Legislative Update – May 24, 2017
Senator Roy Baker – District 30
As we wrap up the work of the First Session of the 105th Legislature, I would like to announce that I do not plan to run for re-election to my District 30 seat in the Nebraska Legislature.
It has always been my wife’s and my intent, following my retirement, to relocate to be closer to our family. When I retired as Superintendent of the Norris School District in 2010, my wife and I deemed it important to remain in the area to help look after Paula’s aging parents, who were in the mid-80s and still living in their own home. Both passed away during my first year in the Legislature.
Upon completion of my legislative term in 2018, we will be moving from our current home and establishing residences in Minnesota and Arizona to be near our sons, daughter-in-law, and our young grandchildren.
I am making my announcement now to allow interested District 30 citizens in Lancaster and Gage counties time to consider their candidacy and begin the planning necessary to carry out a campaign.
It has been an honor to serve District 30 residents as their State Senator the past three years, and I will continue to carry out my duties to the best of my ability during the remainder of my term.
I have appreciated the emails, letters and phone calls to the office and the sharing of opinions, ideas, and concerns. Your communication during the interim is equally important and I look forward to hearing from you. 402-471-2620 email@example.com
Legislative Update – May 19, 2017
Senator Roy Baker – District 30
Much of the time in the waning hours of the 2017 Legislative session was been given to discussions of the budget. On May 15, Governor Ricketts announced $56.5 million in line-item reductions in the budget adopted by the Legislature. Included in the reductions:
Various motions were submitted on May 17 to override the line-item reductions for the four DHHS programs. We heard from a large number of providers from District 30, who are deeply concerned about what those provider rate cuts might mean for their rest homes, the Developmentally Disabled services, Child Welfare, and Behavioral Health providers. Most of the motions ended with 26 or 27 yes votes, short of the 30 needed to override the Governor.
In other actions in the final five days, several bills passed on final reading without controversy, including LB289, that greatly increases the penalties for sex trafficking. Increased rates were authorized for ground emergency medical transport. One additional juvenile court judge was authorized, and judges’ salaries were approved.
LB496, the Community Development Law, received 31 votes on a cloture vote, short of the 33 needed, and is done for this session. This bill would have extended workforce housing funds to rural areas.
Sen. Mike Hilgers’ gun bill, LB68, was scheduled to come up on Select File, but he pulled his bill from the agenda. He stated that he wants to work on the language over the summer and bring LB68 back in 2018.
In 2016, LB 895 was passed by the legislature calling for the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a detailed analysis of the Beatrice State Developmental Center and the Bridges program. Senators raised concerns when the reported costs of serving an individual at BSDC was approximately $450,000 per individual per year and the population was declining. After more discussion, senators also wanted an analysis of the aging buildings on the campus, compliance with the Olmstead decision (a U.S. Supreme Court Case) and how BSDC fits into the service array for all individuals with developmental disabilities.
First I would like to compliment Courtney Miller and her staff for conducting a very thorough and compassionate review of the future of BSDC and the impact any changes to the program would have on the residents. I think they did a very good job of balancing the needs of the residents, the needs of the campus and the needs of the DD community as a whole.
The report is due by June 1, 2017 to the legislature with the findings and the future vision of BSDC and the Bridges program. On May 9th the department held a public hearing on the initial findings. A number of potential recommendations were put forward but the preliminary recommendation the department deemed most appropriate was a combined service array for BSDC. The proposal would have BSDC continue to support the 109 individuals currently living at the facility. They recognized these individuals call BSDC home. Considering the average length of stay at BSDC is 47 years and the average age of the residents is 67, moving these clients out of the only home many have known for the vast majority of their life would be cruel. The recommendation also would have BSDC provide: respite services, crisis intervention support and consultative assessment services, and acute crisis stabilization as an intermediate care facility (which would be time limited service).
As for the Bridges program in Hastings, it was originally designed for high risk, behaviorally challenged individuals with developmental disabilities. However the program cannot remain in compliance with federal Medicaid Home and Community Based Services waiver regulations. The department has moved the six residents at this facility into community based services and has closed Bridges.
I think the report is the best outcome for BSDC, its residents and the Beatrice community which for decades has embraced the facility and the residents.
The last day of the current session is Tuesday, May 23rd. The agenda will include mostly housekeeping items to wrap up the business of the Legislature as we move into the interim months. As always, your communication about areas of concern is important whether we are in session or back at work in the district. 402-471-2620; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Legislative Update – May 15, 2017
Senator Roy Baker – District 30
Debate on the budget, when it came up for Final Reading, was contentious. Final Reading is usually the stage of debate that is fairly straight forward and runs smoothly, but not so with this budget package. Even though the Legislature came in with a lower budget package than the one offered by the Governor, there were a few senators who believe we did not cut deep enough. Those senators are prophesying the doom and gloom of Nebraska economy.
I believe our Appropriations Committee members have worked long and hard on the budget. They brought forward a package that looked at each agency, each program, and all spending and revenue sources. They made cuts they believed were necessary and appropriate. Reductions were made to the budgets of the University and state colleges and to roads. Funds were even taken from the state’s rainy day fund. This is not new occurrence, this is an avenue previous legislatures have used to balance the budget. A few agencies and programs were spared cuts when the committee deemed reductions in funding could cause greater harm than good. Some agencies are very small, with only a few staff. Funding to other programs, like the Department of Corrections and the stabilization aid to K-12 schools, was prioritized.
The committee took a scalpel to the budget and not an ax. Those few senators who fought the bill on Final Reading were wanting to wield the ax, lest we all return for a special session in the fall. I would rather see a cautionary budget with appropriate cuts. If, in the next few months the revenue forecast improves, then the agencies, even though trimmed, can still function and provide their services. Whereas, if cuts are too deep, some programs could be irreparably harmed, and the people served would be harmed. If revenues do not improve or decline farther in the coming months, then a special session may be necessary but the senators would then return with the facts on the existing revenue picture and not conjecture.
The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on day 86 of the 90 day session next week. Please continue your communication with me in these last few days of session as well as during the interim months. 402-471-2620 email@example.com
Weekly Update – May 8, 2017
Revenue. The Revenue Committee’s tax reduction bill LB461 and AM954, introduced by Committee Chair Jim Smith on behalf of Governor Ricketts, failed to advance on May 2. The cloture motion received 27 votes, but 33 votes are required. I was “not voting” on the cloture motion.
The Revenue Committee rolled LB338, the Agricultural Valuation Fairness Act, into the omnibus AM954. There appears to be support for the concept of the production model for valuing ag land, and those provisions may come back as an amendment to another bill.
I have and will continue to support measures designed to reduce over-reliance on local property taxes, while maintaining support of K-12 public schools. AM594 would not have done those things. Even the rural senators who voted for cloture expressed dissatisfaction with the bill’s minimal impact on ag land property taxes. Farm organizations on record as opposed to LB461 include Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Pork Producers Association, Nebraska Soybean Growers Association, and the Nebraska State Dairy Association. Urban senators report little demand from their constituents for lowering income taxes; most city dwellers also prefer the focus to be on lowering property taxes.
In AM954, income tax rate reductions and property tax credits would have been enacted in the future, based on ‘triggers’ – when revenue in a year would be projected to grow by 3.5%, the following year the income tax and property tax provisions would be enacted. Concerns were voiced regarding future inflation. While the rate of inflation has hovered around one percent the past few years, it is quite conceivable that we could see inflation rates of 3.5% or higher at some point in the future. Yet growth in revenue at or above the 3.5% threshold would still trigger income tax reductions and further property tax credits despite inflation, leaving the state with diminished ability to meet the basic responsibilities of state government. Appropriations Committee Chair John Stinner has stated that further cuts to the austere state budget could result in very negative long term consequences.
Questions also arose as to how the proper level of the state’s cash reserve would be restored under the provisions of AM954. The desired level is around $700 million. This year, the Legislature is dipping in to the ‘rainy day’ fund, drawing it down to $400 million. When the state’s economy improves, restoring the cash reserve needs to be a priority.
Budget. The 2017 Legislature has a $1.1 billion problem. In short, the proposed solution includes $700 million in cuts, $230 million in transfers, and approximately $170 million from the ‘rainy day’ fund. The most recent revenue forecast shows a need to find another $55 million. Appropriation Committee Chair Stinner proposes to reduce the minimum cash reserve percentage from 3% to 2.5%. This is separate from the rainy day fund – it is General Fund money kept in the checking account as excess balance to manage the ebbs and flows of month to month transactions. Sen. Stinner criticized what he has termed ‘crony capitalism’ – exemptions given to certain entities over the years that now totals $816 million.
The main budget bill is LB327. Progress toward the necessary task of adopting a budget for the next biennium was slowed when new language involving Title X was discovered in the budget bill. Title X is a federal grant program dedicated solely to providing individuals with family planning and related preventative health services, e.g., pap smears. The new language dealt with prioritization of the agencies with regards to receiving Title X funding. Most of the Appropriations Committee had not recognized the change in language that had been slipped in. When considering the impact on clinics and compliance with federal law, it was determined the language should be removed from the budget bill, and call for further study by the committee to be designated by the Referencing Committee.
No state tax dollars are involved with Title X. It is also important to note that no state or federal dollars go to paying for abortions or abortion counseling.
As we take up these crucial topics in debate, I welcome your input and comments. Please contact me at 402.471.2620, or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can track legislation and find a link to stream live debate on your computer at www.nebraskalegislature.gov.
Legislative Update – April 27, 2017
Senator Roy Baker – District 30
It has been a rocky road these past few days – more on roads later in this column – and it is all due to debate on the biennium budget. The Appropriations Committee has spent months preparing the budget proposals. When the committee first began their internal discussions, those members agreed that three priority areas should not be targeted for cuts, in order to prevent irreversible damage to those programs.
The three areas prioritized by Appropriations make up the majority of the state budget. 44% of the budget is dedicated to K-12 and higher education. About 35-37% goes toward aid to individuals like Medicaid, provider reimbursements, etc. And the third area of priority, which takes about 10% of the state budget, is the court system, Corrections and the State Patrol.
First, K-12 education was set as a priority and no cuts were made to TEEOSA (state equalization aid). Any cuts to TEEOSA would push K-12 education funding needs to the property tax base. Also included in the education piece is higher education; the universities, state and community colleges. Having quality education from kindergarten through the college level feeds into work force development and a better economy. Any major cuts to higher education would mean students would see significant tuition increases rates. The University of Nebraska did take a $10 million reduction in aid.
The second priority is aid to individuals which comprises almost 37% of the budget. This includes Medicaid to the aged, blind, disabled, provider reimbursements and so on. Cuts to these programs would potentially impact the elderly in assisted living and nursing homes, low income families with children and their health care, rates to providers who care for the developmental disabled or those with mental health issues. The committee saw the need to protect this funding.
The last area deemed a priority was corrections, the courts and state patrol. The Department of Corrections is facing large overcrowding problems in state prisons and has been involved in Justice Reinvestment with more programing, more parole officers, and review of sentencing guidelines for certain offenses. The courts and jails did take a reduction of $9.2 million.
The remaining agencies in state government took anywhere from 4% to 8% reductions. Money from the state’s cash reserve or “rainy day fund” has also helped address the shortfall. Senator Stinner, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, stated that Nebraska is experiencing the 3rd lowest revenue growth rate in the last 36 years. Usually when there is low revenue growth, the state has a year or two of increased revenue growth to help recover. For the past three years, the state has seen low or negative growth. So the state never had the chance to recover from the previous down-turn.
On April 25th senators began the long discussion of where cuts should and could be made. The first contentious reduction made by the Appropriations Committee was cutting $30 million from the Department of Roads which has a $1.7 billion budget. This cut equates to a 1.75% reduction in the Roads budget. Part of the committee’s rationale was that in 2011, a law was enacted that took a ¼ cent of the state sales tax revenue, approximately $60 million, and dedicated it to roads. Since current funding to roads includes a portion of the state’s General Fund revenue stream, the committee deemed it appropriate to have this agency help in addressing the budget shortfall. An amendment offered by Senator Curt Friesen of Henderson tried to take money from a Medicaid cash transfer fund to replace the $30 million cut from roads. This amendment was defeated.
On April 26th the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Board came in with an additional $50 million shortfall. The committee and the full Legislature will again need to look at where more cuts can be made. A bill that would look at taxing internet sales is working its way through the legislative process and could have a potential revenue increase of $30-$40 million. However there is a court case that does not allow a state to require a business outside that state to pay sales tax. At the time the courts made these decisions, the internet was only just beginning. A point to be made is Nebraska residents have always been required to track their mail order or on-line purchases and to remit the sales tax to the state. The compliance with this law is marginal at best. Internet sales are hurting our main street stores in our communities. This bill would level the field
The Speaker of the Legislature ended the debate on LB 327, the budget bill, at 9 pm Wednesday night after it became stuck in extended debate on Title X women’s health funding. Some senators expressed concern that language in the bill could cut funding going to Planned Parenthood agencies in the state. These agencies provide basic women’s health services, including such things as cervical cancer screening and family planning services. State law does not allow any state or federal funds to be used for abortions. Senators from the opposing sides will get together before the next round of debate to try to reach a compromise.
The budget should be passed by May 10 and will go to the Governor for any potential line-item vetoes. At that point senators will once again have the opportunity to review those cuts and consider any over-rides we deem necessary.
Legislative Update – April 24, 2017
Senator Roy Baker – District 30
Day 70 of the first session of the Unicameral is the day the new state budget for the next two years is presented to the Legislature. Monday morning was day 70. Senator John Stinner, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, held a budget briefing for senators and staff. By now Nebraskans know the state is facing a significant reduction in state revenue to the tune of $1 billion. The Appropriations Committee has worked for the last three months to hammer out the details of addressing this shortfall and still ensure the state can meet its financial obligations. The debate will begin this week.
The financial downturn can be largely attributed to revenue growth of just .3% in FY 15-16 and 1.3% in the FY 16-17. These are the third lowest back to back revenue growth years over the past 36 years. Not only was revenue growth low, it also occurred very quickly.
The state is required to have a 3% minimum reserve, basically a savings account. The legislature tends to keep a higher reserve, usually 7%, for instances when the revenue falls short. The Nebraska Economic and Forecast Advisory Board (NEFAB) meets four times per year and runs calculations to determine projected growth or reductions in state revenues. In the summer of 2016 the NEFAB reduced its projections of revenue growth, meaning the projected revenue fell short of expectations. This board will meet again on April 26 and provide new projections. It is important to remember that General Fund revenue growth is cyclic and there are highs and lows. The job of NEFAB is to help predict those highs and lows. The average growth in revenue over the past 35 years is 4.9%. The Board forecast for 2017-18 equated to a 1.3% growth.
The Appropriations Committee average spending growth in the budget package is 1%. The committee prioritized a few funding areas believed to be essential to a solid budget. Increases in state funding were given to priority areas which include: corrections, equalization aid to schools, provider rates for behavior health and developmental disabilities, children’s health insurance fund, and special education to name a few. Areas cut were: aid to Universities and State Colleges, various programs in the Health and Human Services system, Medicaid, aid to local governments, and public health aid, among others.
For a more detailed review of the state budget, go to: http://www.nebraskalegislature.gov/pdf/reports/fiscal/2017proposed.pdf
A major issue that will be debated on Monday is LB 595 introduced by Senator Mike Groene of North Platte. LB 595 would provide for the use of physical force or physical restraint or removal from a classroom in response to student behavior. I believe Senator Groene had good intentions with the bill and is trying to improve it with his amendment. We all want a safe learning environment in our classrooms. State law already gives guidance to teachers, administrators and school boards on the appropriate steps to take when dealing with a student who may pose a risk to themselves, other students, teachers or school property. Existing law allows a teacher or administrator to use physical contact short of corporal punishment to the degree necessary to preserve safety, order and control in the school environment.
There are legal issues created by LB 595. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires accommodations for students with disabilities in accessing educational programs. LB 595 contradicts federal enforcement actions and civil rights with respect to seclusion and restraint of vulnerable children and may be discriminatory on its face.
There are practical concerns as well. The bill would allow a teacher to ban a student from a classroom. However, in small rural school districts there may be only one section of an elementary grade level, or there may be only one section of a particular course in any size of school.
I have an amendment that replaces the bill and reflects a court decision already on the books that allows a teacher to defend oneself and others in the classroom. If this amendment is adopted, I would have no objections to the bill.
To close, I will cover the budget and the proposed tax reductions in more detail in the next newsletter as our debate on these issues unfolds. If you would like to contact me, my phone number is 402-471-2620. My email address is email@example.com. You can find information on bills and access NET television’s livestream of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov.
Legislative Update – April 13, 2017
Senator Roy Baker – District 30
Day 65 of the legislative session occurred on Thursday, April 13th and we are in recess until Tuesday the 18th for the Easter weekend. But this means when we return, just 25 legislative days remain to debate, amend, vote on and pass the new biennium budget, consider income tax and property tax relief, and address state equalization aid to public schools. Then there are the priority bills totaling 107 – of which one has passed, 44 are waiting for Final Reading, and 63 are at various stages of debate, some even in committee. In other words, there is much to be done and little time remaining to act on all the priorities.
In the past few days, we have debated very controversial issues: LB 68 dealing with concealed carry gun rights, LB 173 pertaining to civil rights protection for LGBT in the workplace, and LR 6 calling for a constitutional convention of the states. Speaker Jim Scheer has structured debate in an attempt to maximize the use of our time. He has stated that controversial bills can have three hours of debate and then the bill will be placed on hold until such time when the sponsor of the bill can prove that he or she has enough votes to gain cloture. Thirty-three votes are needed to end extended debate. I believe this provides the introducer the opportunity to have the issue debated, but also makes them work to get the necessary votes to keep the bill moving along.
On controversial issues, I hear from very passionate individuals, some are constituents, some from other parts of the state and even some from outside the state of Nebraska. The passion runs strong on both sides of the issues – and there are always two sides to these contentious topics. I sometimes hear that I must vote a certain way otherwise it is thought I have been unduly influenced by the lobby. In my decision making, I take the time to listen to my colleagues both pro and con. I read up on the information provided, again both pro and con. And of course I consider the comments made by my constituents and those expressed by others. I must point out that the least effective form of communication is a form letter or a calling tree prompted by an organization. I still take those contacts into consideration but the ones that have the most impact are the personalized letters, emails and phone calls. If a person takes the time to express his or her point of view and explain how they are personally affected, I take it more seriously.
After the recess, LB 640 will be the first bill up for debate. This bill reduces the levy lid from $1.05 to $0.987 (in the committee amendment) per $100 taxable valuation. If equalization aid is reduced, a school district could ask for an additional $.03 cents with a two-thirds vote of the school board after a public hearing. A school district would qualify for the School District Property Tax Relief Aid (PTRA) if its general fund property tax receipts exceed 55% of its total general fund revenue. School districts that qualify for the PTRA are required to budget the monies as a revenue source before property taxes. This is only a partial explanation of what is contained in the bill. School equalization aid is complex because it attempts to address a multitude of diverse school district issues across the state. All senators will need to gain a working knowledge of the complexities of the formula and the impacts to districts with proposed changes. I plan to call upon my 37 years of experience as a school superintendent to help my senate colleagues with their understanding of the proposed changes.
As noted, I welcome your input and communication. My phone number is 402-471-2620 and you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find information about every bill as well as our daily agenda at www.nebrasklalegislature.gov.
Legislative Update – April 10, 2017
Senator Roy Baker – District 30
On Friday, April 7th, the parent and guardian association of the Beatrice State Developmental Center (BSDC) and I hosted a tour of the facilities for some of my fellow senators and their staff. Sen. Merv Riepe, current chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee, Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, and Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings attended, as well as Kate Gotsdinger and Evan Schmeits from Sen. McDonnell’s office (Omaha) and Oliver VanDervoort from Sen. Blood’s office (Bellevue). Developmental Disabilities Director Courtney Miller was also on hand to field questions. About 24 people were present. This was the first time the other senators had been to BSDC. The parents and guardians always do an excellent job of showing the facilities at BSDC as well as advocating for their loved ones.
The range of topics discussed in the Unicameral is as varied as the people of our wonderful state. On Wednesday, April 5th, the senators debated and advanced LB 300 introduced by Senator Bob Krist of Omaha, which eliminates the statute of limitations for civil action brought against a perpetrator of sexual assault of a child. The original version of the bill allowed a person who was a victim of sexual abuse as a child to bring a civil suit within 12 years following the victim’s 21st birthday.
An amendment adopted during debate would apply the bill retroactively and allows a victim to file a civil suit within 35 years of his or her 18th birthday or within three years of the bill’s operative date, whichever is longer. Senators who spoke on Wednesday talked about the years of therapy sometimes required. This bill would allow a victim to bring a suit when they are emotionally ready to take on this action.
There were concerns raised about the constitutionality of applying the retroactive clause to cases that have already been considered closed. Senator Bob Krist offered an amendment that would add a severability clause which means if any portion of a bill is declared unconstitutional, the remaining portions of the bill would still be valid. The bill advanced 29-3.
A bill important to Beatrice and communities with riverfront land would create a new economic development tool to use. Bellevue Senator Sue Crawford introduced LB 97. The bill gives municipalities the ability to create, by the adoption of an ordinance, a Riverfront Development District and a Riverfront Development Authority to oversee and manage the district. Municipalities can use this tool to effectively fund, manage, and promote strategic municipal economic development and tourism efforts on riverfronts across the state. A city could fix and charge rents and fees; install pedestrian shopping malls, plazas or other facilities; construct boardwalks, barges, docks and wharves; develop, manage, and coordinate public activities and events within the district, to name a few.
In LB 97, a city would be required to set a cap on the bonding, and an occupation tax or special assessment tax could not be imposed on the same property if the boundaries overlap. Due to the fiscal note, the vote was “on principle” with the understanding that the bill will not likely reach final approval this year. At this point, the bill has advanced to the second round of debate on a 39-0 vote.
Released last week but not yet debated was the highly anticipated revenue tax package LB 461. This bill has taken weeks and weeks of discussion by the Revenue Committee members, and is sure to bring diverse opinions on which tax cuts are appropriate: property tax or income tax, rural or urban. The bill would phase in cuts to the top personal and corporate income tax rates; agricultural land would change from market value to income capacity, annual aggregate growth of ag land values would be capped and these values must fall between 55 percent and 65 percent of market value.
The Governor believes that an income tax cut for the top income earners is essential in order to succeed in getting property tax reductions passed. Some senators believe property tax relief is the primary goal. The debate on this bill will be intense and heated. If anyone would like to read the proposed amendment to LB 461, which becomes the bill, information can be accessed on nebraskalegislature.gov. I will address LB 461in more detail once the bill is debated.
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