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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.
Over the past three weeks, the Legislature has frequently met well into the evening to take up as many priority bills as possible. One of those was my bill, LB 103, to help pay off federal judgements against a county. It advanced on a voice vote, and should be on final reading next week sometime.
The long hours have been used to discuss several higher profile bills. Sen. Lindstrom of Omaha had introduced LB 64 to phase out the income tax on social security. This bill got first round approval, and was amended in the second round by Sen. Stinner, adding intent language to continue phasing out the tax, but not automatically. The idea behind the amendment is the uncertainty of the financial strength of the state that many years out. I would feel more at ease and comfortable with taking it five years at a time. If you had asked people 18 months ago what would be happening in the economy today, no one would believe you. The pandemic caught all of us off guard, and it makes you realize things can change over time, and that it is not a smart business decision to extend yourself out too far.
I have often discussed the amount of money “on the floor” for spending measures. We started with around $210 million and that was increased when the forecasting board met at the end of April to around $248 million. Appropriations Chairman Stinner said this week there is enough left to fit in remaining proposals. We need to make sure we don’t go over that amount, Nebraska’s constitution requires a balanced budget.
Considerable time was spent debating LB496. As introduced by Sen. Hilkeman, the bill would require a DNA sample from a person arrested for certain “crimes of violence” including arson, assault, kidnapping, homicide, sexual assault, robbery, and burglary. If convicted of a felony crime, that sample would be uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) national database, where it could be compared to other samples. This procedure has solved some crimes in the past. If the person was found not guilty, the sample would be destroyed.
This generated a lot of conversation about going too far too quickly with DNA technology. The amended version of LB 496 would not allow the sample to be tested or submitted to the database until after a judicial finding of probable cause; and provides that a DNA record be expunged if the charge is dismissed.
Sen. Wishart’s LB 474 was another discussion that took a full eight hours. Titled as the Medicinal Cannabis Act, Sen. Wishart said it was the most restrictive measure to be introduced in the country among states that have already approved medical cannabis. Some of the changes she made did make me more comfortable with it, such as who could prescribe and who could dispense medical cannabis. An amendment I liked was filed by Sen. Ben Hansen, which would have tightened it even more, designating just one location in each US House district for growing, dispensing and so on; but the amendment did not come up for a vote.
One part of our discussion focused on the idea that if we didn’t do something this year on medical cannabis,it would be on the ballot in 2022. If the Legislature would have passed it ahead of time, it might have lessened that possibility, but most people think a petition drive will succeed and the issue will be approved by a vote of the people. If that happens, it would become part of our constitution; and the Legislature would be directed to come up with the details of enacting it, just as gambling was on the ballot and passed by a wide margin. Nebraska is one of just two or three states left without cannabis laws. Many other states have passed some form of recreational or medical use statutes.
Those senators who fought against LB 474 pointed out that marijuana is still listed as a Class 1 drug. Also, there is no federal approval, program or guidelines for medical cannabis and states don’t all have the same rules. The debate lasted until a cloture vote could be taken, which needed 33 votes. Thirty-one votes were cast in favor, and the measure was effectively killed for this session in the Legislature.
The Speaker has set a date, with some flexibility built in, to adjourn the session on May 27th. This would be four working days early but would still allow the body to consider any veto overrides that may be filed. Things have been moving pretty well, we have moved a lot of bills and got some things done. We still have a lot of work to do in the next two weeks and anticipate more late nights on the floor.
During the interim months, a lot more hard work needs to be done, and one of the biggest issues will be tax restructuring and school funding. The bills we have considered so far have made some improvements but have not sufficiently resolved the concerns we all have. As soon as we adjourn, studies will begin, leaving more time to write new bills to consider in the second half of this biennium next January.
Then of course, we will be back in special session the last two weeks or so of September to work on redistricting, as required in the state constitution. We have been told to expect census numbers to be certified in the August/September time frame. By then we also expect to have fewer restrictions from the pandemic, which will allow us to work more normally and efficiently.
In these last few days of session, please contact me at any time with your concerns or questions. email@example.com or call 402-471-2620.
Last week, the Legislature voted to advance my priority bill, LB 103. This legislation would appropriate $2 million from the General Fund in FY 2021-22 and FY 2022-23 to any county which has a judgment against it from a federal court in excess of $25 million, if the total cost of the judgment exceeds 20% of the county’s annual budget. An amendment specified the method for the State Treasurer to disperse aid to counties and added the requirement that a county has to set its property tax levy at the maximum for each year it receives aid, fifty cents. Aid can be used only for payment of the judgment.
As the residents of District 30 who live in Gage county are well aware, six people were exonerated of committing a crime through DNA testing in 2009. Collectively the group had served more than 70 years in prison. After their release, the group sued Gage County. In 2018, a federal judgement was rendered against Gage County for violation of civil rights. The six were awarded $28.1 million dollars. When you add in attorney fees, interest and other costs to the county, the total is closer to $31 million.
This judgement is more than three times the yearly property tax collection of Gage County which has a population of a little over 22,000 people. After the 8th Circuit Court handed down its judgement in 2019, the Gage County Supervisors raised the levy in the county to the maximum .50 cents allowed under law, an increase of 11.76 cents. This tax increase was expected to raise about $3.8 million a year. At that pace, the county taxpayers would expect to pay for at least the next seven and a half years.
In 2019, I brought LB 472 to the Legislature for a ½ cent countywide sales tax to help pay for federal judgements, with the idea of easing the burden on property tax alone, and to get the added revenue from any visitor making a taxable purchase in Gage county. This additional tax which went into effect on January 1, 2020, has brought in around $1.9 million as of April, 2021. These additional funds and future sales tax funds have reduced the payment period down to about six years.
Finally, in August of 2020, the county reached a settlement with the insurance carriers and received $5.96 million. This money has also been applied to the judgement.
Gage County has exhausted every financial resource available to the county and the taxpayers; by maxing out the property tax levy as required by the judgment, adding that additional ½ cent sales tax, and receiving a settlement from the insurance carriers. The county and its residents have done everything fiscally possible to pay this federal judgement; as well as exhausting every legal option available, every appeal, and even exploring bankruptcy, which was without precedent for a county.
LB 103 advanced to the second round of debate on a vote of 35 to 3. I will continue to answer any concerns my fellow senators might have about the bill, and hope to see it successfully through passage and the Governor’s signature.
A note about some of the “hot button” bills before us: my office gets a great number of phone calls and emails on these topics. These communications always represent both sides of the issue; relating the impact it may have on them personally, and the strong opinions they have about a certain bill. In general, we all assume that “everyone else” feels like we do on an issue, and that’s fine.
LB 474 is one of those high profile bills generating a lot of calls and emails. The use of medical marijuana in Nebraska has generated earnest feelings and expensive information campaigns on both sides, for and against. Several tax bills, legislative resolutions and constitutional amendments have also resulted in those types of conversations in recent weeks.
I want you to know I read every message, I talk to experts whenever I can; I study the bill language and examine the financial and societal impacts; and then I listen to the debate between the senators before I decide how to vote. When my vote does not go the way you wanted it to, I do want to assure you, it was cast with a lot of thought and deliberation, with the idea of benefiting the people in greatest need, in the best way possible.
I welcome your calls and emails on every issue before us. You can talk to my staff or leave a message at 402-471-2620, or send your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. My mailing address is PO Box 94604, Lincoln, NE 68509-4604. Thank you for your continued communication.
While the world recognizes Earth Day, we as Nebraskans can be proud that our very own Arbor Day is where it all started. The first Arbor Day was celebrated in 1872 in Nebraska City, and was named a legal state holiday in 1885. I am glad our state carries on the legacy of planting trees and being good stewards of the land, another reminder that more than one-fourth of Nebraska’s economy is connected to ag production.
One of the bills affecting agriculture before the Legislature was debated this week, LB 595, which provides a sales tax exemption on the enzymes, yeast and related products used in the process of manufacturing ethyl alcohol. The Revenue Committee also amended portions of four other bills into LB 595. As a result, this bill would now exempt additional ag machinery and equipment used directly in crop and animal production, climate control equipment on livestock buildings, and some ag equipment used in transportation. It would allow businesses under the expiring Advantage Act to dovetail in the ImagiNE Act with the same sales tax requirements; send the sales tax from recreational vehicles such as boats and ATVs to a capital maintenance fund at Game and Parks; and exempt some inputs to internet installation from sales tax.
Another exemption from sales and use tax passed first round debate this week, Sen. Wayne’s LB 26. This bill would exempt the gross receipts from the sale, lease, or rental of and the storage, use, or other consumption of residential water service from sales or use tax. The bill advanced on a 38 to 3 vote.
These exemptions from sales tax, as well as reductions in income tax, will take millions of dollars out of the expected state revenue in the next few years. We all want to pay less in taxes, but we also want the state budget to provide the things we all need and depend on. It is always a matter of balance and very intentional consideration. As senators, we must make sure we assess tax where needed and give breaks where it will do the most good; always being mindful of how that affects individuals and the state as a whole.
Sen. Brandt’s LB 396 passed to second round consideration with no dissenting votes. It would create the Nebraska Farm-to-School Program Act and link elementary and secondary public and nonpublic schools in this state with locally and regionally produced or processed food in order to encourage children to develop healthy eating habits and improve the incomes of Nebraska farmers. The fiscal note will include a coordinator, a registration system, and a way to connect producers and schools. This should help people in the area who could raise food that the school can use and save some costs to the schools in shipping. The bills advanced on a vote of 43-0.
Another bill with local impact was LB 366, introduced by Sen. Briese. We had a good discussion about enterprise tax credits. This act to support small, or micro businesses, began in 2014, providing $10,000 per entity. The fund got a lot of use in the past, but that had fallen off. So this bill changed the support amount to a $20,000 cap, while simplifying and reducing some of the paperwork. In rural areas of our district, this would really help some businesses. Part of making this effective is increasing awareness about the fund and how it can help small businesses get their feet off the ground. I feel that will be especially helpful as we continue to come out of the pandemic.
As we continue to work for the good of District 30 and the state as a whole, I welcome your communication. Contact me at email@example.com or 402-471-2620.
It was a week of dealing with major issues at the Nebraska Legislature. Many of the bills right now require a lot of attention and lengthy debate. This is a good thing, as it demands we look at the details and the implications of both bills and amendments. But it does make for long days.
State Budget and Correctional Facilities
On Tuesday, we passed the set of bills comprising the state’s $9.7 billion biennial budget. This final step went smoothly with no amendments and the bills are now awaiting signature by the Governor. The budget is the one form of bill over which the Governor can exercise a line item veto. He has five calendar days not counting Sunday to sign the bills.
The Capital construction portion of the budget garnered the most discussion during debate. Originally, Appropriations had set aside $115 million in a Capital Construction Fund for building a proposed new prison facility, but with no appropriation to spend it. From that $115M set-aside in the capital construction fund we passed an amendment that allocated $18 million for the Lincoln Reception and Mental Health Treatment Center to add 96 beds, as that is one of the most overcrowded of the correctional facilities.The amendment also allocated $14.9 million for land easement, planning, and design for the proposed 1500 bed facility. A second amendment added on select file has another $15 million to be set aside in a Prison Overcrowding Contingency Fund; of that only $200,000 is allocated for a state study on inmate classification. The balance of this $15 million is not yet authorized to be spent. I definitely hope the state study, and a federal one, will give us concepts we can implement to help with overcrowding; and not just through building more space, but also to make progress in prison overcrowding and sentencing reforms. We haven’t done as much as we could to enact those and once we are back to normal after the pandemic, many people believe we will see an increase in overcrowding again.
Not surprisingly, the topic of property tax was debated at length this week. One senator noted that property tax shows up in the histories of all the past legislative sessions that he has seen, this one is no exception.
Earlier in the week, Sen. Briese brought LB 2. Presently ag land is valued at 69-75% for school bonds. Originally the bill lowered agricultural land to 30% of valuation, but was amended to 50% of valuation and only on future bond projects. LB 2 as introduced, also increased the property tax credit fund by 3% per year, but that section was removed through an amendment from Sen. Groene.
LB 408 was also introduced by Senator Briese, and creates the Property Tax Request Act. The act would basically make it so a political subdivision’s property tax request for any year would not exceed the prior year’s property tax request by more than 3%, with some exceptions. The Revenue Committee amended the bill so that: request authority would be equal to the political subdivision’s tax request from the prior year multiplied by 103%, a board could go over the 3% limit for no more than two consecutive years, and could not exceed 9% over a 3-year period. The limit would not apply to the real growth value of the political subdivision. When the bill came up on the agenda, 20 amendments had already been offered, which demonstrates the vast divide in opinions on this matter.
In LB 408, I see not only the 3% as a cap, but also as a floor. If you leave some of that 3% amount out there, you don’t get the opportunity to use it at some other time. Schools, and some counties and cities, have talked to me about how it would affect them going forward, especially if some of their costs are not met through enough funding from the state. While some entities, schools, cities and counties, have done a great job with not raising the property tax growth by more than 2%, others have at times exceeded 10% or more; even 22% in one year in the case of one community college. Generally, there is usually a good reason for that, but not always.
As an example of what concerns many senators as we go forward, property valuations in Lincoln have been projected to go up 10% in the next year. If Lincoln Public Schools stay at the $1.05 levy, and your valuation goes up by 10% your school property taxes will then also go up by 10%. At the same time because Lincoln would now have more ability to pay with their increase in property taxes, their TEEOSA (state school funding formula) amount will go down, giving LPS no incentive to reduce the levy. Similarly, this is what happened with farm land, when it went up 15% in value, the effective amount of property tax did as well. Some entities held the line on tax request and spending or even reduced their tax asking. Some did not, it was available and they used it.
Another concern with a 3% limit is that if the rate of inflation is greater than 3%, it will be extremely difficult for schools and counties to keep up with salaries and benefit costs. In the end, much of this comes back to school funding. Sen. DeBoer of Omaha has a bill, LB132, to set up a commission to review school funding and come back by December with recommendations on how to improve or change the tax structure and funding for education. LB 132 is waiting for first round debate. After eight hours of deliberation on LB 408 and around 25 total amendments filed, it failed on a cloture vote and is likely done for the session.
Law Enforcement Training
Another timely topic this week was Sen. Lathrop’s LB 51, which resulted from two days of hearings in Lincoln and Omaha last summer. About 200 people testified at those hearings, prompting Sen. Lathrop and the Judiciary Committee to write this bill, along with input from agencies across the state. LB 51 would make several changes to law enforcement certification, training, and policies. Standards for hiring law enforcement officers would be more strict and additional training hours would be required, including de-escalation, human behavior and mental health, substance abuse, people in crisis, and anti-bias and implicit bias instruction. The bill would require every law enforcement agency to have a policy for accepting and investigating complaints of officer misconduct. There would also be a prohibition on the use of chokeholds unless deadly force is authorized. Most law enforcement agencies agreed that more training is a benefit to both the officers and the public.
In floor debate on LB 51, Sen. Brewer led a discussion about smaller departments who have a hard time finding people to hire; the extra training this would require, and how to get it done. For example, sending officers away for training might leave no one on duty. Sen. Brewer said he has a couple of counties with only one law enforcement officer. Sen. Brewer and Sen. Lathrop have agreed to work out an amendment that will be better for the state’s smaller law enforcement departments, including Gage county. This bill advanced to the next round on a 39-0 vote.
In the next two weeks, the Legislature will take up revenue and spending bills. My priority bill, LB 103, which would get some state help in paying off a federal judgment for Gage County, will be on the agenda for debate in that time frame. Please contact me with any questions or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 402-471-2620 at any time.
The main focus of the week at the Legislature was debate on the state’s budget. As the budget package moved through the required steps for passage, we used the intervening time to advance a number of other measures.
LB 41, a bill I introduced to add townships to the list of political subdivisions who are entitled to receive a monthly payment of their funds from the county treasurer, passed on Final Reading this week with a vote of 46-0. I appreciate Gage County treasurer Laurie Wollenburg bringing this to my attention. Once it is signed by the Governor, it will become law three calendar month days after the end of the session.
Discussions about the budget were very different than we once feared, especially with the effect of Covid. About 18 months ago, revenue started to come in ahead of forecast. When covid hit a year ago, our numbers were still very strong. Revenues took a dip for about two to three months, then once stimulus programs began and our economy picked back up, the revenue numbers went back up. This is partly because Nebraska’s economy is somewhat shielded, since we are not dependent on tourism or oil and gas, and have a strong agriculture influence on the economy. Despite the pandemic, by January of this year we were back to a normal revenue stream. At the state level, the economy stayed strong.
Most would agree that CARES and ARP stimulus funding have also played a part in strengthening our state economy. In the Appropriations committee, we continue to examine where we will be three to five years from now without stimulus money coming in. While we are having those discussions, we are thankful to be in the situation we are today, instead of having decreased revenue and being forced to look at budget cuts.
I would encourage you to read the entire budget on the legislative website by clicking on the link: Appropriations Committee Proposed Budget (4/1/2021). This includes an explanation of each expenditure, which is a little easier to read than the actual bill.
Much of our debate about budget bill LB 383 focused on the state’s corrections system: programming for inmates, mental health, overcrowding, and the proposal to build a new prison. The Appropriations committee set aside $115 million in a Capital construction fund earmarked for a proposed 1500 bed prison. We did not give approval for the allocation (spending) of any of those funds. However, amendments divided that sum into: $18 million for use at the Lincoln Correctional Facility, $14.9 million for acquiring easements on property and design for a proposed prison, and gave the appropriation for those two projects. Another amendment introduced by Senator Wayne set aside $15 million to be used for programming for those already incarcerated. This was put into a separate fund with only $200,000 allocated. So of the original $115 million set aside, $62 million remains in sequestered funds to be used if a prison is built, and if not used, returned to the general fund.
Some senators felt LB383 meant a new prison would be automatic but it really just puts some procedures in place to be ready if a new facility is built in the future. Nebraska received a federal grant for a study of the prison population, facilities and sentencing reform which will be done by next year. The goal was to do a few things right now, like at the Lincoln center; but we are not going ahead with the okay to build a new prison until the report is done. The study and the advance planning work will help answer some questions.
On Thursday I had a good conversation with Larry Kahl, the COO for Health and Human Services. In the ongoing study that includes the Beatrice State Developmental Center (BSDC), he reported the stakeholder meetings have wrapped up. They did conduct a separate meeting with Trevor Lee, director of NGage, and Angie Bruna with the Beatrice Chamber and appreciated that input. I have offered to be involved in every step of the process, and reiterated that in addition to the facilities at BSDC, our greatest asset is the dedicated staff and the love and care they show for the individuals who live there, especially during covid.
One bill generating a lot of interest this past week was LB 271, offered by Sen. Adam Morfeld. This bill was requested by the Lancaster county attorney’s office, and is structured after an effective program in South Dakota. It allows qualified individuals with a ticket for a DUI to be able to continue to drive to work, if they agree to participate in a very restrictive program that requires being tested every 12 hours or using a continuous alcohol monitoring device. Failing a test would result in some strict penalties, additional fines, or possible imprisonment and so on.
The benefit of the 24/7 sobriety program is that instead of holding someone in jail for a month or two until trial, they have the option of getting back to work in that time period. It is designed to help those people who are productive employees, who want to change what they did and what happened. It also helps them remain in the workforce and have some financial resources in place to get through this. The program is designed to keep people sober, as opposed to just stopping them from driving drunk like other programs or devices do. The start up costs of about $100,000 will be completely funded by Lancaster county. The bill advanced on a 34-4 vote.
We deal with many more bills and topics each week than we can cover here. So we welcome your questions and input. Contact me at email@example.com or call 402-471-2620.
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