Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 23rd legislative district in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature.
You’ll find my contact information on the right side of this page, as well as a list of the bills I’ve introduced this session and the committees on which I serve. Please feel free to contact me and my staff about proposed legislation or any other issues you would like to address.
Sen. Jerry Johnson
My third session as a part of the Nebraska Legislature was challenging, rewarding and not without some divisive issues. This past year I was elected as Chairman of the Agriculture Committee. The focus on agricultural issues felt like a pretty good fit for me. The added workload allowed me to bring in a third staff member, Rick Leonard, who served as the Research Analyst for the committee. Five of the nineteen bills I introduced were as a result of this chair position and were offered on behalf of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. The toughest bills were related to the Commercial Dog and Cat Act and centered on elimination of cruel treatment of these animals and the elimination of “puppy mills” in the state. Overall, nine of my bills passed. Two others were amended into other bills or became a part of the state budget.
For next year I have three bills remaining on General File. Hopefully these measures will be brought up right away in January at the beginning of the 2016 session. Four other bills remain in committee but with a little “tweaking” I think they all have a decent chance of being heard on the floor. I also had one bill pulled off the agenda at the request of the sponsor.
I sponsored thirteen resolutions honoring individuals, organizations or teams for outstanding achievement during the year. I will be involved in seven interim studies this coming summer and fall, so you can see the work is ongoing. A major joint study coming up will be school financing and it’s relationship to property taxes. The Education, Appropriation and Revenue Committees of the legislature will handle this. Here’s hoping they make real, meaningful progress.
Some very difficult issues were discussed this year including property tax relief (some help here but more needs to be accomplished), driver’s licenses for children of illegal immigrants (passed after overriding the governor’s veto), a gas tax increase (passed after overriding the governor’s veto) and repeal of the death penalty (passed after overriding the governor’s veto). A bill allowing a medicinal marijuana pilot study passed however a bill to legalize medicinal marijuana use was tabled by the introducer. The bill protecting employers, employment agencies and labor unions from discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity was also pulled by the sponsor of that legislation.
After much thought and consideration I voted not to repeal the death penalty. Although I oppose the death penalty for the most part, I still believe it should be retained for the hideous criminal, the “worst of the worst”. I feel the penalty has not been effective and really has not worked in our state for many years. I met personally with the governor to discuss this issue with him. He assured me that he and his new administration will look closely at this penalty and how it will apply in light of the new criminal laws and criminal justice structure passed by the legislature. He asked for time to see if the sentence can be made more consistent. I reminded him that the legislative body will look the same next year and he agreed changes need to be made in the system.
We had eighteen new senators this past year, a result of term limits. It took time to bring everyone on board and I’m not sure we had them all swimming the same direction by the end of the session. Hopefully, we’ll note some progress next year.
As I stated here a couple of weeks ago, this is my final “Legislative Word” for this year. As always, I couldn’t do this without the kind cooperation of the weekly newspapers who allow me to share some of my thoughts with you. Thanks to my staff Craig, Travis and Rick for all of their help. They will be in the office this summer if you need to contact me. Hopefully, I’ll see many of you this summer as I travel around District #23 discussing issues of importance to us all.
Senator Jerry Johnson
Livestock development was a major theme not only for the Agriculture Committee this past year but for the full Legislature as well. Two bills dealing with local planning and zoning issues relating to livestock operations were passed. LB 175 creates a new program available to counties that have obtained Livestock Friendly certification. The program authorizes the Director of Agriculture to award planning grants to such counties that could be utilized to help plan for, recruit and accommodate livestock development similar to how local governments accommodate other types of economic activity. The bill expands tax benefits available to producers anywhere in the state under the Nebraska Rural Advantage Act for livestock modernization investments and clarifies that the program was available to dairy and egg producers. LB 106, which was heard by the Government Committee, directs that the state Department of Agriculture form a committee to create an assessment formula that county officials may use when considering livestock operation siting permits.
LB 176, a bill that would have partially removed an existing prohibition against packers owning or feeding livestock to allow Nebraska pork producers to custom feed packer owned hogs, failed to receive enough votes to end a filibuster. The bill was intended to address that production of market hogs in Nebraska lags behind other states where such restrictions are not in place. There is concern that since Nebraska pork processing facilities are importing a large share of hogs from out of state, it will be difficult to justify continuing investment in slaughter capacity in this state.
The Legislature passed LB 183, a bill I introduced, which would reserve the security grain dealers must carry to cover losses in the event of a financial failure to cover only claims by producers in cash sales. There has been an ambiguity whether the grain dealer security was intended to cover claims by those who purchase grain from a dealer. The failure of Pierce Grain was the first incident where these types of claims were allowed, which severely diluted the amount of dealer security to cover grower’s losses.
Another bill I introduced, LB 360, strengthens the authority of the Department of Agriculture in enforcing the commercial pet breeder licensing program. The bill was amended to increase fees supporting the program and to provide for a timely judicial procedure to resolve disposition of animals seized in animal cruelty cases. This bill was enacted as well.
A number of bills heard by the Agriculture Committee may be of more direct interest to the western parts of the state, but were important nonetheless. We increased the maximum brand inspection fee from 85 cents per head to $1.10 to enable the Brand Committee to avoid a budget shortfall and to improve services. The committee will study further whether a different method for assessing registered feedlots should be used and whether revenues supporting the brand inspection program can be diversified. A bill to increase the dry bean check-off was enacted after lengthy debate over the question of whether the check-off should remain voluntary. As enacted, LB 242 put the dry bean check-off in line with other state programs by removing the refundability of assessments.
As you can see, the committee was busy on a variety of issues this past year and with a lengthy list of interim studies, next year promises more of the same.
Senator Jerry Johnson
I knew I was going to write a column this week. I also knew I could write about any number of issues and bills that we are considering during our last few days this session. I knew as well there was an overriding issue that had to be talked about. I will admit, I did vote to repeal the death penalty. LB 268 was approved by a strong majority of the Legislature this past week. On any number of issues, when I vote with a large majority of the senators I serve with, I feel the right decision was made. Many of you in District #23 have let me know you don’t feel I made the right decision with my vote on LB 268. I fact, many of you have been less than complimentary about me and have expressed this in a number of ways to my staff as well. First, if you have a complaint express it please but check your anger at the door. Many have called and expressed outrage to a decision that has changed the way we handle some of the worst of the worst.
I can go through a number of the arguments. We don’t use the death penalty so why have it? It costs too much. The drugs are not available or subject to rejection. Victim’s families don’t want this because it simply drags them through an emotional roller coaster over and over year after year.
Passage of this bill has been described as historic. The first conservative state in the nation to repeal the death penalty. I don’t feel my vote can be considered historic. I don’t feel I have abandoned my conservative principles by my vote either. On the contrary, I see a program not working. One that has been costing the state millions of dollars with no executions and none really coming. Death row inmates spending decades on death row. Really, nothing will change much with the passage of this bill. When I see an expensive program that is not working, I think it should be cut out. Death row inmates will be relegated to life without parole. Expensive appeals will end. Inconsistent application of this sentence will end. The possibility of wrongfully putting someone to death will end.
Finally, I cannot morally reconcile the notion that a vote of mine can result in the eventual death of another person. I campaigned on a pro-life agenda. I know several faiths wrestle with this concept in many areas not only the death penalty. I didn’t vote this way to please any other senator. I didn’t “trade” a vote for another bill as has been alleged. I have been told by many of you that I did the right thing with my vote and I appreciate your confidence.
With the kind allowances of your local newspapers which carry this column, I plan on two more “Legislative Word” offerings this year. Next week I will try to wrap up this year in the Agriculture Committee and the following week I will give you some of my thoughts overall.
Senator Jerry Johnson
This past week, and last Wednesday in particular, were difficult days in the Legislature. I know many of you have bad days at whatever job you have so I am not asking for sympathy of any kind. Many of you will say that’s why you elected me, to fight the tough issues and I understand that but the week went over the top. The mood of the legislative body went from bad to worse, totally skipping any collegiality for the most part.
Wednesday we were talking about an amendment to an education bill that consisted of a bill that had been debated earlier in the session and defeated. The defeated bill/amendment contained a large fiscal note or cost. It has been noted that we have gone through all of the “excess” money we had left when the budget was presented to us if we allow many of these bills with high price tags to proceed. The debate centered on money for a short time and then turned to our legislative process. As I said, this amendment was attached to an education bill. The chair of the Education Committee spoke against this amendment. She felt this was circumventing the process even though it was within the rules. We are fighting for time as it is. If each bill that has been defeated were to be brought again in amendment form we would not even be close to finished in the ten days we have left. Soon, some senators were attacking the chair and other chairmen that rose to her defense. So much of the morning was a discussion of procedure and protocol, not the merits of the bill. The amendment failed and we moved on.
The afternoon saw the introduction of LB 623, the “Dreamers” bill. This bill concerns allowing children of illegal immigrants to this country to obtain driver’s licenses or state ID cards. We are the only state that doesn’t allow this. In 2012, the President of the United States declared through executive order, that even though immigrants settled illegally in the United States, they would have legal protections to remain. At the same time the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA was created. This program allows qualified young immigrants the ability to live and work and go to school in our country without having to worry about being deported. There is the issue. We allow young people to go to our schools. We ask them to pay social security and work but we don’t allow them to get to work. Many don’t have access to rides or public transportation. LB 623 would afford them this privilege. It would not allow them to take shortcuts in getting licensed or in the naturalization process. They still would have to show proof of insurance. Then they could potentially get jobs, become contributing citizens to our state and the economy. These young people had no say in their arrival here. We can’t limit their ability to contribute to our society nor should we.
And then the wheels came off. Members of the Legislature called the President a lawbreaker. Others used derogatory terms to refer to the young people that would be affected by the bill. I have seen plenty of filibusters in my nearly three sessions here but few that divided the body so sharply.
If you were watching the proceedings, I apologize. You deserve better from your elected group of state senators. Hopefully, our final two weeks here will prove to be more civil and productive. By the way, LB 623 passed General File debate and I was one of the 37 senators voting in the majority.
Senator Jerry Johnson
At this point in the 2015 Legislative session we are somewhat caught in the middle. We have passed many bills either outright or to Final Reading which generally assures passage notwithstanding a potential veto by the Governor. We also have many “big issue” measures that will be heard in the next three weeks or they will be forced to be held over until January 2016.
We have passed the budget that I spoke about last week. A two year $8.6 billion offering which represents a growth rate of 3.1% annually. Overall this is a responsible package that should serve Nebraskans well. The budget is required to be passed by the 80th day of the session which occursThursday, May 14.
Remember last week when I reported that the economic forecasting board had reported a $10 million surplus over projections? I am happy to say the body of senators unanimously approved putting another $4 million into the Property Tax Credit Fund in each of the next two years. This means that coupled with the $60 million approved to go into the fund earlier this year you will see an additional $48 savings on your property tax bill if you own a home valued at $150,000. Obviously the rate of savings changes according to your valuation but the message the body sent was they want to do something. I know this is a small amount but it is sustainable. Without a major change in our tax policy, most notably the property tax formula, we won’t have different rates. What is the answer? Currently, it must center on education and the cost to provide it in the state. Here we are forced to decide between revenue sources such as sales tax or income tax or a combination increase to both. A proposed summer study will begin hopefully, to iron this out.
We passed LB 610 this past week as well. This is the increase in the gas tax measure that I have heard from so many of you about. Many of you are opposed to this increase. An equal number of you have voiced your support. I have been in city government and have visited with many of you as well. My experience and your comments have told me we need better roads and bridges. We have limited resources and this should help immediately. I do anticipate a governor’s veto however so we will probably revisit this measure. Thirty votes will be required to override the Governor.
This past weekend I attended the high school graduation of my granddaughter. A very nice ceremony that made me wonder where the time had gone. As I sat there I also realized that there were many others going through this same ceremony not only in District #23 but all across the state. I want to congratulate all of you graduating from high school, community colleges, college and universities. Your education at whatever level will serve you well in the years ahead.
I want to offer a particular congratulation to those of you that are “non-traditional” students. This generally means those of you that, for a variety of reasons, had a break in your educational path. Things happen such as families, jobs, military deployment and maybe just being tired of school but, you returned. Best of luck to you all.
Senator Jerry Johnson
This past week, our Nebraska Legislature tackled the only issue that must be addressed every two years, that being debate and passage of a balanced state budget. Debate on a budget can be a difficult process and this was no exception at times. Thankfully, the Appropriations Committee of the Legislature gave us a pretty concise offering and after approximately 11 hours we moved this grouping of seven bills to Select File.
The budget price tag is set at $8.6 billion. This represents spending growth of 3.1% which can be considered very moderate. As in any budget, whether city, county, state or even at the federal level, there are winners and losers. The Property Tax Credit Fund, state aid to schools, state universities and colleges, community colleges and inmate daily expenditures are a few of the programs that will see more funds at least at this point of the process. We had about $49 million in excess to apply to new ideas and expenditures after the mainline budget bill appeared. There was a fear that the state forecasting board, which met this past week, would project lower revenues coming into the state in the next quarter which would substantially change the budgetary outlook but we were given a pleasant surprise and the estimates came in that we would have almost $10 million more than expected. This could cause a feeding frenzy with a few members of the body but, hopefully we will apply some of the now $60 million “extra” to tax relief measures of some kind.
As I said above, the budget is the only required business we must address in any long session. Of course, I know as well as you that we have many other issues that will get our attention in the final month of our gathering.
We still have debate coming at various stages on a proposed fuel tax increase. The annual death penalty debate still is out there. There are bits and pieces of property tax relief on the table but the Education Chair has requested another far-reaching study to happen this summer to try to find a better, fairer way to apply this tax that helps not only the school aid formula but all Nebraskans. We have not totally settled the issue of driver’s licenses for youths brought to the United States illegally as young children but now allowed to stay as a result of the federal deferred action program. Another bill concerning medicinal marijuana will be heard and I am sure this issue will be fully, and at times emotionally, debated.
These are a few of the bigger issues but we still have dozens of priority bills and consent calendar items on the docket and the Speaker has said he wants all priority bills on General File to be heard.
I do want to mention a unique opportunity for high school students coming this June 7-10 here at the Nebraska State Capitol. The Unicameral Youth Legislature will again convene this summer. This program provides young people the ultimate chance to learn and experience what it is like to serve as a state senator. Students will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings and debate legislation using bills from this current session. Senators, senator staffers, lobbyists and others will moderate this experience to be held in the historic Warner Chamber.
As I said, the Unicameral Youth Legislature will commence this June 7-10 and is open to all high school students. Registration fees are $350 and this includes lodging on the UNL East Campus, meals (including lunch at the Governor’s Residence) and daily transportation. The deadline to enter is May 15and applicants will be asked to submit a short essay. There is the opportunity to be granted the Speaker Greg Adams Civic Scholarship which covers the full cost of tuition as well as other $100 scholarships. For information about registration and any questions visit NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl. As I said the deadline is May 15 and it would be great to have some students from District #23 involved in this program.
Senator Jerry Johnson
This past week the Agriculture Committee advanced a series of bills to General File aimed at shoring up the funding for the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act and strengthening authorities available to the Department of Agriculture to deal with substandard pet breeding and other types of facilities.
LB 360 is one of the Agriculture Committee’s designated priority bills for the current session. The bill, along with amendments the Committee is recommending, makes a number of clarifications and additions to existing authorities to help the Department better ensure operators meet minimal facility and operating standards. As amended, LB 360 would also make some needed revisions in a provision of the Act that authorizes the Director to refer facilities where inhumane conditions are observed to local law enforcement agencies and to assist in preparing legal action and relocating animals if necessary.
Two related bills were also advanced to the full Legislature and the plan is to offer amendments that would combine these with LB 360 during floor debate.
The first of these is another bill I introduced, LB 359 which provides additional revenue to support the inspection program. Currently, the inspection program is costing about $35,000 more each year than revenues coming in. Without intervention, the reserve funds that we are presently drawing from will be exhausted in a relatively short time. LB 359 increases a local license fee that provides partial funding of the program. As amended, LB 359 would by statute, increase the annual license fee for all facilities that are state licensed, although, the increase is within a statutory maximum that is already in place. The amended bill also requires that commercial licensees would be charged $2 per animal as part of their annual license fee.
The other bill advanced by the committee, LB 377, provides for judicial due process to determine the disposition of dogs and cats that are taken into custody by law enforcement. The process proposed in LB 377 would authorize local law enforcement to ask a court to resolve whether the animals should be returned or permanently sent to new homes. If a court finds probable cause that a person is likely to be found guilty of criminal neglect of abuse of animals, the court would have several options including immediate adoption of the animal to new owners, return the animals with a court order for the owner to take steps to address inhumane conditions, or to allow the agency seizing the animals to retain possession until the criminal case is settled but direct the owner to reimburse the agency for the costs of care and boarding of the animals in the interim.
It is unfortunate that from time to time we learn of cases that suggest some breeders or others do not properly care for dogs and cats in their possession. I think over time, the public has become less tolerant of animal mistreatment and government is increasingly asked to intervene. At the same time we have to respect the rights of animal owners and those operating responsible businesses. Additionally, enforcing animal welfare laws can be a significant burden to cities and counties. It is difficult to strike a balance. The combination of bills did pass General File debate and I feel this will provide the Legislature an opportunity to establish good, meaningful and enforceable policy in this area.
Senator Jerry Johnson
High school students are invited to take on the role of state senators at the Unicameral Youth Legislature June 7th- 10th. At the State Capitol, student senators will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and discover the unique process of the nation’s only unicameral.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature gives behind-the-scenes access to students who have an interest in public office, government, politics, law, public policy, debate or public speaking. Students will learn about the inner workings of the Legislature directly from senators and staff.
“The students of today become the leaders of tomorrow, so a strong background in civics and government is essential,” said Senator Jerry Johnson.
Registrants are encouraged to apply for a Speaker Greg Adams Civic Scholarship award, which covers the full cost of admission. Applicants must submit a short essay. Other $100 scholarships are also available.
The Office of the Clerk of the Legislature coordinates the Unicameral Youth Legislature. The University of Nebraska- Lincoln’s Extension 4-H Youth Development Office coordinates housing and recreational activities as part of the Big Red Summer Campus program.
To learn more about the program, go to www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl or call (402) 471-0764. The deadline for registration is May 15th.
This past week in your Nebraska Legislature was interesting. As usual, we passed a few things, voted down a few things, and talked for awhile on many things.
To begin the week, we passed LB 610, the “Gas Tax Increase” bill to Final Reading. As many of you know, this bill will raise our state gas tax by 1 1/2 cents per year for 4 years. At the end of this 4 year period the accumulated 6 cent increase will be generating an estimated $75 million extra for roads and bridge projects in the state. The proceeds from this increase will be divided into thirds to be distributed to the cities, counties and to the state. I know I have told you I am against tax increases and credits and other tax shifts as well but, as I have traveled around District #23 other than property tax relief, many of you have said we need more money for roads and bridges. This includes city streets, county roads, paving or widening projects and of course bridges.
I felt from the start that the percentages of the division of money from LB 610 were a little off. I felt that the cities and counties should be getting a greater share. As advanced, the bill remains at the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 level. I have had many in the agricultural community contact me and say they favored the raise. In fact, some said to raise the 6 cents or more right now, don’t bother with the phase in period. In fairness, I heard from several that said they didn’t want a tax increase and I understand their point of view. They argue that it is not the right time for this increase, that we should wait until a new state roads director is appointed and can assess the situation or the increase is not fair to those who have limited incomes. I get it but when is the right time? If I ask people do they want a tax increase obviously they say no but if I say this may be how they get that road done or bridge moved up on a county work agenda, then the conversation changes.
Another hoped for benefit is that this bill’s passage might reduce property taxes. If we get another revenue stream for the counties and cities then hopefully, county levies may be reduced and then other taxing authorities may be positively affected. I did vote for LB 610.
We spend so much time on some of the “big” issues before us, that once in awhile a bill comes through that doesn’t generate quite as much attention but nevertheless is passed simply as the right thing to do. LB 439 is one such bill that we passed back in early April and this measure was signed by the Governor on April 7. This bill states that there would be no violation or penalty of the minor in possession law for a minor who requested emergency medical assistance in response to a possible alcohol overdose of themselves or another person as soon as the emergency is apparent. The bill went on to say the person making the request for another person must remain on the scene until medical help has arrived and that person must cooperate with medical assistance and law enforcement personnel.
The discussion quickly centered on college age students probably because there have been several recent incidents and unfortunately deaths associated with this age group. We worry about drugs and exposure to them by our young people. Alcohol, while legal, is a drug and can be deadly if misused. The University of Nebraska/Lincoln said they would review all of their alcohol policies as a result of LB 439. I voted for this bill, it is the right thing to do.
Senator Jerry Johnson