The first session of the 105th Nebraska Legislature is now officially adjourned. The past few months have been quite an exciting ride and I appreciate everyone who reached out to me through phone, e-mail or even on the street. We may not always see eye-to-eye on issues, but I take all of your comments to heart.
Though we finished a little earlier than our target adjournment date, we accomplished a lot and have a lot more work to do. We balanced the budget, but there are some very real challenges ahead of us as our state’s fiscal situation still remains uncertain. We are keeping an eye on the state’s revenue stream, and the possibility of a special session to deal with a budgetary shortfall remains a very real possibility.
I was disappointed we cut off debate on finding ways to reduce the property tax burden on Nebraskans. Though the bill that was brought forward was not perfect by any means, we ended debate before any real changes could be made that provided some tax relief for Nebraskans without causing any sort of budget shortfall.
Some of my colleagues have already put forth ideas for next session, and I look forward to working with them as we take up this challenge.
Earlier this year I was elected Chair of the Business & Labor Committee. We had a good year, one that I would call a success. We heard 32 bills through the first session and advanced 16 bills to the floor. Of those, ten became law.
One of the bills which was passed through the committee and was signed into law was LB 518, a bill introduced by Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg which would adopt the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Act. The Committee designated this bill a priority, and it should have a positive impact on rural areas in need of workforce housing.
The other Committee priority bill was LB 203. 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. LB203 was signed into law by Governor Ricketts.
I’m pleased to say that my personal priority bill, LB 506 – the Compassion and Care for Medically Challenging Pregnancies Act – passed unanimously and was signed into law. This bill tasks the Department of Health and Human Services to post information on perinatal hospice on their website and allows physicians who diagnose a lethal fetal anomaly to provide information on perinatal hospice services.
Another of my personal bills which updated the definition of hybrid seed corn was selected by the Agriculture Committee as one of their priority bills. LB 276 clarifies the definition of hybrid seed corn and the process of cross fertilization, which hasn’t been updated in decades. Also under the bill, a district court in the county where the violation occurs has jurisdiction to grant a restraining order if necessary. This bill gave me a chance to work with my colleagues and the Department of Agriculture to amend the original bill as needed, a lesson I’m sure will prove valuable as we move forward.
Today, May 23rd, is the last day of the first half of the 105th legislature. We were slated to be in session through June 2nd, which would allow time for Governor Pete Ricketts and the state Senators to work on any last minute legislation or to deal with any bills the Governor vetoed. Beyond the line-item vetoes (meaning he vetoed specific funding without vetoing the entire bill) of the state budget package last week, Governor Ricketts has stated that he will not veto any other piece of legislation, meaning we can end the session early.
As I mentioned, last week we took up overriding the line-item vetoes in the state budget package. Two weeks ago, the Unicameral passed several bills that comprised the $8.9 billion budget package, of which Governor Ricketts vetoed $56.5 million in line-items from the budget. In the end, I chose to vote against the override motion brought by the Appropriations Committee. This was not a vote I took lightly and I heard from constituents on both sides of the issue – those who wanted us to override the vetoes and those who supported the cuts.
One of the main issues facing Senators was the fact that without these spending cuts, Nebraska would have to rely on our cash reserve (or “rainy day” fund) in order to balance the budget. The cash reserve is intended to provide a cushion in case our state faces an unprecedented or unexpected hardship (such as a major drought or other disaster). It is not there to make up the difference in the budget.
Among the provisions vetoed in LB327 was $33.6 million in general funds approved for Medicaid, child welfare, behavioral health, and developmental disability providers.
Overall, for the Nebraska Medicaid program received $1.69 billion in the two-year funding bill, of which Governor Ricketts made a line-item veto of $11.8 million in each of the two fiscal years (roughly 1.62%). I have received assurances from the Administration the line-item veto of funding in the Medicaid aid budget will not result in across-the-board reductions to providers. The Medicaid aid budget is a block appropriation based on forecasts of need and Medicaid has the responsibility to manage the program within its appropriation and minimize adverse access-to-service issues for Medicaid eligible individuals and families.
This does not impact services not covered by Medicaid – such as long-term care, nursing home care, and assisted-living care services. The Medicaid program will work with stakeholders to devise an appropriations reduction strategy that protects critical services such as long-term care, and as your Senator I will be monitoring this situation to ensure this promise is kept.
The Division of Developmental Disabilities program was budgeted to receive $303 million over the next two years. Governor Ricketts line-item vetoed $3.2 million in each of the next two fiscal years. Again, I have received assurances the line-item veto in funding will not mean providers will receive across-the-board reductions and that the department will work with stakeholders to devise an appropriations reduction strategy that protects critical health.
From the $333 million two-year funding for the Division of Children & Family Services (CFS), Governor Ricketts vetoed $1.2 million. CFS has identified efficiencies in how it administers drug testing contracts that will garner savings in excess of the amount included in the line-item veto.
Monday, May 15th is the 82nd day of our 90 day session. With only a few more days left, I am pleased to say that much of the heavy lifting has been done for the session. Though we may still have some contentious issues come up between now and the last day of session, the Unicameral has accomplished our main duty, which is to pass a budget package which contains the mainline budget (the “main” budget that contains most of the governmental spending) as well as bills which make funds transfers as needed.
We started debate on our state’s $8.9 billion budget package on April 25, but the actual process began much earlier with hearings held by the Appropriations Committee. The package provides for increases in the Property Tax Credit Fund, K-12 education, our state’s Department of Corrections, among others. It reduces funds for the University of Nebraska and some state agencies.
The Unicameral gave final approval to the three components of the two-year budget late last week. Among the measures passed was LB331, which creates funds, makes fund transfers and lowers our “rainy day fund (the minimum cash reserve requirement) from 3 to 2.5 percent. LB 327, which is the state’s mainline budget bill, also passed on a vote of 36-12.
During the debate I voiced my concerns that this budget was taking us down a path that is just not sustainable. I agree with many who felt that, in the face of a significant budget shortfall of nearly $1 billion, we needed to take a harder look at the levels of spending in some areas.
I joined with several of my colleagues to demonstrate our concern with state spending levels, and to express our misgivings at how little attention curtailing state spending was given during the budget process. I also had strong misgivings about lowering our state’s minimum cash reserve requirement.
I offered an amendment to cut spending by 1 percent across the board. Though my measure did not have the votes to pass, it allowed us to have a discussion about our levels of spending and what we are going to do if our budget shortfall continues to expand. Too often, we target one source of spending, such as the University of Nebraska system, with the idea that those smaller cuts will be enough. Or, as I stated earlier, we use budget gimmicks like borrowing from the cash reserve.
While this budget was balanced and did cut some spending, there were a lot of areas untouched and the methods that were used to balance the budget will not be there in the future.
Our state simply cannot keep borrowing from other areas to make up the difference between expenses and revenues. If we are not willing to curtail spending, then the only other option will be to increase taxes, which is something I cannot support. I feel that many members feel just as strongly.
So far, Governor Ricketts has vetoed $11 million in spending intended for a project that will replace the Capitol’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning replacement project. There may be more spending vetoes that will be announced in the coming days. We will get a report on the fiscal impact of this and any other line item vetoes and there may be a motion to override any or all of them, which requires thirty votes. It will be an interesting week.
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.
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.
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.
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