclaimed property from more than 350,000 owners. The Treasurer publishes a newsletter which breaks down the unclaimed property by county. My office has copies available for my constituents or you can look it up online by going to www.treasurer.nebraska.gov and clicking on the “unclaimed property” link. Last year a record $16.3 million was returned to Nebraskans and it would be great to see more of our neighbors be reunited with unclaimed or forgotten assets.
Finally, it has been another active week for visitors to my office. I was pleased to have former State Senator Dave Bloomfield stop by on Thursday. I was also able to visit with some folks from Wayne and Pender hospitals who were in Lincoln as part of the Nebraska Hospital Association.
On Friday, the Unicameral took up LB 203, which was the Business & Labor Committee’s first priority bill. As chair of the committee, I am able to pick two bills which I feel are important enough to jump ahead of other bills to be heard by the full legislature.
Introduced by Sen. John Kuehn of Hastings, this bill changes the requirements for receiving unemployment benefits for individuals who voluntarily leave a job without good cause. It would require an individual who does so to earn four times their weekly benefit amount to be eligible for unemployment benefits. Nebraska now joins 47 other states with a requalification requirement.
During bill debate, I introduced an amendment to include two other bills which advanced from my committee unanimously that are related to unemployment. My amendment added LBs 273 and 301 to LB 203. LB 273 was introduced by Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings and allows the Department of Labor to round down in unemployment calculations for the minimum earnings requirement. My bill, LB 301, allows the Department of Labor to notify claimants of unemployment electronically, if they elect that method. Unemployment claimants will have the power to choose to receive notifications either electronically or by postal mail under this bill.
The amendment was successful and the overall bill passed 39-0. With such a limited amount of time left in the session, combining legislation which has no opposition is one method to keep the body moving forward.
Another bill I supported earlier this week was LB 62, introduced by Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk. This bill repeals a nearly 100 year-old statute that prohibits teachers from wearing religious garb in the classroom. This law was originally passed in 1919 at the urging of anti-Catholic interest groups. Thirty-five other states passed similar prohibitions and since, thirty-four have since repealed their ban. Only Nebraska’s and Pennsylvania’s ban remain in effect.
Speaker Scheer’s bill simply removes these archaic statutes and says that the State of Nebraska does not discriminate against people simply because of the clothes they wear or their religious beliefs. These individuals are professionals and fully capable of wearing garb that expresses their First Amendment rights while remaining religiously neutral in the classroom.
The bill had overwhelming support in the first round of voting, and now must be voted on two more times before going to Governor Ricketts for his signature.
We also passed LB 19, a bill originally introduced last year by then-Sen. Nicole Fox of Omaha and reintroduced by Sen. Kolterman. This bill will allow licenses acupuncturists to treat patients without a referral from a doctor or chiropractor. It also requires acupuncturists to refer patients to the appropriate medical practitioner for any problem outside their training and abilities to treat.
It was one of the few bills last year which had a priority designation – which usually guarantees a bill at least has a chance to be heard by the full legislature – but was not able to be brought up because the Unicameral ran out of time. This time around, however, the bill should have a quick resolution.
Lastly, I wanted to congratulate the Pender Flames on winning two state titles from the 10th annual Nebraska State High School Cheer and Dance Championships in Grand Island last week. Good job, girls!