NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

The official site of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature

Sen. Rick Kolowski

Sen. Rick Kolowski

District 31

The content of these pages is developed and maintained by, and is the sole responsibility of, the individual senator's office and may not reflect the views of the Nebraska Legislature. Questions and comments about the content should be directed to the senator's office at rkolowski@leg.ne.gov

Welcome
January 9th, 2019

Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 31st legislative district in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature.

You’ll find my contact information on the right side of this page, as well as a list of the bills I’ve introduced this session and the committees on which I serve. Please feel free to contact me and my staff about proposed legislation or any other issues you would like to address.

Sincerely,
Sen. Rick Kolowski

March 18 update and news
March 19th, 2019

Legislative Update March 18-22:

Constitutes of District 31,

We have seen severe flooding with people across the state dealing with devastating losses. Governor Pete Ricketts and Vice-President Mike Pence will be surveying the damage done by the waters. In addition, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) will be meeting with  the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Lincoln to work out an expedited declaration of emergency to the White House.

Recovery is beginning already. NEMA has answers many questions you may have about what can be done to assist Nebraskans affected by flooding. You can access that information on their website at https://nema.nebraska.gov/ and can call at (402) 817-1551. For information about debris removal, call the Crisis Cleanup Hotline at (402) 556-2476. If you or someone you know is looking for information about livestock recovery, the Farm Service Agency office website (https://www.fsa.usda.gov/state-offices/Nebraska/index) will answer any questions.

In legislative news, Tuesday (3/19) was the deadline to designate bills as a priority. Each Senator picks one of the bills they feel is most important and designate that bill as a priority. A Senator picks one, any committee can select two, and the Speaker can designate up to twenty-five bills. Priority bills are generally considered before other bills. A bill with this designation is almost guaranteed debate once moved out of committee.

As listed previously, Senator Kolowski has chosen LB 619 with AM 287 as his priority. This bill looks to assure insurance coverage of mental health services provided by a credentialed mental health professional in a school setting. This will help many Nebraska students and their families and reduce the time a student is out of the school day for such services. Students that receive these services are still entitled to their education in the least restrictive environment, and this bill will help Nebraska students get their needs met. LB 619 with amendment 287 were advanced to the second round of debate, known as Select File, on Monday, March 18th. From here the bill has 2 more opportunities for debate before a final vote.

Also on Monday, LB 409, my bill to update design and construction codes for health care facilities was advanced from General File, or first round of debate, to Select File and is now in line for the second round of debate.

On Wednesday, March 20th, I will be speaking to the UNL President’s Advisory Council. This group is an invitation only group who serves in an advisory capacity to the University of Nebraska president. There are around 100 members that represent each of Nebraska’s forty-nine legislative districts. Members serve as advisors for the president on issues that impact them as students. I will be giving these students an overview on the legislature; a look at our members, some procedures for how it runs, a brief look at a few bills, and information on my committee assignments.

You can read all about the happenings at the Unicameral at the Legislature’s website at www.nebraskalegislature.gov. It has a wealth of information about every bill, Senator and news of what is going on it the Legislature. Unicameral Update is a weekly newsletter you can subscribe to or read on the website. Each debate and hearing are streamed through NET on their local channel or through a link on the Nebraska Legislature’s web site.

I am proud to serve as your state Senator! I and my staff will continue to serve District 31 as best we can. If you have any concerns about upcoming legislation or just want to give your input, you can reach us at (402) 471-2327 or by email at rkolowski@leg.ne.gov.

 

March 4-8 Update
March 7th, 2019

Weekly Update: March 4-8

Hello from Lincoln! We are working hard to continue to pass our introduced bills. Two of our bills had hearings this week, LB 619 and LB 620. I have designated LB 619 (Requires health care plans to pay for mental health services provided in schools) as my priority bill with AM 287. I am looking forward to working with my fellow senators on getting this important legislation and many others passed in the coming weeks.

This past week, I was fortunate to hear constituent concerns through the Black and Brown Legislative day event put on by the Urban League of Nebraska. This program aims to help communities of color to bring their concerns about legislation that affects them to Nebraska Senators. It was great to hear their concerns and how I can help their communities continue to prosper.

On Wednesday, I also attended the Economic Development Task Force lunch and learn, “Overview of Tax Incentive Programs in Nebraska.” This presentation gave me and other senators in attendance an overview of tax incentive principles. Presenters included Josh Goodman of the Pew Charitable Trusts, Anthony Circo of the Legislature’s Performance Audit Committee and Renee Fry of Open Sky.

Thank you for allowing me to serve as your Senator! I and my staff will continue working hard to serve the people of District 31. If you have any concerns about upcoming legislation or just want to give us your input, you can reach us at (402) 471-2327 or by email at rkolowski@leg.ne.gov.

My Bills:

This session, I have introduced seven bills. The following gives the statement of intent for each bill and a brief explanation of its purpose.

  1. LB 140: Prohibits an operator, an owner of a tanning facility or a lessee of a tanning facility to allow any person less than eighteen years of age to use an indoor tanning device at the tanning facility.
    1. This bill aims to restrict the use of tanning booths by minors. People who use tanning beds before the age of 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 75 percent. The younger a person is when they begin using tanning beds, the higher their risk of developing skin cancer. Status: In Health and Human Services Committee.
  2. LB 409: To adopt the 2018 guidelines for design and construction of hospitals, outpatient facilities and the construction of residential health, care and support facilities.
    1. The purpose of this bill is to implement recent guidelines on building codes for hospitals and other health care facilities. Status: General File with amendment.
  3. LB 410: To exempt certain sales of clothing and footwear from sales and use taxes.
    1. Parents of students know the financial strain that comes around every year when back to school shopping takes place. This bill looks to create a sales tax holiday for back to school clothing and shoe shopping that would alleviate some of this strain on Nebraska families.  Hearing scheduled for March 14 in Revenue Committee.
  4. LB 619: Requires a health insurance plan to pay for mental health services provided in a school or educational setting.
    1. This bill looks to assure insurance coverage of mental health services provided by a credentialed mental health professional in a school setting. This will help many Nebraska students and their families and reduce the time a student is out of the school day for such services. Status: In Banking, Commerce and Insurance Committee.
  5. LB 620: Changes the violation of texting while driving from a secondary offense to a primary offense.
    1. According to the National Safety Council, cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year in the United States. This bill aims to reduce this number by changing the designation of the crime to a primary offense. Status: In Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
  6. LB 621: Change provisions relating to solar energy and wind energy, declare certain instruments void and unenforceable, and provide for a civil cause of action
    1. Some homeowner’s association covenants prevent solar energy systems from being installed on homes and buildings. LB 621 seeks to prohibit such provisions by homeowner associations. Status: In Judiciary Committee.
  7. LB 733: Provide and change requirements for polling places.
    1. This bill aims to increase the accessibility of polling places in order to encourage more Nebraska citizens to vote in our elections. Polling places should be accessible to all Nebraskans, including those with physical disabilities. Hearing schedule for March 14 in Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

January again saw the beginning of the Legislature for 2019. New Senators were sworn in on the first day and voting for Committee chairs took place. Changes in seniority and committee chairs creates many changes in room assignments. In addition, the replacement of the heating and air conditioning system has one quarter of the building under renovation. Senators who would normally be on the first and second floors are temporarily moved into some of the upper floors of the tower. Before you come to visit your Senator it’s a good idea to visit our website or call to confirm the room number.

This year, 739 bills have been introduced, only seven of which I’ve introduced. The topics of my bills include banning tanning for persons under 19, design and construction standards for health care facilities, a sales tax holiday for back to school clothing shopping, texting while driving, solar panels and accessibility for voters. I will write about each one of these bills in future posts.

This year, I sit on two standing committees – Education Committee and Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. I have also been reappointed to the Midwestern Higher Education Commission. Committee hearings have started and will continue through March. In April we will go to full days of floor debate on bills and the state budget.

The Nebraska Unicameral is unique because, not only is it the only Unicameral with one house but because every bill introduced gets a hearing. In other states with a House of Representatives and a Senate, not every bill gets a public hearing. The Unicameral provides citizens the chance to weigh in continually from the beginning “idea” stages to the final product in the third round of floor debate. When the Legislature is not in session, Senators and citizens are working on gathering information on topics of interest and preparing for the next year.

In encourage you to contact me about any legislative bill or governmental concern you may have. Much information is available at www.nebraskalegislature.gov.  You can search bills, look up information on Senators, find Committee reports and if you don’t know who your Senator is, there is a “Find your Senator” function. Please take advantage of this great resource. If you are reading this post on the Legislature’s website, you will also find many useful links on the right side of this web page. Thank you for allowing me to represent you in the Unicameral.

Legislature makes history and passes the repeal of the death penalty,  LB 268

Today the Legislature debated and advanced LB 268, a bill to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  LB 268 faced a filibuster during its third round of debate on final reading.  By legislative rule, it takes 33 votes to invoke cloture and cease debate.  If a bill fails to gain enough votes for cloture, the bill is dead for the year.  The Legislature voted 34-14 to cease debate and invoke cloture on LB 268.  The bill passed Final Reading with 32 votes.  I joined my colleagues in supporting the motion to invoke cloture and to pass the bill. Now we wait for the Governor’s response.

LB 599 Defeated on Final Reading

On Friday, the Legislature debated LB 599 on Final Reading.  LB 599 would have allowed employers to pay young workers under the age of 18 a lower minimum wage than other workers.  Because LB 599 amends a ballot initiative, it required 33 votes for passage.  LB 599 did not acquire the needed 33 votes and therefore is dead for the year.  I opposed LB 599 because it subverted the will of the people who spoke clearly on this issue in November when they overwhelmingly approved a higher minimum wage for all workers.     

Bill to Grant Driver’s Licenses to DREAMers Advances to Second Round of Debate

On Thursday morning, the Legislature advanced LB 623, a bill to allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) youth, often referred to as DREAMers to receive Nebraska driver’s licenses.  Currently, Nebraska is the only state in the country that does not allow DREAMers to obtain a driver’s license.  DACA youth must have entered the United States before they were the age of 16 and prior to June 15, 2012.  They must also be currently enrolled in school, received a high school diploma or an honorable discharge from the US Coast Guard or Armed Forces and cannot be convicted of a felony or pose a threat to national security or public safety.  

LB 623 is supported by a broad coalition including Nebraska Cattlemen Association, Nebraska Restaurant Association, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Heartland Workers Center, and the League of Women Voters of Lincoln/Lancaster County.  I joined 38 other senators in supporting the bill to allow these young Nebraskans, many of whom have spent a majority of their lives in Nebraska, to contribute to our economy and our communities.    

LB 605 Advances with Additional Provisions for Counties

On Tuesday, the Legislature advanced LB 605 to Final Reading.  As I mentioned in previous updates, LB 605 makes important changes to our criminal justice statutes based on the recommendations of the Council of State Governments and the Nebraska Justice Reinvestment working group.  This working group consisted of members from the legislative, executive and judicial branches.  

Since the bill was heard on General File in mid-April, I have worked extensively with Senator Mello, the bill’s introducer, and other senators involved in the working group to reduce the fiscal impact of LB 605 on counties. AM 1610 represented some of this work.  The amendment clarifies that the special investigative committee created under the bill will also examine county costs as part of its charge.  It also corrects some language Sarpy, Douglas and Lancaster counties have found problematic based on their experiences with recent juvenile justice reforms.   I appreciate Senator Mello’s leadership on this issue and his willingness to work with me on behalf of Sarpy County and other counties across the state.  I support LB 605 and look forward to voting for the bill when it comes up again on Final Reading.

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers would ensure the state recognizes civil rulings made by American Indian tribal courts under a bill prompted by a dispute about whether an athlete could participate in a high school wrestling program.

The wrestling disagreement was resolved, but supporters of the legislation said it pointed out the need to make clear that tribal rulings should be enforced as other rulings would in Nebraska.

“It’s about the tribal laws and state laws, and how they coordinate so that there’s not a difficulty that would trip a family up and ruin a season or a competition,” said State Senator Rick Kolowski, of Omaha, who proposed the bill.

The matter began in 2007 when John Keen tried to enroll his son, Taylor, in a Nebraska high school wrestling program.

Keen, 43, was given legal custody of his son Taylor after he and his wife divorced in 1992. All of the proceedings took place in a Cherokee Nation tribal court in their native Oklahoma. But Keen, who is part-Cherokee and part-Omaha, said he encountered problems after his son returned to live with him in the Omaha area for his senior year.

He enrolled Taylor at Elkhorn High School in 2007 after he moved from his mother’s home in Oklahoma, where he had lived for the last year. John Keen said he presented school athletics officials with a tribal court order to show that he had legal custody of his son, Taylor.

“They said, ‘This isn’t a court,'” Keen said. “I said, ‘Well sure it is.’ That’s where I was born and raised. It’s where my son was born, and it’s where his mother and I divorced. Everything we did had to stay with that court.”

Keen and his attorney said his son was rejected because of NSAA rules that generally require student athletes to live with a custodial parent. The rules are designed to keep students from “school-shopping” for a particular athletic program.

The matter eventually was resolved, but Keens said it cost him more than $10,000 in legal fees.

Keen said a friend from the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska called him recently and asked for money to help address a similar problem. Frustrated, Keen said he reached out to his attorney and Kolowski, who represents him in the Legislature.

Kolowski said he proposed the legislation is modeled after a state law in Iowa that recognizes civil judgments in tribal courts and allows the state to enforce them.

Taylor Keen was eventually allowed to wrestle once his father showed that he had legal custody of his son and that the two were living together. Velder said the association has recognized tribal-court rulings for decades, but officials weren’t able to confirm right away that Taylor Keen met the eligibility requirements. She declined to elaborate, citing confidentiality rules.

“In Nebraska, we would accept the tribal court as a court of competent jurisdiction,” she said. “I’ve been here for 33 years, and that’s always how it’s been.”

John Keen’s attorney, Ben Thompson, said the association initially refused to recognize the order but did so “after a lot of convincing” in a meeting with the group’s attorneys.

Thompson said the Nebraska bill includes several procedural safeguards to ensure that litigants in tribal court are given due process, and that the court was the proper authority to hear a case.

“Here in Nebraska, I think we’re a bit behind the curve on these issues,” Thompson said. “I’m hoping we can catch up and join the 21st century.”

Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said the proposal represents an important step in ensuring tribal courts are acknowledged by the state.

The courts have gained recognition in recent year, “but it’s a really slow battle,” gaiashkibos said. “The status quo wants to remain the status quo.”

It has been a year since the devastating school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Across the nation, lawmakers have spent the year devising ways to prevent a similar tragedy, but only a fraction of the laws proposed in the immediate aftermath of the school shootings have been enacted.

Families and schools across Nebraska are looking to their lawmakers for leadership. We need to show our commitment to keeping our students and their schools safe. As an educator for over 40 years and the founding principal of Millard West High School, I know what kind of security it takes to run a school, especially a school of over 2,000 students. That number of students exceeds the population of many towns in Nebraska. Just this year alone, Millard spent over $20 million on school security improvements.

When I talk about school security, I am referring to: infrastructure (doors, locks, cameras, walls); security staff (school resource officers, guidance counselors, mediators); and school culture (anti-bullying resources, positive behavior models for teachers, reduced class sizes, and conflict resolution programs). All of these measures require funding and they are crucial to maintaining a safe school that is free of violence, abuse and fear.

These expenses and experiences are not unique to Millard. Regardless of geography or size, superintendents across Nebraska are facing the same dilemma of keeping students, educators and parents safe, without taking resources away from their student’s education, teachers’ salaries, or maintenance of their buildings.

So what can we do in Nebraska to improve our school security? Last session I introduced legislation (LB 346) to allow school boards, with a 2/3 super majority vote, to raise their maximum levy 1 cent to use for school security improvements. This legislation is at the moment stalled in the Revenue Committee with 4 yes votes, 3 no votes and 1 undecided.

This interim, I have been working on resolution (LR 208) to further explore the need for funding school security improvements, and see if there is a way to do so through the Education Committee. I believe one immediate option would be to create a state grant program in which schools could apply and receive funding for school security improvements. Long term, the Legislature may want to consider a school security adjustment to the state aid to schools formula.

The first step is to have the Nebraska Department of Education conduct a statewide assessment of school security – needs as well as costs. This would be used to create a state minimum standard of school security and help us target money to schools that need the most help. I plan to introduce legislation this year that will require us to take this first step.

I will continue to put pressure on the Revenue Committee to advance my school security bill (LB 346) out of committee. I ask that you help me by reaching out to the four Senators who refuse to advance this important and timely piece of legislation: Senators Charlie Janssen, Beau McCoy, Paul Schumacher and Pete Pirsch. Tell them to let us debate this legislation with the full legislature.

If the lawmakers in this state don’t do anything, and God forbid we have more school violence and tragedies, then all eyes will be on us for not taking bigger steps to protect Nebraska’s youth. 

LINCOLN (AP) — Lawmakers will consider a bill next year designed to help low-income families participate in Nebraska’s state-sponsored college savings plan.

Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha said Tuesday that he will introduce the measure, which would remove a barrier for low-income families.

“If students save for college, no matter how small that amount is, they’re more likely to go to college,” Kolowski, a retired high school principal, said Tuesday at a legislative hearing. “The earlier they start to save, the earlier they get on that track.”

The measure would exclude the college savings plan, scholarships and work-study income from the formula that determines whether a person qualifies for public benefits. The formula disqualifies applicants who have too many assets or too much income.

The Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee convened the hearing as part of a legislative study of the state plan. Kolow­ski said his measure would also exclude Aid to Dependent Children, child care subsidies and a home energy program for low-income residents.

Nearly half the families participating in Nebraska’s state-sponsored college savings plan make at least $100,000 per year, according to the State Department of Revenue. Families with an adjusted gross income of more than $100,000 accounted for nearly 45 percent of the plan’s participants. Families who made less than $50,000 per year accounted for less than 7 percent.

Nebraska’s “529 plan,” named for a provision of the federal tax code, allows families to save for education expenses in a tax-advantaged investment account.

More than 12 percent of minors in Nebraska are enrolled in a savings plan, said State Treasurer Don Stenberg. He said his office has already worked to promote the savings plan statewide. The Treasurer’s Office uses drawings and a series of scholarships to promote the plan, he said.

Reaching out to low-income families “is part of the challenge,” Stenberg said. “It’s important to note, though, that not every low-income family will stay a low-income family throughout their lifetime. A lot of folks are getting out of college. I think you have to take into account that some of the folks who may not be able to put money into a savings account now may be able to five years from now.”

The plan charges a 0.30 percent fee on investments — a 0.27 percent management fee for First National Bank, which manages the plan, and 0.03 percent that goes to the state for staff and operating expenses.

Nationally, the cost of higher education has increased faster than incomes have, said Aubrey Mancuso, a policy coordinator of the advocacy group Voices for Children. The average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year institution in Nebraska has increased by 16 percent over the past five years, while median income increased by 2.2 percent without accounting for inflation.

Mancuso said saving early in a child’s life has been shown to increase the odds that the child will want to go to college.

“It’s harder for people to get through the door, and those who are getting through the door are increasingly paying for it with loans,” Mancuso said.

“One thing that’s become clear on this is that interventions at the high school level are starting too late.”

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

December 04, 2013 7:00 pm  •  By JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star

As the anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., approaches, a number of people testified Wednesday on the need for enhanced school security.

For many, it’s about being able find ways to afford technology and building changes while not taking money from instruction.

For others, such as Faith Hutcherson, a freshman at Lincoln East High School, it is about looking deeper for the true cause of school shootings — bullying and harassment of students and society’s celebration of violence in the media and video games.

Hutcherson said it would cost nothing, and require no legislation, for people to raise standards of how they treat one another.

Sarah Forrest, with Voices for Children in Nebraska, suggested more comprehensive approaches to school violence. What has been shown to be effective are approaches that take into account children’s developmental needs and home experiences, she said.

Building relationships is important, as is access to mentors, counselors, therapists and behavioral health services. So are implementing new disciplinary approaches and conflict resolution, and providing training for school resource officers.

“Nebraska really needs to think holistically about the safety and security issues,” Forrest said.

Joseph Wright, director of security for Lincoln Public Schools, said the issues schools face are nontraditional and will be difficult to solve with traditional funding sources.

Schools are faced with having to replace doors, windows, steps and offices that haven’t worn out to create safer entries and hallways. The public expects camera systems in buses and buildings, and radio networks for better communication, Wright said.

“The cost for the above improvements as well as added personnel who would staff threat management teams, or be extra eyes and ears at athletic events, is well outside standard school budgets,” he said.

More than 10,000 school and community functions are held each year at Lincoln schools after the last bell rings. That means security is a community issue, not just a district issue, he said.

LPS would include money in its proposed bond issue to enhance security in schools. Officials say about 30 public schools in Lincoln still do not have secured entrances, although they have people who check visitors in as they arrive.

The district would like each school to have visitor check-in areas separated by locked doors, security cameras and communication tools for crises, such as radios or phones in classrooms.

The interim study resolution (LR208) was brought by Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski. In the 2013 session, he introduced a bill (LB346) to allow school boards with a two-thirds super-majority vote to raise their maximum levies by one cent to be used for school security improvements. The bill is stalled in the Revenue Committee.

Kolowski said the needs are great and the money usually short. The Legislature could help.

Steps that can be taken include creating a state grant program for security improvements, adjusting the school aid formula to allow schools to pay for security upgrades, and having the state Department of Education conduct a statewide assessment of school district security needs and their costs.

A state standard of school security could be developed from that assessment to be used as a target for state support.

One of the nearly 50 shootings at schools, colleges and on school buses that have taken place in the past three years was at Millard South High School. An assistant principal and the student shooter died in the early 2011 incident, and the principal was seriously wounded.

Angelo Passarelli, administrator with Millard Public Schools, said the district has implemented more security measures since then, including a door buzzer system that locks doors during school hours.

A bond issue recently passed there includes $5 million for upgrades to the district’s security, including a unified security system. A typical high school has 40 to 50 doors to monitor, Passarelli said.

“All of these systems will help us, probably not totally make us impenetrable,” he said. “It won’t stop events like happened in 2011, but certainly will add to the layers of security that we have in our school system.”

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com — You can follow JoAnne’s tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.

Real Property Tax Relief
October 3rd, 2013

I am pleased to hear that Governor Heineman supports property tax relief for Nebraskans by increasing funding for the Property Tax Credit Act, which gives state property tax rebates to every landowner and homeowner. (article included below)

But we could do better. Currently the rebates are spread thin because they include big box stores (Walmart and Target) and out-of-state landowners.

I am crafting legislation that creates a separate rebate program for only residential homeowners that puts real money back into the hands of hard working Nebraskans.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Lawmakers welcome Gov. Heineman’s shift to include property taxes in tax-relief push
PUBLISHED THURSDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2013 AT 1:00 AM / UPDATED AT 4:16 AM

LINCOLN — Complaints about high property taxes in Nebraska appear to be sinking in at the State Capitol.

Gov. Dave Heineman on Wednesday signaled that any tax-relief push needs to include reducing local property taxes, and not just cuts in state income tax rates.

It was a shift in focus welcomed by some state senators, who have long said that the biggest tax problem in the state is ever-rising property taxes. Such gripes dominated last week’s public hearings by a legislative panel studying state tax changes.

“This is a change,” said State Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, who is leading the Legislature’s Tax Modernization Committee. “Maybe our hearings have given some other information for the executive branch to look at.”

Heineman had been aiming darts at Nebraska’s state income tax rates, which he says scare away good-paying jobs because they are higher than all but one neighboring state, Iowa.

High property taxes, the conservative Republican has said in the past, were an issue for someone else: local school boards, county boards and city councils that levy property taxes.

Not now.

At a press conference Wednesday, the governor called on the Nebraska Legislature to work with him to pass a “balanced” plan of income tax cuts and property tax relief during the 2014 session — the last session for Heineman before he leaves office because of term limits.

“Rural Nebraska wants property tax relief and urban Nebraska wage earners need income tax relief,” he said. “This is going to be priority No. 1.”

State Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte, a member of the tax modernization group, applauded the governor’s new, dual focus.

“We found out that (high) property taxes are a pretty big item out here,” Hansen said, of public hearings held in Scottsbluff, North Platte and Norfolk.

Other reaction was more cautious.

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, who is chairman of the state budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he’s glad that the conversation now includes property tax relief. However, Mello said he also wants to make sure that any tax proposals are “fiscally responsible.”

Earlier this year, Heineman pitched a plan to eliminate state income taxes and to pay for it by rescinding several sales tax exemptions.

A stampede of business, agriculture and nonprofit groups descended on the State Capitol to oppose Heineman’s plan. The groups said that losing their tax exemptions would make products made or grown in Nebraska uncompetitive and would force jobs out of the state.

The governor said Wednesday that he has backed off that plan but remains convinced that the state offers too many sales tax exemptions.

He said the state should dip into its cash reserves to finance tax relief. That rainy day fund now stands at $679 million, or about 17 percent of annual state spending.

Mello said he anticipates that the Legislature will be cautious about using the reserve funds because there’s still uncertainty about the economic future of the state and because such cash reserves are more wisely used for one-time expenses, not the ongoing costs of a tax cut.

The state’s cash reserves helped sustain state services during the recent recession. Nebraska, unlike some states, didn’t have to raise taxes.

“My taxes are high, just like everyone’s taxes are too high,” the senator said. “However, the challenge we have is reforming a tax code to ensure fairness and stability, while generating enough tax revenue to fund state priorities into the future.”

The governor’s comments come as the tax committee is midway through a series of public hearings across the state on how to modernize the state’s tax system to better reflect today’s economy.

The group’s final hearings will be held Oct. 17 in Omaha and Oct. 18 in Lincoln. But those testifying at the initial hearings, including several farmers and ranchers, complained mainly about high property taxes. Few griped about high income taxes. Several said that sales taxes should be raised to offset reductions in property taxes.

Heineman, in comments this week, said he would support increasing the state property tax rebates now offered to land- and homeowners through a program launched in 2007.

This year, that credit returned $115 million to taxpayers, the same amount since the program began. The tax break amounted to about $107 for the owner of a $150,000 home. If that home was in the Omaha school district, the credit reduced the homeowner’s total property tax bill by 3.3 percent.

At his press conference Wednesday, Heineman displayed a handful of posters indicating that Nebraska’s property taxes are 13th-highest in the nation and that state income taxes rank in the top 16. Other charts showed that Nebraska, unlike most other states, still levies a county tax on inheritances and doesn’t offer extra tax breaks for retirees. Another showed that the state was among the 10 “least friendly” states for retirees.

“Our citizens don’t even need these charts,” the governor said. “They know our taxes are too high.”

Other recent rankings have placed Nebraska among the top five best places to start a new business. But Heineman said those were about business climate, not taxes.

The governor, when pressed, said it was too early to provide details on whether tax cuts would require cuts in state spending. The tax committee is scheduled to issue its recommendations by Dec. 15, and the 2014 legislative session doesn’t begin until Jan. 8.

“It’s only October,” the governor said. “I want to work together with (the Legislature). I don’t care who gets the credit.”

Sen. Rick Kolowski

District 31
Room #1018
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2327
Email: rkolowski@leg.ne.gov
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