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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com. 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.
Senator Roy Baker and the parents/guardian organization at the Beatrice State Developmental Center (BSDC) hosted a tour of the facility for senators and legislative staff on Friday, April 7th. Shown in the first picture, chief medical officer Dr. James Sorrell, Senator and Mrs. Baker, and Jesse Bjerrum, BSDC administrator. Top right photo, left to right: Evan Schmeits, aide to Sen. McDonnell (Omaha); Sen. Merv Riepe, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee; Kate Gotsdiner, aide to Sen. McDonnell (Omaha); Sen. Steve Halloran, Hastings; Sen. Roy Baker, Sen. Steve Erdman, Bayard; Oliver VanDervoort, aide to Sen. Blood (Bellevue). Bottom photo: Sen. Baker addresses the group.
Sen. Baker and sculptor Ben Victor are pictured with a clay model of the 11 foot depiction of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, a champion of human rights and freedom in Nebraska. Victor is the artist in residence at Boise State University in Idaho. The clay model will be cast into bronze at a foundry in Lander, Wyoming before being placed at a permanent location on Centennial Mall in Lincoln. Sen. Baker is a member of the Legislature’s Tribal Relations Committee.
Legislative Update – April 3, 2017
Senator Roy Baker – District 30
This time of year school kids start counting down the days until the summer break. Senators do the same, however we count the days with concern knowing what still needs to be accomplished in the last 32 days of session. It sounds like there should be plenty of time, but on day 70, the Appropriations Committee is required to advance the biennial budget bill. The Revenue Committee is formulating a property tax and income tax reduction plan, and the Education Committee is looking to address state equalization aid to schools. All this in an effort to address the nearly $1 billion shortfall over the next two years.
Along with these various proposals, the Legislature continues working on 49 individual senator priority bills, 25 Speaker priority bills, and 34 committee priority bills. Each senator is allowed one priority. This designation moves the bill ahead of other bills without such designation. Some take only a short time to discuss and advance. Others take hours at each stage of debate.
Senator Justin Wayne of Omaha offered LB 75 as his priority bill for this year. LB 75 would restore voting rights to a felon upon completion of the felony sentence or probation. The current law requires a two year waiting period. Senator Wayne stated that approximately 95 percent of people in prison will re-enter society at some point, and having the right to vote is one more way for successful reintegration. The right to vote provides involvement in the democratic process. There was opposition by Gretna Senator John Murante who chairs the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. His concern is the constitutionality of the bill wherein the constitution ties voting rights of ex-felons to the restoration of civil liberties. However senators advanced LB 75 to the next round of debate on a vote of 28 ayes and 8 nays.
LB 276 offered by Senator Joni Albrecht of Thurston would allow for a restraining order or injunction to be imposed against anyone who sells or represents corn seed as a hybrid variety that does not meet identity standards. A person who violates this prohibition would be guilty of a Class III misdemeanor. The Department of Agriculture would report violations to the Attorney General or the appropriate county attorney for prosecution. The bill clarifies the definition of hybrid seed corn and the process of cross fertilization as it relates to hybrid seed corn. The bill advanced to Select File 39-0.
Senators also gave a 39-0 thumbs up to LB 91 introduced by Omaha Senator Robert Hilkemann. When a baby is born, state law requires a number of new-born screening tests to be performed. Last year, 27,000 newborns were screened and 58 were identified with a metabolic or genetic diseases. Early detection is essential to the best health out-comes for these children. The bill would update the definition of metabolic diseases, defines pharmaceutically manufactured foods as those that are chemically synthesized or processed for the treatment of inborn errors in metabolism, adds three more diseases to the screening panel, and sets a limit of no more than $20 on the Department of Health and Human Services.
Senator Patty Pansing-Brooks of Lincoln was successful in getting first round approval of LB 289. This bill would increase penalties for a number of crimes, including pandering and human trafficking for labor or sexual exploitation. The senator stated that this bill would send a strong message to those engaged in trafficking that Nebraska will no longer tolerate inhuman treatment of our people. The bill increases the penalty for pandering or trafficking of an adult from a Class III to a Class II felony, punishable by 1 to 50 years in prison. The bill imposes even stronger penalties for sex trafficking offenses involving a minor. Some senators raised concerns that the bill may inadvertently catch people who have no knowledge that the person may be a victim of sex-trafficking victim. For instance, a patron who tips an exotic dancer has no idea if the person is a victim or not. Another issue would be a prosecutor who may threaten a trafficking offense to coerce a confession. Senator Pansing-Brooks offered to work with senators who had concerns about the language. The bill advanced to select file 42-0.
Two of my bills easily advanced to the second round of debate last week. LB 122, which I prioritized for Sen. Pansing-Brooks, helps assure visitation of elders in care; LB 225 as amended includes my bill (LB 298) to give normalcy to children in licensed care facilities.