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The last full week of February was definitely a full week of legislative business, and marked the halfway point of the session. We welcomed a new member of the Legislature, Mike Jacobson of North Platte, who was appointed to represent District 42 upon the resignation of Mike Groene. Sen. Jacobson grew up on a farm in south central Nebraska and is in the banking industry. It is important to have a voice for every legislative district in our one-house Unicameral, so it was essential that the Governor act quickly with his appointment.
We have a policy and process to handle informal and formal complaints in the Legislature. The chair of the Executive Board, Sen. Hughes, has appointed three senators to oversee the issue regarding former Sen. Groene: Sen. Arch of Omaha, Sen. Briese of Albion, and Sen. Wishart of Lincoln with the authority to hire outside legal counsel.. The State Attorney General and the Nebraska State Patrol will also investigate.
My final two bills had their hearings this week, LB 996 and LB 760, both in front of the Appropriations Committee. LB 996 was brought on behalf of assisted living and nursing homes, to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funds to help catch up just a bit with costs incurred during the pandemic. It would direct just over $5M, or $400 per licensed bed, to these types of facilities for recruitment, retention or pay for staff, or go towards the supplies and equipment needed for disease control. Practically every nursing home in the state was greatly impacted by Covid-19. In talking with Jeff Fritzen at Gold Crest in Adams, you find out just what they had to do to comply with federal covid protocols and the extra costs that created, while receiving no rate increase from medicaid during that time. Some of our elder care facilities are struggling to stay afloat and we know some have recently closed. Hopefully this bill can become part of a package of ARPA funds and help in getting past these problems.
LB 760 allocates $5M in ARPA funding to Emergency Medical Services (EMS) programs across the state, for ambulances and life saving equipment. The Governor also had $35M specifically for ambulance purchases for rural squads in his ARPA proposal. Just like nursing homes, these volunteer units in our small towns were greatly impacted by covid, with an increase in calls and strict protocols that had to be followed. We heard testimony from several rural crews who serve stretches of the interstate or state recreation areas. So the impact is not just rural, it is for anyone in the area at the time who needs emergency services. As you probably know, I’ve been a volunteer on the rescue squad at Adams for over 35 years and saw first hand the challenges with the pandemic. I will work to secure some level of funding to help out these vital services in our communities.
This week was our deadline to designate a priority bill. Each senator can name one, each committee can select two, and the Speaker can list up to 25. I chose LB 1261, which was introduced by Sen. Murman, who represents the southern tier of counties in the south central part of the state. This bill amends the existing Nebraska Advantage Rural Development Act, to raise the ceiling of credits from approved projects to $25M a year. The refundable credit against taxes would promote investment in livestock facility modernization or expansion. It would have a definite impact in rural areas, and help create opportunities for more young people to stay on the farm. This request came from the dairy industry, along with the beef, pork and poultry industries.
We often talk about how crucial it is to keep people in Nebraska, enhance our workforce and energize our small communities and rural areas. We also know the agricultural industry is related to one of every four jobs across our state. It is my hope this measure can help young producers have the chance to expand their operations, and make their farms and ranches profitable and desirable places to raise a family. I want to see viable farms continue to fuel employment. This issue is very important to me, and to the vitality of our state’s economy, so I made it my priority bill. It will be the last bill to be heard by the Revenue Committee for the year, and it is not yet voted out of committee. I looked at several bills that affected rural Nebraska, but this one rose to the top.
After spending most of our floor debate this week on LB 939, the bill did advance. It would reduce the top individual state income tax rate from 6.84% to 5.84% by 2025. We had a good discussion and stayed on topic for the most part, and were able to hash out some changes that could improve the bill. I am not ready to comment on that until I see the wording of possible amendments; but there were many side conversations about how to make this bill better and the other tax issues that might be included in this bill.