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The holiday season always seems to be the busiest time of year. When you add in a legislative session that begins in about three weeks, the calendar fills up even faster. The past couple of months I have been meeting with constituents and organizations about their requests and suggestions for bills.
To be honest, having money in the budget and extra federal money coming into Nebraska, makes things far more complicated. The key is to remember that robust state revenues are always on a cycle, and an infusion of cash from federal sources often comes with restrictions. That means we need to be extremely thoughtful and cautious about our spending in the coming session.
Meetings in the past month have included several health organizations and health care provider groups. The pandemic has placed additional stress on scarce resources and understaffed institutions, and I will be working with other senators to find solutions. I continue to meet with the Courts and our counties to find a way to streamline services, making them more cost efficient without sacrificing jobs or accessibility to the public.
As a member of the school funding interim study committee, I have attended several briefings and brainstorming sessions. Once again, we find there is no simple answer to the linkage between school funding and taxation. Added to that is the vast difference between school districts across our state, even within our own legislative district. Remembering the phrase “if it was easy, it would be done by now”, I anticipate much debate on this issue again on the floor of the Legislature, but hold out hope that we can find a good solution.
I toured some of the correctional facilities in Lincoln this past month, and will visit some sites in Omaha yet before the end of December. The recent wage increase is showing some promise in alleviating the staffing crisis, but facility ages and conditions are also a concern. This too will be a ‘hot topic’ when we convene in January.
Small business and local economic development continue to be crucial in every city and town in District 30. I have met with a couple of groups who have proposals to boost opportunities and will be supporting their efforts with legislation. The power grid and state infrastructure will also be addressed during the session. The University of Nebraska system has some proposed legislation dealing with cyber security and its importance in profitability for agriculture that I believe will be very beneficial. I continue to monitor the ‘right-to-repair’ topic regarding agricultural machinery and technology and expect some work to be done there as well.
Again, nearly everything my staff and I are working on will come down to funding. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I know our work will be more intense this coming year than ever before. Putting together a budget in a lean year is sometimes easier than having resources where everyone wants a portion. The main budget work was done last year, which was the first half of this biennium (two year) legislative session. So technically, we will be working on “adjustments”. I anticipate there to be several adjustments.
In the midst of the hustle and bustle, may you find moments of real peace and joy as we celebrate Christmas. Wishing you all good health and happiness, and all the best in the new year ahead.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
The special session for redistricting wrapped up on Thursday with final reading. After a slow start, and many discussions and negotiations, the districts were redrawn as required by the state constitution. As is always the case, not everyone is totally happy with the results – but that probably indicates that the necessary give-and-take played a role in getting the work done.
The six district maps included the Public Service Commission, Supreme Court judicial districts, State Board of Education, Board of Regents for the University of Nebraska System, Congress and the Legislature. Those last two on the list generated the most debate.
As far as electing members of Congress, our area is split between congressional districts 1 and 3. The third district includes most of the entire state outside of Lincoln or Omaha and encompasses 80 of the state’s 93 counties. Much of the discussion on this bill focused on splitting Sarpy County or Douglas County.
There are good arguments for keeping counties whole; likewise, there are good reasons for splitting counties to achieve the correct population in each district. The ideal congressional district, based on the state population from the 2020 census, divided by three, is 653,835 people. Due to the shift in population from west to eastern areas, the third district needed an additional 53,000 people to meet the ideal number. Lancaster County did remain in the first district, and Gage County remained in the third district.
The legislative map was by far the most complicated with 49 districts. District 30 had grown to be the fifth largest district with over 43,000 people, and had to be redrawn to bring the number down closer to the ideal of 40,031 people. The new map includes all of Gage County, a small portion of southeast Lancaster County and a narrow part of Lincoln. Regrettably, the Bennet area had to be moved into District 25; and the Firth area moved into District 32. A verbal description of the district is really difficult to follow, so I would recommend viewing the map online: http://news.legislature.ne.gov/red/
Once the new maps are completed and in force, and posted to the Legislature’s website, you can always use the “find your senator” feature along the right side of the home page. Simply enter your street address.
The other four maps referenced above range from having just five to eight districts, so most of those have at least one district with a vast territory in the western half of the state. The truth of the matter is that once you get past Grand Island, the population totals drop off rapidly. One good point brought up repeatedly in our debates was the need to focus on and fund the sections of rural Nebraska that are losing population. We also need to be aware of the needs in our urban areas. Nebraska works best when all our citizens are given attention.
As our focus turns to the coming session in January, I urge you to be in contact with my office about your concerns and with your ideas. email@example.com 402.471-2620 P.O Box 94604, Lincoln, NE 68509. Remember to watch out for harvest equipment moving slowly through the area these next few weeks and stay safe.
Most of this first week of special session was taken up by legislative procedures for redistricting, introducing bills and holding hearings, and talking with fellow senators and residents of District 30. The only topics allowed in this session are the specifics of drawing the lines that will delineate six entities: Congressional districts, the Legislature, Public Service Commission, Nebraska Board of Education, the Supreme Court and the Board of Regents.
The Redistricting Committee, which drew the first set of maps, had to have three members representing each congressional district; as well as a balance of Republicans and Democrats. The 3rd congressional district, which includes District 30, has 17 senators and all of them are Republicans. This resulted in three members from Lincoln and three from Omaha, each sending one Republican and two Democrats. The committee elected Sen. Linehan, a Republican, as Chair, and Sen. Wayne, a Democrat, as Vice Chair.
The base plans for all six maps can be found here:/http://news.legislature.ne.gov/red/proposed-base-plans/
The maps on the website above are the proposals developed by the redistricting committee. After the last census, a legislative district represented about 36,800 people. With the 2020 census, the ideal number in a district is now 40,031 people (the total state population divided by 49). District 30 was the 5th largest in growth.
We have to be within 5% above or below the 40,031, a range roughly of 38,000 to 42,000. All legislative districts have to be within that range to avoid a possible court challenge. So District 30, standing right now at a population of 43,804, is 9.4% over and will have to be redrawn to get closer to that ideal number.
It is important to know that any map has to be drawn using “census blocks”, and not precincts. In working on our own maps of District 30, we found that a census block can vary in population from four people to several hundred. This sometimes results in unusual boundaries and not the nice clean lines we would prefer.
Because quite a few senators, including myself, are working on maps, there are lots of alternative plans floating around which can be offered as amendments to the committee’s bills. The “Linehan” map keeps District 30 mostly intact, but does move sections of southern Gage county into District 32. The “Wayne” map leaves Gage county whole but moves the city of HIckman into District 32.
On most maps I have seen, Gage county is divided, with one even dividing Beatrice down highway 77. My staff worked with Senators Brandt and Kolterman, as well as the Lincoln delegation, to develop a map of District 30 that keeps the county whole and simply drops our northern boundary down to compensate for the explosive growth in southern areas of Lincoln.
Any map you draw has to take all 49 districts into account. As an example, three districts within the city of Omaha have grown to a population well over 50,000. All of those lines have to be redrawn, with a definite domino effect on the remaining districts. It is interesting to note that those three districts have enough growth in population to create one whole new district. To deal with that, either a rural district “disappears” or a variation of cutting up neighboring districts must be done in order to not “lose” a rural district.
Another alternative was presented in a bill by Sen. Kolterman, to add a 50th district as allowable under the Constitution, put it in Omaha, and make only small adjustments to remaining districts. An opinion by the Attorney General indicated this bill was not germane to the existing call of the special session. It is possible to expand the call, but I do not see that happening. I do believe the idea of a 50th senator might be offered again in January as a new bill.
I do not know how many amendments will be offered, who will submit them, or even what the attitude of working together will be. I sincerely do not want to see Gage county split, but in the end, due to the loss of population in the western part of the state and the shift toward Omaha, the probability is greater than it was 10 years ago.
Despite the focused attention on redistricting, being in session in Lincoln has resulted in some good opportunities to talk with quite a few organizations and constituents about other issues. I have been able to discuss school finance and tax policy, rural broadband, agricultural concerns and federal funding, as well as early childhood, public power and public health. These conversations are really valuable as this is the time of year we begin to put together legislation for next year.
Please let me know your thoughts and concerns as we go forward with special session, and as we form bills to introduce next January. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, 402-471-2620, or send mail to PO Box 94604, Lincoln, NE 68509-4604.
The “interim”, those months between legislative sessions, allow senators and staff to spend more time meeting with constituents and to study the issues more intensely. However the past couple of summers have been broken up with unusual legislative activities. In 2020, we reconvened to complete the session in late July and early August. This year, we will meet in a special session to complete the constitutionally required work of redistricting, based on census figures.
The census, like many other things in the past two years, was delayed due to covid. The data became available just a few weeks ago, and the Legislative Research Office has been diligently compiling numbers and creating maps to show which districts gained population, and those that saw decreases.
The special session has officially been called by the Governor and will begin on September 13th. The call is limited to only enacting legislation to redistrict the boundaries of the Supreme Court judicial districts, the Public Service Commission, the University system Board of Regents, the State Board of Education, the Nebraska Legislature and Representatives of Congress.
While there has been some limited talk of taking up other subjects, mainly concerning the pandemic, the Governor’s call, as well as Speaker Hilgers, make it clear we will only work on redistricting. This task must be completed by September 24th to allow election officials to be prepared for the first elections of 2022.
Based on the Nebraska census data, each state senator will now represent about 40,000 people. This number is determined by dividing the state’s total population by 49, our current number of state senators.
District 30, which includes all of Gage county and portions of southeastern Lancaster county, grew in population, coming in at 43,804. District 30 is now the 5th largest legislative district by population; the 49 districts range from 59,542 (northwest Douglas county, Elkhorn area) down to 33,841 (Panhandle area). I cannot say with any certainty whatsoever how the outline of our district will change, but some adjustments will be made to get as close as possible to that target of 40,000 residents.
As a member of the LR 141 Interim Study committee, I have attended several hearings dealing with school finance. To date, we have met twice in Lincoln and once in Kearney. We have been brought up to date on how the TEEOSA program was originally enacted and how it has worked to this point. Many stakeholders have provided input on both local and state funding for education.
My second interim committee assignment is the Building and Maintenance Committee, which oversees state properties all over Nebraska. We have traveled to UNMC in Omaha, UNL East Campus in Lincoln and the State Patrol Headquarters North Platte, including a Veterans Administration site. We will also tour the Youth Rehabilitation Treatment Center (YRTC) facility in the Hastings area. Our job is to review the condition and use of these facilities and assure state funds are being applied wisely.
The third appointment I had was to the Nebraska Children’s Commission, representing the Legislature’s Appropriation Committee. Thus far our meetings have utilized a combination of in person and online platforms, allowing us to keep up with the schedule, which will continue throughout the year.
I am closely following the work of the interim study group looking at the Eastern Service Area Child Welfare Contract. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee is spearheading this oversight, looking into how foster care is provided and the issues surrounding that program.
On Aug. 25, the Department of Treasury issued further guidance to expedite the distribution of the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA). An updated Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page highlights additional policies designed to encourage state and local governments to deliver those rental assistance funds more readily to eligible households. The FAQ page lists seven additional policies meant to provide more flexibility to states, including further guidance on self-attestation for households at risk for eviction and homelessness. Both landlords and renters are encouraged to utilize this program. Go to the US Treasury website for more information. Click here.
Another important study, LR 178, is looking at ways to best utilize the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds available to Nebraska. My staff has been participating in working groups, and public hearings will be held this fall. I urge you to bring your ideas for one time expenditures that could benefit our District to that committee, as I will. Information about hearings and a portal for submitting testimony can be found at nebraskalegislature.gov.
At the national level, I am a member of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee of the Council of State Governments (CSG). The summer meeting was held in Rapid City, SD, where our committee toured a bison ranch and fish hatchery facilities. Then the whole Council met for keynote speakers and workshops. It was an excellent opportunity to talk with legislators from neighboring states, to hear how similar their concerns are and how they are handling those issues in their states.
I hosted a tour of the Beatrice State Developmental Center (BSDC) and Mosaic, for members of the Health and Human Services Committee in July. The staff and residents at both facilities did a great job presenting their programming to the senators and legislative aides.
Always of importance in District 30, I have kept in contact with NDOT Director Selmer and monitored progress on the South Beltway. I also continue to be briefed on pandemic conditions by UNMC, and both Lincoln Lancaster Public Health, and Public Health Solutions, which serves Gage County.
As we begin the special session and head into the remaining weeks of the interim, I encourage your communication about any concerns you may have. Contact me at email@example.com, call me at 402-471-2620, or send your letters to PO Box 94064, Lincoln NE 68509-4604. I look forward to hearing from you and working together on the issues facing our great state.
The Legislature adjourned just before Memorial Day but my duties as your representative continue at a fast pace. I am serving on three special committees and studying several issues of local importance before we reconvene in September to take up redistricting.
I was appointed to the Legislature’s LR 141 School Finance Review Committee with ten of my colleagues, under the direction of Education Committee chair Lynne Walz of Fremont. I consider this to be one of the most essential studies to be completed this interim.The first public hearing of the LR 141 study will be held July 7th in Lincoln, the second in Kearney on the 28th. Both begin at 2 pm. More information can be found at www.nebraskalegislature.gov
Another committee appointment was to the Building and Maintenance Committee. Chaired by Sen. Erdman, this group of senators will examine four different sites, with an emphasis on the condition of these state owned facilities, potential costs and future needs. We began our work at the Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha, where we looked at several projects that have been completed in the past year and some of the other needs that they still have. Later this summer we will be in Lincoln, Hastings and North Platte.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I was chosen to sit on the Nebraska Children’s Commission. A half day meeting was held in Lincoln this past week, taking up foster care, how to strengthen families, juvenile services and the Bridge to Independence program. We also listened to public testimony and reviewed the annual report.
The Beatrice State Developmental Center (BSDC) is always on the list of key topics. Earlier this month, I met with Sen. John Arch of Omaha, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, and a parent advocate who has a child residing at BSDC. We are working together to acquaint new members of the HHS committee with our intermediate care facilities in District 30. My staff and I have also monitored the hearings held by the committee, and have been in touch with directors at the state Department of Health and Human Services.
My work with county and district court officials continues this summer. The goal is to formulate legislation which makes the courts fully accessible while cutting costs at the county level. I introduced LB 102 last January, which we are fine tuning for the coming session.
I have had meetings with the League of Municipalities to explore ways to aid cities and smaller towns in our district. I am keeping up my regular conversations with area school superintendents. A few” zoom” meetings have continued, allowing me to get some quick updates from home as well. Public Health Solutions reports that they have been able to turn their attention to reaching underserved communities and develop programs for opioid addiction – both greatly needed – with the easing of the pandemic.
Also this month, I was able to meet with Governor Ricketts; and had a conversation with state Department of Agriculture director, Steve Wellman. Director Wellman and I talked about issues facing agriculture in Nebraska and what the challenges might be in the future. We also discussed legislation passed in neighboring states and what measures other states are working on for agriculture.
It was my pleasure to speak to the Beatrice Noon Kiwanis Club, and join other senators representing Lancaster county for an OLLI (Ochsner Lifelong Learning Institute) presentation. I participated with other senators in discussions about property tax in Fremont. I also spoke at the Governor’s town hall near Pickrell, and at a board meeting of the Lower Big Blue NRD. And of course, parade season is in full swing all over District 30 where I always enjoy talking with friends and neighbors, as well as the occasional barbecue.
My staff and I are monitoring the activities in our federal government surrounding meat packers and the President’s conservation plans as well as contributing to various interim studies and public hearings at the state level. You can contact my office at any time with your input and concerns via phone, email or mail. 402-471-2620. firstname.lastname@example.org PO Box 94064, Lincoln NE 68509-4604. Wishing you all a happy and safe 4th of July!
It is a real pleasure to report that LB 103 has been signed into law by the Governor. This was my priority bill, and it appropriates $2M in each of the next two years to counties that meet certain criteria in paying off a federal judgement. This statute will allow Gage county to receive funds from the state’s general fund and apply the entire amount to the “Beatrice Six” case payment.
I want to thank the senators, the Board of Supervisors, organizations and constituents who supported LB 103. Your letters and phone calls explaining the burden on the county and the need for this legislation were vital and much appreciated.
I was appointed to a special committee, outlined in LR 141, to look at school financing. Senators Bostar, Brandt, DeBoer, Flood, Friesen, Groene, McKinney, Pahls, Wishart and Education Committee Chair Walz are the other members charged with reviewing how revenue is collected and distributed to our K-12 public schools. I look forward to diving into the nuts and bolts of school finance and hope we can develop some sorely needed recommendations for reform, no small task.
With final action on a large number of bills, the Legislature has adjourned “sine die” for this session. On Wednesday morning, the body debated LR 134, the resolution which outlines the way we will take up redistricting later this year. The complete list of guidelines can be found on the website at www.nebraskalegislature.gov. Watch for a schedule of public hearings on the calendar tab of the website.
Veto overrides were taken up in the afternoon. Three bills were returned with a veto by the Governor, LB 108, 147 and 306. I supported LBs 108 and 306 which would provide assistance to some of the lowest income earners in our state. Food, shelter and heat are not luxuries but are essential to the health and well being of every person. I supported both of these bills and voted to override the vetoes.
LB 147 would transfer duties and responsibilities for management of the Class V retirement system (Omaha Public Schools) to the Public Employees Retirement Board effective September 1, 2024. The bill specifies accounting and audits that must be completed to accomplish the transition, and identifies the Omaha school district as the party responsible to pay all related costs related to the transfer of management. The bill clarifies that the school district remains solely financially responsible and liable during the transition and after the transfer of management to the Public Employees Retirement Board occurs; and specifies that the State of Nebraska, the Public Employees Retirement Board and the Nebraska Public Employees Retirement System are not liable for any of the funding obligations of the Class V retirement system. I also supported this override motion.
Thursday was largely centered around clean up and bookkeeping procedures that allow the official records of the session to be completed. Governor Ricketts addressed the Legislature, and then the motion to adjourn was approved. Now the focus will turn to interim studies and special committee work for the next few months.
The past year has reminded us we can never know the future with any certainty, but conditions definitely look brighter than a year ago. During the interim months when we are not in session, my staff will still be in the office to handle your communications. I will be in the office as needed, and attending events in District 30. Contact me at email@example.com, 402-471-2620, or send your mail to PO Box 94604, Lincoln, NE 68509-4604. Wishing you a safe and productive summer.
On Thursday, my priority bill, LB 103, was passed on final reading by a vote of 44 to 3. Now we wait to see if the bill is signed into law. It is my fervent hope that the bill will help the Beatrice 6 receive their funds a little faster and ease the tax burden on the citizens of Gage County. LB 103 would allow the state to appropriate $2 million to Gage County in July of this year and again in 2022, to be used towards paying off the federal judgment.
The session is winding down, but the pace of work has been anything but slower. Around 50 bills have been on the agenda each of the last two days on final reading, interspersed with several hours of filibusters. We will recess for the next four days, necessary for the Governor to sign or veto the bills. Then we will come back next week to take up motions to override, if any, and adjourn “sine die” on Thursday, which becomes the last day of the session.
Since we already know we will be back in late September to work on redistricting, we will be adjourning just a few days earlier than the allotted time for this session. The pandemic delayed the census numbers, which are required before we draw district maps, so redistricting could not be accomplished inside our sessions’ 90 day time frame. There will be maps for the 49 legislative districts, our three congressional districts, the Supreme Court, Public Service Commission, Board of Regents and State Board of Education. Each of these will have a separate bill with a hearing and debate during the special session this fall. Before we convene, there will also be public hearings in each congressional district during the summer. The dates will be publicized on the legislative website at www.nebraskalegislature.gov. We will be debating LR 134 on Wednesday, the 26th, the resolution that outlines the substantive criteria to be used during the 2021 redistricting process. Note, this is an LR, legislative resolution, not a bill (LB), which can affect your search on the webpage. As with all sessions and hearings, you can watch live on Nebraska Public Media, by clicking on the link on the right side of the webpage noted above.
Many important bills were acted on this week, including LB 2 as introduced by Sen. Briese of Albion. Right now, agricultural land is valued at 75% of its actual value for purposes of property taxation. This bill would reduce that further, to 50% of valuation, only when a school district levies taxes to pay for bonds passed by the school district. The bill applies only to new bonds going forward and none already in progress. Some school districts in Nebraska have 90% farm land; the Lincoln and Omaha districts are at less than ½ of 1%. This bill will have a very minimal impact on the two large cities, but will help schools like Beatrice, where you are closer to 30-50% in farms. Ag land has been paying off a greater share of bonds than what they represent as voters. This bill puts the paying of the bond financing on a more even playing field.
A concealed carry bill introduced by Sen. Brewer was scaled back after the State Attorney General advised that it could be unconstitutional in its current form. LB 236 would have allowed counties to authorize residents to carry without a state issued permit. Sen. Brewer offered an amendment on his bill to remove that section and include three other provisions. The bill now allows transportation of firearms in vehicles for lawful purposes when unloaded, stored in a case. and kept separate from ammunition; permit holders would be notified four months before a permit expires; and given a 30 day grace period to renew after expiration.
LB 542, a bill introduced by Sen. Walz to allow the state highway commission to issue bonds was discussed on the floor, but is being held over until next session. Working with the Governor and the Nebraska Department of Transportation, Sen. Walz will come back with the issue in January. In present form, it would allow for $450M in bonds to be paid over 10 years for road construction; 75% of it for an expressway system and federally designated high priority corridors. With talk at the federal level about infrastructure, it is probably best to wait and see how that plays out, especially since road projects for this year are already all bid out, and there are not enough crews available to add much more work this year.
Sen.Vargas had introduced a bill concerning employee conditions in the meatpacking industry after holding hearings last summer. With improvements in the pandemic, some of the restrictions in the bill were loosened up, and remaining provisions would help ensure sick leave, testing and so on. But senators who opposed the bill did not think it would be necessary in light of increased vaccination rates and lower covid hospitalization cases. The bill was bracketed, which means it will not be taken up again during the session.
It is great to hear about events like the upcoming College World Series expecting to be at full capacity. We constantly think about those who have lost loved ones and the economic challenges of the past 18 months. But finally we are going in a good direction. Hopefully vaccines continue to be effective and allow people to return to normal.
Please remember you can contact me at any time at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 402-471-2620, or send mail to PO Box 94604, Lincoln NE 68509-4604. Thank you.
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