Welcome

January 7th, 2015

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.

Sincerely,
Sen. Jerry Johnson

Legislative Word in the 23rd- May 15, 2015

May 15th, 2015

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.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Jerry Johnson

Legislative Word in the 23rd- May 07, 2015

May 7th, 2015

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.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Jerry Johnson

Legislative Word in the 23rd- May 01, 2015

May 1st, 2015

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.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Jerry Johnson

Legislative Word in the 23rd- April 23, 2015

April 23rd, 2015

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.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Jerry Johnson

Senator Johnson Invites Students to Youth Legislature

April 17th, 2015

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.

 

Legislative Word in the 23rd- April 16, 2015

April 16th, 2015

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.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Jerry Johnson

Legislative Word in the 23rd- April 10, 2015

April 10th, 2015

This past week in your Nebraska State Legislature, I got LB 139 across the finish line.  This bill concerns changes in the Real Property Appraiser Act.  This is an ongoing process regarding the Act and it has been and will be an almost annual bill for needed changes and updates.  I have spoken about this bill here before but I think the remarkable thing is getting a bill passed.  The pace seemed to quicken this past week a little but the Speaker, the captain of our legislative ship, as I told you last week, wants to pick it up.  Also he handed out a memo outlining scheduled late nights.  Between April 28th and May 28th he has scheduled 15 late nights.  This number is more than in past sessions so one can sense the seriousness of his intentions.  Late nights can run as late as 11:59 pm on a given day but cannot go into a new day without it becoming the next scheduled day of the session.  I haven’t seen any nights that late in my time here but we have been warned.

We moved LB 419 forward this past week as well.  This bill seemed pretty simple initially.  It would give Nebraska zoos a sales tax exemption on admissions, memberships, zoo purchases and any sales tax generated on concessions.  Obviously, this would give zoos extra money that could be reinvested in operations, facilities and promotions.  Presently, there appears to be four zoos that could take advantage of this proposal; Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, Wildlife Safari Park near Ashland and Riverside in Scottsbluff.

The fiscal note estimated this exemption would cost the state $2.6 million over the next two years.  Several senators felt all Nebraskans deserve tax relief of some kind not just a few non-profit entities.  We heard pretty convincing arguments in favor of the tax break.  Obviously tourism and economic development were among them.  However many said when they travel the state they hear people wanting true property tax relief.  I hear the same message.  I’m not saying I may not vote for this bill as it progresses forward this year, however I will need to see some definite movement toward any kind of meaningful property tax relief for me to be convinced.  I joined the minority and voted against this bill.

In a similar vein, we debated and passed LB 414 on to Select File.  This bill, while affecting many fraternal benefit societies in Nebraska, was aimed primarily to benefit the Woodmen of the World group headquartered in Omaha.  This organization feels they are entitled to a property tax exemption on the part of their skyscraper in Omaha which they use.  The bill would grant a roughly $800,000 exemption.  I am not questioning the jobs a big organization such as this provides, nor am I suggesting they don’t do many charitable works around the area aside from operating their insurance company to benefit their members.  All I am saying is that much like LB 419, is this the best use of exemptions, credits and other tax breaks that benefit the most Nebraskans?  I voted against this bill as well.

We have tough debate ahead of us on many issues. Until I see and can vote on meaningful tax relief measures, I can’t vote for tax credits or exemptions.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Jerry Johnson

Legislative Word in the 23rd- April 02, 2015

April 2nd, 2015

LB 106 is a bill that is a perfect example of why I tell many of you when we visit, either in person or by some other means, that I am reluctant to support a bill until it reaches the floor of the Legislature for General File debate.  Bills can say one thing at first and be changed significantly as they move forward.  Such is the case with this measure.

First of all, we had a hard time finding a committee for this bill.  It was originally referenced to the Agriculture Committee but upon close examination, we realized this bill talked about where to put livestock operations not how to build them.  Realizing this bill probably spoke more to zoning issues, we asked that the bill be re-referenced to the Government, Military and Veteran’s Affairs Committee.  This was somewhat a stretch for this committee as well but they took it.

As initially presented it was suggested this bill would encourage growth in the livestock industry “simplifying” the process of application and siting in each county.  While the state is a leader in many livestock categories, proponents of LB 106 point to the decline in dairy operations in the state as well as lagging growth in other sectors as reasons to adopt this measure.  It is felt that the state is a “patchwork quilt” for those looking to expand into or around our state.  It was pointed out that regulations for expansion varied widely across our 93 counties.  It was felt that by creating some order out of the confusion it would help our state economically and in our huge agriculture industry.  A statewide matrix or plan was to be developed by the Department of Agriculture that would be given to each county to follow.  The use of the matrix was to be mandatory and would outline several standards that would be followed giving developers a clear path to follow.

It was this mandate to use the matrix that caused the fall-out.  I learned very quickly when I came to the Legislature, the meaning of the phrase “local control”.  You can do many things here in the Unicameral but don’t mess with local control.  What works and is good for people in Scotts Bluff may very well not work at all in and around Schuyler.  As introduced this state mandate seemed to encroach into county board business.  Many counties, by comprehensive plans or other means, have set their own standards for feedlot permitting.  As you can imagine, agriculture groups, county boards, cities and individuals quickly took sides with a clear majority opposing this idea.

After lengthy debate, LB 106 was amended to be mainly voluntary.  The bill now provides that a panel of experts would be appointed by the Department of Agriculture.  They would be charged with developing the matrix that county officials could use, if they want, to decide whether to use this approach.  The board would be made up of representatives from several organizations from across the state and would possibly divide the state into sections to better meet local needs.  Again, the use of the matrix would answer siting, smell, size, water issues and any other related county level concerns.

Now that the bill has become voluntary, I can imagine virtually all counties across the state accessing this matrix and at least using it as a guide when needed.

At the end of the week the Speaker of the Legislature gave us what some would describe as a pep talk and others may see it as a kick in the pants.  He reminded the body that we have a little over 30 working days before adjournment.  We have 60 priority bills that haven’t made it through the first round yet and 22 priority bills still stuck in committee.  He said we need to get busy and he is probably correct.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Jerry Johnson

Legislative Word in the 23rd- March 27, 2015

March 27th, 2015

This past week brought a change in the format that we will follow for the remainder of our working days this session in your Nebraska Legislature.  We began all day debate on the legislative floor.  This signals the end of public hearings on all bills as well.  Some feel this signals the halfway point of our session, others feel that by doubling the floor time we really have just begun the real portion of the session.  I tend to feel both viewpoints are accurate.  

Going forward, we won’t be burdened by a time limit of 2 or 3 hours before lunch to talk about bills.  There is the hope that, absent unnecessary filibuster, we can begin to move through the multitude of offerings that have been advanced to General File.

At this point, we still have major debate scheduled on most priority bills.  Some of these measures include the death penalty, school aid, some form of tax relief and any number of other proposals before us.  It is also hoped by many, myself included, that we can get through the priority designations to go back to General File on other bills that are of interest.  Also we anticipate a multi-day discussion on our biennial budget.  It is constitutionally required that we pass a balanced budget before we adjourn for the year.  There really is no other requirement that we have aside from this.

I did have a good hearing on a bill that I proposed to the Judiciary Committee this past week.  LB 136 concerns the flying lantern type of device that is sold annually at fireworks stands across the state.  This bill prohibits the sale, possession and use of these incendiary products.

You all know what I mean when speaking of flying lanterns.  The product is lit and then released to follow the wind in any certain direction but certainly not under the control of the person who lit the device.  It becomes a flaming ball that can travel for several minutes and for several miles.  Several testifiers who support LB 136 came to the hearing and told of stories of fires at their homes or properties that were started by flying lanterns.  A large ethanol plant had representatives relate that they watched a flying lantern just miss large ethanol storage tanks at their facility. That combination could have resulted in a disastrous situation.

There were also several opponents to the bill.  Virtually all of these were vendors and fireworks sellers.  They stated there were only a handful of documented cases of fires started by these lanterns.  They argued that these lanterns really weren’t even classified as fireworks.  Others said these items made up only a small portion of their yearly gross.  The questions immediately were raised such as why sell them if you advertise as a fireworks vendor and they aren’t fireworks?  Why sell these things if they really don’t amount to much of the bottom line?  It doesn’t take any imagination to see the danger here.

Fire chiefs and marshals said there will be a new push to classify flying lanterns as a firework.  This will result in more complete reports when fires result from these devices.

I am certainly not against beautiful and safe fireworks displays.  I am not against safe fireworks being used under proper supervision at home.  Flying lanterns are not safe and should be eliminated.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Jerry Johnson

Legislative Word in the 23rd- March 20, 2015

March 20th, 2015

I am going to take a break this week from the grind of the legislative session.  I will get back into it next week but this past week, as the chair of the Agriculture Committee of the Legislature, I was invited by Governor Ricketts to accompany him on a state-wide fly-over as part of National Agriculture Week. The Director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Greg Ibach and Steve Nelson from the Nebraska Farm Bureau also were part of the travelling party.  

We began the day in Omaha at Green Plains, Inc., the nation’s fourth largest ethanol producer.  Here the Governor started right in by taking the Environmental Protection Agency to task for for delaying important regulations that are key to ethanol producers.  At issue is the EPA renewable fuel standards requiring what mix ethanol can be blended into the nation’s fuel supply to comply with federal law.  The Governor, to his credit, said basically that big government, “just doesn’t get it”.  I agree.  Not only is agriculture the biggest economic driver in our state, but you would be hard pressed to find many economies across our nation that aren’t impacted by agriculture.  I pointed out the value of an ethanol by-product, distillers grain, that is a left over mash which in turn is a high protein feed supplement for cattle.

We continued on to Broken Bow where we were hosted by their Chamber of Commerce and the Custer County Farm Bureau..  Rural leaders as well as four area FFA Chapters also were in attendance at the noon event.  Custer County every year is one of the biggest ag producing and value added counties in Nebraska.

Moving on we went to North Platte where the Governor held his monthly call-in radio show.  Again, he hit on the idea that in order to grow Nebraska, we have to grow agriculture.  Time and again he said livestock, crop production and most importantly our farmers, ranchers and their families are key to this industry.  Their efforts result in not only local vitality but on the export front, we experienced $6.6 billion in Nebraska exports in 2013.  In 2014, we exported over $1 billion in sales of beef products.  These are big numbers.  These dollars are the result of Nebraska’s largest industry.

The final stop was at the 47th Annual Kiwanis Ag Leaders Banquet in Seward which featured the presentation of Ag awards to three Agri-Business Operations in Seward County.  Close to 500 people were in attendance to hear our travel group discuss various agriculture topics ranging from property tax relief, school aid and other legislative bills of interest.  All of this focused on the Governor’s theme “GROW NEBRASKA & GROW AGRICULTURE”.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Jerry Johnson